Moral People or Moral Projects?: Worker Altruism in Youth Residential Treatment

Yvonne Smith, Lex Colletta, Anna E. Bender

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10 Scopus citations


Paraprofessional youth care workers in residential treatment centers (RTCs) are responsible for the everyday care, supervision, and treatment of youth with serious behavioral and mental health challenges. Turnover rates among this poorly paid workforce are high, and it is not known why individuals seek and maintain youth care work despite its significant challenges. Following anthropologists who study morality as situated practice, we investigate the role of altruism in recruiting and retaining workers in RTCs. We ask: How do managers and youth care workers understand altruism and its role in youth care work and what are the consequences of those understandings? Through organizational ethnography of an RTC, we show that workers and management understood altruism differently. Managers viewed altruism as an inherent trait of some and attributed turnover to its lack. Although workers sometimes enacted this script, they understood themselves as engaged in far more complex situated moral projects in which altruism was only one part. We demonstrate political effects of these differing understandings of altruism, namely, that management deflected institutional critique by viewing it as a sign of workers’ immorality. We offer modest recommendations for RTCs seeking to recruit and retain competent youth care workers and address potential new directions for moral anthropology of organizations.
Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalCulture, Medicine and Psychiatry
StatePublished - 2018


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