By Sarah Pink, Harry Ferguson and Laura Kelly – Anthropology in Action, 27(3), 2020, pp. 27-30.  

What question does this study focus on? 

Social work is a public service, but social workers very often do their work in private (Bostock et al, 2018). In much of his most important research to date, Professor Harry Ferguson has used observational methods to explore what social workers do during home visits and how their work involves negotiated movement in intimate physical spaces. In this article, Ferguson and colleagues consider the impact of Covid-19 on this kind of work, and how social workers have adapted their practice using digital and virtual methods of communication.  

How did they study it? 

To do this, the authors spoke to social workers already involved in their studies about how their work has changed as a result of the pandemic and associated lockdowns and social distancing. As the authors note, there was no existing template for shifting social work practice online in a working-from-home context” (p. 28) and so each local authority, and to some extent each individual practitioner, had to develop their own new ways of working.  

What did they find? 

For some workers, having to work remotely from children and their families involved not being able to do the things they normally would. For example, one social worker talked about how they would engage with babies by touching them, and another described how they would use their sense of smell to help judge whether a child was being washed regularly enough. Virtual communication allows one to look and hear, but not to touch or smell. On the other hand, another worker described how some children find it easier to communicate with them digitally, either on a video-call or via text messages.  

What are the implications? 

While the disruption and ongoing harm of the pandemic could not ever be described as positive, there might nonetheless be some positive things to emerge from it. The authors of this article suggest that for some children and families, even after the pandemic, a hybrid approach combining in-person home visits with some forms of virtual communication might be more desirable and more helpful than either approach in isolation.  

Review written by Dr David Wilkins.