Disentangling an Invisible Trade: state interventions in Dutch and Dutch-Curaçaoan single-mother families

T.L. Verhallen

Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


The doctoral thesis sheds light on the interactional and institutional processes through which child welfare and child protection practices are delivered to fifteen Dutch and fifteen Dutch-Curaçaoan single-mother families with multiple problems in the Netherlands in order to reveal structures of power, dominance and oppression. Because state intervention practices remain largely ‘invisible’ from the public gaze it is important to ‘Disentangle an invisible trade’ (the title of the doctoral thesis).

Tessa Verhallen draws on a thirty-month ethnographic study undertaken with thirty single-mother families between 2009 and 2012 in order to demonstrate how state interventions are carried out in these families. Verhallen uses the empirically grounded theory of Agar (1985) on institutional discourse to address the research question of how state interventions are shaped by institutional discourse and power asymmetries in encounters between single-mother families with multiple problems and state representatives. As the title of the doctoral thesis suggests, Verhallen aims to unravel the 'invisible trade' (Pithouse 1998) phenomena step-by-step by descending down different levels of aggregation. First the macro-level Dutch ‘multi-problem family’ policy and practice is explained and analyzed. Thereafter, the focus switches to the meso-level successive and multi-sited intervention practices taken place in the single-mother families. After this, the micro-level interaction between a family supervisor and a single-mother is the focus of scrutiny. Since Verhallen holds the opinion that an ethnographic study on state intervention processes in single-mother families made her by definition subjective and engaged, as she formed part of the asymmetrical power setting that she analyzed, the ego-level is the last focus of study. She scrutinized her own role as a participant observer in the single-mother families and discusses the ethical dilemmas she faced in her study.

Verhallen aims to disentangle an invisible trade through the combined ethnographic-critical discourse analytical framework that she has developed for the analysis of empirical data upon which the chapters are drawn. All four levels together make transparent how institutional discourse is (re)produced and constituted within sites of a larger system which is influenced by power asymmetries.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Kristen, François, Primary supervisor
  • Koonings, Kees, Supervisor
Award date26 Jun 2015
Print ISBNs978-94-6236-581-0
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jun 2015


  • ethnography
  • critical discourse analysis
  • single-mother families
  • multiple problems
  • child protection intervention
  • labeling


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