The concept of risk stands at the heart of childbirth-management in Britain today, and seems to provide a suitably objective measure to guide practice and policy; yet the hegemony of that concept is open to challenge on a number of grounds. It is relatively novel historically, and post-dates most of the great advances in the technical management of birth; its theoretical meaning is problematical, as has been widely discussed in the social sciences; and in practical terms its application has led to paradoxes, such as the concentration of normal births in obstetric units designed to deal with difficult cases.
The project is funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) award of £30,000 to develop an interdisciplinary network exploring historical approaches to the concept of risk in childbirth. The network brings together historians, midwives, obstetricians, classicists, philosophers– plus representatives of the media (to whom it falls to present the issue of risk to the public), and policymakers. Its institutional bases are the University of Leeds, University of Brighton, and partner organisations the Open University and the Thackray Medical Museum at Leeds.
The network will bring a fresh perspective on this issue by approaching it historically. Conversely, it will enrich the discipline of history by bringing the theme of risk into focus in the specific context of childbirth. Addressing risk in the history of childbirth will help to open the historical discipline at large to risk as a topic.
The network is running four workshops, with a range of presentations opening up discussion on the theme of risk across eras and cultures. Running alongside these is the development of ‘birth stories’; filmed vignettes discussing particular stories or issues in an accessible way for the general public. An intern funded by the project is working closely with the Thackary Medical Museum in Leeds to explore ways of presenting risk to a general audience, and developing a travelling exhibition considering these themes.
The network will publish an edited collection of papers from the workshops, as well as developing further interdisciplinary collaborations for funded work.