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The number and tone of reports of poor quality care (e.g. Simmons 2011) especially, since the Mid Staffs NHS trust inquiry but by no means is defined by it, may be described as a moral panic and has been described as a crisis in care (Hari 2011, Phillips 2011a, 2011b) and “reveal a moral sickness in the professional ethic of nursing, and more particularly nurse training…” (Phillips 2011b) .These media reports over poor quality care (Marrin 2009, 2011, Shields et al 2011) and the identification of graduate nurses as folk devils who are “too posh to wash”, lead us to ask why this moral panic over graduate nursing has arisen?
A ‘moral panic’ is when a population feels the ‘social order’ is threatened, and that this threat is felt intensely, it is a certain reaction to a perceived social problem. A moral panic may be characterized by irrational, inappropriate overreactions to problems. Stanley Cohen (1972) applied the term to press reports and establishment reaction to the phenomenon of ‘Mods and Rockers’, a moral panic arises when:
“a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests” (Cohen 1973 p9). The scathing criticism of graduate nursing in the press looks very similar to this sort of description. So, what societal values and interests are thought to be threatened by graduates?
The first aspect is that some feel a loss of ‘the proper place of women/nurses as mother archetypes’ which is part of the longer term process of female entry into the labour market and the break from domestic duties. Feminism has been blamed for this process (however the requirements of consumer capitalism and the need for labour has also had its effects).
The second is the ambiguities felt over the care of elderly people which increasingly has been seen to be the State’s proper role since the introduction of the Welfare State. Although the expressed social order demands that care of the elderly be done within families, the economy demands labour mobility resulting in geographically fragmented families unable to care for elderly relatives. The loss of the family wage and the rise of consumer culture also affects our abilities to care for both children and the elderly as both parents work. The actual social order is that elderly people are, en masse, in institutions and that allows us to abrogate our responsibilities. Although no one expresses a wish to be in a nursing home, no-one either wants (or is able) to take responsibility for elder care.
The third aspect is that body work which involves intimacy, closeness as well as dirt and disgust, is again seen as female caring work which does not attract any social value or support beyond expressions of stoic heroism on behalf of carers.
Graduate nurses challenge these conceptions by being women who are educated, who work and expect like any other professional to be rewarded for their efforts, there is then a cognitive dissonance between on the one hand a vision of nursing as self sacrificial angels and as professionals requiring proper education and reward as professionals. One way to solve this dissonance is to reframe professional nursing, i.e. ‘train’ them in hospitals (putting them in their ‘proper place’).
However, the place of women, and women as nurses, the ambivalence towards care and its meaning, the increasing marginalisation of the elderly and their devaluing may be manifestations of society’s turn from solid to ‘liquid modernity’ (Baumann 2000). Social values, aspirations and expectations are played out within the themes of globalization, individualization, marginalisation, poverty and consumerism. These are the actual social threats that this moral panic cannot actually name and identify. ‘Folk devils’ have to be found to explain these new forms of alienation. Poor care has been around as long as there have been carers, and so we need to be careful not to argue that liquidity causes poor care, rather it may the case that liquid social conditions predispose individuals to perform in particular ways and for their actions to be interpreted in particular ways. The folk devils are in, this instance, graduate nurses. However, blaming nurses refocuses attention away from more difficult problems and gives easy solutions (‘return training to hospitals and all will be well’).
Liquid modernity, according to Baumann, involves community fragmentation, eroding social bonds, atomized relationships and individualistic expectations all in the context of the globalization of capital and markets which dislocate communities. Workers have to respond to calls for mobility and flexibility or face redundancy. Communities struggle to reconcile competing demands especially with the increasing numbers of elderly people and costs of care. Nurses and midwives find themselves caught between all of these competing demands unable to make the links between their individual experiences and larger social conditions,
If only one nurse abuses a patient we should properly look to the character of the individual nurse for reasons. When cases of reported abuse become legion then the personal troubles of the patients should be seen in the context of the public issues of society. To fully comprehend the position of the abuser we need to address their personal biography and history and the relationship between the two in society. Anyone wishing to analyze why there is poor care needs to avoid simplistic knee jerk moral panic type reactions and grab the idea that nurses can understand their experiences and gauge their fates only by locating themselves within their period, that they can know their own lives only by becoming aware of all those nurses in the same circumstances. Focusing on the personal accountability of care staff without addressing the structural conditions in which they work simply will not do.
So what then is the answer?
Care has to be really valued, and in current society the main way value is ascribed is to place a monetary value onto it and bring it centrally into business planning. Therefore the cost of care has to be brought into all accounting. Capitalist production currently does not take into account the care (and environmental) costs that society bears for that production. However caring still has to be done or else production cannot continue in its current form. This is not a new argument, feminists and environmentalists have been arguing this for years. If society wishes to value care then it has to pay for it. That means increasing the number of staff and paying them a competitive wage so that good quality staff are educated, retained, supervised, developed and valued. Or, as Sue Gerhardt (2010a) agues we should refocus on caring as a real social value and perhaps introduce a ‘caring wage’ (2010b) say £12,000-£16,000 per year? Society has to value care with more than lip service and the stoic angels tag, but in the current economic setting social values are not strong enough to ensure we will do this.
Bauman Z. (2000) Liquid modernity. Polity. Cambridge.
Cohen, S. (1973). Folk Devils and Moral Panics. St Albans: Paladin, p.9
Gerhardt S. (2010a) The Selfish Society. How we all forgot to love one another and made money instead. Simon and Shuster. London.
Gerhardt S.(2010b) The Selfish Society. RSA events. 22nd April. http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/2010/the-selfish-society
Hari, J. (2011) The plan to resolve our care home crisis. The Independent January 26th http://tinyurl.com/5ugyond
Hawken P (1994) The Ecology of Commerce. Harper Collins. London
Marrin, M. (2009) Oh Nurse, Your degree is a symptom of equality disease. The Sunday Times. November 15th
Marrin, M. (2011) Our flawed uncaring NHS is a self inflicted wound. The Sunday Times. May 29th
Phillips, M (2011) The moral crisis in nursing, voices from the wards. Daily Mail. October 21. http://melaniephillips.com/the-moral-crisis-in-nursing-voices-from-the-wards
Phillips, M. (2011) How feminism made so many nurses to grand to care. Daily Mail. October 17. http://melaniephillips.com/how-feminism-made-so-many-nurses-too-grand-to-care
Shields, L., Morrall, P., Goodman, B., Purcell, C. and Watson, R. (2011) Care to be a nurse? Reflections on a radio broadcast and its ramifications for nursing today. Nurse Education Today. doi:10.1016/jnedt.2011.09.001
Simmons, M. (2011) Poor Nursing care. NursingTimes.net. 4th July. http://www.nursingtimes.net/poor-nursing-care/398.thread