Social roles and alienation: Breastfeeding promotion and early motherhood

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This paper considers whether the social institutions through which early motherhood is experienced can support non-alienating role identification. Drawing on critical theory’s conceptualization of social roles (Jaeggi, Joas), the analysis focuses on 20 interviews with middle-class mothers in Northern Ireland, taken from a larger dual-site study of early motherhood in 2009-10. This region has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world and has a particularly intensive promotion strategy. Considering respondent experiences of the pressure to breastfeed, the paper examines the consequences of a key institutional definition of good motherhood in the early stages. The paper argues that the effort to rigidly impose a moral code as the role is taken on has potentially alienating effects, as it limits the scope for the agent to appropriate and identify with it. An approach to health promotion which instead trusts women to exercise situated moral judgement about infant care, rather than subjecting them to an externally imposed moral code, would reduce the emotional strain and potential for alienation in early motherhood.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)814-831
Number of pages18
JournalCurrent Sociology
Issue number6
Early online date07 Nov 2018
Publication statusPublished - 01 Oct 2020


  • Social roles, critical theory, alienation, breastfeeding promotion, motherhood


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