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Journal of Social Work Practice
Psychotherapeutic Approaches in Health, Welfare and the Community
ISSN: 0265-0533 (Print) 1465-3885 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cjsw20
Doing emotion. Emotion management in German
child care planning conferences
To cite this article: Heinz Messmer (2019) Doing emotion. Emotion management in German child
care planning conferences, Journal of Social Work Practice, 33:4, 403-418
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/02650533.2019.1681949
Published online: 21 Nov 2019.
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Doing emotion. Emotion management in German child care
School of Social Work, Institute for Studies in Children and Youth Services, University of Applied Sciences
and Arts, Switzerland
Social work practice makes up part of modern people processing
organisations. In their role of a person-related service provider, pro-
fessionals intervene into the life circumstances of a clientele
who regularly suﬀers from emotionally distressing experiences and
critical thresholds of their living conditions. Emotions (one’s own and
those of the other) are therefore part of the professionals’everyday
life experiences. Social workers must deal with contingent situations
and social relationships frequently shaped by aﬀection and multiple
feelings that are only partly predictable. This paper aims to make
analytically palpable the mostly ordinary and unobtrusive display of
emotional states of the participants during a professional/client
encounter. It argues that emotions are pervasively present in the
professional/client interaction and that their management is pivotal
to realise and secure a stable and resilient working relationship as
a bedrock for sustained activities in a series. Based on two longer
transcripts of audio-recorded German childcare planning confer-
ences (CPC) referring to residential care it will be shown how feelings
and emotions are locally managed in situ supporting the clients’
respect and self-esteem during an institutionally goal-driven meeting
even if they do not refer to them in an explicit or verbal kind.
Child care planning
conferences; social work
Introduction: social work practice seen from a micro analytic perspective
One of the basic assumptions of this paper refers to professional social work practice seen as
an essentially locally co-produced and interactive activity. Observing social workers during
their daily work, we would see them talking on the phone, reading, writing or completing
reports, fostering contact with clients, gathering relevant information and attending to their
needs, coordinating and planning further steps and so on and so forth. In short, what we
can see is that social work practice is essentially concerned with what White (1999,p.89)
once called establishing caseness. According to Bergmann (2014,p.424),acaseisthe
‘compressed narrative’of a professional activity that crosses the boundaries of institutional
case processing and overlapping diﬀerent reality zones.
Seen from a micro analytic perspective, the fundamental activities of social work
practice appear sound, rational and consensual while the prerequisites of their manu-
facturing widely remain unexplored. For about two decades, though, there has been
CONTACT Heinz Messmer firstname.lastname@example.org
JOURNAL OF SOCIAL WORK PRACTICE
2019, VOL. 33, NO. 4, 403–418
© 2019 GAPS
a marked increase in examining the conditions for practical activities in professional
social work. Although there have been some pioneers who have previously dealt with the
interactive, procedural and communicative requirements of social work practice (e.g.
Baldock & Prior, 1981; Pithouse & Atkinson, 1988), an international scientiﬁc discourse
has emerged just in the last two decades (cf. Hall, Juhila, Matarese, & Van Nijnatten,
2014; Hall, Slembrouck, & Sarangi, 2006).
Subsequently to this, the following investigations refer to real interactions and activities,
i.e. processes and practices collected and documented in the moment of their making. Based
on two longer excerpts from audio-taped childcare planning conferences (CPC) on residen-
tial care it will be shown how and why participants refer to emotions and what consequences
their display may have for the setting at hand. The aim of this analysis is not to give a complete
picture about all conceivable emotional states and functions. Instead, it gives an impression of
how deeply the display of emotion permeates the professional/client encounter and how far-
reaching the consequences are in terms of the objectives of the professional setting.
In a ﬁrst step, conceptual issues with reference to emotional expressions will be clariﬁed
necessary to identify even the less obvious expressions of an emotional stance in an
empirically reliable way. Additionally, we primarily refer to research that treats emotions
less as an individual internal state than as an interactive quality aﬀecting the activities to deal
with. In a third step, we outline data, methods and objectives of this study as far as necessary
for the subsequent sections. Those will deal with two longer excerpts concerning the pre-
beginning and reporting phase of the CPC ‘Janet’indexing the relevance of the context
while processing the case emotionally. The ﬁnal section discusses the empirical ﬁndings
primarily in the context of an interactional asymmetry. It is argued that emotion manage-
ment reﬂects the tension between establishing ‘caseness’(by means of categorisations)
without, if possible, violating feelings of self-respect and self-esteem of the aﬀected client.
On the concept of feelings and emotions
Emotions, as Nussbaum (2001, p. 1) puts it, denote the map of our mental and human
existence. In social interaction, hardly any activity remains emotionally unaccompanied or
unaﬀected in an either positive or negative way. Feelings and emotions mark the individual’s
experience and states of arousal opposite to the social environment in which they take part.
According to this, they are contingent, dissimilar and diverse in that they reﬂect the indivi-
dual’s understanding and assessment. While, for instance, distinct issues may cause fear, joy,
or indiﬀerence in one’s own perceptual framework, they may stimulate completely diﬀerent
feelings in that of the other. A review of relevant research (Plutchik, 2001) indicates that
feelings primarily refer to the individual’s bodily sensomotoric systemarousingeitherpleasant
or unpleasant sensations (or a mix of both). Such states, however, are regularly superimposed
by sense-making needs and interpretations. An indeterminate turmoil of the stomach, for
instance, may indicate the consequences of an unbalanced diet, a nervous disease, or a mental
overload, giving rise for quite diﬀerent explanations and subsequent actions.
On the other hand, such evaluations of inner states are themselves the outcome of
cultural patterns providing reasonable answers of the person’s internal state. Individuals
regularly face rules and expectations regarding the display of socially preferred feelings
(e.g. expressions of mourning at a funeral) while others are clearly dispreferred (e.g.
humour and jokes in a similar context). Socially established feeling rules are both
404 H. MESSMER
situations bound and structured by social and cultural regulations (cf. Hochschild, 1983;
Nussbaum, 2001) supporting a reliable interactional frame while avoiding disruptions
and other disturbances.
To begin with, it might be helpful to make clear what we are talking about. First, we
suggest a distinction between aﬀect and feeling. Aﬀects seem to designate the basic states
of inner arousal triggered by bodily sensations that cannot (or only partly) be inﬂuenced
by the person’s consciousness (for instance, joy, fear, disgust, surprise, cf. Tomkins,
1982). Aﬀects typically appear in a bipolar manner causing either pleasant or unpleasant
feelings that give raise to relaxations or tensions concerning one’s own evaluative stance.
Accordingly, aﬀects are frequently accompanied by spontaneous bodily or mimic ges-
tures (sweating, blushing, facial expressions of disgust, joy, anxiety, rage etc.) indicating
a person’s assessment in a nonverbal kind (Zajonc, 1984).
While aﬀects seem to portray elemental, innate and universal bodily conditions (cf.
Darwin, 1873), feelings are sensory impressions that diﬀer insofar from aﬀect, as they are
not necessarily dependent on a situational trigger. Feelings are viewed vis-à-vis their
bridging function between body and mind (Denzin, 1980, p. 253). As ‘blind forces’
(Nussbaum, 2001, p. 11) they are basically indiﬀerent claiming for judgemental evalua-
tions. Disturbing feelings of the bride reﬂecting on her absent groom during her wedding
ceremony may change dramatically if there is a reasonable account for the groom’s
absence (he is delayed because of a traﬃc jam) with reference to the trigger (the groom
does not show up). In an analogous way, Simmel (1984, p. 21) deﬁnes feelings as
‘evaluations of peripheral responses’(author’s translation), Nussbaum (2001)as‘value
judgment’(p. 4) and ‘evaluative thought’(p. 11).
Finally, we use the term emotion as reﬂecting the display of aﬀect and feeling with
reference to a social encounter. According to this, emotions appear as an expression of
feelings while considering the presence of a relevant other. That is, participants usually
reﬂect upon what might be assessed as socially (in-) appropriate relative to the circum-
stances that govern the situation at hand. In a comparable way, Massumi (1995, p. 88,
cited in Ott, 2017, p. 14) deﬁnes emotion as ‘a subjective content, the socio-linguistic
ﬁxing of the quality of an experience which is from the point onward deﬁned as personal.
Emotion is qualiﬁed intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of inten-
sity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions, into narrativisable action-
reaction circuits, into function and meaning. It is intensity owned and recognised.’
Hence, emotions are characterised not only by the way what we feel and how we think
about it but also by the context indicating who is responsible, allowed or obligated to
express feelings vis-à-vis the other. That is why Goﬀman (1956,1961) described the
mastery of feelings as a constant interactional task. This contiguity becomes rather
evident in situations of escalated conﬂict, which regularly exhibit an increased level of
aﬀective arousal while the control about the display of negative and socially dispreferred
feelings drop (e.g. anger, rage, frustration, etc.). Accordingly, participants utter their
aﬀective arousal by means of talking increasingly rapidly and loudly, mounting inter-
ruptions and uncompleted sentences while conversely lessening signs of personal estima-
tion and politeness indicating their opposite stance relative to the other.
Research on emotion as practical actions
According to the linguistic turn in philosophy and human sciences, ‘language necessarily
shapes our understanding of reality’(Ott, 2017, p. 9). What people say, think and do
greatly depend on their language capacities and is the result of their sense-making
methods. Conversation and discourse analytic approaches investigate feelings and emo-
tions therefore less as an inner-psychological state, but more as a component of a social
practice (Edwards, 1999). Seen from a primarily interactive stance, feelings and emotions
mainly appear as a locally enacted pattern by which participants relate to the organisa-
tional context of the encounter while constantly evaluating their own activities and those
of the others. Research shows that the display of feelings substantiates the ongoing sense-
and decision-making procedures indicating the participants’current (dis-)alignments
relative to the variety of protean tasks. Feelings, as Wetherell (2012, p. 13) summarises,
are ‘practical, communicative and organised’. From that point of view, the display of
feelings makes up a vital part of the interactional ﬂow, a process at least, that takes place
from moment-to-moment performing and transforming the practices, regulations and
structures of situated social conduct.
In line with such ﬁndings, conversation and discourse analytical research aims to
reconstruct the way in which participants understand and inﬂuence their current situa-
tion and the role their feelings may have. Taking emotions as part of social practice,
Wetherell (2012, p. 24, in line with Burkitt 2002)deﬁnes an emotion as ‘a relational
pattern (. . .), a response to a situation and to the world (. . .) Aﬀect is never wholly owned,
always intersecting and interacting.’Emotions typically come into play as participants
evaluate objects, actions and persons while positioning themselves relative to the others
and adopt an either neutral, approving or contradictory stance (cf. Du Bois, 2007, p. 169).
Since each interaction is subject to its own sense-making reasoning, ‘emotion displays
can be viewed as transforming a situated action, opening up alternative trajectories for
a sequence in progress, and also functions as actions in themselves’(Sandlund, 2004,
Abstract). According to Goodwin, Cekaite, and Goodwin (2012, p. 16), feelings and
emotions are inherent features of temporally unfolding sequences of interaction ‘entailed
in a speaker’s performance of aﬀective stance.’This is also consistent with a basically
constructive perspective, according to which ‘it’s not so much we have emotions,
a thought, a memory so much as we do them’(Gergen, 1999, p. 132, quoted in
Sandlund, 2004, p. 8; emphases in original). As Burkitt (2002) concludes, feelings must
not necessarily verbalise but completed interactively. In fact, there are inﬁnite ways to
make them eﬀective.
Data, method and aim of the study
The data for this study derived from a conversation analytical study about negotiations
and decision-making between professionals and clients in the context of German CPC
referring to residential care (cf. Messmer & Hitzler, 2008). CPCs are considered a key
process of service provision in the German Youth Welfare system designed to negotiate
a mutual understanding about the relevant issues at stake. The aim is to reach an
agreement about how to begin, to continue or to end residential care eﬀectively that
similarly meets the needs of the clients as well as the professionals’evaluations on the
406 H. MESSMER
situation at hand. Minimally, the relevant child, his or her parents as well as representa-
tives of the youth authorities and the service provider attend the CPC.
The method used for this study is ethnomethodological conversation analysis (CA)
that aims to reconstruct how members of a social setting produce a rule-bound and
orderly structured activity along the ongoing stream of communications between them
(cf. Sacks, 1992). The basic assumption of CA stands for a research perspective that takes
social reality not for granted but rather for socially co-produced and reproduced prac-
tices unveiling the seen-but-unnoticed rules and regularities that govern the situation the
participants refer to. Thus, every utterance made in the CPC setting can be said to be
context shaped as well as context renewing, that is, to foreshadow meaning to come by
drawing from meaning inferred (Heritage, 1984).
Believing that interactions serve as joint attempts to produce and reproduce a shared
social order which is accessible to any competent member of a speech community—that
is, participants and researchers alike—CA concludes that participants themselves must
observe and analyse their ongoing activities and make these analyses interactively
accessible to each other. Using each other’s turns as context for the turns to follow,
participants ensure a mutual understanding and perpetuate the ﬂow of the ongoing
interaction, self-reﬂexively knitting a tight net of interactional meaning. One of the
most striking ﬁndings of CA refers to the inconspicuous, unrecognised details and formal
irregularities of the interactions observed that are key to understand the intrinsically
situated order and provide the bedrock for an ongoing activity.
Thus, discussing the question of ‘doing emotion’, we aim to investigate two longer
extracts of the CPC Janet (pre-beginning and reporting) more extensively
and understand the interlocking features of the display of emotional states and the
subsequent consequences such communications may have—especially those that fre-
quently remain hidden and analytically unspeciﬁed. Janet is a 14-year-old girl distressed
by a sexual assault (committed by a male adult in an accidental encounter while she was
staying out of home overnight without permission) and troubled by the divorce of her
parents. She is suﬀering from severe depression indicating her anxiety of loss. Previously,
she was sheltered in a juvenile psychiatry department of a medical centre. After various
attempted suicides, she transfers to a structured educational setting that was arranged for
her after several psychiatric assessments. The initial CPC takes place three months after
Janet’s placement in residential care.
Doing emotion in informal talk: the pre-beginning of the CPC Janet
A pre-beginning is a distinctive feature of institutional group meetings indicating to the
less formal features of the setting. Pre-beginnings will emerge if arriving participants
welcome each other, or if those who have already arrived are waiting for stragglers
bridging the situation with small talk and the exchange of courtesies. Participants make
use of the pre-beginning as a situational ‘warming up’that helps to check their relation-
ship well in advance of the regular start:
CPC Janet 32-84
32 CH: BOAH
, today see-
33 I am uh- school has ﬁnished,
34 .hh I just wanted to clear my things,
35 and there was this THING-
36 and I am FULLY with my head and I am had FULLY here-
37 ≪softer voice> so I have fully this wound here.>
38 MO: [po:or-
39 SW: [thick BUMp isn’t it?
40 CH: ≪laughing> ye:hehes.>
41 MO: po:or child.
42 ?W: ye:ah.
43 SW: [is anything different with your hair today?
44 MO: [(straight away a)-
45 MO: [straight away put a spoon [hair colorant] on it?
46 CH: [yes=s,
47 SF: yes:s.
48 SW: still;=yep?
50 CH: boah, it’s [WARM in here.
51 SF: [has been different before.
53 SW: did you again d–
54 did you again dye(-)the hair?
55 MO: hm=hm.
56 CH: hm=hm, (sure).
57 SW: but it seems to take (-) [another direction already-
58 CH: [((laughs))
59 SW: or have you dyed your hair in the (-)OPPOsite direction
61 CH: [NO:H. ([
62 HS: [would you like any coffee?
63 SF: Yes, please.
65 SW?:((laughs with a deep breath))
67 SW: and-
68 no, no milk please.
69 MO: nope.
70 ((a cup is being put down))
71 SW: yes, it IS really warm in here. ((starts laughing))
72 HS: we can leave the door open, I think-
73 there is nobody expected to come.
74 [(would you also like) some coffee?
75 SF: [thank you.
76 IN: (yes please).
77 (noise: coffee dishes)) (5.0)
78 HS: I will open the door immediately,
79 when I have POUred this.
408 H. MESSMER
80 ?W: (hm=hm).
81 HS: Janet may I give you-
82 ≪gets a fright> HOOPS->
83 I see that is this (.) modern pot-
84 where immediately ()
At a ﬁrst glance, the transcribed communication appears like a mess: uncompleted
words and phrases, paraverbal expressions, interrupted and overlapped i.e. simultaneous
speech, rapid switched and uncompleted topics in talk—which, however, represents the
empirical features of an ordinary and informal group activity that happens at any time
everywhere in quite similar forms. Likewise, a signiﬁcant, unambiguous and clearly
recognisable display of feelings (e.g. fear, rage, anger or sadness) does not show up either,
except occasional pieces of laughter at diﬀerent places. Contrary to such prima facie
impressions, we aim to prove that both the display of emotions as well as apparently less
meaningful and incidental activities play a signiﬁcant role launching the prerequisites of
The display of self-referential emotions
In the sequence above, self-referential emotions are disclosed primarily by means of
proto-verbal expressions, for instance, when Janet makes known former and present
assessments (line 32: BOAH today, see . . . and line 50: boah, it’s WARM in here) indexing
her inner state triggered by past (painful sensations) and current events (excessive
climate). In a somewhat more mitigated form, this also applies to HS’s fright, when she
seems losing control while pouring the coﬀee (line 82: ≪gets a fright> HOOPS->). Such
responses to aﬀective arousal are impressive and easily to understand because they
elucidate the participants’inner conditions that most people may feel in similar situa-
tions. In addition, this extract comprises various references to bodily sensations which
are explicitly named—for example Janet’s above-mentioned statement (it is WARM in
here) as well as the social worker’s assent (line 71: yes it IS really warm in here <begins
laughing>). The emphasis in both statements (indicated in capital letters: WARM; IS)
eventually point to the strength of their sensations. The same applies to Janet’s bump of
her head (line 36: FULLY with my head and I had FULLY here- . ..).
Moreover, laughter also earns special attention, as it signals (particularly during an
institutional activity) less humour, fun, or tension release but rather a person’s concealed
state of arousal (cf. Mik-Meyer, 2007). In the extract presented above, laughter occurs at
various places. Janet uses it twice a response to SW’s antecedent communications (lines
40 and 58) indicating her embarrassment as nothing in SW’s prior statements really
comes close to what otherwise might be heard as a joking intent. In addition, twice it is
SW, who, for one, reacts with laughing out of unclear reasons (line 65), next to her
remark about the room’s excessive climate (line 71: yes it IS really warm in here. <begins
laughing>). Again, none of those situations gives evidence for framing SW’s laughter as
an expression of humour or fun. Rather, it seems to display the participant’s inner
tensions, as they possibly do not know how to respond to the experienced feelings
The display of other-referential emotions
Reactions to the feelings of others can be distinguished according to whether they
themselves express feelings or merely comment on them or ignore them. The ﬁrst
instance happens only once when Janet’s mother shows compassion regarding Janet’s
bump in lines 38 and 41 (po:or child). Although the social worker also comments on
Janet’s portrayal, she reacts in a quite diﬀerent way rephrasing Janet’s statement without
any display of her own emotional stance (line 36: thick BUMp, isn’t it?). In a comparable
way, the head of the service provider (HS) reacts to Janet’s and SW’s statements
concerning the room climate issue-related expressing her willingness to open the door
immediately (line 72). In contrast, regarding her own fright about the spilled coﬀee (line
82), HS ﬁrst reacts aﬀectively (HOOPS), while—after that—she dissociates herself
straightaway explaining the trigger (line 83: I see that is that (.) modern pot-) rationalising
what previously was out of control. Thus, professionals seem to be rather reluctant to
reveal their own feelings—which at the end may also explain SW’s laughter mentioned
above with which she (like HS) seems to detach from her own inner states.
Emotions as a proactive device for relationship building
In addition to aﬀectively expressed feelings and related responses, a third group of
emotions can be identiﬁed that does not directly express feelings but seems to create
a sense of personal proximity contributing to the well-being of the group members. In
line 43, SW makes Janet’s hair and outﬁt topical for further discussions. Noting that
Janet’s hair is arranged diﬀerently than in the meeting before, SW makes herself know-
able as an attentive and interested observer whose concern is directed not only to the case
but to Janet as a person as well. As all participants (except HS and the scientiﬁc observer)
subsequently make further comments on this issue, they clearly put Janet in the group’s
focus, which on the one hand ﬂatters her while it creates again ambivalent feelings (line
Adiﬀerent though typical form securing a working relationship is also reﬂected in HS’
gestures of hospitality and politeness (line 62: would you like coﬀee?) and related responses
(yes please, thank you). By adhering to diﬀerent conventional forms of courtesy, partici-
pants do not only demonstrate respect for each other’s activities but create a form of
interactional symmetry in which all participants enjoy equal treatment and rights regard-
less their institutional stance before formal pattern take place (cf. Messmer, 2017).
Emotion management during the developmental report about Janet
While pre-beginnings oﬀer an excellent opportunity for laying informal grounds for
proximity, well-being and aﬃliation before formal structures take place, the step to
a more formal organised activity leads to a signiﬁcant shift in the emotion management
as all activities from now on must closely link to the institutional goals of the CPC.
A relevant part of the discussions in a CPC setting is the developmental report of the
service provider. Based on comparisons between the actual (what is) and the ought (what
should be), professionals must refer to relevant case-related issues while equally con-
sidering the face-saving needs of their clients. Frequently trapped within contradictory
410 H. MESSMER
expectations, the categorisation work of the professionals is remarkably restrained and
characterised by spongy descriptions of the client. Considering the client’s feelings and
face-saving needs, reports are designed not only in an issue-related but also a socially
acceptable way. Since Janet’s carer still has not shown up at the meeting, the head of the
service provider (HS) herself takes the responsibility to report Janet’s progress during the
ﬁrst three months of her placement:
CPC Janet 255-300
255 HS: that she is here since the twelfth of April is cle:ar,
256 we also know where she came from.
257 we know [this quite well.
258 SW?: [hm=hm-
260 HS: that she has found good: contact within the group,
261 that she was, however, at the beginning somewhat
262 so slandering a little bit,=
263 =like others do too-
264 parlance a little bit solálá.
265 so (-) not qui:te as one might expect: (1.0)
266 then uh: at the ﬁfteenth of April,
267 that is three days after she arrived,
268 She returned inebriated after going out with other
269 probably sort of an (-)INItiationPARTY, (1.5)
270 .hhh also the things mh: =
271 =why she attracted attention in the OTher institution,
272 that is uh to QUICKLY contact boys, (–)
273 THE SAME also here for the ﬁrst time?
274 and then you have had uhm a relationship with a boy,
275 which ended quickly,
276 and you felt very sad about this,
277 and then (–) you drank FABRIC conditioner,
278 CH: ((laughs)) ≪emphatically> ‘hm ‘hm:.>
279 HS: well.
280 CH: that’s totally wrong.
281 HS: but,
282 what DID you drink instead?
283 CH: ≪indignant> ABSOLUTELY no:thing.>
285 HS: no?
286 CH: I drank ABSOLUTELY nothing;
287 HS: we will ask MS BB (Janet’s carer) in a minute
288 =I do not KNOW this.
289 CH: MS (BB) was not present at ALL.
290 HS: maybe, but the carer must know this ANYWAY,
291 in a:ny case, nevertheless, you were uh: pretty much:
293 HS: probably already forgotten this man.
294 CH: ≪laughs> yes.>
295 HS: ≪laughing> you can’t remember anything->
296 .hh how sad you felt about it.
298 HS: .hh good=but uh=after all, she has CALMed down afterwards
300 then ha is described here also-
Not unlike the extract in the previous section, HS’s statements seem primarily issue-
related avoiding the display of feelings at all. If, however, if we take a closer look on her
statements considering Janet’s feelings of self-esteem, we recognise various saliences that
will be the focus of the following paragraphs.
Omissions in the service of face-saving needs (lines 255–259)
The report starts mentioning the date Janet entered the shelter. HS goes on to say that
everybody knows where Janet was sheltered before (line 256: we also know where she
came from.). The fact that HS precisely denote the date of Janet’s entry while leaving
Janet’s former housing unspoken (the clinical psychiatric department) is insofar index-
ical as it refers to the management of sensitive topics that may insult Janet’s self-esteem.
As far as all group members know that Janet had made several suicide attempts before her
recent placement, it is obvious to assume that the avoidance of delicate topics is also to
respect Janet’s face-saving needs circumventing negative feelings of being labelled with
a socially stigmatising attribute.
Downgrading to avoid negative feelings (lines 260–273)
In the following section of her report, HS refers to various irregularities during Janet’s
stay in the shelter. By doing so, she follows a clearly recognisable pattern. On the one
hand, HS emphasises various observations characterising Janet as a diﬃcult and
rebellious girl (line 261: DISaﬀected; line 262: slandering; line 268: inebriated). On the
other hand, however, her descriptions and categorisations are conspicuously down-
graded and withdrawn (line 261: somewhat DISaﬀected; line 262: slandering a little
bit = ;line269:probably sort of an (-)INItiationPARTY). Thus, HS’report has the
purpose of gathering evidence regarding any past and future measures to be taken to
safeguard Janet from further self-defeating conduct. However, as the categories used
could also be understood as an ascription of blame that in turn may provoke sub-
HS is downgrading her categorical work which otherwise might
be heard as an accusation (somewhat; a little bit; probably sort of). By doing so, she
oscillates between issue-related and ethical expectations considering that negative
412 H. MESSMER
categorising may threaten the client’s commitment as it provokes rejection and
Upgrading the display of feelings during conﬂict management (lines 274–294)
After reporting on Janet’sconduct up to this point throughout referring to her as a third
person (she), HS abruptly changes to the second person singular (line 274: you) addres-
sing Janet personally during the following topic. According to her report, Janet drank
fabric softener after the ending of the relationship with her boyfriend. Besides changing
the form of addressing (from talking about to talking with), the description of Janet’s
feelings changes in a similar way, as they show up in a clearly exposed and enhanced
manner (line 276: and there you felt very sad). The upgrading (very) obviously serves as an
account to understand and explain Janet’s attempted suicide in terms of a reasonable
Moving from talking about to talking with, however, is also to redistribute the speak-
er’s rights as the addressed client is entitled to respond as a ‘sequential next’. According to
her entitlement, Janet indeed reacts immediately and directly contrasts the issue por-
trayed with a diﬀerent version of the event. Janet starts with laughter (line 278) indicating
her indignation, and continues with a proto-verbal rejection of HS’description of the
event (‘hm ‘hm) reinforcing it to a strong and explicit contradiction (line 280: that’s
totally wrong; line 283: ≪indignant> ABSOLUTELY no:thing.>; and ﬁnally in line 286:
I drank ABSOLUTELY nothing). It is remarkable here that Janet makes use of progressive
issue-related and prosodic accentuations (totally, ABSOLUTELY, indignant voice)
demonstrating that she is unwilling to deviate from her resistance against HS’reported
version of the event.
Refusals, immediately and directly expressed by the client (especially of such a distinct
kind) are not very frequent in the CPCs under examination.
Hence, Janet’s display of
arousal and undeterred opposition lead to a conspicuous uncertainty concerning HS’
perspective about the issue under consideration (line 279: well; line 281: but; line 285: no?;
line 288: = I do not KNOW this.). Even HS’suggestion to compromise and ask Janet’s
carer (line 287: we will ask MS BB) is dismissed immediately (line 289: MS (BB) was not
present at ALL.), whereupon HS again reacts highly defensive indicating that at least the
carer must know this ANYWAY (line 290).
Janet’s display of strong arousals in situations of latent or escalated conﬂict thus seems
to strengthen her stance concerning the ascription of potentially threatening facts. While
she asserts her arousal by means of immediate, direct and uncompromising contra-
dictions, she conﬁnes HS to an increasingly defensive position. Eventually, HS proposes
a further compromise backtracking on Janet’s feelings at the end of her relationship with
her boyfriend (line 291: nevertheless, you were uh: pretty much: dUSt, weren’t you?). To
conclude, her surrender seems to have an overall liberating eﬀect on Janet, who from now
on agrees with HS’retracted version of the events demonstrating her compliance by
laughter and explicit agreement (line 294: ≪laughing> yes.>). Contrary to earlier
instances, Janet’s laughter here apparently signals her easing her inner tensions, which
is conﬁrmed by the fact that HS herself joins in Janet’s laughter thus marking the end of
the conﬂict episode and the continuation of their alignment.
Safeguarding and return to the report (298–299)
Although this last sequence of the extract is only brief and serves as a transitional
statement, it merits distinct consideration for several reasons. First, it is clear that HS
is willing to terminate this particular issue (line 298: .hh good = but uh = after all, she has
CALMed down . . .) and ready to continue with another topic of her report (line 299: then
ha is described here also-). Second, it can be noticed that HS goes back from the second
person singular (line 296: you) to the third person singular (line 298: she), re-establishing
the monologues form of her report again addressing Janet primarily as part of the ‘case’
and less as a person. Finally, HS refers to another feeling (line 298: after all, she has
CALMed down afterwards) using a term that represents the rhetoric of an institutional
activity—that is the report. Hence, all signals in this topic concluding sequence are
indicating HS’readiness to return to a quieter, interactively less sensitive track, which
ﬁnally also reduces the likelihood of injured feelings and further risks for Janet’s
As the above analyses clearly show, interactions between professionals and clients are
pivotal in shedding detailed light on institutional people processing. Seen from
a conversation analytic stance, social work practice proves to be an activity in a series
transforming the properties of a client into institutionally processable categories con-
stantly producing and reproducing them in the course of subsequent interactions.
Conversations between professionals and clients are therefore considered as the blueprint
of real-life laboratories of social work practice (cf. Juhila, Mäkitalo, & Noordegraf, 2014,
p. 9 ﬀ.) unveiling the prerequisites and components of institutional action in the very
moment when it is talked into being. Our analyses, although restricted to a limited extract
of interactions, nonetheless reveal a typical universe of the explicit and tacit display of
feelings referring to diﬀerent sequences and phases during the CPC. While the display of
positive feelings at least partially counteracts the asymmetries and inequalities of institu-
tional talk, it is—for similar reasons—reasonable to assume that negative feelings are
obstructive to establishing ‘caseness’.
Far from an exhaustive depiction of the display of feelings, the purpose of the present
analyses was to demonstrate how emotions respond to an institutional asymmetry that
provides the participants with unequal participation rights and inﬂuencing opportunities
while establishing caseness. Reporting, for instance, as we have seen, acts to determine
the core issues and subsequent categories of the case as a result of the ‘compressed
narratives’among the professionals, ensuring the supremacy of an institutionalised and
goal-driven action. Intuitively aware of these interactional asymmetries, professionals
systematically make use of up- and downgraded evaluations to counterweigh the con-
stant threat to the client’s self-esteem as this may aﬀect their willingness to comply with
the categorisation work necessary to establish and justify caseness.
It is striking, however, to see how the display of aﬀect and feelings relates to the
participants of the CPC meeting. Insinuating self-related feelings and inner states seems
to be mainly done by the clients, who according to our data react far more with aﬀective
arousal to indicate their own stance relative to that of the professionals’evaluations,
414 H. MESSMER
recognising the consequences their actions may have. Professionals, on the other hand,
primarily make use of their feelings in a somewhat more instrumental and other-related
way. Vis-à-vis the client, they strive to avoid both the display and achievement of
unpleasant or negative feelings as this may challenge a positive working bond. For the
same reasons, positively connoted feelings become speciﬁc, explicit and intense, as this
will support the clients’compliance with institutional needs. Hence, it would be reason-
able to argue that the main trigger of emotion management refers to the asymmetrical
organisation of obligations and rights deﬁning the gap between the actual and the ought.
What otherwise might be heard as an accusation or blame must be framed, mitigated and
minimised in one way or another to maintain the client’s self-esteem and commitment.
Emotions, then, are an important ‘vehicle in performing institutional tasks’(Ruusuvuori,
2013, p. 338), exposing an empathetic and understanding stance within an unevenly
equipped and goal-driven profession. Correspondingly, even minor and incidental
activities contribute to form the ground of a social relationship, which, at the ﬁrst glance
(like, for instance, at the pre-beginning of the CPC Janet), appears rather irrelevant but
indeed proves to be beneﬁcial to further regulations. Organisations, one might conclude,
are ‘emotional arenas’in that members make use of cultural scripts and feeling rules
unveiling the ways how they intend to enact and perform their particular roles and
identities within an institutional framework.
Conversation analysis of social work practice allows us to generate most accurate
information about how participants understand, evaluate, and react from moment to
moment to the sequential ﬂow of activities in which they take part. In doing so, the
explicit and tacit display of feelings turns out to be an important clue in safeguarding the
working relationship during the professional/client encounter in which the individual
rights and obligations are distributed due to the institutional needs. In processing
participants’diﬀerent experiences and expectations, according to our analyses, it is key
not only to recognise what feelings reveal overtly and explicitly but also what they conceal
and leave unspoken. Paradoxically, the emotion management during a professional/
client encounter proceed without an explicit display of feelings as professionals strive
to prevent the emergence of negative feelings explicating case-relevant features while
similarly facing the client’s needs to maintain self-esteem. Hence, although the above
disclosed emotion work remains unspoken, circumscribed or implicit, it altogether leaves
signiﬁcant traces that clearly work in favour to the client’s compliance considering
further steps to be taken.
Hence, to investigate emotions as an inherent practice of ordinary and professional
action helps us to understand and reﬂect some of the seen-but-unnoticed curiosities in
social work practice. Among the characteristics of modern professions, as Parsons (1951)
observed, aﬀective neutrality is essential. This apparently applies to social work practice,
especially considering its beneﬁts for the rational, issue-based, and consensual processing
of cases. That does not mean that professionals themselves have no emotions or that they
are unwilling to exhibit all of them either. But unlike the client their display of feelings is
predominately issue- or other-related disclosing a broad range of implicit hints unveiling
their inner posture facing the other while simultaneously perpetuating their professional
1. In 2003, the DANASWAC scientiﬁc network (Discourse and Narrative Approaches to Social
Work and Counselling) was founded, which oﬀers interested researchers an international
forum through publications, seminars and conferences. The declared goal is to give more
weight to alternative approaches to theory and methods in that ﬁeld including ethnography,
narrative and conversation analysis.
2. Empirically, the study makes use of audiotapes of 14 CPCs, recorded and observed in four
diﬀerent institutions and covering four meetings from the beginning, ﬁve from the middle
and another ﬁve from the termination stages of the service provisions on residential care.
Participants to those conferences ranged from three to eight. Each of the audiotaped
conferences lasted between 40 and 130 minutes fully transcribed according to the prevailing
transcript notations documented in the appendix of this paper. To focus on only two, albeit
longer and contrasting extracts of the CPC Janet (including informal and formal conversa-
tions alike) is insofar convertible as it is mainly used to reﬂect basic principles of emotion
management in social work practice.
3. The numbers at the beginning of the line indicate the reference in the transcript. CH stands
for the child Janet, MO for mother, SF for stepfather, SW for the representative from the
youth welfare oﬃce, HS for the representative of the service provider, and IN for the
scientiﬁc observer. Further transcript notations will be explained at the Appendix of this
4. ‘Boah’is a widespread proto-verbal term in German language indicating a strong sensation
or impression of the speaker.
5. The signiﬁcance of such apparently minor issues to support a working relationship is often
underestimated. In the case of scheduled and planned meetings in social work oﬃces, coﬀee
(or tea) is at least in German social work practice irrespective of the time of day an
omnipresent feature to create and maintain an eﬀective working relationship. In contrast
to the use of biscuits in working relations (cf. Lühr, 2008 under the promising heading
‘Management by Biscuits’), the use of coﬀee and tea widely seems to be unexplored.
6. Cf. for instance Buttny’s(1993,p. 38) self-defence rule: ‘This rule interactionally provides
for a slot after the blame for the accused to respond to critics (. . .): upon receiving a blame,
make a response (. . .) lest no response be heard by others as an admission to the blame.’
7. However, no rule without exception, cf. the extensively analyses of the CPC ‘Stephan’in
Hitzler (2012), pp. 201ﬀ.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author.
The German Research Foundation (DFG) under Grant number 5437125 originally supported the
empirical data of this work.
Notes on contributor
Heinz Messmer, Dr. rer. soc. habil., is Professor at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts,
Northwestern Switzerland, School of Social Work, Institute for Studies in Children and Youth
416 H. MESSMER
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Appendix: Transcript notation
(.) micro pause
(-) pause (one dash approximately .25 seconds)
(1.0) pause (in seconds)
() unintelligible utterance
(yes) uncertain utterance
((laughs)) context remarks
≪loudly> > remarks describing the utterance (including scope)
.h .hh inbreath
: stretching of phonemes
WELL capitals: emphasis
. voice falls
; voice falls slightly
- voice unchanging
, voice rises slightly
? voice rises
418 H. MESSMER