The relational construction of occupational agency: Performing professional and enterprising selves in diversifying care work

Forskningsoutput: AvhandlingDoktorsavhandling


This dissertation employs a perspective of relational sociology on the occupational agency of employees in public sector elder care in Finland. The study is motivated by two socio-political developments: first, the ambition of public sector care work organizations to enhance their efficiency by implementing private sector management ideals and, second, these organizations’ increasing tendency to recruit migrant workers as a means to tackle shortages in workforce, partly caused by precarious conditions in elder care work. Both developments have raised socio-political controversies. According to critics, they decrease the quality of care, reduce care workers’ occupational agency, and create hierarchies between migrant and Finnish-born workers. According to proponents, the developments improve the quality of care, the livelihood of migrant workers and, finally, care workers’ occupational agency, autonomy, activity, and involvement in their work. These optimistic visions, I argue, draw on the liberal and enterprising ideals of providing welfare services through supporting all actors’ autonomy and proactive agency. Previous research has often aimed to solve the above controversies by empirically supporting one line of interpretation over others. In this study, I examine how the above controversies themselves are enacted in social care work. In particular, I examine how care work managers’ and migrant care workers’ interpretations of their own and each other’s occupational agency support and contest, first, each other and, second, the above political visions. My data consist of interviews conducted in 2011–2013. I analyze the interviews from a discursive and dramaturgical perspective and present the results in four articles and a dissertation summary. My results demonstrate how the liberal ideals of enterprising care work are both familiar and pragmatic to social care employees. By drawing on these ideals, care work managers can conceive themselves as modern coaches who can improve the quality of care by activating care workers’ occupational agency—and by recruiting agential migrants. These interpretations also shape the agency of care work managers: beyond experts in care, they need to become experts in activation and cultural diversity. Care workers, in turn, can draw on the enterprising ideals to perform active, responsible, and autonomous agency. These performances can be necessary for many migrants who, evidently, have an additional burden of demonstrating their worth in front of native audiences. The enterprising ideals also create conflicts in networks of care. To present themselves as modern coaches, managers need care workers who are routinized but willing to be activated. Care workers can question this image of themselves in different ways. First, care workers can present themselves as agents who are already active and, thus, do not need their superiors’ coaching. Second, they can frame problems in their environment as structural problems that cannot be solved by activation. Third, they can present themselves as actors who are forced to be enterprising; who are active and autonomous, but because they have no choice. In sum, my study demonstrates the moral and pragmatic appeal of the enterprising and liberal ideals—in the context of dwindling resources—but also a line of practices that contest their credibility in care work.
Tilldelande institution
  • Helsingfors universitet
  • Wrede, Sirpa , Handledare
Tilldelningsdatum23 feb 2018
Tryckta ISBN978-951-51-3291-8
Elektroniska ISBN978-951-51-3292-5
StatusPublicerad - 23 feb 2018
MoE-publikationstypG5 Doktorsavhandling (artikel)


  • 5141 Sociologi

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