Reproduction: the governement of pregnancy

My PhD research analysed the social government of pregnancy. Drawing from an ethnographic study of a psychosocial pregnancy care centre in Switzerland, I argued that pregnant women are an object of discipline and surveillance; that we witness the extension of parenting norms into pregnancy, making it the first phase of childhood; that this surveillance is extended from pregnant bodies to pregnant minds under the influence of various fields such as psychology, child development, neuroscience or epigenetic. I also analysed how the overwhelmingly dominant representation of pregnancy as a feminine event invisibilises LGBTQ+ experiences of pregnancy as well as paternal (and environmental) influences on foetal health.


« Analyzing the seemingly natural characteristics of « pregnanthood » reveals the marginalizing effects of psychological discourses—and thus calls for further feminist attention. »

Ballif 2020



Dissertation abstract

“Giving voice before giving birth. Temporality in psychosocial counselling for pregnant women”
This dissertation explores contemporary transformations in the government of pregnancy through a case study of the “Conseil en périnatalité” (“Perinatal Counsel”), a unit offering psychosocial counselling to pregnant women in Frenchspeaking Switzerland. Previous social science research has highlighted the increasing medicalization of pregnancy in Western countries in the course of the 20th century, as well as its corollary: the disciplinarisation of pregnant women. However, institutions providing “psychosocial” support to pregnant women in parallel to medical antenatal care have remained understudied. This dissertation undertakes to explore what I call the “psychosocial government of pregnancy” through an analysis of the activities and discourses on pregnancy deployed within the Conseil en périnatalité. My research design thus combined an ethnographic analysis of practices with discourse analysis of textual data ranging from institutional documents to discursive interactions between counselors and future parents. Both types of data were collected in the course of two-year ethnographic fieldwork (2011-2013) which documented the various practical as well as discursive activities of the midwives and social workers of the Conseil en périnatalité, through observations, interviews and documentary research. The dissertation highlights the various temporal modes that organize professional practices in the Conseil en périnatalité, as well as the forms of power that are at play within the counselling activities, in particular those that result from the naturalization of gender categories. My results show that the subjects of the government of pregnancy (pregnant women, men, fetuses) are constructed in relation to competing temporal imperatives: pregnancy is represented during counselling appointments as an “extra-ordinary” time to justify specific rules of behavior apply, whereas the present is evaluated in terms of risks depending on what future it might lead to. I argue that disciplinarisation orient the transmission of medical and social norms to future parents, in ways that are clearly gendered. Counselling sessions also serve to guide and take care of future parents – as a form of what Foucault called “pastoral power”. Overall, this thesis demonstrates that, in spite of its official rhetoric which claims to be gender-neutral, the psychosocial government of pregnancy relies on gendered representations of parental roles which position women as the primary agent with regard to responsibility for the future of their fetus, well before the moment of birth itself.