Boundaries obscured and boundaries reinforced: incorporation as a strategy of occupational enhancement for intensive care


Address for correspondence: Simon Carmel, Research and Development Unit, University Hospital Lewisham, Lewisham High Street, London SE13 6LH e-mail:


Medical dominance is a recurring theme in sociological analyses of healthcare work. One example of a theoretical framework by which the medical profession is said to dominate other healthcare occupations is Turner's (1995: 138) enumeration of the modes of subordination, limitation and exclusion. As Elston (1991) has noted, however, such frameworks tend to be rather speculative and there is not a great deal of evidence on how these strategies are exercised, for example, at a micro-level. There is also a tendency to portray healthcare occupations as monolithic entities, without acknowledging differences within healthcare occupations, and the relationships between them, which can arise in different clinical locales. Through a micro-level analysis of the practice of intensive care, using ethnographic data collected on three intensive care units (ICUs) in England, this paper proposes a hitherto unidentified strategy –incorporation– for medical dominance at a micro-level. Paradoxically, an enhanced position for both intensive care medicine and intensive care nursing arises, relative to proximal healthcare groups. The argument of this paper is that within the ICU an occupational boundary (doctor-nurse) is obscured, while an organisational boundary which differentiates the ICU from the wider hospital is reinforced. Overall, the power relationship between medicine and nursing in intensive care is not ‘zero-sum’: the influence of both groups in the wider hospital is increased by this strategy of incorporation.