Health care assistants are the most common occupation for women in Sweden. Yet, facts about their learning and occupational identities are quite unknown. The aim of the paper is to deepen the understanding of how health care assistants learn their occupational identities in daily work. In the theoretical framework, the interrelationship between learning and occupational identity are elaborated on. The resulting findings come from case studies of four wards at two hospitals and are based on interviews and self-observations provided in the form of diaries. The results show that the health care assistants' occupational identity is weak when compared to other professional groups, yet strong in sharing the same orientation towards patients. Moreover, the identities are learned at work, where registered nurses and physicians are of great importance to this process. Previous life and work experiences seem to have an impact on health care assistants' motivation to learn in formal settings but learning in formal settings also seems to be crucial for learning in daily work. Four contradictions have been discussed as the potentials for developing the occupational identities: formal versus informal learning, adaptive versus developmental learning, formal versus informal legitimacy and weak status versus strong identity. My conclusion is that assistant nurses seem to learn how to do things they do not talk about, while talking about things they can but are not allowed to do. They learn how to adapt to the informal order by reproducing the formal one, which leads to their learning behind the curtains.
Financed by the National Centre for Research and Development under grant No. SP/I/1/77065/10 by the strategic scientific research and experimental development program:
SYNAT - “Interdisciplinary System for Interactive Scientific and Scientific-Technical Information”.