Not ‘dirty work’, but ‘the work that dirt does’

‘I want to see people rolling up their sleeves and getting down and cleaning the floors if that is what needs to be done’

Louise Casey in The Times, 27 April 2012

A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation at the SPA ‘Getting with the Programme’ ‘troubled families’ event in Lancaster. The event featured talks by Imogen Tyler, Andrew Sayer, Rob Macdonald and Andrew Wallace, all of which can be viewed here.

I talked about the imagery of family workers allegedly needing to ‘roll their sleeves up’ and don the marigolds’ to help ‘turn around’ the lives of ‘troubled families’. The presentation can be found here.

A member of the audience suggested that I had ‘anonymised’ the workers in my presentation and that I didn’t fully appreciate the circumstances and situations which they often encountered in families homes. She gave an example of homes where dog faeces inside the house presented an issue for the children’s health. I don’t disagree that some families will live in very dirty, unclean homes which present health risks to all members of the family, but especially children, and it wasn’t my intention to either anonymise or ‘have a go’ at practitioners who feel disgusted when they walk into these houses. I didn’t talk about either of these things in any great detail at all, primarily because my focus was not on the ‘dirty work’ that might need to be undertaken in some households, but on the work that dirt does – the functions it fulfils as a signifier of difference.

In the 1950s, mention of dirt and squalor in descriptions of the ‘problem families’ of the time were fairly commonplace. John Macnicol suggests that these descriptions were often:

‘highly charged class-prejudicial accounts of the children’s behaviour that gave the impression that a large section of the British working class were the ‘great unwashed’ living lives of dirt, disorder and incorrigible irresponsibility, their bodies riddled by headlice and impetigo, lacking elementary domestic manners and culturally alienated – in short, urban savages of the worst kind (Macnicol 1987:71)

Other constructions of the underclass thesis have not highlighted dirt or lack of hygiene to the same extent – concepts such as Charles Murray’s version of the ‘underclass’ and Labour’s social exclusion and ‘Respect’ agendas have focussed on different allaegedly problematic behaviours, often carried out externally. But with the focus very much back on families along with an incessant rhetoric about the need for family workers to ‘get in through the front door’ and perform practical tasks with the families to gain their trust, the focus is very much back on domestic functioning and (in)competence. Even within the de-gendered discourse of ‘troubled families’, the focus on the internal space as the site of  intervention, and the emphasis on practical tasks such as establishing a bedtime routine for children, getting them up and to school on time and helping with cooking and cleaning, strongly suggests that it is mothers who are the primary target of the programme. This focus also simplifies the families alleged problems, helping to shift the focus from external or structural issues which have an obvious impact on behaviour and circumstances within the home. Is Mr. Muscle and a pair of Marigolds really a priority when there isn’t enough money to feed or clothe the family?

Extreme cases of dirt will exist which raise concerns about child wellbeing and/or neglect. But the monitoring data gathered by local authorities, ropey though it is, suggests that only around 12% of families involved with the programme had a child on a child protection plan. Less than a quarter had a child designated as a child in need on entry to the programme. Obviously, not all homes viewed as ‘dirty’ by workers will merit statutory monitoring or intervention (asnd not all concerns about children will relate to ‘dirt’), but the danger of associating ‘troubled families’ with a lack of hygiene, either at the extreme level or as a general rule of thumb, should be clear:

‘It may not greatly matter if the average middle-class person is brought up to believe that the working classes are ignorant, lazy, drunken, boorish and dishonest; it is when he is brought up to believe that they are dirty that the harm is done’ Orwell (1989:119)

If we start believing that all ‘troubled families’ are dirty and need help from workers to ‘clear up and make their homes fit to live in(DCLG 2012:21 emphasis added) we run the risk of falling into the framing trap set for us by the government. (Imogen Tyler, presenting work by her and Tracey Jensen, provided an excellent example of the way that extreme cases involving disadvantage and deviancy are framed and crafted to represent the norm by highlighting media and political representations of the Philpott case). It encourages us to start with the assumption that these families are ‘dirty’ and are therefore ‘different’ to ‘us’. Which is ‘the harm’ that Orwell wrote about.

But the solution-focused rhetoric of workers ‘rolling up their sleeves’ and ‘getting stuck in’ also simplifies the role of the state in supporting ‘troubled families’.  And whilst having a cleaner or tidier home for a little while is likely to help everyone, and not just ‘troubled families’ (think of how many middle-class families employ a cleaner or a private company or similar help to perform exactly the kinds of tasks as a family worker is expected to perform, in order to help them keep their homes looking nice and clean), it is hardly likely to ‘turn around’ their lives. Having a clean and tidy house does not help to pay the rent, it is unlikely to catch the attention on a CV submitted to an employer and I’ve yet to see any evidence that it is a cure for long term health issues or disabilities. I’m not being flippant here. Of course, having a cleaner house may help with some things – it may help a child do their homework better if there is a clear space for them to do it, it may make people feel a little better about things, alleviating some stress. For some families, it may genuinely represent a fresh start. But I’d argue that for the half a million families now identified as being ‘troubled’, getting help with a ‘spring clean’ this Easter probably isn’t the most important thing the state could be doing to help them ‘turn around’ their lives.


DCLG (2012) Working with Troubled Families [Online] Available at  [25 November 2014]

Macnicol, J. (1987) In pursuit of the underclass, Journal of Social Policy, 16 (3), 293-318

Orwell, G. (1989) Road to Wigan Pier, London: Penguin

*** The full list of references used in the talk can be found in the presentation, but  the work of Imogen Tyler and Steph Lawler was very helpful in preparing the presentation. Their work on ‘disgust’ is brilliant.***

Lawler, S. (2005) Disgusted subjects: the making of middle-class identities, The Sociological Review, 53, 3, 429-446

Tyler, I. (2013) Revolting subjects, London: Zed Books (esp pp21-28)