The costs of care: An ethnography of care work in residential homes for older people

Sociol Health Illn. 2023 Jan;45(1):54-69. doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.13546. Epub 2022 Sep 7.


The cost of social care, the work conditions experienced by care workers and the quality of care provided by residential homes for older people are all linked, yet we know very little about how this relationship works in practice. Drawing upon an ethnography of two differently priced residential care homes for older people in Southern England, I examine the implications of different financial regimes for care-giving practices. I show how the scheduling and allocation of resources-conveyed, for example, in formal routines and staffing levels-structure the care workers' time, tasks and activities in each setting. This acts to symbolically demarcate what, or who, is valued. I argue that the availability of resources facilitates and impedes the symbolic culture of care work, shapes care workers' ability to afford dignity to the individuals in their care and affects how care workers experience, and relate to, their labour. I conclude by discussing how current practices of funding and pricing social care have effects seeping beyond the practical and measurable, and into the realm of the symbolic.

Keywords: care; care work; older people; residential care; social care.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Anthropology, Cultural
  • England
  • Homes for the Aged*
  • Humans
  • Nursing Homes*
  • Social Support