The Rule of Optimism – Thirty Years On

Child EyeLast night, I was watching coverage of the sad death of Daniel Pelka, as a result of abuse by his mother and stepfather, on BBC television’s Ten O’Clock News, when I caught a reference to the ‘rule of optimism. This reminded me that it is exactly thirty years since this phrase first appeared in print when John Eeeklaar, Topsy Murray and I published our study of agency decision-making in child abuse and neglect cases, The Protection of Children. Not many social scientists introduce a phrase into the English language and its subsequent history is instructive about the ways in which the impact of successful sociology becomes invisible. It is also a nice example of how ideas become assimilated into a societal environment that finds it hard to accept the sociologist’s focus on systems and organizations.

The project was conceived by John Eekelaar in the late 1970s, through the SSRC Centre for Socio-Legal Studies. (For younger readers, SSRC was what ESRC used to be called when its mission was to advance the social sciences.) John was already established as a leading academic family lawyer. I joined him as a sociologist with a newly-minted PhD on health visiting, which had introduced me to the institutional context of children’s services. Later we recruited – she might say ‘turned’ – one of our key informants, Topsy Murray, from her administrative role in a local authority we were studying.

We came to focus on the process by which health and social service agencies filtered the large population of children with poor lives – underfed, unloved, occasionally knocked about – to produce the very small number defined as ‘serious’ and, ultimately, candidates for legal intervention. The agencies had neither the resources, nor the societal backing, to intervene in every troubled family. The UK has a strong commitment to family autonomy and family privacy – children’s health and well-being is primarily a matter for parents, not the state. Agencies are resourced on this basis, to deal with exceptional cases. There are no perfect predictive tools so some decisions are always wrong – some interventions will be unnecessary and some children will not receive the protection they need. The death rate from child abuse reflects high-level judgements about the balance to be struck.

Front-line workers, however, have to take this context as given and get on with the practical tasks of picking out those few children that the agency can deal with. This is what we came to describe as the ‘rule of optimism’. My colleagues assure me that it was my phrase, although I cannot remember when it first emerged in drafting our report. The term owed something to Scheff’s work on decision rules in medical diagnosis but it also echoed the idea of a monastic rule. These were the statements drafted by founders of religious orders that set out the basic principles by which members would live and work.

Our analysis, then, stressed the organizational basis of the rule of optimism. It is not written down anywhere but it embeds the unavoidable legal and institutional constraints on professional practice into the culture of their agencies. As the term has taken on a life of its own, however, it has often been turned into a psychological label and used to accuse child protection workers of credulity or naiveté. How could they miss things that are obvious with 20/20 hindsight to any journalist, lawyer or case reviewer? It is absorbed into a narrative of ‘wet’ and woolly-minded liberal professionals who ought to be suspicious of every family they encounter. When they are, as in the Cleveland abuse cases of 1987, the result is, of course, an equal and opposite denunciation of trigger-happy intervention stealing children from loving parents.

The psychological version first appeared in the inquiry into the death of Jasmine Beckford in 1985 and, despite our periodic efforts to correct the record, has regularly resurfaced. The Pelka report takes its definition from an Ofsted overview of serious case reviews, for example:

A frequent lesson from the reviews was that practitioners had been affected by what is known as the ‘rule of optimism’. This is a tendency by social workers and healthcare workers towards rationalisation and under-responsiveness in certain situations. In these conditions, workers focus on adults’ strengths, rationalise evidence to the contrary and interpret data in the light of this optimistic view. They confuse participation by parents with cooperation (para. 96)

Our analysis of organizational culture has become a ‘tendency’ of individuals as it has slipped into common currency to the extent that its source no longer needs to be credited.

Psychologizing the rule of optimism makes it into a tool for blaming child protection workers for child abuse deaths. It diverts attention from the contexts in which they have to make difficult decisions with imperfect, limited and fragmented information. An inter-agency system creaking under resource pressures and lacking public support for a more interventionist approach necessarily has to find ways of bounding its work. Sometimes the result is that children die. There are no quick fixes to a complex – and, in a technical sense, wicked – problem. The first step, however, is to see the problem for what it is – and that is not one of weak-minded professionals but of the social licence to operate that governs the agency system.

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is an emeritus professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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Val Humphreys

It would be optimistic to hope that the pure gold of a concept does not undergo some alchemy and turn into base metal when inserted into the often heated debate about child abuse, especially where deaths are concerned. The security services face a similar challenge – how do they identify and stop someone from blowing themselves up and nearby strangers? After those outrages, it can also seem obvious these individuals should not have slipped through the net/dropped off the radar, in the usual phrase. However, although more deaths are involved, the security services do not seem to get such harsh… Read more »

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