A sociological approach to pregnancy and childbirth centralises the social aspect of these physiological and biological events. Sociologists emphasise the impact of society’s values, beliefs and patterns of behaviour on the way in which they are interpreted and given meaning by people. Pregnancy and childbirth are social events in that they take place within a surrounding economic and social system and are understood within a cultural value system. Like other social events, such as marriage and death, interpretations and meanings given by a society are subject to historical change and will also exhibit social class and ethnic variations. What singles out pregnancy and childbirth from other social events however, is the exclusively gendered nature of the experience. No other life event is exclusively a matter for one sex only. Even a previously predominantly (never exclusive) male experience such as active service and death in war has, during this century, become a civilian experience shared by women and children. Even traditional male occupations such as mining, deep-sea fishing or oil-rig working have been undertaken by women at certain times: male predominance is due more to social and organisational policies and ideologies than to biological determination. But pregnancy and childbirth ‘belong’ to women. This explains why feminist scholarship has virtually monopolised sociological and historical analyses of the social construction of pregnancy and birth. A common thread which runs through all accounts is that of the domination of a patriarchal culture which first appropriated, then controlled and organised, this female experience. The sociological approach, then, is to stress the nature of power relations in society and how these affect the ways in which pregnancy and childbirth are experienced. In order to illustrate the social aspect of the interpretation of this experience, we can look back historically to see how the social meaning placed upon pregnancy and childbirth has changed historically.
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