Saturday, December 5, 2009

Love Robbie Davis-Floyd

Robbie Davis-Floyd is an Anthropologist whose work I love reading.  I have her book Childbirth and Authoritative Knowledge: Cross Cultural Perspectives,  because I love cross-cultural studies of childbirth! And the topic of authoritative knowledge in childbirth was introduced by Brigitte Jordan, the author of Birth in Four Cultures, the book that started it all for me!

Anyway, she has a website on which she posts several of her articles on birth and midwifery, etc, and a short one on Pregnancy had some really cool information on cultural beliefs and pregnancy. So, I shall share a few excerpts below. Enjoy!

On Pregnancy - Robbie E. Davis-Floyd, Ph.D. and Eugenia Georges, Ph.D.

The cultural variation in beliefs about pregnancy begins with beliefs about the causes of conception, which can express meanings and values central to the organization and identity of a culture. In the Basque country of France, for example, sheepherders understand conception as analogous to cheese-making: the semen of the man causes the woman's blood to curdle to form the baby, just as rennet curdles milk (Ott 1979). Behavior may mirror belief: because the Hua of New Guinea believe that conception is caused by the mixing of menstrual blood and semen, newly pregnant women have sex frequently in order to provide sufficient semen for fetal development (Meigs 1986). The Trobrianders, also of New Guinea, believe that conception results when a spirit child--formerly a Trobriander who died--enters a woman's womb and mixes with her menstrual blood. The elimination of the father's role in conception reflects the matrilineality of Trobriand society (descent is traced from mother to daughter) and the sexual freedom such a belief allows (Weiner 1993).


In many societies, the role of the woman is minimized. The Malays believe that a baby is formed in the father's brain, dropping down to his chest, where it receives human emotions, and then is thrust into the mother's womb, where, implanted, it grows like a seed--a belief which gives active agency to the man (Laderman 1983). This association of men with the creative seed, and women with nurturant soil, is common to all three of the monotheistic and male-dominant religions of the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) which have informed folk theories of conception in the West and many parts of the East for millenia (Delaney 1991). Some patrilineal societies take male agency to an extreme: for example, in some Islamic societies a wife's pregnancy is the means by which the husband perpetuates his patrilineage and ensures its purity; thus women's sexuality is tightly controlled through the institution of purdah (veiling and seclusion).


Many cultures ritually proscribe the consumption of certain foods during pregnancy, and encourage that of others. According to Malay humoral beliefs, a "cool" state is ideal for pregnancy; thus foods with "heating" qualities, such as certain fruits, should be avoided (Laderman 1983:75-76). Among the Ewe of West Africa, pregnant women consume an edible clay rich in nutrients, which is comparable to the nutritional supplements prescribed in industrialized societies (Farb and Armelagos 1980:89). In rural Greece, a pregnant woman's food cravings are not to be denied: if she desires olives, for example, she must be given them, or moles shaped like olives will mark the child. Other behaviors may also be pre- or proscribed: Tanala women in Malagasy are enjoined not to touch black-eyed beans, lest their children be born with black spots; in Europe and the United States, many people believe that a mother's emotions and stress level during pregnancy will affect the psychological health of her child. Across cultures, such prescriptions and proscriptions reflect variations in cultural understandings of the symbiotic relationship between the mother and her baby, as well as the importance of their wellbeing to their society's future. Such cultural rules are far from absolute: women everywhere demonstrate a wide range of choice in their degree of compliance.


3 comments:

  1. "in Europe and the United States, many people believe that a mother's emotions and stress level during pregnancy will affect the psychological health of her child."

    Wow, I always just took this for granted as fact, I never considered it could just be a cultural thing...

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  3. Oops, I thought I was deleting a comment on another blog. Sorry about that. Re-posting:

    Isn't she the best!? I got to meet her after a symposium at the AAA when it was in DC two years ago, but I was so nervous I'm sure I didn't say anything intelligent at all, and would be lucky if I simply made no impression whatsoever. :-)

    @ren: It's actually a cross between cultural perspective and biological reality. Davis-Floyd has discussed this in another article (or book, I can't recall) and I have also read several really interesting studies concerning cortisol levels during pregnancy and subsequent "normal" cortisol levels for the individual born of that pregnancy.

    That stuff-- the areas in which culture and biology intersect-- I find so fascinating!

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