Feminism, Advocacy, and Ethnography

Posted: October 27, 2008 in Methods, Readings, Review, School

Last week, I read “Feminist Criticism and Technical Communication” and wondered to myself why it had been assigned. It was so out of place compared to the other reading for the week. Well, it was. It was actually reading for this week. Which makes much more sense. If you’re curious about my thoughts on that article, look back one week.

For this week, I want to talk about”Making Academic Work Advocacy Work” and “A Different Place to Birth,” both by Mary Lay Schuster (the first with Amy Propen). I’ll start with Making Academic Work Advocacy Work.

Aside from being interesting as yet another example of the format (which I’m finding very valuable), part of what interested me most about this article was the admitting of bias. Propen and Schuster write that “WATCH’s advocacy goal influenced the version of the report we presented to them, [. . .] understanding WATCH as an advocacy group moved us to think terms of further promoting those goals and, in doing so, to step outside the academic world [. . .]” (5). They were writing the report for an advocacy group, which means they were biased towards its goals.

More refreshing still was what came a little bit later. They mentioned that the best part of the study was also the most dangerous; they had to “balance our interests with those of our research partner in improving the system while describing the nature of that system” (5). So the article was very bias, but openly bias.

Still, I have to ask: is there such a thing as too much bias? It seems to me like if there is, this is it. I may have read this wrong, but they seem to be going in to the study with specific goals. That is, specific expected outcomes. That seems to me to not be a very effective method of research. At least not one that produces objective results. But again, Feminism isn’t about objective results.

The article was primarily about impact statements. That is, statements written by the victims about the crimes committed against them. As Propen and Schuster point out, it “not only functions as an advocacy tool but also as a technology of power in its own right–one that works with and against the system to assert and retain its disciplinary authority [. . .]” (19). It was interesting to consider the use of an artifact like a legal document as a rhetorical tool of power. Made me think a lot about Foucault, but primarily because my primary experience with him was Discipline and Punish, which focuses on that quite a bit.

All in all, I felt like there was a bit too much taking people’s opinions as fact. It felt like sloppy research, to be perfectly frank. Maybe it’s just research with a method I don’t understand. I’m willing to accept that. Different isn’t wrong. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether or not lawyers and judges were telling the truth about the impact of those statements. Maybe it doesn’t make a difference to the discussion of the statements’ efficacy whether or not the stories they were told are true. Maybe I’m looking at it all from the wrong direction. Like I said, I’m willing and eager to be corrected.

Right now though, let me talk about “A Different Place to Birth: A Material Rhetoric Analysis of Baby Haven, a Free-Standing Birth Center.” From a purely subjective point of view, I liked this article. I like the way Mary Lay Schuster writes, and I liked the feeling that I was being included in a narrative. I also generally liked the idea of free standing birth centers. In particular, I liked that while they were alternatives from birthing in hospitals and the sterility therein, they had the unfortunate side effect of putting themselves out of business because they allowed women to feel comfortable having babies at home (31-32).

I also liked the descriptions of power and the contrasts between the medical model and the midwife model of childbirth. I liked that there was more personal power left to the mother in the midwife model, including choosing who could and who could not attend the birth and what methods and equipment would be used (27) in a way that can never be done in the medical model.

What I thought was particularly interesting was the idea that “the best pain management comes from confidence in their [own] bodies, a psychological state that precedes the physical experience of birth, a relationship between the mind and body” (21). This is interesting partially because it suggests the notion of ‘bio power’ which Schuster talks about elsewhere in the article (11), but mostly because of the idea of overcoming pain through sheer force of will.

Do I think that women should eschew drugs when giving birth? I don’t think that’s up to me, and I don’t think it’s the kind of question that should have a unilateral answer. I certainly think it’s a good thing my own mother did, as both I and my sister were born through cesarean. But that question of the medical model vs. the midwife model is important. Is Schuster suggesting one is better than the other?

Well, yes. But there are some problems. She was not allowed to actually attend any births, so again, she had to rely on the memories of those who had. She had to take as truth what people remember. She openly admits this (One thing I really like about Schuster is her willingness to admit flaws and bias), and does the best she can with what she has. But I think that makes it very difficult to make any kind of real judgment.

On the one hand, she is considering the remembered experience of those who gave birth at the center as compared with remembered experience of those who gave birth at a hospital. So in both cases, memory is relied on. But by definition, one memory is always older than the other. And there is some question about how trustworthy those memories can be considered. Did the drugs given at the hospital make the memories less powerful or believable? Did the self-imposed drugs at the center do the same thing?

When in pain, the brain reduces chemicals to mask the receptors. All drugs really do is release those same chemicals artificially. So endorphins were being released both ways.

It may be that the center really was a better place. It may also be that the center removed one particular thing that had stuck in the mother’s memory as being awful the first time, and so was remembered more fondly. It might be that one birth was more difficult than the other. It’s so hard to compare these things.

But I’m not sure that’s the point of the article. I think the point is that the center offers a different space, and that offer provides a certain measure of power to the mothers. It’s a question of regaining power over birth, which seems to me to be a very feminist ideal.

I think I may not be understanding this very well. I have my own bias about feminism, and I think that bias is flavoring my views of these articles.

So…. is it enough to admit that I have that bias? Or should I try to work beyond the bias, struggle not to let that bias inform my thinking? That may be a question for Schuster.

  1. Lee-Ann says:

    Great insights, Joe.

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