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Midwifery practice and the crisis of modernity: implications for the role of the midwife


  • Hyde, Abbey
  • Roche-Reid, Bernadette


Almost since its inception, the concept of modernity was found to display tensions between its emancipatory potential to liberate the human subject from the manacles of tradition, and the application of reason to co-ordinate and control the natural world through scientific knowledge. This paper presents a qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews with 12 midwives about their role in the Irish maternity services and argues that, in a period of late modernity, these tensions continue to manifest themselves in the context of the midwife's role. Although the contemporary period is marked by a loss of faith in scientific truths, widely contested obstetric knowledge and practices continue to exercise mastery over nature while undermining a central feature of the midwife's role--the liberation of the autonomous subject. Drawing on the theory of communicative action developed by the critical theorist Jürgen Habermas, it is argued that the midwife's role in facilitating the autonomous choices of women through communicative action is impeded by the colonization of the lifeworld of labour and childbirth by the technocratic system of obstetrics. Although participants reported that their role involved empowering women and facilitating choices through dialogue congruent with communicative action, data also suggested that participants used strategic communication with clients aimed at achieving particular ends. The use of strategic communication was linked to the way in which the midwife's role is determined to a large extent by the practices and protocols of obstetrics, and also to the notion of client passivity. The instrumental rationality of obstetrics is linked to an outcome orientation to power and money, and a political economy perspective of medicine. It appears that communicative action between midwives and obstetricians is important in bringing about structural changes to facilitate the conditions for communicative action between midwives and their clients.

Suggested Citation

  • Hyde, Abbey & Roche-Reid, Bernadette, 2004. "Midwifery practice and the crisis of modernity: implications for the role of the midwife," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 58(12), pages 2613-2623, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:58:y:2004:i:12:p:2613-2623

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Mansfield, Becky, 2008. "The social nature of natural childbirth," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 66(5), pages 1084-1094, March.
    2. Atkin, Karl & Berghs, Maria & Dyson, Simon, 2015. "‘Who's the guy in the room?’ Involving fathers in antenatal care screening for sickle cell disorders," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 128(C), pages 212-219.


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