Monday, May 11, 2009

Anthropologists on birth and babies

Since becoming pregnant I have started paying more attention to a number of anthropologists who do research on women's bodies, birth, and parents' interaction with their babies.

The first anthropologist I read on this topic was Robbie E. Davis-Floyd, who writes about the symbolism of a "standard" birth procedure in a US hospital in the early 1990s. She maps out various associations tied to the wheelchair that greets a woman in labour at the door, the hospital gown, being hooked up to an electronic monitor, the IV drip, the bed, and the offer of pain medication before the woman requests it. As Davis-Floyd puts it: "all these convey to the laboring woman that she is dependent on the institution. She is also reminded in myriad ways of the potential defectiveness of her birthing machine," namely her own body. "Routine obstetric procedures cumulatively map the technocratic model of birth onto the birthing woman's perceptions of her labor experience" (452, 455). Yet Davis-Floyd points out that within this richly symbolic ritual, as in any ritual, there is also space for women to revise and add their own meanings to the space that they are surrounded by (e.g. viewing the wheelchair as unnecessary, viewing technology as a resource that they are free to utilize or ignore), and to occupy this space differently.

Other anthropologists whose work I have just become aware of are James McKenna, who runs the mother-baby sleep lab at Notre Dame University in the US, and Helen Ball, who runs the parent-infant sleep lab at Durham University in the UK. So much interesting research, there's never enough time to read it all...

--- Davis-Floyd, Robbie E. 2005. Gender and ritual: Giving birth the American way. In Gender in cross-cultural perspective, 4th edition, eds. Caroline B. Brettell and Carolyn F. Sargent, 449-461. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

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