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Nurs Inq. 2008 Sep;15(3):178-88. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1800.2008.00406.x.

The power of routine and special observations: producing civility in a public acute psychiatric unit.

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  • 1School of Nursing and Social Work, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia.


This study directly addresses controlling aspects of psychiatric nursing practice, which are currently marginalized in practice and research. We first consider the discursive tensions surrounding the mandated goal of social control in public acute psychiatric units, particularly referring to those units located within medical hospitals. We attest to the enduring social control mandate in psychiatric nursing and explore ways in which it is enacted. Specific nursing practices of 'doing the obs' while scanning the ward and 'special observations' are investigated as important activities of social control, based on findings from an ethnographic study in one acute psychiatric unit in Australia. These practices are acknowledged as key modes of nursing surveillance. Contrary to past work, they are regarded as productive for engendering civil conduct among patients in acute psychiatric settings. We reframe these activities of surveillance as liberal therapeutic practices in themselves, to the extent that they assist patients to achieve treatment goals and promote self-surveillance and self-control. Instead of effacing practices of control, we encourage nurses to discriminate between more and less liberal modes of control in everyday practice and to build their skills in liberal controlling strategies.

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