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17 Pages

Time, risk and midwife practice: the vaginal examination

WithMandie Scamell a, Mary Stewart b

In this article, we examine the impact on midwifery practice of clinical governance in the UK with its shift from individual autonomous practice based on personal experience and intuition (embodied knowledge) to the collective control of work based on guidelines and protocols (encoded knowledge) associated with the scientific–bureaucratic approach to care. We focus on the ways in which midwives use partograms and associated vaginal examinations to monitor and manage the progress of labour. The partogram represents (among other things) a timetable for dilation of the cervix during labour. Women who fail to keep up with this timetable are shifted from a low-to-high risk category and subjected to additional surveillance and intervention. In this article, we draw on empirical evidence taken from two independent ethnographic studies of midwifery talk and practice in England undertaken in 2005–2007 and 2008–2010, to describe the ways in which midwives practice of vaginal examinations during labour both complies with, while at the same time creatively subverts, the scientific–bureaucratic approach to maternity care. We argue that although divergent in nature, each way of practicing is mutually dependent upon the other: the space afforded by midwifery creativity not only co-exists with the scientific–bureaucratic approach to care, but also sustains it.