Supporting and policing mothers: an analysis of the disciplinary practices of health visiting
Aim. This paper draws on the notion of disciplinary power developed by Michel Foucault to discuss whether the professional practices inherent in British health visiting can be understood in terms of support or surveillance.
Background. The notion of disciplinary power embedded within Foucault's writings has been widely applied to the sociological analysis of health care professions. While a number of studies have focused on nursing practice, there has been little empirical work developing these ideas in the context of British health visiting.
Methods. A qualitative approach using interviews with 24 health visitors and 16 women who had experienced domestic violence was used. For reasons of confidentiality, the women were not matched to the health visitors. Data analysis was continuous with data collection and led to identification of a number of categories. The theoretical framework of feminist poststructuralism underpinned the analysis.
Findings: The women who participated in this research described their engagement in a number of disciplinary practices. These included the discursive production of themselves as good mothers, subjects and objects of the health visiting gaze, as well as their practices of resistance to health visiting work. Analysis of the health visitors' interview data provided further evidence concerning the exercise of disciplinary power in their everyday work of providing support and health care to women and children.
Conclusions. The paper highlights tensions within the health visitor's role between welfare and surveillance, as well as differences between lay and professional perspectives.