Narratives of parenting and social support in three popular websites
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Narratives of ‘parenting’ and social support in three popular websites. Joe Winter – J.Winter@ / @ JolyonWinter. In association with the University of Sussex. NCRM / ESRC Phase III node. - 3 linked studies: Families and Food Practices Family lives and Environment

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Narratives of ‘parenting’ and social support in three popular websites

Joe Winter – [email protected]/ @JolyonWinter

In association with the University of Sussex

NCRM / ESRC Phase III node

  • - 3 linked studies:

  • Families and Food Practices

  • Family lives and Environment

  • Parenting Identities and Practices

  • PhD: Constructions of ‘Parenting’ and social support; narratives of parenting identities and practices in online and face-to-face contexts

My PhD

  • Phase 1: Dominant discourses on website homepages and narratives of ‘parenting’ foregrounded by managers

  • Phase 2: Parents’ everyday narrative identities and practices

  • Mixed methods: MMDA, telephone interviews, user surveys, online observation,email interviews, and face-to-face interviews.

  • Psychosocial: constructions and experiences of parenting relating to gender, class, ethnicity



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This seminar

  • Outline research literature and policy background relating to parenting support.

  • Multimodal Discourse Analysis – relevance and examples

  • Early narrative analysis of interviews with managers / founders: Research Question: ‘What different narratives of ‘parenting’ and social support are foregrounded by each?’

  • Conclusion / Next steps

Policy and research

  • New Labour continued free-market ideology of previous Conservative government. Relevance of outcome-driven language of New Labour

  • (Fairclough 2002)

  • Parents positioned as learning subjects:

  • Universal ‘parenting’ skills to be applied regardless of experience & identity:

  • ‘It’s ludicrous that we should expect people to train for hours to drive a car or use a computer but, when it comes to looking after a baby, we tell people just to get on with it.’(David Cameron launching CANparent, 2012)

Policy and research

  • Manualisationof ‘parenting’ reflected in language used to talk about it – performative,- Verb ‘Parenting’ usurping noun ‘Parenthood’.

  • Scientisation of ‘parenting’ (Raemakers & Suissa 2011)

  • Construction of the self according to taken-for-granted models of psychological knowledge; Psy discourses (Rose 1999; Foucault 1991)

  • Relational approaches enable exploration of embedded patterns re identities and practices (Edwards & Gillies 2011; Shirani et al. 2012)

Policy and research

  • Positioning of parents within parent support as consumers / clients depending on social class.

  • The apparently gender-neutral term ‘parenting’ does not reflect the gendered practices of fathers and mothers. Subsequent framing of mothers as deskilled – feeling disempowered.

  • (Edwards & Gillies 2011)

  • Grand narrative of Neoliberalism entwined with culture of ‘intensive parenting’ Neoliberalism also restructuring traditional gender and class order and permeating wider culture and media

  • (Shirani, Henwood & Colthart 2012; Connell 2009; Jensen 2010)

Online support for parents

  • Smithson & Pedersen (2010; 2013) study of ‘Mumsnet’

  • Surveyed 391 respondents and carried out ‘online ethnography’ and discourse analysis

  • Particular norms and values hold importance in Mumsnet community – e.g. correct grammar / reinforcement of offline power relations

  • More recent paper suggests Mumsnet as space for alternative femininity

  • Alstam (2013) narrative study of Swedish forum ‘The Parent Place’

  • ‘Digital divide’ may now be based more on resources such as rhetorical and narrative competence than S.E.S – new hidden markers of social division

  • Problem area moved from a divide in terms of access towards one that relates more to having acquired skills to handling the social and discursive contexts a given forum presents.

Why Social Semiotic Multimodality?

  • Conceptually my study draws on Social Semiotics: How do people come to make meaning with the particular cultural resources available to them?

  • Modes of image and movement increasingly dominant on webpages – mobiles in particular

  • Multimodal Discourse Analysis (MMDA) of homepages as ‘texts’ offers broader lens to explore the discursive representation of ‘parenting’ on homepages

  • Social Semiotic Multimodality: Four underlying assumptions

    • Language is merely one part of an overall multimodal ensemble

    • Each mode – e.g. image, writing, gesture – does different semiotic work. E.g. A photograph may show what writing cannot tell.

    • People make meaning through the selection and configuration of modes

    • The meaning of signs is social and influenced by the sign-maker’s interest in a social context (Kress, 2010)

    MMDA: Research Questions

    • What are the dominant discourses around which the website homepages are organised?

    • What normative ideals of ‘parenting’ do these discourses suggest?

    • Are these consistently presented or undercut by contradictory discourses?

    MMDA: Method and sampling

    • My Research Questions pertain to dominant discourses and normative ideals of ‘parenting’, so my focus is on common, regular features of website

    • Viewed and recorded pages over time and selected focal texts

    • Drew maps of layout of homepages – to explore relationship and interaction between modes

    Multimodal Discourse Analysis: Useful concepts

    • Interest of Initial sign-maker’s ‘setting the ground’ (website founders / managers / designers) (Kress, 2010)

    • Affordance – possibilities for representation – losses and gains

    • Reading path- Salience & Marginality: Hierarchies of movement (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006)

    • Coherence -Multimodal orchestration & ensembles of meaning

    • (Kress, 2012)

    • Older logos

    • overtly masculine

    • New logo more

    • genderneutral

    • Incoherence may

    • reveal underlying

    • conflict between

    • different websites’

    • ideologies?


    • Appropriation of ‘Charlie’s Angels’

    • may reflectfeminist discourse but

    • also neoliberal restructuring of

    • traditional gender orders

    • Reinforcement of existing power

    • relationships – status / education

    • (Smithson & Pederson, 2010)




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    MMDA findings

    • What are the dominant discourses around which the website

    • homepages are organised?

    • Peer-to-peer discourse- Informational discourse

    • Writing / talk foregrounded- ‘Expert’ advice foregrounded

    • Discourse of consumption - Moral / religious discourse

    • Assumptions of normativity- Heteronormative ideal suggested

      - e.g. Educated

    • Normative ideal of female caregiver- Contradictory gender discourses

    • Reinforcing existing power relations- Static ensemble contradicts notion

    • of a social discourse

    MMDA: Limitations

    • Does not account for lived experience: affect / emotion

    • Culturally specific and questionable notion of fixed affordances of modes prior to perception and experience by individuals (Pink 2011)

    • My interest in relationship between discourses of ‘parenting’ and social support and parents’ everyday practices and identities requires that I address individual interpretation – Psychosocial / Narrative

    • BUT: Contributes to central methodological comparison of my project

    Telephone Interviews

    • Loosely structured Interviews with managers / founders:

    • 1 with Mumsnet; 1 with Netmums; 2 with

    • Questions for specific topic areas: design / funding / advertising

    • Elicit narratives through question type:

    • Open / descriptive / temporal frame to questions

    • Co-construction / reflexivity - Field notes immediately before and after to record context

    Narrative Interviews?

    • What makes it a “narrative” interview is the analytic framing after the event

    • (Andrews 2012)

    • Preparatory reading re interviewing the powerful (Walford 2011)

    • Reflexivity – different power relations with different interviewees

    Narrative analysis


    • ‘What different narratives of ‘parenting’ and social support are foregrounded by the websites’ managers?’

    • Key narratives through repetition

    • Dramatic, emotion – characters voices, metaphor

    • Embedded smaller stories – cultural assumptions / personal identity (Bamberg 2004; Phoenix 2008)

    • -

    What narratives of ‘Parenting’ and social support are foregrounded?

    • Time limit given at beginning

    • Difficult to get at personal narrative of ‘parenting’ – socio-political status?

    • Tell me the story of how Mumsnet came into being?

    • Congruent with official narrative on ‘about us’ page

    • Recent changes to ‘about us’ – made more personal, foregrounding campaigning aspect of the website.

    What narratives of ‘Parenting’ and social support are foregrounded?

    • ‘Parenting’ as something to be trained for – skills-based project to gather knowledge about that Mumsnet users have the necessary resources to provide.

    • Repetition of ‘pooling wisdom’, ‘sharing knowledge’ suggests key narrative of user-led space / peer-to-peer advice swapping re parenting support. Pioneers and consumers with cultural and social capital to choose freely (Edwards & Gillies 2011; Bourdieu 2000)

    What narratives of ‘Parenting’ and social support are foregrounded?

    • Manager positioned as a part of ‘real community’ of Mumsnet

    • Emphasises key narrative of parents as free agents and website as user-led

    • Managerial narrative emblematic of wider user group

    • Neoliberal narrative of freedom of choice, equality of individuality or creating new alternative femininity unaccepted and criticised in society (Smithson & Pederson)

    What narratives of ‘Parenting’ and social support are foregrounded?

    • Key ‘parenting’ narrative of unknowing and potential isolation

    • Key helping narrative of parents’ need for social support at local level in order to build desired contacts

    • Personal narrative of adversity setting trajectory and informing content of Netmums

    What narratives of ‘Parenting’ and social support are foregrounded?

    • - Notably more affective / emotional language / turns of phrase – ‘We felt that…’ and assumption that support must be uncritical

    • Less dramatic devices employed – more open and willing to share personal narrative – narrative of solidarity with co-founder extended to whole user group?

    • Concurrent narrative of governmentality and instrumental support directed at users who are positioned as lower social economic status and as potential clients (Edwards & Gillies 2011; Holt 2010)

    What narratives of ‘Parenting’ and social support are foregrounded?

    • Forum introduced after five years as online listings service but heavily moderated

    • Forum characterised as suffused with a helping narrative involving assumption that the support they wish to offer would be undermined by total freedom of expression.

    • Key narratives: Helping narrative foregrounded – ‘social support’ as a service / Parents positioned as lacking knowledge and isolated / Personal narrative of ill health emblematic of narrative of ‘parenting’ and ‘social support’ constructed on Netmums

    What narratives of ‘Parenting’ and social support are foregrounded?

    • Gendered narrative of ‘Fatherhood’ repeated - distinct from ‘parenting’?

    • Interview suffused with interlinked narratives of social support according to social services model and fathering narrative

    • Personal narrative informed by long experience of working in social services rather than experiences of being a parent

    What narratives of ‘Parenting’ and social support are foregrounded?

    • Dramatic devices – voicing characters, emplotment, catharsis through shared journey

    • Presented as narrative emblematic of fathers in general – wider social problem given gravitas by narrator having borne witness to it

    • Deficit model of fathering – narratives of plight, struggle and journey aligned with ‘parenting’ of particular social groups – ‘othering’?

    • Fathers positioned as lacking expert knowledge of social services

    What narratives of ‘Parenting’ and social support are foregrounded?

    • Potential of the internet for greater empowerment of parents

    • Expert discourse of ‘parenting’ according to normative ideal of ‘good parenting’ implied

    • Narrative of governmentality – implies justification / validation for the mission of

    • Historical narrative = Canonical narrative of power linking church, state and market which are constructed as inherent force for the greater good – informing collective identity

    Key Narratives

    Future directions

    • Recruiting participants from each website

    • Observation on forums / email and face-to-face interviews

    • What narratives of ‘parenting’ are told in different contexts?

    • How suffused are mothers’ and fathers’ everyday identities and practices with canonical narratives and normative ideals of ‘parenting’ and social support foregrounded by the websites and wider society?

    Any comments / questions?

    • Joe Winter

    • [email protected]

    • Twitter: @JolyonWinter / @NOVELLAUK

    • Thomas Coram Research Unit

    • Institute of Education

    • 27/28 Woburn Square

    • London

    • WC1H 0AA

    Institute of Education

    University of London

    20 Bedford Way

    London WC1H 0AL

    Tel +44 (0)20 7612 6000

    Fax +44 (0)20 7612 6126

    Email [email protected]


    Joe Winter – PhD project

    Supervisors: Ann Phoenix & Julia Brannen

    Title: Constructions of ‘parenting’ and social support; narratives of parenting identities and practices in online and offline contexts

    • Research question:

    • In what ways do mothers and fathers seek support on and offline?

    • Mixed methods: Multimodal discourse analysis / Online ethnographic observation/ Narrative Interviews: telephone, email and face-to-face

    • Psychosocial; Constructions and experiences of parenting re Gender, social class and ethnicity

    Future directions

    • Research Questions

    • How far do discussions on the web forums reflect normative ideals / canonical narratives of ‘parenting’?

    • How do participants suggest they exercise agency as parents through their use of discussion forums?

    • In what ways are online discussions of parenting gendered, racialised, classed?

    • What normative ideals / canonical narratives of ‘parenting’ are suggested by parents’ narratives of their everyday parenting practices in face-to-face interviews?

    • How do these compare with canonical narratives / normative discourses of parenting given online (via the websites Mumsnet, Netmums, and and those present on the websites’ homepages?

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