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Storytelling in midwifery: Is it time to value our oral tradition?

02 January 2017
9 min read
Volume 25 · Issue 1


Historically, midwifery has been an oral culture, where the generation of knowledge occurs through narrative or ‘storytelling’ rather than through scientific data. In recent years, however, the prevalence of scientific knowledge has dominated midwifery. The gold standard of scientific research is the randomised controlled trial, which is arguably a poor fit for normal midwifery practice because, in its purest form, midwifery is about supporting and enabling physiology with minimal intervention. A number of practices in midwifery have seen widespread adoption before there were published scientific data to support them. These include non-suturing of perineal tears in the 1990s, the use of water and, more recently, the use of hypnosis techniques for labour and birth. It seems possible that the narrative tradition of knowledge-sharing in midwifery may have contributed to these phenomena. Midwives should be encouraged to value this ‘way of knowing’ more highly, and research in the context of UK midwifery practice should be undertaken to develop the knowledge base.

The generation of knowledge in midwifery arguably occurs through a kind of ‘storytelling’ rather than through scientific facts, but the prevalence of scientific knowledge has come to dominate midwifery practice. However, the gold standard of scientific research, the randomised controlled trial (which, in general terms, measures the effect of treatments or interventions) is a poor fit for normal midwifery practice, which is about supporting and enabling physiology with minimal intervention. This paper seeks to explore the value of storytelling in midwifery, presenting it as a legitimate and relevant form of knowledge for the profession.

‘I think, because we are in a culture that doesn't respect intuition and has a very narrow definition of knowledge, we can get caught into the trap of that narrowness. Intuition is another kind of knowledge—deeply embodied. It's not up there in the stars. It knows, just as much as intellectual knowing. It's not fluff, which is what the culture tries to do to it.’ (Judy Luce, homebirth midwife, quoted in Davis-Floyd and Davis, 1996)

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