Management Seminars: Leo McCann

15 March 2016, 4.00 PM - 15 March 2016, 5.30 PM

Professor Leo McCann (University of Manchester)

G.15, 15-19 Tyndalls Park Road

Title:  Street Life: A Sociology of the Paramedic


This seminar presents findings and initial writings from an ethnography of NHS paramedics.  Based on in-depth interviews, focus groups, and observations of shifts ‘out on the road’, the seminar will explore themes emerging from immersive research undertaken with this important but poorly understood occupational group. Although paramedics and other ambulance roles are clinically and socially valuable and comparatively highly respected by the public, ambulance services and the paramedic profession are relatively neglected areas of the NHS, have a rather limited academic research culture, and little traction over policy issues and operational challenges. Specific sociology of work or occupations literature on ambulances is sparse, unlike in many other public service professions which have long-established sociology literatures which to a degree inform their training and education (e.g. police, teachers, doctors, nurses, midwives, social workers). To some extent the mobile, urgent, and unplanned nature of ambulance services means that emergency responders partially fulfil many of these public service roles themselves, but in ways that are episodic and poorly recognized at management and policy levels. Paramedic practice is struggling to represent itself as ‘a profession’. Recognition and work dignity issues are compounded by exhausting shift patterns, growing callout volumes, alienating government targets, long-running management/staff conflict, and a ‘blame culture.’ On the other hand, ambulance services have long possessed powerful formal and semi-formal practical learning cultures, as manifested in practices of road observation or ‘third manning’ with crews – a form of observation that facilitated this study.


In addition to portraying parts of the ethnography itself, the seminar will also reflect on what can be learnt from such forms of mobile ethnography or ‘street phenomenology’ (Kusenbach 2003). ‘Street life’ encompasses not just traditional sociological concerns around work, management, and occupational culture. Its mobile nature also includes wide reflection and narrative around wider society and the paramedics’ roles within it. Often these are discourses of a society engulfed in anomie and decline. But equally the work and its observation can be heartening, even therapeutic.  The seminar asks what kinds of value academic sociology and established modes of ethnographic practice and writing can bring to a field that is thinly  covered by academic research, but widely reported in other media such as ‘reality TV’ and workplace blogs. Mobile, episodic ethnography is multi-sited, polyphonic and difficult to narrow to clear ‘research questions’. As such, it lends itself to broad reflection of several sociological themes relevant to the paramedic role. In doing so, the ethnography can perhaps address some of the neglect of this undervalued profession, and the absence of the kinds of in-depth academic reflection usually associated with more established professions.






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