‘Troubled Families’ reading list

I’ve put together a very brief introductory reading list on ‘troubled families’. That’s about it really. You can access it by clicking here  or on the image below

Reading list

If anyone has suggestions for other papers, please do let me know, via comments if possible so that others can also see them. It’s not intended to be an exhaustive list or a full literature review, just a list of some articles/books/reports which have been helpful to me in learning more about the Troubled Families Programme, where it came from and the model of ‘family intervention’ on which it is based.

If there’s enough good suggestions, I’ll update it at some point in the future.

Best wishes,


The ‘fallacy of theoryless practice’

The book that convinced me to apply to do a PhD was Social Work and Social Theory by Paul Michael Garrett. I was reminded of the book following the publication of Martin Narey’s ‘review’ of social work education yesterday. The government’s response to the report states that ‘Sir Martin argues that there is too much theory, not enough good practical experience’ although when I looked at the report the closest thing to this that I saw was one Director of Children’s Service stating ‘Universities have been allowed to provide too much theory, too much sociology and not enough about spotting things in a family which are wrong’. Concerns about ‘too much theory’ didn’t feature in any of the recommendations although the report did express concerns about a focus on ‘anti-oppressive practice’ elsewhere, again, without developing the point in any meaningful way.

The reason for the reminder was that in the Introduction to his book, Garrett, drawing on the work of Thompson (2010), deals very effectively with what he calls the ‘fallacy of theoryless practice’. Telling the story of a student called Angela who declared ‘theory won’t get you through the door’ (Garrett 2013 p1), Garrett argues that all social work is based on theory and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise, quoting Gray and Webb (2009):

Social work practice is the bearer and articulation of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts. Even those who try to refute the value of theory by claiming that social work is just ‘good common sense’ are, in fact, articulating a distilled version of philosophical theories about common sense’ (p5)

Interestingly, Garrett also presents evidence that the desire to focus on ‘practical qualities’ is a recurring theme in the UK and he finds it ‘particularly insidious’ at the present time ‘during a period of so-called ‘austerity’ when the government is intent on cutting public services’ (Garrett 2013 p2). One of my favourite parts of the book – and one which seems relevant here – relates to a discussion of the importance of the work of Fraser and, separately, Bourdieu on misrecognition. Garrett argues that in relegating structural issues (you, know ‘theoretical’ stuff…) to a marginal role in social work, the state effectively absents itself and seeks to ‘disappear’. In doing so

The resolution of issues … is almost entirely displaced onto micro-encounters. In this way, such encounters become conceptually overburdened with expectation because they are exchanges lacking the capacity to eradicate and combat structurally generated (mis)recognition (2013 p182)

Or, as Macnicol put it in relation to the Family Service Units approach to working with the ‘problem families’ of the 1950s ‘the remedy of scrubbing floors and painting walls’ (1999 p91) will do little to stop the structural inequality that exists in our society. This inequality – along with the poverty that is increasingly prevalent today – has demonstrable social consequences which cannot be denied or ignored and certainly should not be trivialised as being not as important as a willingness to ‘roll your sleeves up’.


Garrett, P. (2013) Social Work and Social Theory: Making connections, Bristol: Policy Press

Gray, M. & Webb,S. (eds) (2009) Social work theories and methods, London: Sage

Macnicol, J. (1999) From ‘Problem Family’ to ‘Underclass’, 1945-95 in Fawcett, H. & Lowe, R. (eds) Welfare Policy in Britain: The Road from 1945, Basingstoke: Macmillan

Thompson, N. (2010) Theorizing social work practice, Houndmills: Basingstoke

What goes without saying comes without saying (Part 1)


Eric Pickles and Louise Casey performed something of a doxic double-act yesterday when discussing the latest figures and ‘phenomenal’ progress of the Troubled Families Programme. On a number of occasions they left things un-said and, in doing so, created a self-evident, common sense view of the world which didn’t need to be discussed.  Bourdieu suggested that ‘what is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying’ (p 167, 1977) and that politicians seek to portray the arbitrary as natural and self-evident.  I think it’s worth looking at some of this doxa that was secreted yesterday. We’ll look at Pickles contribution in this blog and Casey’s in another one here.

Pickles actually talked about a ‘no-nonsense and common sense approach’ but the bit that caught my eye is below:

Louise is not afraid of inflicting that pain. It’s tough love. I think we’re not doing this to be unpleasant to people, we are doing this to say you are ruining your life, you are ruining the lives of your children.

If we don’t do something now 25 years from now we’ll be dealing with your children. That gives people a chance.

Implicit and unspoken within this is that these families don’t respond to a caring and supportive approach, what Pickles called elsewhere ‘a lot of feeling people’s pain’. They only respond to ‘pain’ being inflicted on them, incapable of higher cognitive function and the implication is that they are probably incapable of offering care or support to others if they don’t respond to such an approach themselves.

Pickles, in talking about ‘ruining’ the lives of their children and setting the scene for 25 years down the line borrows from intergenerational transmission arguments. He leaves no room for doubt that these families will bring up children who will prove to be a similar ‘problem’ to the state and others. Pickles line bears close resemblance to a sentence written by Henry Herbert Goddard in 1912 in a book  looking at ‘feeblemindedness’. He wrote that ‘for practical purposes it is, of course, pretty clear that it is safe to assume that two feeble-minded parents will never have anything but feeble-minded children.’ (pp104-114, 1912, in Welshman p52, 2006)

But the idea has been widely discredited, especially in this country. Very recent work has focused on the idea that ‘cultures of worklessness’ are passed down the generations (see Shildrick et al 2012). However, if we look at the ‘Transmitted Deprivation’ programme in the 1970s extensive academic work, commissioned and instigated by the Conservative MP Sir Keith Joseph found falws with the thesis that familial cycles of disadvantage existed. Rutter and Madge, in a review of the evidence, write:

… this apparent focus on the family is too narrow. In the first place … continuities over time regarding high rates of various forms of disadvantage can be seen in terms of schools, inner city areas, social classes, ethnic groups and other social and cultural situations which lie outside the family.  These are also highly important. In the second place, even with respect to familial continuities, the reason for the intergenerational continuity may not be familial at all but rather may reflect the influence of a common social environment or a common political structure on successive generations.

… even with the variables showing the strongest continuities across successive generations, discontinuities are prominent and frequent. Among children reared under conditions of severe multiple disadvantage, many develop normally (sic) and go on in adult life to produce, happy non-disadvantaged families of their own. Although intergenerational cycles of disadvantage exist, the exceptions are many and a surprisingly large proportion of people of people reared in conditions of privation and suffering do NOT reproduce that pattern in the next generation. (pp5-6, 1976, original emphasis)

But then, none of the findings from this research programme, or others like it, ever get discussed by the likes of Pickles who prefer to define the world using ‘common sense’ approaches. I’ll finish with a bit of Bourdieu, who wrote:

In class societies, in which the definition of the social world is at stake in overt or latent class struggle, the drawing of the line between the field of opinion, of that which is explicitly questioned, and the field of doxa, of that which is beyond question and which each agent tacitly accords by the mere fact of acting in accord with social convention, is itself a fundamental objective at stake in that form of class struggle which is the struggle for the imposition of the dominant systems of classification. (p 169, 1977)

The second part of this post, on Louise Casey’s comments on contraception, can be found here


Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice, New York: Cambridge University Press

Goddard, H. H. (1912) The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeblemindedness, New York: Arno Press in Welshman, J. (2006) Underclass: A History of the Excluded 1880-2000, London: Hambledon Continuum

Rutter, M & Madge, N (1976) Cycles of Disadvantage, London: Heinemann

Shildrick, T., Macdonald, R. Furlong, A., Crow, R. & Roden, J. (2012) Are cultures of worklessness passed down the generations?  York: JRF


60 years on from ‘the problem family’

Last year I wrote three blog posts on The Trouble with ‘troubled families’ (which I’ve re-blogged here, here and here) not knowing that, nearly 60 years ago, a book called ‘The Problem of the Problem Family’ was published, authored by A.F.Philp and Noel Timms. The similarities do not end there however. In the foreword to the book, and using language very much ‘of the time’ Richard Titmuss writes that:

“(it would be true to say) that there is a long, though discontinuous tradition in this country of concern about a segment of families in the population, supposedly characterised by similar traits, and thought to represent a closed, pathological entity – in Lidbetter’s phrase, ‘a race of subnormals’. This ill defined group has come in for a great deal of attention and investigation. Survey has followed survey. Many remedies have been proposed and some pursued. A variety of measures have been put into practice by voluntary and statutory bodies. Yet … the debate about the ‘problem family’ has been conducted in a singularly uncritical manner. Precision in the use of words and in the observation of phenomena has been generally lacking; heterogeneity has been mistaken for homogeneity; biological theories have obscured the study of psychological and sociological factors; the classification and counting of ‘abnormals’ has proceeded regardless of the need to set them in the context of contemporary social norms; in short, what knowledge has been gained from all these inquiries has not accumulated on any theoretical foundations.

There are lots more similarities in the language used and some of the issues identified with the concept of the ‘problem family’ and I’m sure I’ll be returning to this book a lot during the next three years…..