Toilet training: A Foucauldian discourse analysis

Robinson, Rita
Hocking, Clare
Payne, Deborah
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

Toilet training is a process in which a child learns to independently manage their excretory functions in a way that fits with society’s norms. Within my practice as an occupational therapist I wished to problematise why different opportunities were enabled for children with impairments particularly around the opportunity to become toilet trained. As a citizen of Aotearoa New Zealand, I also wanted to problematise why as a country we have such high child abuse rates and how this linked to our socially constructed beliefs around body wastes. The aim of this inquiry was to open up the practices of toilet training to examination, and to gain an understanding of how everyday practices are produced, changed and maintained. The study I outline in this thesis is a genealogical biopolitical governmental discourse analysis of toilet training in Aotearoa New Zealand, applying the thinking of Michel Foucault with a poststructural influence. To do this study I accessed and analysed a wide range of texts associated with toilet training, including letters and articles from popular media sources, child development pamphlets, manuals, books, research articles and governmental reports. The accessed texts focused on three identified events associated with shifts in toilet training practices. The first event was the baby boom of the 1950s in response to secure economic times and post-war wealth. The 1980s event connected to a shift from early childhood care services moving from the Department of Social Welfare to the Department of Education and an increase of women in the work force. The last event is located in current day, particularly in response to increasing numbers of children attending primary school without being toilet trained and the implementation of the Vulnerable Children’s Act. The analysis of the texts involved applying Foucauldian thinking and utilising his notions, principles, rules and tools. The findings are presented as a series of articles with each addressing an identified rupture in discourses, thus creating a three-part genealogy of toilet training practice in Aotearoa New Zealand. Each article has its own methodological focus suited to the nature of the located rupture. Toilet Training Discourses in 1950s Aotearoa New Zealand (Robinson, Hocking & Payne, 2016b) showcased the influence of medical and psychoanalytical discourses on the everyday practices of mothers and children, while the second article, “Toilet training practice and subjectivities in 1980s Aotearoa New Zealand” (Robinson, Hocking & Payne, 2016a) demonstrated how a shift in toilet training practice was influenced by the contextual situation of neoliberal and human capital discourses. While “Toilet training in Aotearoa New Zealand: The use of critical, quality and purchased time” (Robinson, Hocking & Payne, in press) focused on the transformation of medical, moral and aesthetic discourse and practices as played out through the disciplining action of time use. Following each article, a consistent framework of analysis is presented, teasing out the located episteme, techne and ethos, and a reflective narrative of the learnings gained. The outcome of my study is that what constitutes toilet training is currently constructed by some discourses as a key juncture and a practice which is orchestrated predominantly by mothers, but facilitated by a growing number of adults, who socialise children through a continuum of development from dependence and interdependence to illusionary independence. This key juncture is seen as a trajectory, one which follows the norm or a trajectory which may include Othering and difference. I argue that toilet training practices and associated knowledges have predominantly been produced from medical discourses, with additional moral and aesthetic discourses and practices also being located. Current-day toilet training, and therefore toileting mastery, is intertwined with the concepts of agency, cognitive ability, ease of mobility and O(o)thering. The criteria of who is O(o)thered changes depending on the knowledge produced within each specific time period and has an effect on whether a person is seen as cognitively capable to hold agency. Othering (with a capital O) connects to medical discourses, lower-case othering to aesthetics, while agency, ease of mobility and cognitive ability connect to moral practices and, therefore, produce toilet training as a human rights issue. Toilet training is usually constructed as dominance of the social body over the instinctual body. This thesis provides space “to think otherwise”, this being, that the body being toilet trained has the opportunity to shape the social body. This space “to think otherwise” includes the practice of toilet training and the practices used by occupational therapists in supporting clients with toileting challenges. The contribution of this study lies in highlighting and questioning the taken-for-granted truths which have become embedded within the discourses and discursive practices of toilet training, enabling an opportunity “to think otherwise” about the opportunities and dangers which are currently produced by the competing discourses located.

Toilet training , Foucault , Discourse , Genealogy
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