Horror stories, war stories or (un)happy endings: Locating social service workers in neoliberal plots


  • Lynn M. Nybell Eastern Michigan University


governmentality, narrative, neoliberal, social service workers


As a grounded account of a neoliberal reform project, this article explores efforts to shape and reshape the “conduct of conduct” in social services. To investigate the ways that neoliberal commonsense enters the life worlds of social service workers, this article explores the narratives disseminated in State-sponsored social movement, promoted by government insiders and contractors, funded by private foundations, and aimed at garnering support for reinventing the welfare state. The author argues for paying attention to the narrative structures that are deployed to enlist social service workers in “rolling back” or “rolling out” the often contradictory policy innovations of neoliberal reform. The narratives told to and by workers in the context of reform can be analyzed as “cultural schema” offered to serve as guides to action and sources of meaning for social workers. Tracing narrative structures can help to connect local and extra-local efforts at reform; following narrative threads and discontinuities may also help identify shifts and changes in neoliberal reform efforts over time. Finally, examining the stories of reform in context may shed light on the ways that neoliberal reform rhetoric that appears from a distance to be “self-actualizing” is in fact propelled by narrative; enforced through a related set of incentives, threats, opportunities and coercions; and thus, potentially vulnerable to challenge and resistance.

Author Biography

Lynn M. Nybell, Eastern Michigan University

Professor, Department of Social Work






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