Social justice or social control? An ethnographic study of detached youth work in Scotland

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This article examines the experiences of a newly formed detached youth workproject in Scotland and its relationship to neo-liberal ideology. The growth ofneo-liberalism has, as with other social professions, made detached youth workvulnerable to a deficit-based approach. This has come hand-in-hand withmanagerial practices focused on efficient, targeted interventions deliveredthrough short term budgets. The article, drawing on ethnographic data,describe a team of youth workers challenged with reconciling their deepcommitment to delivering a programme of relational youth work with thetargeted focus of the project on ‘risky’ youth and associated local apparatus ofcommunity safety. Throughout youth work’s history the dividing line betweenyouth work and mechanisms of social control has been slippery to navigate. Thearticle argues that emergent neo-liberal ideology presents a furtherprofessional challenge to youth work. In the context of austerity and awidening neo-liberal policy agenda from Westminster, Scottish youth workersare being required to work harder to demonstrate that the service is not simplythere to target ‘risky’ social groups or ‘plug the gaps’ that the state can nolonger provide. Youth workers, in this context, must continue to make the casein defence of well-resourced, universal youth work and its potential tocontribute to tackling social injustice and inequality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)254-276
JournalScottish Affairs
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2020


  • youth work
  • community safety
  • antisocial behaviour
  • neo-liberalism
  • austerity


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