Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Birth of a Doctor (of Philosophy)

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a former client's dissertation defense. Better still, its subject was middle class American women's experiences of pregnancy.

[caveat: I am not an anthropologist nor familiar AT ALL with anthropological theory. What follows is my lay-person interpretation of her and her committee's comments]

In particular, she looked at pregnancy through the lens of kinship theory (i.e. family-making writ large). Apparently there are several ways kinship is established, or hypothesized to be established. One is biology and biogenetics, commonly thought of as shared genes or bloodlines. Family is family because they share lineage.

A more interesting approach, however, is the substance of kinship as developed in shared rituals, customs, interactions, etc. In this way, pregnancy can very much be a vehicle for kin making. Pregnant women may ask for advice from other family members, receive gifts from the family, invite an extended family to the birth and in other ways bring the baby into the fold of its kin.

One thing that arose in this woman's research was the centrality of one's own body and bodily experiences to the process of kin-making. From "belly talk," when pregnant women and their partners talk to the growing fetus, to sensations of fetal movement felt internally by the gestating mother and externally by her partner and larger family, the body becomes the conduit for relationships.

The committee was extremely positive about the dissertation. They called it "ground breaking." Apparently American pregnancy is not well-studied, at least in an anthropological sense. And especially pregnancy as a joyful and empowering experience, not an experience of subjugation by the patriarchy. The committee compared this research to that of Robbie David Floyd (!) and said it would make a great book with contributions to the Anthropology of Reproduction, Medical Anthropology, Gender Studies (not least because fathers' experiences were included) and the Anthropology of Consumption (because we Americans are so good at incorporating "stuff" into the process of becoming parents).

What a treat to see one woman at the peak of two creative events in her life: her child's birth and her dissertation's defense.

Even more encouraging is the fact that a fellow student in her department is looking at breastfeeding and infant bonding through a similar bodily analysis.

Our pregnant lives and bodies are entering the academic literature as objects of power and strength, givers of life, sources of joy. Thank you and congratulations Ms. Newly-Minted Ph.D.!


Blogger mm said...

That sounds so interesting! I had to sigh at your mention of Robbie David Floyd... Who will be speaking at an open conference at my old stomping grounds this month! Something I envy from the "old days" when I could get to these things!
Congratulations to your friend... should she ever publish in the cyber media, would she allow you to let your readers know?

4:00 AM  
Blogger doulicia said...

K, I but she'd be happy to let me link to anything she's got in electronic form (though of course, I'd still ask permission). Also, when her book comes out, I'll probably read and review it anyway. So stay tuned!

8:59 AM  
Blogger I am a Milliner's Dream, a woman of many "hats"... said...

THAT is SO COOL...I'd love to hear it becomes a book, so I could read it!


4:15 PM  
Anonymous Stephanie said...

I would be just so flattered if someone compared me with Robbie David Floyd. I hope your friend was suitably uplifted.
Have you ever noticed that all the best stuff on this topic is so hard to explain at parties?

9:44 AM  
Blogger doulicia said...

That's a great point. I even stammer when people ask what the Center for the Childbearing Year does. I guess it probably used to be that way for poets, Buddah, etc.!

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Sallie Han said...

Dear Alicia and friends,

Just wanted to say how wonderful it was to have you attending the defense, just as you had attended my birth :) It seemed perfect. Also, I am so delighted with your review of the defense - I might have to borrow some of your words as I try to explain it to non-anthro-speakers.

It was a tremendous honor to hear my teachers and mentors speak so well of my dissertation. I just felt so humbled and overwhelmed - I even burst into tears right there at the defense. Also, I loved reading the generous comments here.

So, thanks so much for the enthusiasm! I am thinking about ways to make parts of the dissertation available to read. I hope it will be a good book. Be in touch!

12:46 PM  
Blogger doulicia said...

O.K., So Sallie has "outed" herself. I don't have to be mysterious any more. The name to watch for is Han! Congratulations again, Sallie!

3:46 PM  

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