The Knowledgeable Parent Ideologies of Communication in Swedish Health Discourse

University dissertation from Stockholm : Department of Swedish Language and Multilingualism, Stockholm University

Abstract: This thesis explores the communication of health knowledge among new parents in Sweden. Based on three separate studies, the thesis employs a selection of theoretical concepts and methodological approaches, mainly originating from mediated discourse analysis and linguistic anthropology. Study 1 takes a broad view on the object and asks how knowledge circulates and emerges in a particular arena for parental knowledge. Drawing on nine months of online fieldwork on a discussion forum thread for expectant parents, the study shows that communication of knowledge is engendered by entextualizations and recenterings of previous experiences, including encounters with discourse. This fact challenges categorical conceptions that construct some sources of health knowledge as trustworthy and others as unreliable, and thus, potentially harmful. Study 2 narrows the focus to professionals typically perceived as producers of parental health knowledge, namely, midwives who give prenatal education classes. Drawing on a dataset comprising observations of classes as well as interviews with midwives, the study throws analytical light on anticipatory discourse, that is, discourse designed to dictate and influence the future, and elucidates some of the ways in which midwives prepare the participants for their upcoming delivery by discursively constructing links to these future events. Study 3, finally, takes the perspective of a single individual in whose life several forms of communicated parental knowledge converge as she becomes a mother. The study focuses on a period during which this individual struggles with breastfeeding problems. A combination of the notions of interdiscursivity and the historical body is here employed to grasp this experience as shaped in relation to discourse regarding child care and health. Looking at narrative data through this lens, the study shows how this individual connects failure to follow official breastfeeding recommendations to failure to perform child care in an appropriate way. At heart, the study makes a case for the moral loading of health knowledge and cautions against the assumption that authoritative medical knowledge is the only means for taking action that a new mother might need. In conclusion, the present thesis utilizes a combination of theoretical and methodological tools from MDA and linguistic anthropology to enable a discourse analysis of health communication that privileges a view of language in use as accumulating vis-à-vis engendering meaning over time and in relation to social action. Invoking the notion of ideologies of communication, it demonstrates that parents’ knowledge about their children’s health is a non-neutral issue, and that instrumental aspects of parental health knowledge can never be isolated from moral ideas regarding how particular parenting practices are to be carried out. At the same time, the thesis points out that while representatives of institutions of the welfare state may produce messages to communicate health knowledge, the knowledge obtained by individuals is the product of myriad discursive encounters and other experiences, of which the discourse produced by representatives of state institutions constitutes only one share.

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