The swan effect in midwifery talk and practice: a tension between normality and the language of risk


Address for correspondence: Mandie Scamell, Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery, King's College London, James Clerk Maxwell Building, 57 Waterloo Road, London SE1 8WA


Midwifery activity in the labour room coalesces around routine surveillance practices. When engaging in such practice, midwives have to cope with attempting to instil a sense of confidence in the mother’s embodied ability to give birth to her baby spontaneously while concurrently attending to an array of risk-focused tests and measurements. Midwives are vigilant about the potential harm that may come to mother and baby while at the same time they are responsible for facilitating a normal birth. This article sets out to explore the tension between these two tasks and shows how routine midwifery practice during labour can communicate certain understandings about birth. Using empirical evidence taken from an ethnographic study of midwifery talk and practice, attention is given to how midwives’ activity during labour and birth implicitly introduces a sense of danger, an imagined risk that confines practice and operates to unsettle normality.