Daniels, Ceri (2015) Surfing the Edge of Chaos: Professional Identity Constructs of Senior Children's Services Leaders in the Context of the Agency-Structure Nexus. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

This qualitative study explores and examines how local authority Directors of Children’s Services (DCSs) experience and make sense of their professional identity as senior public leaders. Through extended in-depth interviews with fourteen DCSs from a northern region of the UK, it focuses on perceptions and representations of how they construct, reconstruct and enact their identity in everyday practice and social encounters in a turbulent, complex and often uncertain organisational and policy context.
With occupational backgrounds largely in education or social work, DCSs are held ‘professionally responsible’ - under statute, for the leadership and effective delivery of children’s services through thousands of multi-disciplinary practitioners and increasing numbers of organisations they do not directly manage. They are also accountable in law for safeguarding children: implementing and monitoring institutional systems and procedures which minimise risk, while meeting demanding performance standards.
As hybrid leaders, DCSs face the experience of straddling two professional identities - that of their original practitioner background and that of the senior leader-manager they have become. Despite the role being established in 2004, identity perceptions and identity work in this public sector leadership role do not appear to have been the focus of previous research. In this study, the findings are illuminative of, and illuminated by, sociological discussions of ambiguous occupational domains and insecurity in a fastmoving policy landscape; responding to questions about the precariousness of identity construction and notions of professionalism in a neo-liberal knowledge economy.
Drawing on Critical Management Studies, this interpretive study is guided by a philosophy that treats the notion of identity as ‘struggle’ and as enduring and recursive processes of becoming, rather than ever arriving at a fixed identity: refracting what can be seen as a “permanent dialectic” between the self and social structures (Ybema, 2009). Reaching beyond simply telling the story, the critical interpretivist approach informing the research design interrogates new empirical data on identity perceptions of children’s services leaders in the context of agency-structure dynamics and concerns. Social Domains Theory (Layder, 1997) which is concerned with the different, yet interrelated
social and structural domains that constitute social reality, is utilised as a sensitising device. Methodologically, this provides an analytic frame to reveal, connect and disrupt the rich narrative emerging from the empirical research in relation to prevailing discourses and theories of identity, emotion and professionalism which are often left unchallenged in traditional interpretivist studies and literature.
The contribution of this study is three-fold. First, it offers new insights into how senior leaders experience and perceive their identity work and struggle. Here identities are shaped and reshaped along a continuum between participants’ original occupational values-base, and new discourses of the professional public manager role and its enactment in contemporary organisations. Second, the application of Social Domains Theory to aid critical interrogation of the data adds to, and advances, current understandings in identity studies. Third, the dominant narrative presented by DCSs of their everyday experiences, emotion work and leadership practices is refracted through a ‘touchstone’ of espoused child-centred values - as they bend and angle in searches for identity. This image is conceptualised in the study as a new identity construct: the Refracted Professional Leader.

PhD Thesis FINAL C Daniels.pdf - Accepted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives.

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