Of Bedpans and Ivory Towers: The Discursive Construction of the Nursing Academic: an investigation into the underlying principles structuring the field of academic nursing in Ireland

McNamara, Martin (2008). Of Bedpans and Ivory Towers: The Discursive Construction of the Nursing Academic: an investigation into the underlying principles structuring the field of academic nursing in Ireland. EdD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000fd49


Purpose This thesis constructs academic nursing in Ireland as a sociological object of study and explicates the underlying principles that structure it. The implications of this structure for the current status and future trajectory of the discipline are explored.

Theoretical framework The research is located within a version of critical social science known as constructivist-structuralism. It is informed by the social and cultural reproduction theories of Bourdieu and Bernstein, and by Maton’s theory of the legitimation device that builds on and extends their work. Maton’s theory renders academic disciplines amenable to deep structural analysis by conceptualising them as structured and structuring fields of practice, populated by agents competing for power and control.

Methodology Stage one was a critical review of the literature on the entry of nursing education to the academy. Two discourses were identified: a discourse of opposition, comprising three interpretative repertoires: ‘bedpans and brooms’, ‘veils, vows and virtue’ and ‘a discipline manque’; and a discourse of legitimation with two discursive threads: ‘the singular of nursing science’ and ‘the region of nursing studies’. Stage two was a critical discourse analysis of the ‘languages of legitimation’ of sixteen dominant agents in Irish nursing education. The languages were elicited in an argumentative conversational context in which respondents were required to legitimate themselves as academics and/or nursing as an academic discipline. The context was created by foregrounding the discourse of opposition. Respondents’ languages of legitimation were theoretically reconstituted and analysed in terms of four ‘building tasks’ of language (knowledge, politics, relationships and identity), and four underlying structuring ‘legitimation principles’ (autonomy, density, specialisation and temporality).

Findings In Ireland, the field of academic nursing is beset by problems relating to the lack of a distinctive theoretical discourse to articulate, first, an academic and professional identity; second, the form and content of education programmes that are distinctively nursing and recognisably higher; and, third, the proper focus and scope of nursing research. These problems are analysed and debated in terms of a series of relations: the field’s external relations, its internal relations, the relations between its social and knowledge dimensions, and the temporal aspects of these relations. The analysis reveals a field with a weak academic infrastructure, prone to colonisation by a variety of other discourses.

Conclusions Academic nursing in Ireland must devise strategies to reconfigure its relationships with clinical nursing practice, increase its intellectual autonomy, enhance its internal coherence and cohesiveness, strengthen the epistemic power of its knowledge base and critically evaluate the ways in which past practices inform its present, and whether and to what extent they should shape its fixture.

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