The Politics of Interprofessional Working and the Struggle for Professional Autonomy in Nursing

Published in: Social science and medicine, v. 68, no. 7, Apr. 2009, p. 1221-1228

Posted on on January 01, 2009

by Daniel Salhani, Ian D. Coulter

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This study of interprofessional work relations in a Canadian mental health team examines how nursing deployed different forms of power in order to alter the mental health division of labour, to gain administrative, organizational and content control over its own work, expand its jurisdictional boundaries by expropriating the work of other professionals, and exclude others from encroaching on its old and newly acquired jurisdictions. This is set against the context of nursing's long-standing professional project to consolidate and expand its professional jurisdiction. Using an ethnographic study of a single interprofessional mental health team in a psychiatric hospital in Canada, the paper attempts to understand the politics and paradoxes involved in realizing nursing's professional project and how the politics of professional autonomy and professional dominance are actually conducted through micro-political struggles. The data demonstrates the effects of the political struggles at the organizational and work process levels, particularly in the forms of collaboration that result. Nurses gained substantial autonomy from medical domination and secured practical dominion over the work of non-medical professionals. New forms of interprofessional collaboration were accomplished through both simultaneous and sequential micro-political struggles with psychiatrists and non-medical professionals, and the formation of political alliances and informal agreements. Nursing solidarity at the elite level and substantial effort by the elite nurses and their committed colleagues to mobilize their less enthused members were fundamental to their success. The nurses deployed political (power) strategies and tactics to organize and reorganize themselves and other professionals on multiple levels (politically, organizationally, ideologically, socially and culturally). This study reveals the complexity and robustness of micro-political dynamics in the constitution of professional and collaborative interprofessional work relations.

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