Gender constructions in the ‘troubled families’ narrative

Yesterday, I gave a short paper at the National Deviancy Conference at Teesside University. The paper explored the gendered constructions within the ‘troubled families’ narrative and the slides from the PowerPoint can be accessed by clicking on the image below.

NDC slides

Basically, in the paper I try and develop the argument that ‘troubled families’, in many cases at least, equates to ‘troubled mothers’ who are unable to find and keep a ‘good’ man and who are therefore unable to either control their rowdy, anti-social children and/or care for their young vulnerable children. The state response to this feminized ‘social problem’ is, effectively a ‘macho’ form of social work where ‘persistent, challenging, assertive’ family workers ‘get stuck into’ families and ‘grip the whole family’. This physical (admittedly metaphorical but still symbolically powerful), forceful portrayal of state intervention is something I really struggle with, especially when large numbers of ‘troubled families’ are portrayed as suffering from Domestic Violence.

The Troubled Families Programme therefore provides, in my opinion, an excellent example of the ‘remasculinization of the state’ as Loic Wacquant has called the extension of penal powers combined with the simultaneous withdrawal of welfare provision and services. The political sleight of hand which saw ‘multiple disadvantages’ such as material deprivation, low income, poor housing etc switched with Crime/ASB,educational truancy or exclusion and worklessness as the defining characteristics of the 120,000 families is a particularly good example of this, but there are others within the ‘troubled families’ naarative.

I also think Bourdieu’s metaphor of the ‘left and right hands’ of the state has something to offer, especially when discussing political rhetoric which includes ‘gripping families’. Wacquant proposes an ‘ongoing arm-wrestle’ between the right hand, signifying the central state, concerned with financial and economic issues, and the left hand, the (usually locally delivered) social ministries of the state such as health, education, welfare.

One one level, I think the state intervention in ‘troubled families’ lives does amount to ‘gripping’ them: the TFP is, one could argue,concerned with social control, about holding the family where the state wants them and not letting individual members ‘escape’ to pursue their own, potentially deviant, paths. On another level, however, I think the aims of the TFP are more expansive than this and I think ‘squeezing’ may provide a more appropriate metaphor, primarily because squeezing is what often takes place when people are attempting to ‘extract’ something (juice, toothpaste etc) from an object. This is where the work of Bev Skeggs on ‘value’ is, well, of value and I think as the paper develops it will probably explore the value that can be extracted from families (via reduced costs to the state and parental involvement in low-paid work) and from state services (via a new efficient model of service delivery to a wider range of families which hinges on the skills and qualities of an individuals worker rather than adequately resourced professionals from different disciplines, which also allows a continued ignorance of structural conditions).

If anyone would like a copy of the paper when (alright, if) it gets finished, please let me know. But before that, if anyone has any comments, I’d be keen to hear them.

Best wishes,


*** In preparing the paper, I found the following article by Pat Starkey really helpful – and it also proves to me that what I am doing is nothing new, but then neither is what the government is doing. Starkey writes about the portrayal of ‘problem families’ in the 1950s and there are some telling similarities between then and the present day concern with ‘troubled families’ It’s free access I think so everyone should be able to read it, whether within an academic setting or not.***

Starkey, P. (2006) The feckless mother: women, poverty and social workers in wartime and post-war England


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