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Space and place in the construction and performance of gendered nursing identities


Susan Halford
Department of Sociology and Social Policy,
University of Southampton,
Hants, SO17 IBJ.


Background and aims.  This paper draws on recent research conducted in two contrasting NHS hospitals: one a large District General, the other a small Community hospital; to look at hospitals as organizational spaces. This includes both the physical environment as well as how these spaces are inhabited and used. This paper aims to explore the ways in which hospital spaces impact on the working lives of nurses.

Methods.  The research employed two main methods. Two phases of round the clock non-participant observation were carried out within each hospital, one at the beginning of the research period and one at the end. This generated thick description of the diversity of spaces, as well as individuals' use of space. In addition, more than 50 in-depth unstructured interviews were conducted with both nurses and doctors.

Findings.  Three aspects of the relationship between nurse and hospital spaces are considered. First, the degree of access that nurses have to the different hospital spaces is limited, and many are confined to the wards in which they work. The high proportion of female nurses working on wards means that there are marked gender differences in access to hospital spaces. There are also marked professional differences when nurses are compared to doctors who have much greater freedom to roam and there are differences in the amount of private space allocated to nurses and doctors. Second, styles of bodily movement in space are also highly differentiated by profession and gender. Third, different spaces have very different meanings attached to them, and this has a strong impact on styles of performance and identity. Attention to space thus offers original insights to nurses working conditions as well as to inter-professional relations.