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New Books :: Breastfeeding + Anthropology + Black Feminist Anthropology (Video)

51ZC76R533LI got new books! Ones that feel like they have been on my wishlist for what seemed like forever and I finally got around to ordering them. What do they all have in common? They are written by anthropologists. There’s not much out there in the way of breastfeeding texts from an anthropological perspective, so coming across these is awesome and rare. The Anthropology of Breastfeeding: Natural Law or Social Construct discusses the deeper issues behind breastfeeding, and since the text is still en route to my house via USPS, here’s what says about it:

‘On the whole, the debates surrounding the issues of breast-feeding – often reflecting ethnographic and ill-informed medical and demographic approaches – have failed to treat the deeper issues. The significance of breast-feeding reaches far beyond its biological function; in fact, the authors of this volume argue, there is nothing `natural’ about breast-feeding itself. On the contrary, attitudes and practices are socially determined, and breast-feeding has to be seen as an essential element in the cultural construction of sexuality. This volume offers an `ethnography’ of breast-feeding by examining cultural norms and practices in a number of European and non-European societies, thus presenting valuable and often astonishing empirical material that is not otherwise readily available. The highly original focus of this volume therefore throws new light on gender and on social relationships in general.’

51CtczxpOvLNext, I haven’t had all that much exposure to Katherine Dettwyler’s work. I do know she is from here in the U.S. and Breastfeeding Biocultural Perspectives is her second text — that is co-edited, her first single-authored is on death and dying. I visited her website ‘Thoughts On Breastfeeding’ on a few occasions, and saw her in the documentary Breasts recently, but that’s pretty much the extent. This book is about examining the biological process of breastfeeding along with the culturally determined behavior. The cover says this viewpoint ‘has important implications for understanding the past, present, and future condition of our species’, which can all happen through this custom. I’m excited to see what it has to offer.

41K7JDM70JLFinally, Faye V. Harrison, PhD, a cultural (political) Black Feminist Anthropologist and professor at the University of Florida who focuses on the African Diaspora, human rights, critical race feminism and others. . . . and her work changed my life.

When I was an undergrad I came across Dr. Harrison as I was preparing to enroll in an independent study course. I found myself at a point where I began to question the ethics of anthropology, and began to have doubts about the ideas of going off to a foreign land just to study people and produce scholarship in order to finish a dissertation and get a PhD, among various other concerns. I couldn’t fully articulate my thoughts at that moment but it seemed exploitative and weighed heavily on me. At this same time I was also extremely lonely and discouraged and was yearning to find more Black women in the discipline; besides the few white women that had been elected the voice of ‘women’ in the field — Margaret Mead, Eleanor Leacock, Sally Slocum, the mainstream theoretical perspectives taught in class are all made up of ‘Dead white men on parade’. I came across Dr. Harrison’s professional website and sent her a message and graciously she provided me with information, names of other Black women in the field and told me about her book Outsider Within: Reworking Anthropology in the Global Age that at the time of our correspondence was not so long ago published. It was through this text is where I discovered that anthropology can reach far beyond the mainstream white-centric and often imperialistic ideas of ethnography, note-taking, and promoting ‘Otherization,’ but it could radically transform, promote social equality and voice (especially vulnerable) communities. This is what I was looking for. And it opened up an entire new world. I ended up doing a presentation in the Anthropology Department, based on the information from this independent study and the theory from Outsider Within, along with another text I used for the course, Black Feminist Anthropology, to ask why, in a discipline that claims to largely debunk social stratification, do we continue to promote racist and gendered ideology, exclusivity and marginalization and why it’s important to see the viewpoints of Black women anthropologists, and hear what we had to say then and what we continue to say now. I titled it ‘Anthropological Theory! Where Are Our Sistahs?’

Were it not for Dr. Harrison’s work, there is little doubt that I would not be here today promoting breastfeeding from the angle that I do because I probably wouldn’t have even continued studying anthropology. Instead, I’m almost certain I would have dropped the discipline all together for disappointment and changed my major, but I once again fell in love with it since it was now in alignment with my personal and professional beliefs.

Resisting Racism And Xenophobia is edited by Dr. Harrison, and is a ‘collection of essays [that] focuses on the intersections between race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationality that exert a huge influence on human rights conflicts around the world.’ Though it does not explicitly discuss breastfeeding or birth, racism and xenophobia underscore disparities, and must become central to the conversation. I’m thrilled I finally own a copy.

I found the video below with Dr. Harrison that is from a recent talk she gave at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. In it, she discusses ‘The Cultural Politics of Race in the New Millennium.’ Listen carefully.

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7 thoughts on “New Books :: Breastfeeding + Anthropology + Black Feminist Anthropology (Video)

  1. I haven’t heard of the Maher book – I’ll have to check that out when I graduate and have time to read again!

    I’m using the Biocultural Perspectives text extensively for my thesis – It has a LOT of bio, and some cultural. My favorites are the Stuart-Macadam chapter, Dettwylers chapters, Penny Van Esterik, and the commentaries at the back. There are some great resources in there on the health aspects of breastfeeding, lactational amenorrhea, and other bio aspects, plus some bits on historical and cultural context. Very little on critical medical anthropology perspectives – structural violence, political economy, etc.

    1. I am SO excited about these books. I feel like I’ve wanted them for forever and I really could have sworn I got the Anthropology of Breastfeeding reference from your site, so now I’m curious how I even heard about it in the first place, LOL.

      I’m sure I’ll be using the Dettwyler book a ton, especially since it is filled with so much biological info, but I would LOVE to find one that does address the ‘Other’ issues from those critical perspectives, like you mentioned. I think I get a sort of a high when I get my hands on new anthro material! :)

  2. Hi Acquanda!  Just suggested these books for purchase by the Bastyr library, and forwarded to Dept of Midwifery. Thanks for keeping us up to date.  

  3. Yep. We could have. And of course that would mean mulling over the entire point of my post about the continued way white supremacy dominates and that white people can remain insular, AND that white women continue to be central to EVERY conversation. Your comment is not relevant in this context. We cannot do “without all the race stuff”!

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