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Case Study 3: LLLI in the Network Society

Image of packaged, labeled breast milk from Mediaglobal.org.

Packaged donated breast milk. According to Boyer, donated breast milk is sold to hospitals for $35 an ounce by Prolacta.


In previous case studies, I looked at the enunciative formation of LLLI, rhetorical situation surrounding the development of LLLI, the genres that are employed by the organization, but in the previous case studies, I have not explored how the organization itself is a node within a larger societal network. Therefore, I began looking for articles that address the way in which the work and focus of LLLI is shaped and is a reaction to the context of the larger network of which it is a part. This network includes those with an interest in infant feeding, including medicine, science, and manufacturing industries. While “Medicalizing to Demedicalize: Lactation Consultants and the (De) Medicalization of Breastfeeding,” by Jennifer M.C. Torres, does not specifically examine LLLI, it does shed some light on work that LLLI does. Torres explains in the article that lactation consultants “provide a unique lens for the complexity of medicalization because they are positioned at the crossroads of medicalization and demedicalization. The IBCLC certification originated from a combination of breastfeeding advocacy groups that resisted medicalization of breastfeeding and the contemporary medicalization of breastfeeding that emphasizes the nutritional properties and health benefits of breast milk” (165). Some lactation consultants create or lead breastfeeding peer-to-peer support groups (such as LLLI groups) in which medical control is challenged “by providing a setting that values breastfeeding women’s experiential knowledge” (163). Lactation consultants, in order to demedicalize breastfeeding, must also medicalize it since they operate within the realm of medicine, often working at hospitals. Much of LLLI’s work seems to be focused on developing mothers’ autonomy and challenging the medicalization of breastfeeding, which has resulted in views of breast milk as a product (163), the technological management of breastfeeding (164), and frequent dissemination of misinformation of breastfeeding by medical professionals (164). The concept of breast milk as a product is so pervasive in medicine and science that Kate Boyer was able to use it to “propose a new framework for how geographers might conceptualize mobile biosubstances” in the article “Of Care and Commodities: Breast Milk and the New Politics of Mobile Bisosubstances Unlike lactation consultants, LLLI does not have to walk a fine line between demedicalizing and medicalizing breastfeeding. In “Rhetorical Agency, Resistance, and the Disciplinary Rhetorics of Breastfeeding,” Amy Koerber explains that, “In the words of one La Leche League leader, to breastfeed a baby in U.S. society a woman has to ‘buck the system’”(93). According to Koerber, “By consulting La Leche League, which resists mainstream medical discourse as well as broadly accepted social and cultural norms, a woman is empowered to resist the cultural norm that forbids public breastfeeding” (97). So, it is clear that what LLLI offers to breastfeeding mothers is the ability to resist the way in which medical discourse and the focus on breast milk as product has framed the nursing mother and the breastfeeding relationship.

Manuel Castell’s The Rise of the Network Society allows us to view LLLI as a network within a network. While most of the theories that I have examined so far have looked at the inner workings of LLLI and the way in which nodes within the network of the organization affect the organization and are affected by the organization, Castells’ concept of the network society allows us to critically examine the work that LLLI does within society more broadly. While interpersonal relationships within the organization are not as easy to explore through the lens of the network society (except that it does allow us to explore the simultaneous vertical and horizontal structure of the organization), it is very useful in examining how the rhetoric of LLLI resists the concept of breast milk as a product, resists attempts to technologize breastfeeding to facilitate the timeless time of the networked society, and explore the relationship of breastfeeding to concepts of space.

According to Castells’ exploration of the network society, there is an endless possibility to incorporate nodes within the network of which LLLI is a part. Castells says that “Networks are open structures, able to expand without limits, integrating new nodes as long as they are able to communicate within the network, namely as long as they share the same communication codes” (501). What constitutes a node, he says, “depends on the kind of concrete networks of which we speak” (501). When we consider the system that impacts or is impacted by La Leche League, we must include the scientific field of immunology, the medical field of pediatrics, institutions such as the Association of American Pediatricians, industries that capitalize on the concept of breast milk as a product (such as the manufacturing of breast pumps and related products as well of the sale of donated breast milk), alternative medical practitioners, parenting practices and philosophies such as attachment parenting, lactation consultants, LLLI itself, LLLI leaders, nursing mothers, babies, and members of the public. However, according to Castells, these subjects and organizations make up “the basic unit of economic organization.” Possible types of nodes in a network include: commanders, who make decisions; researchers, who are the innovators; designers, who adapt, package, or target audience for the innovation; integrators, who manage relationships; operators who execute tasks under their own initiative; and the operated, who execute preprogrammed tasks and do not make decisions.

While each node in the network has agency, the perception of the nodes’ agency seems to depend upon the situation of the nodes within the network and their relationship to one another. Castells says that the network is “made of many cultures, many values, many projects, which cross through minds and inform the strategies of various participants in the networks, changing at the same pace as the networks’ members, and following the organizational and cultural transformation of the units of the network” (214). Two modes or organization of a network that significantly impact the agency held by the nodes, and thus the strategies that they employ, are horizontal and vertical networks as well as the role that they play in networks. In the labor force, there are networkers, who create the network (they seem to correspond to deciders); the networked, who are on-line but do not decide when, where, how, why (involved in decision-making, but not the ultimate deciders); and the switched-off workers, who merely follow instructions (executants).

In a vertical organization of the network surrounding breastfeeding, the roles that each member of the network plays impacts the way that the meaning of information and values surrounding breastfeeding, the primary concepts that move between nodes in the network, are interpreted and presented. In a vertical, top down network, the deciders have the authority to make decisions. In the network within LLLI operates, commanders might include prominent voices and institutions in medicine and science as well as the LLLI leadership. Researchers working in breastfeeding science and medicine, or perhaps even social research, who contribute to the body of knowledge from which commanders draw to make decisions. Designers, who adapt and present materials to pass on research about breastfeeding to those lower in the network (individual doctors, LLLI leaders/authors). Operators may be doctors, lactation consultants, LLLI leaders, and breastfeeding mothers (if they feel confident enough about their breastfeeding knowledge to make their own decisions). Finally, mothers who follow strict feeding schedules/practices and do not question advice provided to authoritative figures, may be the operated.

Castells claims that the information technology revolution has led to an increasing interaction between horizontal and vertical networks (xxx). Mainstream media, which is a top-down organization, has historically intended simply to pass on information without receiving feedback, while interactive technologies such as blogs and Twitter make it possible for the audience or consumer to provide feedback, which in turn may affect what the media outlet reports. According to Castells, horizontal networks often are focused on “communication built around people’s initiatives, interests, and desires” and they may involve cooperative projects (xxviii). In contrast to the top-down organization that I explored in the previous paragraph, this simultaneous vertical and horizontal organization the way in which LLLI is organized. The organization prefers to promote the horizontal aspect of the organization offered by the mother-to-mother support groups, which require a shared interest in breastfeeding and cooperation of mothers who are core to the organization. According to Nancy Mohrbacher and Sharon Knorr, mother-to-mother support groups provide informal support through vicarious experience, which increases a mother’s self-efficacy, while formal authoritative organizations make mothers lose self-confidence. Because LLLI leaders provide advice based on the organization’s core philosophy, and because LLLI manuals not only provide breastfeeding support but also strongly recommend an attachment parenting lifestyle that some mothers simply cannot live because they must work to provide for their families, some mothers may lose self-confidence as a parent because they are not capable of leading the lifestyle that the organization dictates. While mother-to-mother support groups operate on cooperative knowledge making, there is still a top-down element to the organization, as commanders (such as the organization leaders), pass down information to local leaders and mothers, the horizontal organization of the peer top peer group is meant to underscore mother’s autonomy and make them at least operators instead of operated, if not playing the roles of researcher, designer, and integrators. By giving mothers more autonomy, emphasizing the physical relationship of breastfeeding and the emotional connection between mothers and babies, LLLI contributes to the demedicalization of breastfeeding for which the strict vertical organization of the network does not allow.

Other important element of the situatedness of nodes in the LLLI network is space and time. Castells says that, “Spatial forms and processes are formed by the dynamics of the overall social structure. This includes contradictory trends derived from conflicts and strategies between social actors playing out their opposing interests and values” (441).The medicalization of breastfeeding and the demedicalization of breastfeeding seem to be functions of varying values for space and time. According to Castells, there is “an increasing dissociation between spatial proximity and the performance of everyday life functions” (424). He also says that, “The space of flows is the material organization of time-sharing practices that work through flows” (442). Medical associations, researchers, scientists, organizations, lactation consultants, and breastfeeding product manufacturers all operate within the space of flows to disseminate knowledge and information about breastfeeding, including the concept as breast milk as a product. Technologies of breastfeeding, such as the breast pump, and the concept as breast milk as a product, serve to help women operate in a society that values timeless time. According to Castells, “Capital’s freedom from time and culture’s escape from the clock are decisively facilitated by new forms of technologies, and embedded in the structure of the network society” (464). The actors operating within the space of flows of breastfeeding (doctors, manufacturers, researchers, etc…) make breastfeeding knowledge a commodity (as is milk) that must come from authorities, and they also seem to suggest that breastfeeding, facilitated by technology, can be a function of timeless time. On the other hand, the space of breastfeeding in a local mom-to-mom peer support group us a local space. A core part of LLLI’s philosophy is that the embodied experience of breastfeeding is very important. Thus, LLLI values the space of place for breastfeeding mothers as well as biological time. LLLI values time spent with children, and encourages mothers to place other demands on time lower on the list of priorities.

In the vertical organization of the breastfeeding network, the space of flows, the meaning of information traveling through the network is interpreted by others. The organization, commanders, researchers, designers, etc… passes down information and presents it to the audience, who is expected to be passive and operate according to the information passed down. In contrast, LLLI meetings occurring at the local level operate similarly to the counterculture in the information technology revolution. The computer counterculture, Castells tells us, developed the modem. The modem allows for files to be transmitted between two computers without a host system, and the counterculture movement spread innovations at no cost. This is very similar to the organization of the LLLI mother-to-mother meeting (though there is a top-down element to the organization as well). There is a potential at the peer meetings for information based on real experience to be exchanged between mothers without them having to be transmitted via a host. In the process of information and knowledge transition, breastfeeding is demedicalized and is constructed as something that mothers can understand and explore without the intervention of medical professionals.

Image of breastfeeding mother and chils outdoors.

Breastfeeding outside of the space of flows? Bamboo magazine claims that breastfeeding is the greenest choice because it leave no manufacturing or distribution by products.

Castells explains that network structure, such as the network that involves those with an interest in breastfeeding, “is a highly dynamic, open system, susceptible to innovating without threatening its balance” (501-502). He also says that “the network morphology is also a source of dramatic reorganization of power relationships” (502). In the case of LLLI, the introduction of new members into the organization has shifted organizational rhetoric about working outside of the home and patriarchy. The organization once catered primarily to heterosexual, married, white, middle-class women who stay at home, but as more women work, and as breastfeeding rates increase, more women have come to LLLI for assistance. LLLI has had to shift it’s rhetoric to be more inclusive, while still maintaining its core philosophy. By being flexible and allowing for innovation, the organization has grown rather than dissolved.

There is a great deal that Castells’ theory of the network society allows us to see when examining LLLI. Through the theory of networks, we can examine the role that understandings of space and time influence the organization and the way the organizational structure exhibits these values. It also made it easy to see the role of vertical and horizontal organization in the network. What it does not allow for, as much as past theories I have explored, is the way in which the organization employs rhetoric and genres to present its values. The network society theory seems more appropriate for examining the links between nodes in the network of which LLLI is a part, rather than examining the nuances of the relationships within the organization.

Viral breasting in the zombie apocalypse meme.

I couldn’t resist including this image. It seems to me that the Zombie trope could represent resistance to the space of flows and a need for self-reliance and self-containment, so this meme really speaks to the idea of separating breastfeeding from the space of flows of the medical establishment and infant-feeing industries.

Works Cited

Boyer, Kate. “Of care and commodities: breast milk and the new politics of mobile biosubstances.” Progress in human geography 34.1 (2010): 5-20.

Koerber, Amy. “Rhetorical agency, resistance, and the disciplinary rhetorics of breastfeeding.” Technical Communication Quarterly 15.1 (2006): 87-101.

Torres, Jennifer. “Medicalizing to demedicalize: Lactation consultants and the (de) medicalization of breastfeeding.” Social Science & Medicine 100 (2014): 159-166.