University of Sussex
Ashley, Rebecca.pdf (10.63 MB)

Discontented midwives: the politics of care work in Iceland

Download (10.63 MB)
posted on 2023-06-10, 02:49 authored by Rebecca Ashley
This thesis explores the work of Icelandic midwives in addressing a deficit of care, through protest and industrial action. Based on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Reykjavík, south-west Iceland, among midwives, doulas, hospital staff, and protestors, I examine the ways in which midwives experienced and contested the politics of their care work, in the aftermath of financialised crisis. This thesis focuses on the events of the midwives’ kjarabarátta, the ‘wage and working-conditions struggle’, in which midwives protested inadequate salaries, inadequate working conditions, enacted strikes and resigned from their jobs, protesting the many lacks in which they felt embroiled. I argue that the event of the kjarabarátta can be understood as a moment when a refusal of these deficits is erupting. The breakdown in a social consensus about how people should be able to afford and enjoy a similar standard of living was, for midwives, about a breakdown in their ability to care, and be cared for, at work. The sense of value of the work they did did not square up with the material conditions of their work and the compensation they received for their time. I argue that midwifery protest and dispute is about a negotiation of a deficit of care, in which it had become untenable to live in a way that felt cared-for, adequate, and enjoyable. This thesis contributes to the anthropologies of midwifery, care, and work, by highlighting the ways in which midwives’ experience of their work, and of the politics of this, is absent in the literature. Through my ethnographic material, I show how midwives were protesting not only a wage deficit, but a deficit of care. This was a way of articulating a sense of anxiety about the future: of midwifery as a profession, and the ways in which midwifery could be expected as a form of care. Through focusing in on the event of a midwifery conference, I show how midwives are engaged in different forms of work in order to reproduce themselves as a profession. I examine the ways in which midwives experienced their work within an economy of affect, and contested specific framings of a work ethic. The final ethnographic chapter explores the emergence of doula work as a way of mediating a care deficit, and creating a market for care.


File Version

  • Published version



Department affiliated with

  • Anthropology Theses

Qualification level

  • doctoral

Qualification name

  • phd


  • eng


University of Sussex

Full text available

  • Yes

Legacy Posted Date


Usage metrics

    University of Sussex (Theses)


    No categories selected