This talk takes an evolutionary perspective on the cultural treatment of human childbirth, exploring cross-cultural birth practices in all six types of human subsistence strategies (hunting-gathering, horticulture, agriculture, pastoralism, industrial society, and the technocracy), noting premodern similarities across vast cultural differences, examining the homogenizing effects of modernization, and exploring the possibilities of a postmodern mentality for improving the technocratic treatment of birth. The story of the Three Little Pigs provides an over-arching framework for the talk, with the “big bad wolf” understood as a metaphor for the dangers of nature and the cultural fears of nature that developed in concordance with the evolution of agriculture and industrialization. Although premodern birth practices varied widely across cultures, they held strong similarities in that they consistently honored the normal physiology and psychology of birth. An anthropological view shows that appearance of cultural difference fades in relation to the cross-cultural similarities in the provision of companionship for laboring women, freedom of movement, upright positions for birth, and the use of various artifacts such as ropes, hammocks, and poles to support upright positions. The advent of industrialization and the concordant ascendance of technology and biomedicine obfuscated traditional knowledge about birth physiology, replacing it with mechanistic efforts to control the birth process. Our challenge today is to reincorporate appropriate traditional understandings of birth physiology that turn out to have a basis in scientific evidence, use new technologies appropriately, and bring a postmodern mentality that incorporates scientific evidence with traditional and professional midwifery knowledge to our cultural understanding and management of birth.
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- Name and describe the six major subsistence strategies humans have developed over the course of their cultural evolution.
- Identify the deep meaning of the folktale “The Three Little Pigs” and explain how it encapsulates the history of human cultural evolution.
- Describe the commonalities in birthing practices among hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, agriculturalists, and pastoralists.
- Identify the effects of industrialization on childbirth practices, and how these have changed with the development of the technocracy.
- Pinpoint ways in which current science supports some premodern birth practices, and how these can be re-incorporated into contemporary birth.
Robbie Davis-Floyd PhD, Senior Research Fellow, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Texas Austin and Fellow of the Society for Applied Anthropology, is a world-renowned medical anthropologist, international speaker and researcher in transformational models in childbirth, midwifery and obstetrics. She is author of over 80 journal articles and 23 encyclopedia articles, and of Birth as an American Rite of Passage (1992, 2004) and Ways of Knowing about Birth: Mothers, Midwives, Medicine, and Birth Activism—an anthology of her most popular articles, all revised and updated (2018); coauthor of From Doctor to Healer: The Transformative Journey (1998) and The Power of Ritual (2016); and lead editor of 12 collections, the latest of which is Birth in Eight Cultures: A Cross-Cultural Investigation (forthcoming 2018). Birth Models That Work (2009) highlights optimal models of birth care around the world and will soon be followed by Birth Models That Work Volume II, Speaking Truth to Power: Childbirth Models on the Human Rights Frontier, coedited with Betty-Anne Daviss. Robbie serves as Editor for the International MotherBaby Childbirth Initiative (www.imbci.org) and the International Optimal Childbirth Initiative (IOCI): 12 Steps to MotherBaby-Family Friendly Maternity Care Services (a joint IMBCO/FIGO global initiative) and Senior Advisor to the Council on Anthropology and Reproduction. Most of her published articles are freely available on her website www.davis-floyd.com.