For a very long time, institutions in Western society have categorised certain families with words that are heavy with stigma, labelling them as ‘problem families’ or ‘paupers’, describing them as experiencing ‘intergenerational disadvantage’ and having ‘complex needs’.
Dr Kathleen Flanagan is interested in unpacking the impact of these labels on individuals and families to see how social policy might be more effective with this filter removed. She has received a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award of $395,495 from the Australian Research Council to research ‘Problem families in the 21st century: policy, practice, outcomes’.
“What does it mean to conceptualise a whole family as a problem? What does this mean for how we act in relation to them in practice and in policy?” Dr Flanagan said.
“Once people are labelled in our system, there’s a lot of data collected on them and people become their file. Everything you have ever done is documented and so that becomes who you are. I think that definitely has consequences for people, the way they think about themselves and the way others treat them.”
She pointed out that many families in this situation are in touch with multiple government services and become defined by this interaction. “That bit of you that interacts with Centrelink or child protection or police, that’s only a tiny bit of you, there’s a whole other part of you that just doesn’t get seen.”
Dr Flanagan became interested in the subject while researching her PhD on the history of public housing in Tasmania. She found interesting material on dealing with problem tenants, and from there she “followed a rabbit hole” into genetics, 19th-century ideas about paupers and the notion of “poverty as a disease”. “It was a web of ways of thinking about people that it has become entrenched in a lot of social policy and social work practice. It’s a way of thinking that is normalised and assumed, and I would like to problematise and unpack that.”
An island population with multiple common connections is an ideal place to work with government and agencies to better understand these issues. “We can be a real example of how to do things differently. I am also collecting data interstate and in other jurisdictions but nonetheless this is research that suits this environment.”
Dr Flanagan’s research will include case studies looking at different aspects of policy in practice. She will work with policymakers, social workers, child protection workers and other practitioners.
“I think practitioners are really hungry to think about their work in different ways, but the day-to-day pressures of the job often don’t leave a lot of room for that. I’m looking forward to conversations with a broad audience, not to come to a solution but to chew over the ideas and open up different ways of thinking.
“Change does not come from academics saying ‘this is how you are going to do it’, but from practitioners starting to think about things differently. That’s how I conceptualise social change, not in a radical way, but by prompting people to adjust to the idea that the way we are doing things isn’t OK and to think about how we could do it differently.”
Dr Flanagan is the Deputy Director of the Housing and Community Research Unit at the University of Tasmania and has recently published her PhD into a book called Housing, Neoliberalism and the Archive – Reinterpreting the rise and fall of public housing.