‘You don’t know what’s going on in there’: a discursive analysis of midwifery hospital consultations

Danielle Ferndale, Renata F.I. Meuter, Bernadette Maria Watson, Cindy Gallois

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


In contemporary Western society, the concept of risk is mostly linked related to negative or undesirable outcomes and used to explain unusual or abnormal events that have harmful consequences. Working in a poststructuralist framework, in this article we examine how risk shapes interactions between midwives and pregnant women in the context of public hospitals in Australia. We draw on data from an observational study of clinical encounters in three Australian hospitals between October 2014 and July 2015. The research teams recorded 83 health encounters and in this paper we draw on data from the recordings of 10 clinical consultations between 8 midwives and 10 pregnant women at various stages of gestation. We used these data to explore how a discourse of risk was mobilised through rhetorical strategies and practices of ‘hunting’ for the abnormal and attempts to control the body. Our findings demonstrate how a discourse of pregnancy and birth as risky operates within public hospital midwifery consultations. We found that in the midwifery consultations we recorded, pregnancy was constructed as a period of vulnerability and unpredictability. It was normalised through discursive practices of hunting for the abnormal and rhetorical strategies of attempting to control the body. Within this discourse, midwives occupied conflicting positions. They asserted that women, with the right support, were capable of spontaneous and intervention-free (pregnancy and) birth. Yet, they acted to enable medical professionals to assess a woman’s ability to give birth (un)assisted, or the potential for an adverse event. The women, while positioned as passive within the public health system, were positioned as active in surveilling themselves and responsible for taking steps to mitigate against adverse events.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)411-431
Number of pages21
JournalHealth, Risk and Society
Issue number7-8
Publication statusPublished - 17 Nov 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • discourse
  • health
  • pregnancy and birth
  • risk

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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