Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Birth as an American Rite of Passage

Birth as an American Rite of Passage: Second Edition, With a New Preface

Robbie E. Davis-Floyd
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 2
Pages: 424
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Birth as an American Rite of Passage
    Book Description:

    Why do so many American women allow themselves to become enmeshed in the standardized routines of technocratic childbirth--routines that can be insensitive, unnecessary, and even unhealthy? Anthropologist Robbie Davis-Floyd first addressed these questions in the 1992 edition. Her new preface to this 2003 edition of a book that has been read, applauded, and loved by women all over the world, makes it clear that the issues surrounding childbirth remain as controversial as ever.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92721-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. Tables
    (pp. x-x)
  4. Preface to the Second Edition
    (pp. xi-xl)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xli-xlii)
  6. Introduction: Birth as a Rite of Passage
    (pp. 1-21)

    Across cultures and throughout history, humankind has used rites of passage to transmit cultural beliefs and values to the individuals participating in those rites. In non-Western cultures, specific rituals, often involving the entire community, accompany such life-changing events as birth, puberty, and death. Such rituals generally serve to imbue individuals in transition with a sense of the cosmic importance of the group and of the place of the individual within that group. Although pregnancy and childbirth are life-changing events, in our technologically oriented society there appears to be no society-wide spiritual or humanistic rite of passage to initiate newborn mother...

  7. CHAPTER 1 One Year: The Stages of the Pregnancy/Childbirth Rite of Passage
    (pp. 22-43)

    The phase during which the newly pregnant woman gradually separates herself from her former social identity has its beginnings in very first flutterings of conscious awareness of the possibility of pregnancy. For a time she will probably live with the intensely personal experience of the wondering; finally, wary of misinterpreting what her body tells her, she will usually seek the scientific confirmation of the drugstore test. If the results convince her, her next moves will usually be to tell the baby’s father and call the doctor, not always in that order.¹

    The first days of beyond-a-doubt pregnancy will be ones...

  8. CHAPTER 2 The Technocratic Model: Past and Present
    (pp. 44-72)

    The rituals of initiatory rites of passage convey symbolic messages that speak of a culture’s most deeply held values and beliefs. Many of American society’s most deeply held values and beliefs derive from the model of reality we inherited from the Scientific Revolution in Europe. As Carolyn Merchant demonstrates inThe Death of Nature(1983), it during the seventeenth-century period of the rapid commercial expansion of Western society that the machine replaced the organism as underlying metaphor for the organization of man’s universe. (Prior to this time, the dominant European folk view held that the earth was living organism infused...

  9. CHAPTER 3 Birth Messages
    (pp. 73-153)

    This chapter decodes the messages conveyed by hospital birth rituals, otherwise known as “standard procedures for normal birth.” These ritual procedures, common in many American hospitals, make birth appear to conform to the technocratic model and babies appear to have been produced by society. Each procedure is explained in detail in the body of the chapter; here I will provide the reader with a brief overview of these “standard procedures” in order to provide a basis for the symbolic analysis that follows.

    Upon entering the hospital, the laboring woman is taken in a wheelchair to a “prep” room. There she...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Belief Systems About Birth: The Technocratic, Wholistic, and Natural Models
    (pp. 154-186)

    As most writers in symbolic anthropology will acknowledge, it is one thing to decode the messages that a particular society sends in its rituals, and quite another to discover exactly how those messages are received. Clearly, the passive absorption of core beliefs and values during rites of passage cannot be taken for granted.

    How successful are hospital birth rituals at accomplishing their didactic and socializing goals? What is the relationship between the number and type of ritual procedures performed on a birthing woman and her overall psychological perception of her birth experience? Can ritual fail? Can a woman give birth...

  11. CHAPTER 5 How the Messages Are Received: The Spectrum of Response
    (pp. 187-240)

    In order to understand the broad spectrum of individual response to the rituals of hospital birth, we will focus on the relationship between three factors: the technocratic model of reality dominant in the hospital, the belief system with which a birthing woman enters the hospital, the ultimateconceptual outcomeof her birth experience. By “conceptual outcome,” I mean the woman’s ultimate psychological interpretation of her birth experience as positive or negative, empowering or victimizing, joyful or traumatizing—in other words, whether that experience tends to affirm or to destroy the self-image she wishes to hold. As stated previously, the single...

  12. CHAPTER 6 Scars into Stars: The Reinterpretation of the Childbirth Experience
    (pp. 241-251)

    The possibilities outlined in the above quotation are as applicable to the long-term effects of birth rituals as to the Catholic mass about which the quotation was written. Many of the women in my study did indeed continue to “flesh out” the cognitive content of their ritualized births. As we saw in Chapter 5, for those women who felt self-empowered by their births, or for whom the cognitive content of hospital birth rituals was not radically divergent from their own, more complex reality models, this took “relatively little effort.” Those women who found a great discrepancy between the cognitive content...

  13. CHAPTER 7 Obstetric Training as a Rite of Passage
    (pp. 252-280)

    In this chapter I shall examine obstetric training in the United States as an initiatory rite of passage. The theories from symbolic anthropology utilized previously in this book to interpret birth as a rite of passage for the woman will be applied to certain aspects of medical school training and obstetrical residency in order to bring to light the deep often covert sociocultural processes at work in the transformation of medical students into obstetricians.

    Obstetrical education during residency has been well and thoroughly documented by feminist researchers Oakley (1984), Scully (1980), Shaw (1974), and by women physicians Carver (1981) and...

  14. CHAPTER 8 The Computerized Birth? Some Ritual and Political Implications for the Future
    (pp. 281-291)

    To me personally, one of the most significant results of my research was that, when I added together the women who either accepted, demanded, or merely did not mind the eventual complete application the technocratic model to their births, fully 70 percent of the births occurred in varying degrees of conceptual harmony with the technocratic model. In other words, the majority of the women I interviewed either desired, actively sought, or accepted as appropriate the technocratic treatment they experienced. Only 15 percent actually desired and achieved natural childbirth in the hospital, and only 9 percent who desired natural childbirth but...

  15. CHAPTER 9 —Or Birth as the Biodance?
    (pp. 292-304)

    The preceding chapter discussed the social consensus on the technocratization of birth, as well as potential directions in birth’s further technocratization and some of the political implications of those directions. This chapter will investigate several aspects of individual and social resistance to those trends, and some of their political and futuristic implications.

    Although 70 percent of the women in my study either wanted or were comfortable with their technocratic births the first time around, 30 percent were not. Of those 30 percent, 15 percent were active birthgivers in the hospital, 9 percent were devastated when their desires to be so...

  16. Conclusion
    (pp. 305-308)

    In this book, I have applied a model derived from symbolic anthropology to the pregnancy/childbirth process which interprets this process as a year-long initiatory rite of passage. In so doing, I have sought to demonstrate that the same anthropological theory that applies to religious ritual can be utilized to illuminate the underlying cultural significance of modern technology and its uses. I have argued that childbirth is a rite of passage of tremendous cognitive significance for the mother in American society; that the messages conveyed by the rituals of hospital birth both reflect and reinforce the core values of our society;...

  17. Appendix A Interview Questions Asked of Mothers
    (pp. 309-312)
  18. Appendix B Interview Questions Asked of Obstetricians
    (pp. 313-316)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 317-330)
  20. References
    (pp. 331-368)
  21. Index
    (pp. 369-382)