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“Bring yourself to work”: rewriting the feeling rules in “personalized” social work

Emilie Morwenna Whitaker (Department of Social Sciences, University of Salford, Salford, UK)

Journal of Organizational Ethnography

ISSN: 2046-6749

Article publication date: 18 September 2019

Issue publication date: 2 October 2019



The purpose of this paper is to explore how feeling rules are constructed, experienced and contested within personalised social work practice. It considers how organisations seek to shape practitioners towards certain forms of emotional display in increasingly market-oriented conditions. It contributes to our understanding of the place of “backstage” emotional labour in seeking to shape and direct social work practice.


A single immersive ethnographic case study of an English social work department was undertaken over a period of six months.


This paper reveals embedded tensions that emerge when practitioners are caught between traditional bureaucratic function, the incursions of the market and feeling rules of relatability, commitment and creativity.


This paper contributes to the scant literature on frontline experiences of personalisation in children’s services and the importance of “backstage” emotional labour for shaping and directing social work practice. Importantly, it considers the complexity of emotional labour within an organisational context, which is neither fully marketised, nor fully welfarised, a position many welfare organisations now find themselves in.



The author thanks Professor Paul Atkinson for reviewing this paper in advance of submission, Dr Neil Stephens who commented on a very early draft and the University of Birmingham for making the research possible.


Whitaker, E.M. (2019), "“Bring yourself to work”: rewriting the feeling rules in “personalized” social work", Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol. 8 No. 3, pp. 325-338.



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