Slavery and jouissance: analysing complaints of suffering in UK and Australian nurses’ talk about their work

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Traynor, Michael ; Evans, Alicia (2014)

Nursing has a gendered and religious history, where ideas of duty and servitude are present and shape its professional identity. The profession also promotes idealised notions of relationships with patients and of professional autonomy both of which are, in practice, highly constrained or even impossible. This paper draws on psychoanalytic concepts in order to reconsider nursing’s professional identity. It does this by presenting an analysis of data from two focus group studies involving nurses in England and Australia held between 2010 and 2012. The studies gave rise to data where extremely negative talk about nursing work seemed to produce, or to be expressed with, a high degree of energy, and a particular kind of enjoyment. In our analysis we focus on the nurses’ apparent enjoyment derived from their expression of a position of powerlessness in which they describe themselves as ‘slaves’ or ‘martyrs’ in the healthcare system. We interpret this as jouissance and suggest that the positions of slave or martyr provide a possible response to what we argue is the impossibility of the nurse’s role. We argue that a remnant of a quasi-religious ethic within the profession makes it acceptable for nurses to talk about self-sacrifice and powerlessness as part of their working subjectivity. We further argue that this analysis offers a new consideration of the issue of power and professional identity in nursing that goes beyond seeing nurses as simply overpowered by, or engaged in a gendered power struggle with other professional groups. We suggest that powerlessness and victimhood hold particular attractions and advantages for nurses and are positions that are more available to nurses than to other occupational groups. This research shows how psychoanalytic theory can help produce new insights into the problems and complexity of nursing and extend existing study of the professions.
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