Category Archives: discursive psychology

The stigmitisation of late childbearing in contemporary western society – a media instigated chasm between conscientious decision making and circumstantial factors.

Critical discursive research draws attention to the various ways power; authority and inequality are communicated and represented in the content and construction of talk and text (Van Dijk, 1999). Furthermore, CDA distinguishes between discourse and institutions as two different types of social phenomena (van Dijk, 1999). Therefore, CDA facilitates the studies of how discourse and institutions interact in the construction of the social world, and how discursive practices are moved from being linguistic remarks to set conditions for stable social relations (Campbell, 2011). Furthermore, whilst CDA attempts to uncover the ideologies that contribute to the production and reproduction of power, it also has a political underpinning looking at how discourse limits one’s understanding of the world and how individuals’ can contain several competing discourses whilst creating the possibility of dominant ideologies to be contested within different subject positions (van Dijk, 1993).

Consequently, language is functional and constructive, and meanings are embedded in the terms that are chosen to portray specific topics as well as particular ways of talking about specific topics (Potter & Wetherell, 1987). A CDA approach will allow the researcher to base claims on identifiable patterns, constructed and negotiated in the participants’ talk using interpretative repertoires, subject positions and ideological dilemmas, as well as the information that is available in society about a topic (Edley & Wetherell, 1999).

It is important to analyse institutional and media representations critically, as they explicitly examine the social, cultural and political context of societal health and wellbeing (Lyons, 2000). Furthermore, in critically analysing dominant representations it increases awareness of any control and power issues, and thusly, provides possibilities for change and resistance (Campbell, 2011). Previously, medical practitioners dominated and claimed a monopoly on the domain of bioethical issues and treatments, whereas today there are a variety of voices from many institutions creating a cacophony of inconsistent commentaries’, including dissenting doctors, alternative therapists, journalists, campaigners, academics, and the superfluous array of information available at the disposal of one’s fingertips on the internet (Bury, 1997). Thusly, one of the major roles of the media is providing both, expert and lay knowledge to the public (Lyons, 2000). Subsequently, this could be seen as problematic in creating competitive views and discourses (Hepworth & Featherstone, 1998).

Through framing and linguistics, discourses are employed in the media that provide particular ways of viewing sensitive topics and competing knowledge’s, all of which, are rarely discussed with neutrality or objectivity (Budds, 2011). Rather, they are described within ideological frameworks or discourses that reflect competing interests within society (Clarke & Robinson, 1999). For example, Giles & Shaw (2009) analysed a selection of newspapers and noted that the framing of different reports were constructed in order to direct readers towards certain interpretations of older women. Thusly, they concluded that older mothers were negatively framed in the media and that the cultural construction of a ‘perfect mother’ is one who is not ‘too old,’ ‘has a good career’, and is ‘financially stable’ (Giles & Shaw, 2009). Nevertheless, Giles and Shaw (2009) failed to mention the target readership of each newspaper, so it is quite possible that different newspapers (e.g. tabloids & broadsheets) could have their own agendas, to fit their political motives.

Subsequently, in the past few decades researchers have been increasingly turning their attention to the notion of the health risks in delayed childbearing (Campbell, 2011). Some researchers have linked society’s consternation of risk factors with Foucault’s concept of governmentality (Foucault, 1991). So, seeing discourses formed through a knowledge/power juxtaposition hints at an attempt to capture an already established hold exercised over women’s moralities by focusing on normative aspects set within society (Foucault, 1981). Furthermore, the saliency of contemporary risk factors could be viewed as an aid to observe, monitor and contribute to the surveillance of the population (Faucault, 1991). As a result, individuals are positioned within governmental discourses with the capacity for self-surveillance using salient risk factors to aid their judgment and decisions (Lupton, 1999). Therefore, it has been proposed that once an individual has been made aware of associated health risks, it serves their best interests to avoid delaying childbearing as they are seen as responsible should there be any adverse outcomes (Campbell, 2011).

In addition, it is argued that representations in the media can both, produce and reproduce meaning, and are influential both socially and individualistically (Kirtzinger, 1999). Davies and Harré (1990) argue that discursive practices used in language can constitute individuals in different ways and provide them with subject positions. Thusly, it has been proposed that once an individual has taken up a subject position, they will see the world from that vantage point, which, in turn, has implications for their individual subjectivity (Davies and Harré, 1990). Furthermore, media analysis is important because it provides a way to access representations of the various framings and public negotiations surrounding social controversies (Bury, 1997). Moreover, risk is framed in terms of ontological boundaries between the natural and the unnatural in the case of delayed childbirth and acts as the source of legitimation both, morally and culturally (Campbell, 2011). Consequently, the aim of this paper is to examine and highlight dominant ideologies of motherhood that are operating within society and to explore the implications these may have for women who either; choose to abstain from having children, or are delaying childbearing (Cook et al, 2011). Thusly, the research question is examining ‘if later childbearing is a conscientious decision for women in contemporary western society or whether circumstantial factors compound their decisions.’

In the media, the subject of older woman the main focus seems to be based on the declination of a women’s fertility after the age of thirty-five and most medical reports in the media espouse the importance of starting a family well before this age, but yet, heavily stigmatize young mothers as ‘uneducated’, ‘welfare scroungers’, and ‘Chavs’ (Perrier, 2013). Furthermore, this declination of fertility enters the realm of the personal domain, and contrasts that with popular discourse in the public domain (Perrier, 2013). As a result, the ideologically one-sided view of motherhood prevails (Perrier, 2013). There have been overwhelming contradictions about ‘choice’, ‘risk’ and ‘agency’, and it is this type of Daily Mail scaremongering that lead to further depths of stigmitisation. Aspect including, the importance of a woman’s career, starting a family, and whether both can be prioritized, remains a highly contentious subject (Bailyn et al, 2001).

Women delaying childbearing are now being positioned against traditional family values (Cook et al, 2012). Consequently, they are portrayed as hedonistic career women, in which there becomes a divide between a females’ role in the workplace and their role as a mother (Bailyn et al, 2001). However, some factors are beyond a woman’s control and delayed childbirth is not fully down to choice (Campbell, 2011):

Central to the discourse on the issue of the biological clock is talk that in the public domain, employment interferes with a woman’s fertile years (Gilles & Shaw, 2009). Also, there seems to be a heterogeneous line of demarcation just after thirty-five years of age that separates the natural from the unnatural due to older women possibly needing IVF treatment (Campbell, 2011). This suggests that while it is the family unit that is celebrated, it is the role of women in reproduction; both sociologically and biologically that remains at the forefront of the public domain (Campbell, 2011). This has been another particular theme that traversed throughout dominant research. There is no doubt that biological time restrictions create a lack of agency for woman, but there is disagreement about when the time is right from different sources and in particular – the media.

It has been suggested that there is the possibility that women are looking to qualify their own choices, to remove the label of ‘other’ that positions them against the ideals of a prenatal society (Cook et al, 2011). Furthermore, seeking to construct a position that fits with these ideals, putting on a normal footing; grounding themselves and presenting examples of how they are concerned for, contribute to and directly interact with a socio-political contemporary Britain (Cook et al, 2011). Tellingly, the nation is forever in the process of maturation and its anxieties are often attributed to its youthfulness (Hutchinson, 1994). This theme is also present in the much debated topic of ‘having children’, where parenting is seen as an important developmental stage, or a rite of passage and perhaps provides a useful insight into the anxieties of some woman who think they are running out of time (Friese et al, 2006).

Conversely, public concern about young mothers has centered on their unreliability, irresponsibility and monetary problems, and the anxiety surrounding older mothers has been primarily based on medical concerns (Hadfield, 2007). Macvarish (2010) suggests that, in arguing against the controversies of teenage parents, ‘the problem’ is often shifted onto older mothers who have ‘left it too late’. Indeed there is often a tendency to ‘rescue’ the reputation of teenage mothers at the expense of older mothers who are seen as too pushy, career focused and requiring expensive infertility treatment (Campbell, 2011). Nevertheless, both younger and older mothers are often represented in the media as making untimely reproductive choices (Hadfield, 2007):

For younger women, becoming a mother is considered a route to adulthood, whilst older women have to have achieved the status of adulthood before they can have children at the ‘right’ time (McMahon, 1995). McMahon (1995) argues that the question of whether older women enter motherhood is more of an issue than when they will do so. Thus, there are stresses about the difference between biological age and another kind of age, in which talks about ‘life experience’, suggesting the idea of having some sort of life experience can then be passed on.(Shaw & Gilles, 2009). However, to gain that life experience, one would have to delay childbearing to have the freedom to attain mobility and free reign (Perrier, 2010).

There is an increasing body of research, which suggests that choice and risk in delaying childbearing are inextricably bound up with one another (Marshall & Woollett, 2000). In dominant research articles women positioned themselves as being responsible for their own decisions on delaying childbirth (Marshal & Woollett, 2000). However, timing of pregnancy, and messages concerning the notion of a ‘right’ time for a woman to become pregnant are consistently woven throughout general chit-chat with powerful interpretative repertoires about age, and what is considered too old to biologically conceive a child despite advances in science and medicine (Campbell, 2011). Furthermore, the participants discussed the right time with discussions focused on age-association, age-related responsibility and financial stability (Bury, 1997).

The notion of choice in relation to timing of motherhood presented in the newspapers is characteristic of neoliberal discourses where individuals are constructed as autonomous – or self-governing (Foucault, 1991) – and being free to make their own choices (Gill & Arthurs, 2008). Nevertheless, the research suggests differently; that the possible impact of explicit discourse that constructs delaying childbearing as unhealthy, may be linked to Foucault’s notion of governmentality (1991). Furthermore, raising awareness of risks through institutions like the media may be a way of encouraging the self-monitoring of ‘risky’ behaviour. The idea is that once women are made aware of the risks they face they should choose start families at a certain time (Friese, Becker & Nachtigall, 2006). Furthermore, in constructing delaying childbirth as a woman’s choice, accountability of risk is pointed to the individual and directed away from the state (Cook et al, 2011). Supporting this idea is the fact that newspaper articles give little attention to the societal structures that are in place which may actually limit the extent to which the timing of starting a family is a real choice for women and could actually be seen to dictate timing (Hadfield, Rudoe & Sanderson-mann, 2007).

There is evidence (e.g. Hatfield et al, 2007; Simpson, 2007; Perrier, 2011) that choosing to put a family before developing a career would constitute a big step back in the quest for equality for women “being a bit backwards – and anti-feministic” (Perrier, 2010). Instead of taking risks, the participants were far more aware of having to make rational decisions as a response to the current economic and social conditions. Consequently, thinking about financial stability in the current sociopolitical context makes sense (Perrier, 2010). Nowadays, it would seem that women are pressured to either; position themselves against – or within set societal benchmarks (Badger, 2001). Contrastingly, more women are aware of the stigmatisation, but do not feel the pressure to conform to societal constructs.

Consequently, it seems that the media does indeed have the power to influence knowledge, beliefs, values, social relations and social identities” (Fairclough, 1995). However, as referred to in other studies (e.g. Cooke et al., 2012) this may also be interpreted as a defense mechanism started in response to negative stereotyping of women who remain childless in contemporary society (Simpson, 2007). As, Giles & Shaw (2009) failed to mention, the different readership demographics that aspect was unfortunately left out of the discussion. Perhaps another study discussing different framing depending on what demographic the newspaper is aimed at would offer more insight into how different social classes are perceived (Giles & Shaw, 2009).

According to Tenorio (1997), all social science research is based on assumptions that constrain and direct the findings of the research to some degree. Subsequently, one of the difficulties – and also criticisms – regarding CDA is trying to prevent any questions or prompts to stray or lead the interview in a certain direction (Widdowson, 2004). Thusly, one has to make sure there is an equal and balanced rapport; but, again, one cannot be totally sure of this. Furthermore, another point that has been at the forefront of much debate is the conundrum of how much the analysis is actually revealing about the person performing it. For example, due to the heterogeneity of the methodology, would two different analyses from different analysts cultivate the same themes; it certainly leaves some food for thought (Tenorio, 1997). However, a more homogenous methodological approach towards CDA, which was replicable, could apply consistent principles and also a systematic linguistic theory could perhaps be a step in the right direction (Widdowson, 2004). Subsequently, there could be possibility that there is a gap between the interviewers’ meaning and interviewee’s interpretation of this meaning (Widdowson, 2004). For example, the way certain things are uttered at may affect a participants’ response at the time of the interview, but this is not a feature of the texts, but a function of discourse, in which the interviewer’s assumptions are shaped by their own knowledge and beliefs (Widdowson, 2004). Thusly, this is something one must always reflexively think about when analysing text (Merton, Fiske and Kendel, 1990).

In conclusion, women who choose to delay childbearing are far from the stereotypes of hedonistic careerists, selfish women who think the can ‘have it all’, according to the evidence in this report. The study suggests – on the contrary – that they hold conventional views about relationships and parenting and that their careers are not always the most central aspect of self-attainment. It seems that the media frame their reports for ulterior political motives and fail to take into account the circumstantial factors that sometimes relate to women delaying childbearing.


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