Measuring Social Work. Quantity as Quality in the Social Services

  • Teres Hjärpe


Social workers are increasingly having the quality of their work ranked according to quantitative indicators, based on the conviction that only measurements provide objective evidence regarding social interventions. This paper analyses the challenges that arise when recent performance-based endeavours of Swedish authorities meet everyday social work practice. Ethnographic fieldwork at a social service office revealed tensions between the confidence in measurements and situations unfolding around numbers in terms of misunderstandings, manipulations, conflicts, and disregard for problem areas perceived as immeasurable. These tensions can be understood from the sociology-of-knowledge perspective that numbers interact with the social context. As the quantitative logic of state initiatives collides with the qualitative practice of social work, further dimensions are added to the clarity that numbers are expected to bring about. The present findings add to previous research explaining why social workers seem to be uncomfortable within modern organizations in their current form.