Dissertation Abstracts

The Meanings of the 'Struggle/Fight Metaphor' in the Special Needs Domain: The Experiences of Practitioners and Parents of Children with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Conditions

Author: Thackray, Liz , liz@lizit.com
Department: Sociology
University: Sussex, United Kingdom
Supervisor: Dr Susie Scott
Year of completion: 2013
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: special needs , conflict , Bourdieu , systems thinking
Areas of Research: Education , Health , Family Research

Abstract

The special needs domain has long been recognised as problematic and adversarial. Much research has focused on areas of contention, such as the relationships between parents and practitioners, especially in educational settings, or on problems within the structure and operation of the domain. This study adopts a whole system approach in combining discussion of the structural basis of tension within the domain with an investigation of how both parents and practitioners describe, experience and respond to tensions within the special needs domain; such tensions being viewed as facets of the 'struggle' and 'fight' metaphor.

Whole systems approaches are derived from the systems discipline, which developed initially out of the nineteenth century interest in organic and engineering systems, but more recently has focused on organisational and inter-organisational arrangements, including the part people play in enabling or disabling such arrangements. It is a strongly interdisciplinary approach more commonly found in organisational studies than in the social sciences more
generally.

Fifteen practitioners, from health and education settings, and twelve parents of children and young people with diagnoses of high functioning autism spectrum conditions participated in the study. The participants' stories of their experiences of the special needs domain were collected using a narrative inquiry approach. The data was analysed using concepts and theoretical frameworks derived from the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Uri Bronfenbrenner and Charles Wright Mills.

An exploration of the influences shaping the special needs domain revealed a number of areas of unresolved tension, some of which result in tensions for those involved in the domain such as can be described as 'fight', and some of which might be addressed by structural changes to the systems comprising the special needs domain such as those envisaged in forthcoming legislation. However importantly the empirical study found that many tensions and struggles experienced by both parents and practitioners did not emanate from the structures of the domain and therefore were unlikely to be amenable to structural
changes. Parents 'struggle' to maintain their identity as 'good' parents, to acquire information and to navigate the system in order to access services and resources. Practitioners experience conflict as they seek to access information and training, engage in the complex choreography of cooperating and collaborating in interagency and interprofessional working and endeavour to harmonise their professional practice with agency and public policy priorities.

The thesis concludes with a brief discussion of the relationship between whole system approaches and other interdisciplinary approaches to investigating complex problems in the human sciences. It is suggested that systems diagramming techniques such as systems mapping and rich pictures are useful additions to the sociologist's toolkit.

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