Jordan, Brigitte. Birth in Four Cultures. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1993. (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 6, 7)

This is the sixth in a series of notes to fifteen lectures for my class Dynamics of Family Interaction.

Transition notes

We addressed two main issues in the last session:

  1. the difficulty of identifying "human nature"--except to the extent that it must involve the making of "arbitrary" rules that transform the ecology of human beings by adding a man-made level to it--, and must thus transform the very strategic choices we must make to reproduce
  2. the notion of 'culture' itself as the making of arbitrary rules.


Besides the obvious interest for family studies of the processes of childbirth--clearly a most significant event in the life of a woman (and, most often, the man closest to that woman at the time)--we will also use Jordan's book at this stage in this course to address more systematically the general analytic (theoretical and descriptive) issues that were introduced in a general manner earlier, particularly:

  1. The relevance of cross-cultural comparison
  2. Some significant issues to consider when trying to account for the total human aspect of labor and birth, and other such events in the life cycle as those that will be considered in this course.
  3. Another ethnographic account
  4. An introduction to the theory of culture most useful to understand the social construction of events in the life cycle
  5. An initial discussion of the practical, programmatic, or reform implications of the observational and theoretical work conducted by anthropologists and other ethnographers in sociology or social psychology.

  1. The relevance of cross-cultural comparison to an understanding of American practices
    1. Methodological issues
      1. p. 6: what might be deemed 'natural experiments'
      2. p. 10-11: the difficulties of getting accounts (displays of knowledge) ... and the issues involved when knowledge is "distributed."
    2. Mayan birth practices:
      1. Mostly, of local interest, except to the extent that they illustrate what is revealed as salient whenever human beings do anything relating to the many realities of their biological and social reproduction and thus to reveal matters American birth practices that may not appear to be worth mentioning when "studying the family." For example:
        1. p. 32: the analytic importance of the extraordinary to highlight when does not have to explained
        2. constructing social science through analogy (culture-as-unpredictable and ethnographyas a way to find out what it is we do not kow we do not know, but suspect might be knowable)
    3. American birth practices:
      1. Jordan's presentation is quite truncated and heavily biased in its rhetoric.
        1. politics, research and policy.
        2. Cotter's work is a better source of information at a level comparable to that used by Jordan in her Mayan work.

  2. Significant issues:
    1. Birth, as an event that happens to a human being is always placed within a web of social relations,
      1. this web is local
      2. this web also entangles the local with broader groups the person may not know.
      3. In other words birth is not only a physiological event, or even a psychological, or even an intimate familial, event. It is also, and most significantly a social, political and educational event. For example one need to investigate (from Chapter 1 & 2 of Jordan [1983] 1993)
        1. where birth is to take place
        2. who may be present
        3. what is said, talked about, etc. during the labor
        4. how labor is sequenced (e.g. the final moment of birth p. 107)
        5. how the newborn is handled
    2. each of these matters involve questions of authority
      1. authority to know (label, interpret and tell) what is happening. For example: the authority of the midwife (p. 33)
      2. authority to allow what is to happen.
      3. pronouncing the baby as "normal" (p. 41)

      Note that the birth of the child would happen even in the absence of an authority. Authority however may temporarily hasten or delay a passage (e.g. the beginning of pushing: p. 159 ff). It is particularly powerful at the time of the telling of the experience when the experience has been distanced and is now remembered or used as a cautionary tale for new purposes.

    3. and issues of education
      1. who is to tell what to the various participants (distribution of knowledge as knowledge-made-relevant expands)

  3. Another ethnograpic account
    1. Cotter's work
      1. status of the mother and labor issues
      2. status of moments within the labor: when is a contraction?
      3. pain and its allievation as issues for and of discrouse
      4. truth and date
      5. etc. during off times
  4. Theoretical issues
    1. What is "culture" to be about: the transformation of (in the case of birth, puberty, courtship and sexuality) physiology (Jordan p. 3; a nice example, paradoxically is given on p.160) and the continued transformation of these transformations.
      1. the acceptance of "members" of these transformations as "the way things are" both at the level of
        1. knowledge ("model of behavior")
        2. morality ("model for behavior")
      2. with major consequences on the possibility of change, particularly when major matters are most at risk (thus the conservatism and generality of birthing and death practices in integrated populations).
      3. the resistance of some members to institutionalized practices. Jordan talks about this only in the context of American practices and their evolution

      Note that this is a much broader understanding of culture than one that focuses only on "learned behavior" and thus collapses culture into personality. A "cultural pattern" is thus not to be taken as a trait widely internalized ("shared") within a population. It is more useful to think of culture as the organization of traits (and thereby their differentiation), and thus as a process that escapes the control of individuals.

      See a further discussion of determination and causality.

      This allows to deal theoretically with the evidence that, even in the most integrated of populations, some (and often many) can be seen at work transforming their local conditions and working at transforming their broader context.

      I discuss these matters extensively elsewhere.

  5. Implications for institutional transformation in America
    1. Jordan's work is a model of applied anthropology and a display of its dangers. She has a strong bias against what she characterizes as the "American" system. This bias has both positive and negative aspects
      1. Positively, it allows her to look at the American system as one system with particular cultural characteristics to be un-covered for understanding and possible action.
      2. Negatively, as it limits her ability to analyze this system in its full complexity. For example,
        1. she is led to discount the voice of women in the evolution of the current system both historically and locally (see Cotter's work).
        2. she is led to discount the dangers of non-medicalized births and the difficulties of determining when a birth is to be medicalized (which raises issues of authority
        3. she is led to discount the "symbolic efficacy" (placebo?) effect of medical rituals and sacred objects
        4. and she cannot quite understand the evolution of birth practices towards increased medicalization (p. 142ff) even as feminist critiques have been popularized and sometimes coopted (e.g. "natural childirth")
Some questions in the context of this lesson
  • specify further who may be involved in the birth of your child
  • how does all this apply to issues of abortion?
    • is abortion a form of birth? why not?
    • who may teach which it is?