First Advisor

Stéphanie Wahab

Date of Publication

Summer 7-31-2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Social Work and Social Research


Social Work




Social service, Women, Administration of Criminal justice, Sex discrimination in criminal justice administration, Feminism



Physical Description

1 online resource (ix, 267 pages)


In the United States today, there are 2.3 million people behind bars in jails and prisons. Mass incarceration has swept up the United States to such a degree that we are known globally for holding more people in correctional facilities than any other country in the world. Although women have always, and still do, reflect a smaller proportion of the correctional population, over the last 40 years, their rates of criminalization and imprisonment have far outpaced that of men's. Drastic increases in the criminalization of women are intimately connected to the entrenchment of social disadvantage enabled under neoliberal globalization. Neoliberal transformations in the economy have contributed to women's poverty across the globe and have brought an increasing number of women into contact with the criminal justice system. The rising incarceration rate of women, and the disproportionate rate of women of color in U.S. prisons is a timely and urgent issue and one that social work is poised to address. Indeed, some of our most prominent national organizations recognize mass incarceration as an urgent issue that merits the attention of social workers. As such, it is prudent to examine social work's engagement with this issue.

This study employed a Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) of social work scholarship in order to: 1) explore current constructions of criminalized women in social work; 2) understand the knowledge produced through such constructions; and 3) explore how that knowledge supports/shapes practice with criminalized women. Specifically, this study draws on Jäger and Maier's framework for performing a Foucauldian-inspired CDA. This approach centers Foucault's conceptualizations of discourse and the workings of power and builds on the work of Jurgen Link (1982) to examine the function of discourse in legitimizing and securing dominance.

Data include a sample of 49 articles published in social work high impact journals from 2000-2018. A keyword search was performed to locate articles with an explicit focus on incarcerated/criminalized women. Only articles dealing with a U.S. context were included. Analysis occurred on two levels consisting of a structural analysis to identify initial coding schema and a detailed analysis of select articles. Detailed analysis attended to: context of text; surface of text; rhetorical means; content and ideological statements. These two levels of analysis lead to an overall synoptic analysis, or final assessment of the overall discourse. Multi-racial feminism, discourse theory, and Foucault's concept of governmentality anchored the research and provided the theoretical framework for analysis.

The overarching finding is that social work high impact journals privilege a psychological discourse and that the assessment and management of risk has supplanted a holistic approach to meeting client needs and addressing mass incarceration. This, I conclude, reflects a neoliberal political climate and aligns social work with penal institutions in troubling ways. Criminalized women are overwhelmingly constructed as risky in the sample. Embedded in this construction is a strong neoliberal discourse on knowing and changing the "responsibilized" self. The implied knowledge claims that flow from these constructions rely on the use of "objective" and often depoliticized explanations for crime and criminal justice involvement. I show how this depoliticization is accomplished through a variety of neutralizing strategies, which ultimately serve to depoliticize social work itself. I highlight how, by primarily constituting criminalized women as risky, social work necessarily responds to her with individualized service delivery aimed at regulating and changing the behavior of individuals. I argue that in its reliance on practices of risk management and a preference toward micro-level service delivery, social work deploys regulatory practices that further neoliberal governance.

Further, I discovered a profound ethical dissonance between social work's engagement with criminalized women and social work values. Specifically, I found that social work discourse passively accepts the logic of punishment and supports dominant ideology surrounding gender and crime while concurrently attempting to redress the consequences of such constructions through social justice values. I conceptualize this as a discursive struggle over the meaning and purpose of social work; a struggle that embodies some of the most salient historical and contemporary tensions in our field related to our professional identity and an increasing drive toward professionalization.

I argue that social work's growing dedication to practices that seek to adjust the psychological fortitude of criminalized women relies on broader cultural discourses of responsibilization, which reproduce, rather than interrupt criminalization, and divert attention away from the need for social and economic change. My analysis exposes how social work is implicated in processes of criminalization and propels a shift in emphasis from individualized service delivery, aimed at changing the behavior of individuals, to launching interventions that tackle structural injustice and inequity. Understanding the subtle and productive work of power to undermine our "good intentions" and aspirations for social justice requires us to rethink explanations for crime and our understandings regarding the purpose and necessity of the criminal justice system.


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