Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

The Politics of Representation: Doing and Writing "Interested" Research on Midwifery

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

The Politics of Representation: Doing and Writing "Interested" Research on Midwifery

Article excerpt

In this paper, we explore the personal, political and methodological issues raised by doing and writing social science research on the newly regulated profession of midwifery in Ontario. We focus on two key issues: first, the problem of constructing an account out of divergent and conflicting stories and second, the potentially paradoxical effects of raising awareness of important social and cultural phenomena through scholarship. The question of how we might represent other women, in this case midwives and midwives' clients, without betraying their political interests is critical in both issues.


Feminist theory and methodology in the social sciences has long encouraged "interested" or advocacy positions vis-a-vis our subjects of study (Stanley and Wise, 1990; Harding, 1987). Indeed, one of the main projects of feminist ethnography in the last several decades has been to challenge ethnographic authority based on the premises of objectivity and distance. Such relations are argued to produce and reproduce a kind of colonial encounter between the ethnographer and his/her anthropological other/subject (Visweswaran, 1994). The move in feminist social science has been towards developing collaborative relationships in the field, and also towards openly situating ourselves personally and politically with the individuals and the communities with whom we work (Maguire, 1987).

While being an interested researcher/advocate is in many ways advantageous at the time of doing qualitative research, it is not always the case. Indeed, the idealized egalitarian relations that some feminists envision between themselves and their research participants are often elusive and sometimes illusory (Visweswaran, 1994). Moreover, the practice of feminist ethnography gives rise to several serious methodological and ethical questions. The implications of such a methodology have only begun to be explored in the social science literature. Judith Stacey, in her essay, "Can There Be a Feminist Ethnography?" (1991), suggests that feminist ethnography or interested research may have paradoxical effects. The potential closeness between the researcher and research participants, she argues, may be even more exploitative than traditional forms of social science research that assume and maintain social distance and hierarchical power relations:

Precisely because ethnographic research depends upon human relationships, engagement and attachment, it places research subjects at grave risk of manipulation and betrayal by the ethnographer. (Stacey, 1991, p.113)

Barry Thorne's (1979) description of her experiences as a political activist and participant observer in the draft resistance movement of the 1960s is illuminating in this regard. She describes how her role as researcher became a retreat, limiting her involvement, particularly her risk-taking. Ultimately, she experiences a conflict between being a committed political participant and an observing sociologist which culminated in a sense of having betrayed the movement through the use of the knowledge she produced. Thorne's work points to the problematic process not only of doing interested research, but also of writing it up, when, in the end, it is the researchers' interpretation that is privileged over those of the research participants. Anthropologist Aihwa Ong poses the critical question of how we might, as feminist social scientists, represent other women without betraying their personal and political interests (1995, p. 353).(1)

In this paper we explore the politics of representation in feminist social science through reflections on the personal, political and methodological issues raised by doing and writing "interested" research on midwifery in Ontario.(2) We begin our exploration with a brief history of the relationship between social science and midwifery as a social movement as it developed in the 1970s and 1980s. This discussion helps to situate our own descriptions and reflections on doing and writing midwifery research. …

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