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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Professionalizing Service Provision : The Field of Social Work in Urban China


This study examines the logic behind the emergence of social work in urban China as a dominant practice to both professionalize service provision and to govern social stability. Nowadays, licensed social workers and social work agencies are entering into communities as the legitimate agent of social service. Nevertheless, why does the practice of social work come to dominate the reform of welfare provision and community restructuring rather than other alternative means? My study diverges from the view that social work's presence is mainly a state-led process. Instead, drawing on theories of state, professions, and civil society, it investigates the intriguing interaction between the different social forces that result in social work's heterogeneous development at the local level. To develop my arguments, I used a wide range of sources, including 75 interviews with people doing social work, ethnographic fieldwork, a discourse analysis of newspaper archives, and an informational compilation of 67 social work agencies established in Beijing. I conceptualize the state of social work at a locality as a field. A field is defined as a space of action in which different social actors have engaged in power struggles. Using a comparative study of four localities, I have demonstrated that social work's multifarious manifestations at the local level have largely come out of variegated configurations of dominant forces---the regulatory state, professional groups, and social actors. The historical legacy of social work also patterns the local dynamics by influencing how key social actors develop new institutional arrangements for social work in order to address community issues. I provide a historical account of how the idea of social work has been understood in the past, and how some of its meanings still come to influence its current development. Navigating the field of social work, social workers have attempted to establish their professional presence in communities. I illustrate how social workers interact and negotiate with the existing community governance structure to establish their presence, as well as the consequences these actions have brought. I conclude that the development of social work can inform us of how state-society relations have changed in post- socialist China

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