Karen Broadhurst and Claire Mason: Lancaster University
Virtual proximities and corporeal
 Social life is fundamentally transformed by mediated
communication that enables a range of ‘virtual
proximities’ (mobile phone, internet, web cam etc)
 Individuals can sustain a range of connections/variety
of networks – that are instant, economic and can
compress time and distance
 Yet somehow – orientation to human co-location or
corporeal co-presence (face-to-face/body-to-body
interaction) survives
Goffman and co-presence
 “Persons must sense that they are close enough to be
perceived in whatever they are doing, including their
experiencing of others, and close enough to be
perceived in this sensing of being perceived.”
(Goffman, 1963, p. 17)
 “In range of each other’s naked sense perceptions”
(Zhao, 2003)
 Involvement of human bodies in the process of
communication .
 Both verbal and nonverbal human behaviours
including ‘body idioms’ (Goffman, 1963)
 To achieve full embodiment we require ‘face to face’ -
interface (Zhao, 2003)
 ‘. the robust nature and enduring necessity of
traditional human communication ...modernity is
achieved not just through computer circuit boards and
devices such as voice mail, video conferencing and fax
production but through the intensely social daily
routines of humans thinking, cooperating and
talking face-to-face’
Boden and Molotch (1994, p.258)
Recent research
 Significant evidence of extensive business travel to
achieve corporeal co-presence – despite rapid
developments in mediated communication
 Familial and friendship ties – orientation to ‘visiting’
 Individuals ‘upgrade’ to the best approximation to
face-to-face contact
 (see John Urry, 2003, for a fuller discussion )
So – why the ‘compulsion of
 ‘co-presence is biographically and historically prior to
other forms of communication:’ (Boden and Molotch,
‘body talk adds a visual vocabulary and social
grammar...the cues of physical movement, eye contact and
facial expression relay substantive meaning’
‘It is through the reaction of others that we see what we are
doing – in co-present interaction there is no time out
from expressive being’ (Thrift, 2004)
Co-presence and contextual detail
 Co-present interaction is rich with information. Co-
presence offers a far greater level of contextual detail
than mediated communication .
 Co-presence puts us on the spot – when we are co-
present with another – our feelings/responses are
more difficult to hide
 ‘The density of co-present encounters both engages
and entraps us’ (Boden and Molotch, p.259)
Corporeal co-presence is key to:
 Conveying commitment
 Managing ambiguity/misunderstanding
 Development of trust
Social Work – a thoroughly ‘social’ profession
1.The home visit – enduring aspect of social work practice (primary
site for engagement and for ‘seeing’ what’s going on) – enshrined
in statutory obligations
2. Key decisions are taken through ‘meetings’ – again orientation
to the face-to-face (strategy, case conference, pre-proceedings,
childcare review)
3. Co-presence is both preferred and necessary across a wide range
of social work tasks
 Yet, somehow in social work – both in research and
practice, we have come to lose sight of the detail of
embodied co-present human interaction
 Social workers have come to position themselves outside
the helping relationship (as brokers/care managers)
losing sight of their interactional expertise
 Moreover, the technologisation of experience in social
work has led to the privileging of information over affect
 General distancing impact of anti-dependency discourses
& a turn to the instrumental
 Co-presence prevails - but social workers are less
attuned to their interactions with others....
Home Visit
 Field note 12.4. 2011
 I was struck by the social worker seeming to ‘deliver’ the family
support worker, she introduced the worker and proceeded to tell
the mother what kinds of things the family support worker will
help her with – improving housing, helping her to access drug
counselling. The worker reminder the mother that she needed
to get to her appointments with the drugs counselling service. It
was all quite matter of fact and the visit ended with the worker
asking to inspect the children’s bedrooms. After the visit I asked
the worker to reflect on the encounter – her response was
overwhelmingly task focused, she was keen to hand over the
case to the parenting support team and was hopeful that through
the core assessment process that the problems were stabilised.
Something’s missing....?
 ‘There
is in many accounts of social work
with children and families today a pervasive
sense of loss, or at least of an absence, a
sense that something is missing and doesn’t
feel right. There is little doubt from the social
work literature that what is thought to be
lacking or lost is relationships, and having
the time, capacity and capability to relate to
children and families.’ (Ferguson, 2011 p28,)
 Burgeoning literature on relationship – based practice
 But what does this mean?
 Can we add to the extant vocabulary?
 How can we add to the extant vocabulary through
research and practice?
Refocusing on the centrality of
face-to-face/body-to-body practice
Implications for research and practice:
 Shift away from that which is narrowly conceived through
procedure – standardised and flattened out – towards a refocusing on the ad hoc..... the reflexive, unfolding of
 Take hold of the renewed interest in the realm of social
reproduction what Katz describes as ‘the fleshy, messy, and
indeterminate stuff of everyday life’ (2001, p. 711)
 Develop an understanding that the quality of people’s lives
depends hugely on the quality of their social relationships how people treat one another (Sayer, 2010)
Foregrounding corporeal copresence in social work research
Some starting points:
 The face and faciality as the index of emotion
 The skin as the interface between internal and external
 The body as ‘our first and foremost, most immediate
and intimately felt geography ... the site of emotional
experience and expression par excellence’.
(Davidson and Milligan, 2004, p523).
 Starting from an assumption of practice as situated in
place – then individual and collective life stories
matter. Practice, in our chosen case study site, is
heavily influenced by the lengthy
personal/institutional biographies of team manager
and assistant manager who prize the relational aspects
of their work, over and above the demands of
performance management.
 Direct observation of practice – meetings, home visits,
case conferences, informal discussion...
 Conversational style interviewing to probe impact of
co-present activity
 Audio recordings and field notes
 Access possible, via larger commissioned project
Research Questions
 Research questions that influenced the cases study
 What is gained from corporeal co-presence?
 How does the body impact on trust and commitment?
 What can we learn from ‘the face’ in interaction?
Example 1 (established worker)
 Field note
 I accompanied the family support worker on a home visit.
The visit is part of an initial assessment and have decided
to keep the case open to core assessment. There has been
pressure from other agencies for the children to become
subject to child protection plans due to concerns about
neglect, particularly home conditions and an
unwillingness to engage with services.
 The case concerns a young mother with 3 young children
aged under 8 years. The family support workers is making
an unplanned visit.
Example 1 (cont’d)
 FSW enters the house into a long, narrow, open plan
kitchen lounge. The mother sits herself down on the
settee in the living space and the FSW sits beside her.
The mother’s response to this physical proximity
indicated a sense of being comfortable –
 The mother’s partner in contrast walked to the far end
of the living space into the kitchen area and turned his
back. In response to this, the FSW turned herself to
ensure her body position indicated openness to the
partner, and she says to the mother “is this your chap?”
Words and body
 “I’ve heard a lot about you Craig, it’s really nice to meet
you... I’ll tell you what it is Craig, I was so impressed
when I saw the work you’d done here, it’s really good,
it’s excellent”
 Craig then turns and looks at the FSW and smiles and
the FSW gives him the ‘thumbs up’. Craig blushes
slightly and briefly looks away, initially embarrassed
but smiling. Craig then begins to interact with the
child which draws him back into the living room and
all further conversations he engages with.
Touch and the body
 The family support worker enquires as to whether there are
any plans for the new partner to move in. The mother
responds by saying “yeah... After Xmas when he’s got a job
and I’ve got SSD off my back”. The FSW sitting next to the
mother on the settee, turns her body to make direct eye
contact, prefacing an important utterance: “ then you do
need to engage with us Lisa”. As she says it, she opens her
palms and slaps her hands on her lap. You know how
serious it has been and we really don’t want to be going to
cp. The mother drops her head and looks noticeably
concerned – slightly disengaging from the FSW with this
Example 1
 FSW, in response to the young mother’s body talk, she
softens and lowers her voice, and places a hand gently
on Lisa’s knee, which causes Lisa to lift her head and
resume eye contact. The FSW’s body talk is
complemented by reassuring words: “ But I am really
pleased Lisa, you have looked at it [the issues], you
have known that this place [house] wasn’t right and
you have done something about it and that’s really
good. I am pleased. The service user responds to the
praise and smiles and then starts to talk about the
steps she’s taken to secure another property – there
was excitement and achievement in her voice.
Touch and the body
 ‘Touch increases the level of self-disclosure....co-
presence provides the means to experience it[touch]
 ‘The use of body in interaction feels good’
 ‘Our ability and insistence on co-ordinating our body
actions with those of others lies at the heart of our
sociability ‘
(Boden and Molotch, 1994 p. 263).
Example 2: NQSW
 Field notes 25. Feb. 2011
This is the second time that I have observed a meeting in
connection with this mother and baby. The baby is now in
foster care on a voluntary basis having been separated from
the mother a few days after the birth – a plan for
reunification is in place. This is the young mother’s first
child – the mother has enduring mental health problems.
 Outside the meeting, I speak with the mother and the
mental health support worker – the mother is suspicious of
the social worker – she doesn’t quite believe that they are
going to go ahead with the reunification.
The meeting
 The meeting commences – it is a contact planning meeting.
How will contact which is essential to the reunification plan be
managed over the Xmas period – a sensitive and difficult topic.
 Two NQSWs are convening the meeting, one will chair and the
other take notes. Just prior to the start of the meeting as
everyone is gathered in a circle of chairs, the female NQSW who
is herself noticeably pregnant and the designated note taker,
asks the mother if she’d like to hold the baby during the
meeting, she goes over to the foster carers and picks up the baby
from his chair and hands the baby to the mother... the two young
women momentarily exchange smiles and share in a moment of
mutual delight in the new baby – there is a moment of felt
intensity in the room given the significance of this gesture and
Field note continued:
I spoke with the young mother again after the meeting,
after she had handed the baby back – she seemed hopeful –
smiling, fingers crossed.
Here we see compassion as a thoroughly embodied
social action, realised in and through worker and
service-user co-presence. Laughter, breath, smiles, gaze
as well as words create moments of mutual intensity
between workers, children and parents which elude easy
description, but still reverberate beyond the moment. They
leave, as Thrift describes (2000, p.214), a trace of ‘invisible
dust, still singing, still dancing’.
 when bodies come into contact in this way – the
communicative potential is huge... We cannot
approximate this exchange through mediated
communication. Actions of trust building, the
communication of affective warmth, are difficult to
simulate at a distance.
 Cues of physical movement, eye contact, facial
expression and body orientation relay substantive
meaning themselves (Boden and Molotch, p.260)
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Friedland and D. Boden (eds) NowHere: Space, Time and Modernity,
University of California Press, California.
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 Ferguson, H. (2011) Child Protection Practice ,Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan
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Karen Broadhurst & Claire Mason Presentation: 16 May 2011 [PPT