‘Getting Personal’: 
Contemplating Changes in Intersubjectivity, Methodology and Ethnography

Sophia Alice Johnson

Abstract


Introduction

In the following self-reflexive (examining my own experiences) piece I discuss the methodology of my PhD thesis which, completed in 2014 (Johnson On a Tightrope), focused on how women negotiate, reject and embody the expectations associated with contemporary pregnancy and mothering. In this qualitative research project I examined the types of pregnancy and parenting practices (defined as those practices undertaken to manage and maximise the success of women’s pregnancies and parenting) women engage in with reference to contemporary sources of information. Central to this, I studied the changing nature of pregnancy and mothering practices in the context of increasing digitalisation, with a particular focus on whether and how technologies enable new spaces for experiential learning and health responsibilisation. This also allowed me to query how various discourses work to inform particular ideas of ‘good’ or ‘appropriate’ mothering behaviours and mothering ideologies, and the expert patient ideal (Johnson Maternal Devices). An examination of the different resources and technologies women draw on during their transition to first-time motherhood reveals how dominant discourses are resisted, negotiated or differentially embodied by women facing first-time pregnancy and motherhood.

Since the time I began my research, there has been an explosion of applications (apps) into the market. Pregnancy and mothering have been ‘appified’. Apps offer a unique way to order, engage with and reshape our bodies and biology today. They reflect wider cultural and social changes in the understanding of our identity, our ‘lifestyle’ and our body. In my study I drew on characterisations from participants in attempting to understand the affordances of apps and the role they may play during both pregnancy and new motherhood. I found that apps format motherhood and pregnancy in new ways, instituting new rules into new devices and offering templates which actively shape meanings and practices. They provide new ways to imagine or create foetal/child identity, to monitor child activity from a distance, to gather and interpret data and the enactment of “digital” helicopter parenting (Johnson Maternal Devices). Apps also represent a ‘tidbitisation’ of information which is delivered directly into the user’s intimate sphere, sometimes ‘pushed’ into this intimate sphere, no matter where they are. This ‘device-ification’ of mothering purports to turn it into an administrative and calculable activity, valuing data over subjective experiences and changing the meaning of what it is to mother and be a mother. 

Apps also represent the contemporary intersection between social media, medical advice, expectations of self-management and notions of convenience. They also creates new social relations and valuing practices, such as ‘likeability’ on Facebook, which have the potential to alter our understandings of health and identity. Increasing numbers of health initiatives are adopting apps in their promotional marketing campaigns and the appification of health means that medical knowledge is being increasingly incorporated into new sorts of social interactions. Ongoing research must consider the multiplicity of women’s engagement with these apps across the transition to first-time motherhood and for parents who are trying to manage child health. It would be productive to direct focus onto the lived experiences associated with apps rather than lauding or criticising the content of apps.

Background

The initial question that motivated my research was: ‘How do women draw on, weave together, and reject aspects of the dominant advice which configures contemporary perceptions of maternal subjectivity, encompassing specifically the transition to first-time motherhood?’ 

I was interested in what women in the transition to first-time motherhood experienced and how they reflected on and interpreted these experiences. The subjective accounts of women tell a particular story, so, rather than administering a survey to a large group of women I focused on in-depth, semi-structured but flexible interviews as a way of discovering participant experiences as expressed in their own words.  Having only a small number of interview participants meant that I was able to analyse my data closely in a way that would be difficult with a larger sample. 

In total, I conducted twenty-two interviews with twelve women during January and September, 2012. This included two interviews with ten participants and one interview with the remaining two participants. The first interview was conducted during the third trimester of pregnancy, ranging from 32 to 38 weeks. The second interview was undertaken postnatally when the babies ranged from 3 to 7 months of age. For participant demographic information, please refer to earlier publications (Johnson Maternal Devices; Intimate Mothering Publics).  Interviewing late in pregnancy and early in new motherhood provided a realistic sense of the changes, both positive and negative, which occur during this transition as well as the – at times – deep rift between experience and expectation. The time between interviews was important as it allowed women time to adjust somewhat to life as a new mum, allowed time for reflection on both the pregnancy and the early months of mothering. 

The interviews were conversational and relaxed in nature and allowed to flow in the direction the participant chose to take. The women were generous in sharing intimate details of their experiences from conception through to motherhood. Their responses revealed different ways of being pregnant, being supported and responsibilised during pregnancy, and the different ways women cope with stress, anxiety and more. The stories also demonstrate the amount of work, thought and often deliberate self-transformation which occurs throughout pregnancy, and as a new mother. 

I believe my personal biography influenced the data that I collected during the interviews. My age and sex advantaged my position as an interviewer. Being a relatively young female researcher it was easy to develop rapport with the participants. In addition, being a woman likely increased my access, as a researcher, to the intimate experiences women shared throughout the interviews, especially considering the gendered and personal nature of the research. It was also apparent that my absence of first-hand experience of pregnancy and mothering enhanced the depth of interview data, encouraging participants to provide access to details and feelings that they may have believed were unnecessary to discuss had I also been a mother. Rebecca Horn discusses a similar experience in her research with prison inmates and police staff, which she describes as being due to her projected image as an “innocent abroad” (96). It also meant that participants were more likely to share details because my lack of experience meant that I was not in a position to judge these experiences against my own. Throughout the interviews, the participants often wanted to know more about me, asking me questions like: 

  • How old are you?
  • Have you ever been pregnant?
  • Do you have a partner?
  • Does doing this research turn you off having children?
  • Does doing this research make you want to have children?
  • What do you plan to do after you’ve finished your thesis?

Similar to other researchers who discuss their interview experiences in self-reflexive pieces Edwards, Finch and Oakley, I found that by sharing some of my own personal experiences I was able to establish trust and develop rapport with the participants. Like Kasper I worked with the assumption that each interview is a collaborative and consensual enterprise among women. I focused on earning trust, displaying sensitivity and fairness, and showing support. The participants expressed genuine interest in my research and the findings it was generating, with most women keen to read any published findings from the research. Many participants asked to have a copy of their interview transcripts for posterity or to reflect on with friends or in future pregnancies. 

‘Getting Personal’

Now that I am contemplating the extension of my research into the future I must think about how my position as a researcher has changed. As one of my key interests is the ways in which digital technologies impact on parenting I have to ask myself whether I will use this broad range of technologies myself, as a parent. If I do use these technologies, will I insert myself into my research asking questions about my own user experiences and considering whether my partner uses these technologies in a different way to myself? If so, how, and what are the implications of this? I also need to consider my child amongst this, as both a parent and a researcher. Am I comfortable with my child having a digital life from a young age? I have already contemplated this question and made the conscious decision not to discuss or mention my pregnancy on social media, Facebook in particular. This question will again be important when my partner and I make decisions around the different ways we choose to announce the birth of our first child. These questions will continue to be important to me as a parent in an increasingly digitalised world. Until I become a mother, (some time in the next five weeks) I believe I cannot answer these questions. Rather, this article functions as a sounding board, allowing me to begin contemplating these questions in my future dual role as a mother and a researcher. 

Becoming a mother will change my position as a researcher in other important ways. I will no longer be the inexperienced, childless researcher. I will continue to treat my participants as partners in my research but being a mother myself, intersubjectivity, “the acknowledgment of the reciprocal sharing of knowledge and experience between the researcher and the researched” (Shields and Dervin 67), will become all the more essential to my approach. In this way I would hope to continue to de-emphasise the conventional hierarchies and dichotomies of research by focusing on the dialectical relationship between myself and my research ‘partners’. It will be imperative that I not only listen to these women without judgement but that I also share the intricacies of my research project and my own experiences as a maternal subject. 

These women are the experts of their own lives (Kasper) and I am sure this research would benefit from their involvement from an early phase where they would be invited to share in the design of research questions and the collection and interpretation of results. This is particularly important when designing research on new technologies where the only experiences I can currently draw from are my own and perhaps those of friends, family and colleagues. Digital research methodologies are still in their infancy, as this special issue attests, and although research into the use of apps is growing, there continues to be little research into the user experiences of apps. 

Apps as Tools of Convenience?

As noted above, apps create a “tidbitisation” of information (Johnson Maternal Devices), where information is convenient and accessible in small ‘tidbits’ that anyone can access anywhere, anytime on their smartphone. This is something I have already utilised during my pregnancy (checking symptoms, reading about baby’s development) and I am sure this will be useful for me as a new mum. I have also been using my smartphone for other baby-related resources such as gathering lists of lullabies and nursery rhymes. These few examples indicate that smartphones do offer a great number of conveniences to new parents. But, they could also appear worrisome – raising questions around smartphones as distractions from parenting or relying on smartphones to track health conditions or baby habits, and perhaps even the deferral of responsibility, for example, busy parents using apps to entertain children. At this stage we actually know very little about the user experience of apps for mothers and new parents and new research in this area needs to ask questions such as:

  • Who uses apps and why?
  • What are users paying attention to and what is ignored or ‘switched off’? 
  • Do push notifications actually work? Do they create a new form of responsibilisation and if so, what are the repercussions of this, particularly if these apps are directed towards women as new parents, rather than men? 

This last question is particularly important for a scholar such as myself in the field of Gender and Cultural Studies where questions of gender and gendering are often central to our research. I have found that, as apps continue to be developed at an alarming rate, those specific to parenting are, more often than not targeted to women rather than men. Those that are targeted to men are often patronising and poorly executed, lacking detailed information and emphasising gendered stereotypes (for examples, see Johnson Maternal Devices). This is important to note because I found in my study that app use constitutes part of the intimate relationship of parents-to-be and new parents. Male partners rarely read guidebooks or significant detail from other information sources and so apps played a role in their day-to-day gathering of knowledge, usually via their partner. Rather than reading a chapter of a book or googling a pregnancy symptom, quiet time chatting on the couch after work often included the sharing of information from apps or regular email updates on a variety of topics. Men used the same apps as women but this was usually on their partner’s phone, rather than their own. This raises another important question. How do we research indirect use of apps? Is this even possible? The obvious way to answer this question would be through the use of qualitative interviews. This is made difficult through the mere fact that we first must know who uses these apps indirectly before we recruit them into our research. 

Researching Digital Technologies through Discourse Analysis

In my PhD the use of smartphones and apps only emerged as a theme of interest late into the research project. The constant mention of various apps during the interviews prompted me to examine a number of key pregnancy and parenting apps in terms of the discourses they mobilise and their functionality (Johnson Maternal Devices).   

As Dorothy Smith attests, we live in a textually mediated world. Pregnancy and parenting books, magazines, technologies such as apps and other forms of popular advice represent a mediated version of motherhood, parenthood and fatherhood. If these texts can influence and be influenced by patterns of parenting discourse then critical discourse analysis can contribute to an understanding of the ways in which mothering can be influenced or constructed by popular media and discourse. Thus, in my PhD research I applied discourse analysis to the study of apps. Discourse analysis examines how language constructs social phenomena and investigates the ways in which it produces certain social realities and expectations (Sunderland). Discourse analysis is valuable because of the questions it enables us to ask about the constructed nature of our experiences and the texts that we are exposed to. 

Smartphone apps, social media and the Internet are growing resources for women in the transition to first-time motherhood. These technologies require further research as they represent a particular way for women to engage with the neoliberal project of responsibilisation. Targeting first-time mothers and parents research allows access to users of digital technologies who most likely have a vested interest (i.e. the health and development of their children) in understanding the way new technologies are increasingly intervening in our everyday lives. Maternal subjects are likely to view such technologies as a means to monitor her pregnancies and her children’s health and development. A central aim of my research is to render visible the enduring nature of ideologies and expectations of motherhood – which include the ways in which women as mothers are responsibilised – and the ways in which different variants of mothering are inserted in new ways into tools of self-help, social media and new ‘pushy’ technologies (apps). This will reveal how discourse is constituted by mothers and how mothering discourse can work to constitute particular maternal practices and beliefs or expectations. Thus I argue that discourse analysis is central to the research of pregnancy/parenting apps. My research demonstrates how women draw on new technologies in rebellious, ironic or affirmative ways to enact different technologies of the self (Foucault). The texts can be viewed as disciplinary in a Foucauldian sense, and by analysing these different forms of advice it is possible to provide an ongoing demonstration of the difficulty of complying with the various demands of motherhood. Women’s interactions with a range of parenting discourses and attempts to create their own version of motherhood can be seen to constitute one component of the work of motherhood and the ways women practice and enact motherhood (this is discussed in detail in an article currently under review). Although researching the potential affordances of apps is important this research must be connected to user experience. In other words, are apps used in the ways we think they are?  

In order to move forward and ask questions such as: “Are women responsibilised and their conduct shaped in a new way via their smartphones in what I have characterised ‘push responsibilisation’?” we must move beyond discourse analysis and ask questions that focus on the user experience of apps. It would be useful to draw on existing research in other fields, which have started to develop a range of ethnographic methods and tools for research into computer-user interactions, applications and social media including Tinder, Grindr and Instagram.  Other questions I wish to include in a future empirical study include:

  • Who adopts these apps and why? Are there variations in the ways different generational users adopt apps?
  • Who rejects these apps and why? 
  • Are push notifications ignored, considered obtrusive or do they prompt specific practices or actions? 
  • How are apps used? 
  • How do apps maintain already existing gender inequalities in parenting? 

In asking these questions I believe we could also begin to interrogate a much broader question, that is: “What can the use of devices during this particular ‘life stage’ tell us more broadly about mapping, tracking and quantifying the self?” This brings me again to the central question in this piece: How do we do this research? In this article I have not attempted to answer this question but rather to provoke discussion and encourage debate. In particular, I would like to consider new research methodologies which have the potential to extend our research capabilities and those whom we are able to involve in our research. An example would be conducting research online through pre-existing discussion forums. I have attended numerous academic events in the past two years where academics have started to ponder these questions more generally but my hope is that this article can act as encouragement for further debate.    

References 

Edwards, Rosalind. “Connecting Method and Epistimology: A White Woman Interviewing Black Women.” Women's Studies International Forum 13 (1990): 477-490.

Finch, Janet. “It’s great to have someone to talk to”: The Ethics and Politics of Interviewing Women. Social Researching: Politics, Problems, Practice. Eds. Colin Bell and Helen Roberts. London: Routledge, 1984. 

Foucault, Michel. "Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault." Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Eds. Luther Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick Hutton. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Horn, Rebecca. “Reflexivity in Placement: Women Interviewing Women.” Feminism & Psychology 5 (1995): 94-98.

Johnson, Sophia. “On a Tightrope? Technologies of Motherhood in Neoliberal Society.” PhD Thesis. Sydney: Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney, 2014. 

Johnson, Sophia. “‘Maternal Devices’, Social Media and the Self-Management of Pregnancy, Mothering and Child Health”. Societies 4.2 (2014): 330-350.

Johnson, Sophia. “‘Intimate Mothering Publics’: Comparing Face-To-Face Support Groups and Internet Use for Women Seeking Information and Advice in the Transition to First-Time Motherhood.” Culture, Health and Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care 17.2 (2015): 237-251.

Kasper, Anne. “A Feminist, Qualitative Methodology: A Study of Women with Breast Cancer.” Qualitative Sociology 17.3 (1994): 263-281.

Oakley, Ann. “Interviewing Women: A Contradiction in Terms.” Doing Feminist Research. Ed. Helen Roberts. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

Shields, Vickie Rutledge, and Brenda Dervin. “Sense-Making in Feminist Social Science Research: A Call to Enlarge the Methodological Options of Feminist Studies.” Women's Studies International Forum 16.1 (1993): 65-81.

Smith, Dorothy. The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Boston: Northern University Press, 1987.

Sunderland, J. “'Parenting' or 'Mothering'? The Case of Modern Childcare Magazines.” Discourse & Society 17.4 (2006): 503-528.


Keywords


Beginnings; self-reflexive; applications; digital methodology; mothering; parenting; research methodology.



Copyright (c) 2015 Sophia Alice Johnson

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