Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Medical Anthropology

pp 224-230


  • Carolyn Sargent


Birth, the physiological process of childbearing, is both a biological and cultural event. In all societies, the universal physiology of birth is culturally shaped and managed. Jordan’s (1978, 1993) groundbreaking work Birth in Four Cultures initiated the field of study now known as the anthropology of birth, or more broadly, the anthropology of reproduction. Following Jordan, anthropologists have focused on the study of birthing systems rather than on the comparison of individual and isolated “birth practices” which characterized the earliest anthropological references on this topic. The cross-cultural analysis of birthing systems has documented that birth is globally a culturally marked life crisis event that is socially patterned as well as being a biological phenomenon. The cultural patterning of birth includes beliefs and practices surrounding pregnancy; expectations regarding the circumstances in which pregnancy may occur and who may legitimately reproduce ...

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