Examining social work and technology: a cross-disciplinary analysis of technology issues in violence against women shelters in Ontario, Canada
Dean, Janan Saleema
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Social service organisations have integrated information and communications technologies into their daily work in many different ways. Yet, social work literature has tended to frame technology as an externally created driver of neoliberal values and goals that are not necessarily in the best interests of service users or the professional values base. This thesis seeks to expand this narrow framing by reflecting on the mutually shaping relationship between technology and society, which includes social service organisations and social work, using cross-disciplinary perspectives from Science and Technology Studies (STS) and other relevant fields. This thesis begins with a review of existing social work literature, highlighting the fragmentary state of current research. Cross-disciplinary research is used to identify and reframe gaps as potential areas for future collaboration, including examining issues in specific practice contexts, incorporating relevant critical theory, and collaborating with like-minded communities of practice in the IT field. Based on these recommendations, the thesis explores issues in one specific practice context – violence against women shelters – using case study organisations in Ontario, Canada. A discussion of the research design ensues. Two cases studies were researched using critical ethnography methodology. Data was collected using multiple methods, including participant observation, unstructured interviews and documents; and, grounded theory was used to identify key themes. This is followed by a discussion of the history of the shelter movement, and the policy and social contexts impacting shelters’ use of technology. The data is organised according to the guiding research questions, in four analysis chapters. First, the technologies being used in the shelters are discussed. Although social work research suggested technology use was largely caused by external policy and social factors, the data suggested that the shelters actively made decisions about their own use and were engaged in this process for many years. This is followed by a discussion of internal issues within the shelters related to technological values and knowledge, and finally, a discussion of technological issues relevant to their work with service users. This thesis concludes by discussing the benefits of using cross-disciplinary approaches to reframe technology use in social service settings. Throughout the thesis, three broad concepts – the shelters’ agency in the processes of technological decision-making, the materiality of shelter practices and social work, and the changing nature of ‘presence’ in service delivery – are the focus of discussion. This analysis suggests that technology should not be treated, theoretically or practically, as an external force over which social work has no control.