Volume 4, Issue 4
This edition of the PPPJ is a special issue devoted to the field of pre- and perinatal anthropology (see my editorial in the last issue, and also my 1989 review article in Vol. 3, No. 4 of PPPJ and my earlier article in the special Pre-Congress issue of the PPPANA Journal in 1985). Anthropology is the broadest of the social sciences and takes as its data base all of the 4,000-plus cultures on the planet and the entire course of evolution of our species. Anthropologists typically tend to carry out naturalistic field research and very little in the way of experimentation or clinical work. Fieldworkers, such as Janet and Philip Kilbride and Ben Blount often spend months and even years living with people in other societies, participating in their hosts' way of life, and recording what they experience and learn from their stay. I did much the same among the So of northeastern Uganda and the among Tibetan lamas in Nepal and India.
Anthropology consists of five subdisciplines. Most anthropologists carry out sociocultural research of the sort just mentioned. Physical, or biological anthropologists like Wenda Trevathan, however, are interested in the evolution of our species, and the several species that came before us in what we call the "hominid line." Some anthropologists do archaeology which is the study of human prehistory (archaeology is the one subdiscipline unrepresented in this issue of PPPJ). Still others specialize Qike Ben Blount) in linguistic anthropology which, as the name implies, is the study of the world's languages, their differences and similarities, and how they are acquired by children. And finally, some anthropologists attempt to apply our understanding of human sociocultural dynamics to the solution of current social problems. These are called applied anthropologists. Lois Chetelat's work represents an applied perspective.
The authors in this issue were invited to contribute and they responded admirably. Not only do they demonstrate four of the five subdisciplines of anthropology for us, they also address some crucial topics that may expand our global understanding of the evolutionary and cultural background of pre- and peri-natal psychology. Wenda Trevathan discusses the evolutionary processes that brought about the extreme behavioral helplessness and dependence of the human infant. Much of this has to do with the complex interplay between the development of our large brain and the limits of our relatively small birth canal. Although the human newborn is behaviorally altricial compared with other mammals, the extent of this helplessness will vary across cultures. The Kilbrides address this issue with respect to their fieldwork among the Baganda of East Africa.
It is a curious fact that women in most cultures require birth attendants. Wenda Trevathan in her book, Human Birth: An Evolutionary Perspective, suggests that this is so because the human baby is born in such a way as it is awkward, and even dangerous, for the mother to birth entirely by herself. And in most cultures it is the older experienced women in the community that act as midwives. The interesting question arises, then, as to how the predominantly male profession of obstetrics came to dominate the birthing process in several modern states. Lois Chetelat, herself a nurse in Third World countries for many years, and now an applied anthropologist, offers a cultural analysis of the process by which obstetrics came to take over the birthing system in Canada.
Current research suggests that the fetus and newborn are exquisitely sensitive to the speech going on around them. And newborns become quite active in initiating social communication with their caregivers. We need a better understanding of the early periods of language acquisition. As Ben Blount makes clear in his article, early experiences of language have a formative influence upon the more general process of acquiring culture. And these experiences are conditioned by how the caregivers perceive and conceive communication with the very young.
I hope you will enjoy these papers as much as I have, and that they will help us all to flesh-out our pre- and peri-natal psychology so that it better accounts for early life among humans everywhere on the planet.