Making Sense of Risk: Social Work at the Boundary between Care and Control

Ravit Alfandari, Brian Taylor, Mary Baginsky, Jim Campbell, Duncan Helm, Campbell Killick, Paul McCafferty, Judith Mullineux, Jane Shears, Alessandro Sicora, Andrew Whittaker

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
171 Downloads (Pure)


‘Risk’ has become a central concept for social work practice in countries with more developed social welfare systems. As argued by Hazel Kemshall and colleagues (1997), ‘risk’ has often replaced ‘need’ as the main driver for social work interventions as societies seek to avoid harm to citizens. This shift of focus raises a tension between care (support for the individual or family in their own right) and control (seeking to prevent harm to themselves, each other or other citizens). This article considers some of the key developments in the 25 years since the above article, including the development of risk communication; the growing familiarity with both likelihood and severity concepts of risk; the assessment of risk as part of organisational arrangements to manage risk; and theoretical developments linking social work assessment, ‘working with risk’ and decision making. In the first part of the article we explore the care versus control boundary through focussing, in turn, on child and family social work, adult care services, mental health social work and criminal justice social work, and their respective developments. We then further extend two key foci regarding assessment and care planning as well as the the use of professional knowledge at the care and control boundary. Our analysis of these developments points towards more nuanced approaches to managing risk and making decisions at these sometimes contentious boundaries.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-92
Number of pages18
JournalHealth, Risk and Society
Issue number1-2
Early online date23 Nov 2022
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 1 Mar 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author(s) reported that there is no funding associated with the work featured in this article. We would like to thank our colleagues in the Decisions, Assessment and Risk Special Interest Group of the European Social Work Research Association for their inspiration and encouragement.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • risk assessment
  • risk management
  • decision making
  • social work
  • assessment
  • risk communication
  • decision-making
  • Assessment
  • risk
  • social care
  • communication


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