Obstetrical Rituals and Cultural Anomaly: Part I
Publication Date:March 1990
A constant reminder that babies come from women and nature, not from technology and culture, childbirth calls into question our attempts at technological dominance of nature, confronting American society with a series of conceptual dilemmas with practical, procedural ramifications: how to create a sense of cultural control over birth, a natural process resistant to such control? How to make a birth, a powerfully female phenomenon, reinforce, instead of undermine, the patriarchal system upon which American society is still based? In the absence of universal baptism, how to enculturate a non-cultural baby?
Some of these dilemmas are universal problems presented by the birth process to all human societies; others are specific to American culture. Each contains within it a fundamental paradox, an opposition which must be culturally reconciled lest the anomaly of its existence undermine the fragile technology-based conceptual system in terms of which American society understands itself. After a brief discussion of the history of this technological paradigm, analysis of eight of these dilemmas will demonstrate how they have been neatly resolved by obstetrical rituals specifically designed to remove birth's conceptual threat to the technological model by making birth appear to confirm instead of challenge the basic tenets of that model. The ultimate goal of the presentation is to offer a convincing anthropological answer to the question that plagues so many of those involved with birth, "Since most standard obstetrical procedures are so irrational, why are they so universally used?"
Ritual forms an essential part of the matrix that organizes people into the social structure, and provides the glue that holds the social and cognitive structures together. . . . Its principal function . . . is to provide what we have termed the stage one state: the state that maximizes a single, univariate orientation to reality at any level of analysis-physiological, psychological, or social.