Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Return to the Family: Welfare, State, and Politics of the Family in Turkey

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Return to the Family: Welfare, State, and Politics of the Family in Turkey

Article excerpt


This article examines the transformation of the Turkish state's social work policy to engage recent debates in anthropology about welfare restructuring and neoliberalism. Building on ethnographic research from top to bottom, I trace welfare policy through the discourse of politicians and bureaucrats into everyday bureaucratic practice. Drawing attention to the stark contrast between the discursive image of the nurturing three generational extended family put at the center of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government's political rhetoric and policy-making and the experience of urban poor women who pass through the welfare orbit, I argue that for poor women and children, the globally influenced transformation in welfare corresponds to the reinforcement of socio-economic vulnerabilities, all of which constrain their already precarious lives. [Keywords: Welfare restructuring and neoliberalism, state, bureaucracy, politics of the family, turkey]

In memory of Dicle Kogacioglu


During the last week of October 2005, a single topic dominated the headlines and primetime news in turkey: debates over how to reform the state social work system. the heated debates were triggered by secret camera footage, broadcast on a national channel, of caregivers' physical violence towards children in a residential home run by the state social work agency, the social services and children's Protection Agency (sscPA).1 these heated debates were informed by and fed back into the ongoing restructuring of state-sponsored social work, crystallized in the return to the Family Project which aims to return institutionalized children to their families. the period when this shift from state-provided institutional care to familial care began also corresponded to Prime Minister Erdogan's invocation of stories of the "strong turkish family." these stories pointed to a nurturing three-generational extended family-specifically contrasted with the presumed weakness of familial ties in "the West"-to pose "the turkish family" as the best agent to provide social protection and lift "social burdens" on the state. Around the same time, female clients who pass through the welfare orbit-such as Aysen and Gülsüm, whose stories I discuss below-were seeking help in social work offices precisely because their family experiences were in stark contrast to those put at the center of political rhetoric and policy-making.

In this article, I combine the different levels of political discourse analysis, state social policy, and everyday institutional practice to examine the ongoing restructuring of the field of state-sponsored social work as part of a larger neoliberal-conservative project unfolding in turkey in the early 2000s.2 Welfare restructuring constitutes a significant component of this neoliberal-conservative project. the ongoing transformation in the turkish welfare regime has been affected by the IMF-guided structural adjustment programs, preparations for integration with the European Union (EU), the emergence of new actors in the welfare field (such as the World bank), and the neoliberal politics of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government which has particularly encouraged familial responsibility in social care.

In what follows, I draw from two years of ethnographic research.3 In the spirit of anthropology of public policy (shore and Wright 1997; Wedel et al. 2005; shore, Wright, and Pero 2011), I "study through" (reinhold 1994) sites of policy formulation and implementation. Mapping the connections among the sites, actors, discourses, and practices of the field of social work, I illuminate the continuities and disjunctures that occur as policies of welfare restructuring are translated into practice. studying from top to bottom, I move from media debates and policy discussions in five-star hotels to poorly furnished welfare offices in Ankara and Istanbul and conflict ridden interactions among welfare workers and their clients, the urban poor. …

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