Salad days

Conceiving the New World Order
March 22, 1996

This edited volume weaves together the fields of politics, history, anthropology, feminist theory and social policy to argue for "the centrality of reproduction to social life" and social theory.

The editors asked for first-person narratives stating a contributor's "motives" for analysis. They advocate the need for conceiving (thinking, not begetting; was the pun intended?) of a new framework for analysis (a "new world order") in which reproduction is the centre of theoretical and practical concerns. The book discusses these concerns in great depth, though in language which is sometimes truly dense.

The perspective is avowedly "global", examining the processes that structure reproduction across cultures. For example, Gertrude Fraser charts the demise of African American midwives following the "cultural hygienisation of reproductive health care". John O'Neil and Patricia Kaufert explain Inuit resistance to Canadian policies requiring hospital-based births. For the Inuit, interventions "complicate a birth that would otherwise be normal and easy", slowing down labour to conform with a textbook medical ideology that regards Inuit childbearing as "abnormally" quick.

The contributions in this book handle rather well the conflation of biological, cultural and political issues set in specific historical contexts. For example, Adrienne Zihlman examines biological evolutionary theory and enlarges its narrow focus on (male) reproductive success, explaining why models featuring women (gatherers) were not given serious consideration. In her words, women gathering "salad" were undervalued relative to men hunting "bacon".

Some authors focus on politics, particularly state control of women's reproductive rights. Ann Anagost reviews China's one- child policy, "perhaps the most stringent population policy in world history", a national intervention directed to "reproduce less" in order to "reproduce better". The Chinese Communist Party, previously involved in controlling production, now aims to control reproduction, employing birth-policy workers to keep women under surveillance and offer abortions for out-of-plan births. This policy causes enormous grief, representing "a monumental form of national self-mutilation" and a "euphemised violence" to women.

Similarly, Gail Kligman narrates the impact of the banning of abortion in Romania under Ceausescu.

Other contributors focus primarily on cultural constructs. For example, Shellee Colen examines the parenting styles of West Indian nannies and their white middle-class employers in New York, emphasising a distinct "cultural construction of parenting and childcare". US mothers felt uncomfortable with the "no-fuss" attitude of West Indian women, who did not "intervene enough" in disputes, or "play on their hands and knees" in sand pits. In turn West Indian women, often forced to leave their own children in foster care, felt their employers gave them little respect.

Colen argues that reproduction is stratified in this context, and inequalities of class and race are reproduced also.

"Rethinking demography, biology and social policy" reasserts the importance of culture in fields of science that seek to objectify the study of birth events. Soheir Morsy takes issue with the epidemiological construct of maternal mortality, which narrowly equates women's health with reproductive behaviour. Peter and Jane Schneider examine why coitus interruptus was endorsed in Sicily and spread within Europe. Tola Pearce discusses why reproductive practices in Nigeria, bound up with women's identities in polygynous families, cannot simply be controlled by the injection of highly technical methods of birth control.

Reproduction is not just about having babies, it is also about reproducing culture. Some communities experience pervasive or threatening change, which leads to a reinterpretation or reaffirmation of cultural identity. In one section Veena Das gives a dramatic and moving account of women's vulnerability after the 1947 partition of India. While local communities managed to accommodate personal tragedies by assimilating women who had been raped and abducted, the state resolved to recover abducted women and restore the honour of their nation. Sharon Stephens presents an unusual ethnography of reindeer herders fighting Scandinavian state rulings on health and reproductive risks incurred by post-Chernobyl radiation fall-out.

The book concludes with some "theorising about female experience", examining concepts of reproduction, forged and changed throughout the 18th century (Ludmilla Jordanova), concepts of property (the body as one's own, or as a "house of a thousand doors" that others have access to; Rosalind Petchesky), and concepts of sibling-incest with implication for social theory (Anette Weiner).

Catherine Panter-Brick is lecturer in anthropology, University of Durham.

Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction

Editor - Faye D. Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp
ISBN - 0 520 08913 8 and 08914 6
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £35.00 and £13.95

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