A Small Sociology of Maternal Memory: an Interview with Ann Oakley

An interview with Ann Oakley, author of A small sociology of maternal memory, shortlisted for The Sociological Review Award for Outstanding Scholarship 2016.

Why have women’s memories of childbirth been treated as special cases by the sociology of memory?

Most sociology has treated women, and the study of women, as a special case. They tend to be confined to special areas – the sociology of gender, the family, feminism – and to special methodological tools, notably indepth ‘qualitative’ interviewing. This approach has meant that mainstream sociology is ill-equipped to benefit from insights about the experiences of women as human beings. A similar failing has characterised the study of childbirth, which tends to be conceptualised as a feminine medical event. Childbirth, particularly first childbirth, has other characteristics in women’s own accounts, for instance as a life event, a major life transition, occupational change, institutionalization, and traumatic surgery: all these features have been largely ignored in the sociological literature. I pointed this out in my original analysis of the transition to motherhood study data, but the alternative framework proposed in that book has also received little attention.

How is maternal memory similar and different to other kinds of memory?

Maternal memory is human memory, and human beings remember in similar ways. For example, memory is always selective, dependent on social context, and subject to change over time: it is also prone to ‘flashbulb’ recollections containing apparently irrelevant details, and this is a consequence of the way in which memories are encoded and recaptured. When people remember, they often have a sense of being outside themselves, of looking at themselves positioned in a scene, and this is equally true of childbirth. Childbirth, though, involves questions of bodily identity and integrity, which are not features of all memory. Memories of first childbirth are also affected by any later experiences of childbirth, which can bring about a re-evaluation and a re-encoding of the original memory.

How does maternal memory allow women to reposition themselves as active social selves?

Childbirth in the mid-1970s, when the women in this study gave birth for the first time, was marked by a level of unevaluated medical intervention in a context which placed little emphasis on women’s rights to information, consent and choice. For many of the women in the study this contributed to negative memories, and to considerable postnatal unhappiness (conceptualised and treated, then and now, as ‘postnatal depression’). Loss of autonomy and agency were signal aspects of these negative experiences. Through the process of remembering and retelling, women had the opportunity to see themselves as both in and outside the experience; they were able to observe and analyse and reconstruct in ways that enabled childbirth as a negative event to acquire positive meaning in the context of a life as it is lived.

What does sociology lose by treating the study of women as a special case?

The loss to sociology that results from treating women as a special case can be compared to the consequences of treating the study of men as a special case. Conclusions about human behaviour are skewed and a whole range of insights are rendered unavailable. No theoretical or empirical advantage follows from reflecting society’s own ideological biases. The proper study of sociology is not Man but human beings.

Ann Oakley is a writer and a sociologist. She has written both novels and many non-fiction books. Most of her life has been spent working in university research. She is best known for her work on sex and gender, housework, childbirth and feminist social science.

Originally posted 13th November 2017.

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