19 Feb 2011
Jan 20/22
Reading 2
The rituals of American hospital birth
David McCurdy
The vast majority of American women are hooked up to an electronic fetal monitor
and an IV. They are encouraged to use pain-relieving drugs, receive an episiotomy
Anthropologist regularly describe other, less technological ways to give birth. For
example the Mayan Indians of highland ciapas hold onto a rope while squatting for
birth, a position that is far more physiologically efficacious than the flat-on-your-
back-with-your-feet-in-stirrups position.
Early in this century, Arnold van Gennep noticed that in many societies around the
world, major life transitions are ritualized. These cultural rites of passage make it
appear that society itself effects the transformation of the individual.
A ritual is a patterned, repetitive, and symbolic enactment of a cultural belief or
value; its primary purpose is alignment of their belief system of the individual with
that of society. A rite of passage is a series of rituals that move individuals from one
social state or status to another for example moving from girlhood to womanhood
Rites of passages are usually consist of three stages
o1. Separation of the individuals from their preceding social state
o2. A period of transition in which they are neither one thing nor the other
o3. An integration phase, in which, through various rites of incorporation, they
are absorbed into their new social state.
In a yearlong pregnancy/childbirth rite of passage in American society, the
separation phase begins with the womans first awareness of pregnancy; the
transition stage lasts until several days after the birth; and the integration phase
ends gradually in the newborns first few months of life
Victor Turner stated that they place their participants in a transition realm that has
few of the attributes of the past or coming state
Birth is an ideal candidate for ritualization of this sort and is in fact used in many
societies as a model for structuring other rites of passage. A society can ensure that
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its basic values will be transmitted to the three new members born out of the birth
process: the new baby, the woman reborn into the new social role of mother and the
man reborn as father
Ritual works by sending message in the form of symbols to those who perform and
those who observe it. A symbol is an object, idea, or action that is loaded with
cultural meaning
The left hemisphere decodes straightforward message
The right hemisphere decodes more complex messages
Routine obstetric procedures are highly symbolic. For example, to be seated in a
wheelchair upon entering the hospital, as many labouring women are, is to receive
through their bodies the symbolic message.
The intravenous drips commonly attached to the hands or arms of birthing women
make a powerful symbolic statement
By making her dependent on the institution for her life, the IV conveys to her one of
the most profound messages of her initiation experience: In American society, we are
all dependent on institutions for our lives.
Society and its institutions cannot exist unless women give birth, yet the birthing
woman in the hospital is shown, not that she gives life, but rather that the
institution does.
A matrix, like a womb is something from within which something else comes. Rituals
are not arbitrary; they come from within the belief system of a group
Analysis of the rituals of hospital birth reveals their cognitive matrix to be the
techno graphic model of reality which forms the philosophical basis of both western
biomedicine and American society.
A technocracy is a hierarchical, bureaucratic society driven by an ideology of
technological progress.
The technocratic model is the paradigm that charters such behaviour.
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