Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Abstracts: Ethics, History and Mental Disorder

Pamela Dale (Exeter)
From Mental Deficiency Work to Anti-Social Behaviour Order


Mental deficiency policy and practice remain controversial and contested subjects. Researchers are understandably and necessarily careful about explaining the terminology they use and justifying the methodologies deployed. However, the question of ‘whose history’ still provokes much hostility and suspicion as survivors’ stories, carers’ stories staff memoirs, medical texts and a variety of academic publications all lay claim to the territory. The failure of the different groups to fully engage with each other’s concerns about representations of the past, and the directions in future care they may promote, means much valuable material may be overlooked. It is also a climate where misconceptions can flourish and efforts to normalise the experiences of people with learning difficulties can produce stereotypical and highly stigmatising views of other vulnerable groups in society.

Practitioners and survivors’ groups remain committed to the decarceration agenda despite the limitations of community care programmes. A focus on carers, and their concerns, however, reveals a much more complex picture of the way people were institutionalised and the difficulties they might face outside the walls of the asylum. While some literature has presented the family as yet another victim of official power, there is increasing evidence of negotiation. Carers were not necessarily sophisticated welfare consumers but they should not simply be viewed as an oppressed minority either. An ethically sound methodology is needed to capture the very real problems encountered by carers, and indeed wider communities, without re-enforcing negative stereotypes of people receiving care. To date this has not been easy, with Janet Finch much criticised for her critique of community care policies dependent on unpaid female labour in the home and low-waged women in the care industry. Yet their story is as valid but as neglected as that of the people they care for.

The way forward could be a wider examination of women and welfare, with special attention paid to the woman-to-woman conversation between welfare professionals and carers. However, professional rivalries and competition for funding make crossing the boundaries of health and welfare services difficult and an increasingly stigmatised group of hard to place cases emerged from casework with families. Sadly these cases are most easily accessed through highly prejudicial official reports and sensational media accounts presenting further difficulties for the historian. This paper briefly traces the problems of both connecting and ignoring the links between mental deficiency work, the discovery of the problem family, the further refinement of the problem tenant family, and more recent programmes including SURESTART and ASBOs.