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‘Through no fault of their own’: Social work students’ use of language to construct ‘service user’ identities

Skoura-Kirk, Eleni (2023) ‘Through no fault of their own’: Social work students’ use of language to construct ‘service user’ identities. Qualitative Social Work, 22 (4). pp. 700-719. ISSN 1473-3250. E-ISSN 1741-3117. (doi:10.1177/14733250221088208) (KAR id:94889)


The way social workers discursively construct ‘service user’ identities in everyday interactions (interviews, conversations, text) can affect quality of relationships and practice outcomes. Even though research has focused on the construction of ‘service user’ identities by professionals and service users, little has been done to explore such discursive formulations by pre-qualifying social work students. This is especially relevant, given the strengthening of the ‘expert by experience’ identity in social work education. This paper seeks to make visible mechanisms of student identity constructions as to ‘who a service user is’, and implications for practice through the examination of student written work pre- and post- a module focusing on lived experience. A critical discursive psychology approach was followed, recognising the interplay between localised professional encounters and wider contexts of power relations. The findings show a shift in the ‘service user’ identities employed by the students mainly based on individualistic discourses and deserving/undeserving themes (substance misuse the result of vulnerability, rather than selfishness, domestic abuse narratives denoting resilience rather than victimhood). The effect to practice showed shifts between the reflective, expert, person-centred and critical practitioner, mainly stressing the need for professional growth at an individual level, with less emphasis on addressing social inequality. The paper argues that predominantly individualistic discourses can perpetuate de-politicised or oppressive categorisations of ‘service users’ and calls for further critical engagement with the discursive micro-practices enacted and developed in the social work classroom, if we are to unveil and challenge narrow, or stigmatising categorisations early on.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1177/14733250221088208
Uncontrolled keywords: service user involvement; interpretative repertoires; social work education; discourse analysis; identity
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education
Divisions: Divisions > Division for the Study of Law, Society and Social Justice > School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research > Personal Social Services Research Unit
Funders: University of Kent (
Depositing User: Eleni Skoura-Kirk
Date Deposited: 05 May 2022 14:38 UTC
Last Modified: 04 Jul 2023 13:45 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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