Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 36, Issue 3, pp 557–570 | Cite as

Scissors as Symbols: Disputed Ownership of the Tools of Biomedical Obstetrics in Rural Indonesia

  • Vanessa M. HildebrandEmail author
Circumstantial Delivery


In the hands of both traditional and clinic midwives in rural Indonesia a simple biomedical tool, umbilical cord scissors, has come to develop a social life that symbolizes potential futures. In rural Indonesian villages resources are limited, maternal and infant mortality rates are high, and there is robust competition for both patients and status between traditional and clinic midwives, all set against nationalist pressure to “modernize.” The perceived right to use the umbilical cord scissors in a professional setting is contested. The folk midwives use the umbilical cord scissors to publically reference access to biomedical obstetric knowledge, a domain claimed by clinic midwives. This paper explores the way that the traditional midwives construct a hybrid modern identity by marking a place for traditional and biomedical obstetric systems in the treatment of childbirth. Further, this paper argues that traditional midwives use the symbolically laden umbilical cord scissors in their attempt to remain locally relevant and to circumvent the mission of the clinic programs to eradicate their practice.


Symbol Science and Technology Studies Authority Expertise Midwifery 



I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for generous and helpful commentary. In addition, I would like to thank Eileen Anderson-Fye, Ariel Cascio, Woody Gaines, Lee Hoffer, and Jenny Johnston for comments on earlier drafts of this paper. As always, thanks to the women of Sungai.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Case Western Reserve UniversityClevelandUSA

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