Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Questions of Illegitimacy in Birth Research: A Researcher on the Wrong Side of the Blanket?

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Questions of Illegitimacy in Birth Research: A Researcher on the Wrong Side of the Blanket?

Article excerpt

This article explores the structural barriers to narrative-based research in clinical contexts, such as hospital delivery rooms. It recounts an experience in a Melbourne, Australia clinical research setting where uncertainty and potential "illegitimacy" formed the basis for a successful project and multiple valuable research outcomes.

Cet article se penche sur les obstacles structurels a la recherche narrative dans un contexte clinique, comme les salles d'accouchement. Il raconte une experience vecue dans un milieu du recherche clinique australien, a Melbourne, ou l'incertitude et l'<> potenfiellle constituent la base d'un projet reussi et des resultats multiples et positifs de recherche.


The title of this paper invokes the colloquial description of babies born out of wedlock. Such infants were often described as being born on the wrong side of the blanket, without the appropriate lineage and parentage. The research project I am discussing has those characteristics, in the sense that the research design, objectives and the methodologies were defined at some key stages during the conduct of the study as inappropriate or unlikely to produce proper fruitful outcomes by some key participants, that is, as illegitimate. The birth research study itself resulted in a set of findings about midwifery work (Maher and Souter, 2002; Maher, 2004), but also prompted reflections on issues of disciplinary "legitimacy" in research processes and how they affect the conduct and outcomes of research. Here I offer a case study influenced by the questions for social science research that Ann Oakley proposes in Experiments in Knowing (Oakley, 2000). Oakley contends that concern over paradigms should give way to more sustained reflection on the objectives of social science research, which she argues are to intervene in the social field in proactive and positive ways (Oakley, 2000, p. 4). The outcomes of the primary study described here, which entailed narrative interpretation of semi-structured interviews with midwives, appears to confirm that field specific methodological approaches offer the opportunity to generate rich data that can be used by researchers and by clinical practitioners (Oakley, 2000, p.4).

In section one, I outline the research project, which gathered narratives on birthing experience and lay birth support people from midwives. I focus particularly on the structural constraints on the design, reporting and dissemination of the research that occurred as our research team interacted with the hospitals in which we wanted to interview. In section two, I reflect on how the uncertainties around research "legitimacy" that dogged the initial parts of the research process were integral to the successful transfer of the research findings back into the clinical settings. In section three, I discuss what implications for effective feminist methodologies and research design can be drawn from this case study.

My academic location in women's studies is particularly germane to the questions of legitimacy that inform this discussion. Much of the reflective process here is generated by the questions feminist scholars have asked about what methodologies generate feminist research and how these relate to traditional disciplines and methods (Skeggs, 1995; Ribbens and Edwards, 1998; Reinharz, 1992). Inside academic institutions, women's studies departments often appear to be fighting rearguard actions on disciplinary boundaries. This was illustrated for me at a 2001 interdisciplinary conference where I identified as a scholar from women's studies. An organizer asked, "What's your discipline?" Thinking she had not read the program, I answered, "Women's studies." But she persisted; "No, I meant your real discipline." Although women's studies is most inclusively described as a field of interdisciplinary work which draws on a range of disciplinary frameworks, she was pressing me for a statement about my research training and background. …

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