“Write that!” – On ethnography and care at the margins of a welfare society

Doris Lydahl

It’s spring 2018 in Sweden and I am shadowing Kristina, a social worker, as she is doing a home visit to Walid, a middle-aged man suffering from schizophrenia. The home visit has been going well and Walid has accepted my presence, but suddenly things change. Walid becomes worried about me and does not understand why I must sit on his couch and write in “my diary”. Kristina tries to calm Walid, telling him that he does not have to be paranoid about me.  I’m worried that I have made things worse for Walid and messed up Kristina’s work. As I have been in a similar situation before, I offer Walid to read my field notes. Walid reads my notes out loud, and I notice that he relaxes as he reads. When he has finished reading, he continues to make notes up. He laughs and pretends to read. “He was sitting on the sofa and looked beautiful. She fell in love”, he says. He gives me back my notebook and laughs even more. “Write that!” he says. (This excerpt has previously been published in Lydahl et al. 2020)

Good care at the margins of welfare society

I shadowed Kristina as part of my post-doc in the project Geographies of home-based service interaction at the margins of welfare in Finland and Sweden. During some decades, welfare systems in the global North have seen changes in care delivery systems from care in institutions to care in the home, in different areas ranging from psychiatry to elderly care. In this project, we concentrated on this ‘home turn’ at the margins of welfare, namely on the services targeted at adults with complex needs suffering from poor mental health, substance abuse problems, and, occasionally, homelessness. Our interest was to focus on the ‘home turn’ from a spatial and interactional perspective, considering how homes and nearby communities as places of service interactions matter. I was particularly interested in better understanding care at the margins of welfare. Studying a mental healthcare unit performing home visits in the context of psychiatric care and a special-housing unit providing home visits in the context of homelessness services my colleague Cecilia Hansen Löfstrand and I could discern two different modes of doing good care at the margins of welfare (Lydahl & Hansen Löfstrand 2020). In the first mode, good care was about following a manual that instructed how the care worker should provide for an independent client, helping them to develop basic skills and individual autonomy. In the second mode, good care was about building a professional-client relationship and creatively using this relationship to protect the clients’ wellbeing by drawing on and re‐establishing social networks.

Data production as affective and active

However, and as the project unfolded, my colleagues and I also became more aware of the care involved in the doing and production of our own ethnographic data (Lydahl et al. 2020). The example above with Walid and Kristina is a good example of what our fieldwork looked like. It shows how the ethnographic field in intimate places such as the home is shaped by affective relations and a new role for the researcher and research participant alike. It shows how my role as a researcher became visible and awkward, and how Walid tried out the researcher’s role by dictating what I should write. To Walid, the notebook made visible the research position – it signified that what is needed to be a researcher is a notebook – and he decided to test this role.

Notebooks used by Doris Lydahl during fieldwork

Some of the many notebooks used during fieldwork. Photo by Doris Lydahl.

The example above illustrates a range of feelings: frustration, joy, and joviality. But most of all, it illustrates the efforts involved in making data. It shows Walid who with some help overcame his own problems – contributing in the production of data. Drawing on STS research about the production of data and affect theory (Latimer & Miele 2013; Law & Urry 2004), my colleagues and I suggest that the production of data is not possible without the active and affective collaboration of all parties involved, especially when data are produced in intimate spaces such as the home.

Paying attention to the active and affective data production showed more layers of care at the margins of welfare. We saw how clients and workers cared both for us and for the study, we noticed our own care for both clients and workers in how we, for example, positioned ourselves in the home of the client, and we could also see how our care for the client, the worker, and the production of data was sometimes in conflict. Thinking with and through affects and care made visible otherwise invisible aspects in the production of empirical data. This approach helped us to highlight how data are not something ‘out there’ (or rather ‘in there’ – in the homes) waiting to be collected by the researchers, but rather something needing continuous and affective effort and care of everyone involved.


Doris Lydahl holds a PhD in Sociology and is a researcher at the Department of Sociology and Work Science, University of Gothenburg. In her research, she draws on care studies and material semiotics to focus on everyday life and routine work as important locations where politics, science and technology meet and enact their normativities. She currently leads a project about the values of welfare technologies in elderly care. Together with Lisa Lindén, she is the guest editor of a special issue on “Care in STS” in the Nordic Journal of Science and Technology Studies which was published in May 2021.