"Having the opportunity to talk about one's life, to give an account of it, is integral to leading that life rather than being led through it" (Legones & Spelman quoted by Patai, 1988, p. 163).
This thesis was born out of the countless conversations I have had with other women, around kitchen tables, over fences, at playgroups and in community-based women's groups. I know from the testimony of these women, including those in the groups I have facilitated, that such conversations can change lives, hi such places stories are told, the personal search for words to match experiences becomes collective, and the moments of mutual recognition enable us to go on with a lighter, or at least a more purposeful, step. Yet these conversations have also perplexed me. If they are so important, why so taken-for- granted? And if they are indeed 'consciousness-raising', why do they not produce more obviously radical personal transformations?
In this study I have taken one instance of women's talk in non-public spaces, a community-based, facilitated group of mothers of children with a disability, and teased apart the threads of its conversations to better understand what happens there, and why it matters.
In settling upon a methodology for this task, a pilot study first revealed that the density of the group conversations required just one research site, and that their breadth required the analysis to include interactions and discourses £is well as narratives. Two methodological choices followed from this: firstly to be the group's facilitator and hence a practitioner-researcher, and secondly to use an applied conversation analysis method. The former gave me access to data that would otherwise be difficult if not impossible to obtain, that is, extended and often overlapping talk between multiple participants that could only be adequately transcribed by someone who was present and had listened closely. This placed me squarely within the research event. The latter is a rigorous discipline that insisted I stay close to the data, so balancing and making explicit my personal involvement. In addition, conversation analysis supplied a body of existing knowledge that valued the everyday, brimmed with fresh metaphors for group processes, and focused above all on interaction.
The resulting descriptions of the group have an order of detail that is new to groupwork research, and a language that is sometimes surprising, but illuminating in its relevance. They maximize the data available from one local site, and give rise to a research-based model of group process that captures at least some of the dimensions of women's talk in this setting. Because this is essentially an 'applied' study, I use two further theoretical contributions, feminism and poststructuralism, to locate it usefully in the world of emancipatory action. The addition of a feminist analysis allows women's talk outside the public sphere, which has often been invisible, to emerge as a potential form of civic participation. Poststructural theory provides links between language and identity, explaining how marginalized people can gain agency through their interactions and discourses, and situating this thesis within the field of language-based research.
Therefore my original impulse, to understand what difference women's conversations might make, has been satisfied not by looking behind the participants' talk at their psychological processes, but by looking closely at their talk-in-interaction with a sociological approach. The resulting account speaks into the theoretical silences that surround community-based feminist groupwork, providing practitioners with new ways to listen to the talk occurring there, and scholars with encouragement to further investigate such 'ordinary' comers of experience.