The politics of needs interpretation: a study of three CJS-funded job-entry programs for women

TitleThe politics of needs interpretation: a study of three CJS-funded job-entry programs for women
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication1992
AuthorsButterwick SJ
Academic DepartmentAdult Education
DegreeDoctor of Philosophy Ph.D.
UniversityUniversity of British Columbia (Canada)
CityVancouver, BC

This inquiry explored the everyday struggles of several women who worked as coordinators and instructors in three government-funded job-entry programs for women in the non-profit sector. The programs studied included an entry program for native women, a program which trained immigrant women in bookkeeping skills, and a program which trained women on social assistance to enter the construction trades. The work of the staff in these programs was considered in light of a theoretical framework developed by Nancy Fraser. Fraser has called for a different approach -- a more critical discourse-oriented inquiry -- to the study of social-welfare policies and programs. This approach focuses on the political struggle over the interpretation of needs, particularly womens needs, which she sees as central to social-welfare policy-making. In her study of the American system, she has found that needs talk is the medium through which inequalities are symbolically elaborated and challenged. She also has found that needs talk is stratified and differentiated by unequal status, power, and access to resources, and organized along lines of class, gender, race, ethnicity and age. For this study, information was collected through interviews with the staff in the three programs, observations of life skills classes, and examination of program proposals. Government and government-related documents were also examined. The analysis revealed that, in the official policy documents at the national level, women’s needs were interpreted within a dominant policy framework which focused on reducing spending, matching workers to the market and privatizing training programs. Programs for women were developed based upon a thin” understanding of womens needs -- one which focused on women’s lack of training and job experience and ignored the structural inequalities of the labour market and women’s different racial and class struggles. At the local level, analysis of the interviews, observations and documents indicated that the staff struggled to respond to the trainees diverse and complex needs which the official policy discourse addressed in only a limited way. In their negotiations with the state, the staff employed a plurality of needs discourses, engaging in a process which both challenged and reproduced the dominant policy orientation toward getting women jobs, any jobs”. There were moments of resistance by the staff to the dominant policy orientation, most notably in the program for native women. The trainees also challenged the narrow interpretation of womens needs, particularly in the program training women to enter the construction trades. Generally speaking, the analysis indicated that the staff played a crucial role in mediating between women and the state and in producing a kind of discourse which tended to construct the trainees as subjects needing to be fixed. The analysis also revealed that the relationships between staff, trainees and the state were organized around unequal access to resources based on gender, race and class. In order to transcend the limitations outlined in this study, efforts are required to democratize decision-making, collectively organize the non-profit private sector, challenge privatization and the exploitive practices of the state, and bring alternative approaches which support participatory and dialogical processes of need interpretation. The analysis brings to light the importance of studying the implications of state policies on adult education practice, particularly policies which promote privatization. It also reveals the explanatory power of a feminist theoretical framework which provides a more critical, discourse-oriented approach to examining policy and practice, and the usefulness of this framework for further research and political advocacy.