Pre- and Perinatal Anthropology: A Selective Review

By Laughlin, Charles D., Jr. | Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal, Summer 1989 | Go to article overview

Pre- and Perinatal Anthropology: A Selective Review


Laughlin, Charles D., Jr., Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal


The most immediate question is: How relevant is the behavior of a handful of savages on a New Guinea mountain or in a South American jungle to the solution of problems of modern medical care in a complex contemporary society? . . . all human beings living on this planet are members of one species, Homo sapiens, and any behavior characteristic of one group of human beings, in terms of which they have been able to reproduce and survive as a group, throws light on the potentialities and limitations of human beings everywhere.

Margaret Mead in Mead and Newton (1967)

The title of this paper is actually a misnomer. There is no subfield of anthropology bearing this title. But there should be and there will be such a subdiscipline as the full effect of the new field of pre- and perinatal psychology is felt on interdisciplinary cooperation. And the current absence of such an organized subdiscipline should not detract from the fact that anthropology has a great deal to offer the psychologist interested in the early life of human beings.1

This is a review of the cross-cultural literature pertaining to pre- and perinatal culture. It must of necessity be a selective one because this literature is so vast. We will first give references to the best reviews of the literature available and then sample the range of information that can be found addressed by anthropologists and cross-cultural psychologists, as well as some of the more interesting theoretical and topical issues that have been discussed. In doing so we avoid some of the inhouse jargon and pet issues, and are not overly concerned with whether the information has been generated by anthropologists or cross-cultural psychologists, although we are mindful of the serious methodological differences between the two disciplines.2 We will also exclude materials that are not directly relevant to the pre- and perinatal life of living human beings.3

SOME METHODOLOGICAL PROBLEMS

A brief word should be said about the methodological biases of anthropology, for they directly influence the quality and orientation of information one may reasonably expect from the literature. Ethnographers are typically people who go to exotic places and live for extended periods of time with alien peoples. They are taught to participate as much as they can in the daily lives of their hosts and record their observations and conversations as accurately as they can. But one of the central problems in doing fieldwork on pre- and perinatal culture is that most ethnographers have been, and still are males, and being males they are usually systematically excluded from direct participation in female-only activities. For example, most cultures (eg., Arabs, Granqvist 1947; Ashanti, Rattray 1927) forbid the presence of males during birth (Ford 1945, Trevathan 1987: 35ff), and thus many reports about birthing in the literature are records of what informants say they experience, and are not the first-hand descriptions of the ethnographers' own experiences. Of the 296 cultures that Trevathan (1987: 36) surveyed from the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF),4 she found only 19 in which reports of births were derived from direct observation. And, as Trevathan (1987) and Jordan (1978) among others note, really accurate information about birthing cross-culturally requires detailed direct observation.

Another problem is the ironic fact that, although anthropology considers itself as the science of culture and enculturation (how culture is learned by individuals), ethnographers on the whole have paid scant attention to infancy (see Bullowa, Fidelholtz & Kessler 1975, Newman 1972: 51, Schreiber 1977 on this issue), much less the prenatal experiences of the people they live amongst. Concern with infancy is currently on the rise in ethnography, but is still more often covered in the writings of cross-cultural psychologists than ethnographers (eg., Ainsworth 1967a).5

Anthropology is very much aware of culture in the context of the lifecourse process and aging. …

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