Birth as Ritual/Ritual as Birth
Cultural anthropologist, Robbie Davis-Floyd, is a leading anthropologist in the fields of childbirth, midwifery, and obstetrics.
A Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas-Austin, she has studied childbirth practices firsthand in the U.S., Mexico, and elsewhere, and has promoted the work and legitimacy of midwives around the world.
Robbie Davis-Floyd (back row, right) honored by the North American Registry of Midwives (NARM) for helping create a nationally recognized certification process for professional midwives in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada
She has also lectured as a featured, keynote speaker at over 1,000 universities and health practitioners’ conferences in the US and internationally, always taking the opportunity to learn more about the maternity care systems of the countries she has visited.
Davis-Floyd serves as a Board member of the International MotherBaby Childbirth Organization (IMBCO) and its new International Childbirth Initiative (ICI): 12 Steps to Safe and Respectful MotherBaby Family Maternity Care. She is also Senior Advisor to the Council on Anthropology and Reproduction, and Associate Editor of Medical Anthropology Quarterly.
Considering the cumulative impact of her energetic and creative efforts on many fronts to promote healthy childbirth without unnecessary, high-tech interventions, it is probably no exaggeration to say that Robbie Davis-Floyd has long served as the “public face of anthropology” to the international childbirth movement. Her work has been instrumental in bringing anthropological insights into the global childbirth arena and in effecting humanistic changes in childbirth practices in many countries. Indeed, given the impact of her work, she is considered a “living legend” among birth activists both within and beyond anthropology.
Despite the enormous impact of her research, writing, and speaking on childbirth practices in the U.S. and elsewhere, birth is by no means the only topic that Davis-Floyd has studied. She’s recently given birth to a delightfully readable, new book, The Power of Ritual, co-authored with neuroanthropologist, Charles Laughlin.
Cultural anthropologist, Claire Farrer, has called the new volume “an exquisite and informative book,” writing:
I wish that this book had been available during my long teaching career–I would have used it in all my relevant courses!
Beyond professors and students, because of its breezy writing style, combined with its captivating examples from common experiences in Westerners’ lives, the book will surely appeal to many “ordinary” readers. Birth educator, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, has written:
Before I read The Power of Ritual, I thought I knew what ritual was, yet now I know that it is so much more–it can be everything from a simple conversation-opener to a powerful healing process, from an individual’s daily habits to full-scale ceremony. I have learned much from this book that I can apply to my own life to enable me to more consciously perform my daily, family, and professional rituals.
Robbie and I recently chatted about the book online. You can read our conversation below.
Meanwhile, you can learn more about Robbie Davis-Floyd’s work on her website here, including her C.V. You can also find a view of Davis-Floyd’s many published books here, and downloadable PDFs of most of her dozens of published journal articles and book chapters here.
RDF: Robbie Davis-Floyd
AG: Alma Gottlieb
AG: You’re well known for helping develop and promote the anthropologies of childbirth, midwifery, obstetrics, and reproduction. Your fans may be surprised at the focus of this book on ritual. Yet, your first book (developing from your dissertation), Birth as an American Rite of Passage, used ritual as an analytic frame.
In that sense, would you say that The Power of Ritual reprises the conversation about ritual that you began nearly 30 years ago? Or, takes it in new directions? Or both?
Put differently (and more broadly), why would an anthropologist of childbirth write a book about ritual?
RDF: I’ve come full circle, as I did not start out as a birth anthropologist! My original graduate training was in both Folklore and Anthropology, and my interest in ritual was sparked by one of my Folklore professors, Roger Abrahams, whose writings on ritual I found enticing.
I did my Master’s thesis on the folklore of a Texas madam, Edna Milton, who for many years ran the notorious Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas—featured, after its closing, in the movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The article I wrote about how Edna’s masterful use of jokes and other forms of language manipulation kept her in total control of the Chicken Ranch, its customers, and its employees was published in the Journal of American Folkore and was widely used for teaching for many years, as it clearly shows how jokes and folktales can be used for manipulation, plus it is hysterically funny!
In the middle of my PhD studies, I took some time off to spend a year traveling around Mexico and learning Spanish. I returned to Mexico often and worked with two shamans—Don Lucio, a traditional shaman and “weather-worker” (trabajador del tiempo) from a small village in central Mexico, and Edgardo Vasquez Gomez, a wealthy businessman living in Cuernavaca who had traveled the country in his younger years studying sorcery (brujeria), magic, and traditional healing, and later combined that with the teachings and philosophy of the Russian philosopher, G. I Gurdjieff. Both had large followings, and both could actually manipulate energy and perform what I experienced as magic. If you combined them into one person, you would get someone very like Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan.
I know that Castaneda’s work has been discredited, but the two shamans I worked with were real—as were the effects of the (very different types of) rituals they performed. We used to joke that Edgardo was Don Juan. In my doctoral program, I later wrote several long papers on myth, ritual, and shamanism in Mexico and expected to do my dissertation research with those two. (That was before computers, and those papers, sadly, were lost in a house fire.)
But then I had a baby, got “bitten by the birth bug,” and decided, instead, to research women’s childbirth narratives, as I was still in folklore mode. Yet the more women I interviewed, the more one question grabbed me:
Given the highly individual nature of each woman’s birth experience for that woman, why is birth treated in such a standardized way in American hospitals?
I began to research the scientific literature on birth. I soon realized that the vast majority of “standard obstetric procedures” did nothing to make birth safer. Instead, they made it more predictable and controllable—while unnecessarily harming women and babies in the process.
At first, I was confused. Like most people, I had assumed that obstetrics was based on science. When I realized it wasn’t, I had to ask the most basic anthropological question: Why? Why would doctors do things to women that didn’t make birth safer? The explanation hit me like a bombshell.
’”Standard obstetric procedures” do not come from the logic of science but, rather, from the logic of ritual. Like most rituals, they reflect the core values of their culture—in this case, the culture of technocratic societies.
They are designed, as so many rituals are, to try to control the uncontrollable forces of nature, to keep fear at bay–in this case, fear of both death and lawsuits. So, I switched from simply analyzing women’s birth narratives to a focus on analyzing obstetric procedures as rituals.
To fully explore this notion, I needed to understand ritual more, and its primary characteristic– the use of powerful symbols to convey meaning. I took a summer seminar at the University of Virginia with Christopher Crocker on what was then called “symbolic anthropology” (now “interpretive anthropology”). I also taught myself medical anthropology, which I had never formally studied. But I had to become an expert in it, as pregnancy and childbirth had long ago become defined as medical events.
After reading almost everything that Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, Arnold van Gennep, and many others had written about ritual, I saw that birth, which used to be a physical and social rite of passage replete with social rituals, had become a completely medicalized rite of passage. The rituals that characterize birth everywhere had become medical rituals, officially disguised as “standard procedures.”
Dissatisfied with the many definitions of ritual I read, I created my own:
a ritual is a patterned, repetitive, symbolic (and often transformative) enactment of a cultural (or individual) belief or value.
Obstetric rituals enact the core values of what I called “the technocracy”—a term that came to me from Peter Reynolds, via his book, Stealing Fire: The Atomic Bomb as Symbolic Body, but that I redefined:
a technocracy is a hierarchical, bureaucratic, capitalist, and (still) patriarchal society organized around the supervaluation [a word I coined] of the progressive development of high technologies and the global flow of information via those technologies.
I generated a list of what we might perceive as characteristics of rituals: symbolism, rhythmic repetition, order, formality, framing, performance, acting, stylization, staging, and often, intensification toward a climax. In my dissertation (which became my first book, Birth as an American Rite of Passage), in a chapter called “Birth Messages,” I dissected each standard obstetric procedure—its official rationale, the scientific evidence against it, women’s highly varied responses to it—and explained how it acted as a ritual by enacting, displaying, and transmitting specific core technocratic values and beliefs to women, their partners, and their practitioners.
At first, some ritual scholars like Ron Grimes argued that I was metaphorizing obstetric procedures as rituals, but that they were not really rituals—they were like rituals—because most scholars saw ritual as religion-based. But since the publication of my book in 1992, and its second edition in 2003, my analysis of hospital birthing practices as rituals has held, and its framework for understanding the characteristics of “secular ritual“ (using childbirth as an example) has been widely used.
AG: What a fascinating intellectual history! So, for this book on ritual, how did you decide to collaborate with a co-author who specializes in neurological approaches to human experience?
RDF: From analyzing birth narratives, I saw that women’s perceptions of themselves and their ability to give birth were profoundly affected by technological hospital rituals (such as IVs, electronic fetal monitoring, Pitocin induction or augmentation, episiotomies, immediate cord clamping, etc.). So I knew there was a missing piece in my growing understanding of ritual. It seemed clear that ritual can affect the human brain–but how?
Davis-Floyd’s research has helped document the much higher likelihood of a C-section once a woman’s labor is “induced,” or accelerated, with Pitocin
I searched the literature but found no answers until, one day, while browsing the book stalls at the annual American Anthropological Association conference, I saw a book way at the back of the Oxford exhibit booth. That particular book was literally glowing at me—in much the same way that I could often see the reins of energy that Edgardo held in his hands glowing during group meetings. I pulled the book out, and my life changed! It was called The Spectrum of Ritual, and it gave me the answers I was looking for. Here, finally, was the missing piece—the neurophysiology of ritual, the explanations for how ritual works on the brain and, thus, where it gets its power over us humans—starting with its multiple roles among animals.
A few years later, I met one of its authors, Charles Laughlin, at a conference. We both had read everything the other had written, so our meeting was intense and our ensuing friendship equally so. We eventually decided to co-author a book on The Power of Ritual–because I wanted to expand my study of ritual into other arenas besides birth, while Charlie wanted to put his highly esoteric work on ritual (characterized by what he termed ”neurognosis”) in more straightforward language, so he could make it accessible to people with IQs lower than 180. I kept telling him, “Just dumb it down and tell stories”!
RDF: Not really. Charlie accepted my definition of ritual as the one we would use. We also used most of my list of the characteristics of ritual. At some point, though, we realized that some factors on my original list, such as the fact that rituals generally work to preserve the status quo yet, paradoxically, can also be used to generate rapid social or religious change, were actually effects of ritual, not characteristics.
In this book, I finally was able to write about my long-ago work with the two Mexican shamans. Unfortunately, it was all from memory, since, as I previously mentioned, the graduate school papers I had written about those experiences had all burned up in a house fire.
AG: This book begins with a theoretical discussion of how to define and analyze ritual, but it ends with a surprisingly down-to-earth section offering models for how contemporary readers might create their own rituals for important moments in their lives, whether for menarche, meditation, lucid dreaming, prayer, birth (as Melissa Cheyney has shown, homebirthers in particular create lots of rituals for honoring, de-medicalizing, and helping them through the labor process–see her article, “Reinscribing the Birthing Body: Homebirth as Ritual Performance”), death, or other significant events or experiences.
When we think about “engaged anthropology,” we usually have more economic or political transformations in mind. Would you consider the “how-to” section of the book another variety of “engaged anthropology”?
RDF: Yes! And also of “applied anthropology.” Anthropological understandings gained from studying people and their lifeworlds should be expressed in ways that enable people to apply them to their own lives and use them for their own purposes. We need to come down out of our ivory towers and make our work relevant and useful in immediate ways. That is why Charlie and I put so many personal examples of ritual into our book—to engage readers with those experiences and help them directly apply them, should they wish to do so.
AG: So, what’s next?
RDF: Our refinement of both of our life’s works in this book is now feeding back into the third edition of Birth as an American Rite of Passage, which I am working on now, and which will be a complete revision and update (this time with a co-author, the amazing Missy Cheyney). Another full circle!
But I‘ve never confined myself completely to birth and related subjects. In addition to ritual and symbol, I’ve also intensively studied cults (as described in The Power of Ritual), medical doctors who became holistic healers (as described in From Doctor to Healer: The Transformative Journey), futures planning via global scenarios, and aerospace engineers. But those are stories for another time. That’s one of the great values of anthropology. Once you have the tools, you can study any phenomenon that captures your interest!
AG: Any other future projects in the works?
RDF: Betty-Anne Daviss and I are in the process of finishing Childbirth Models on the Human Rights Frontier: Speaking Truth to Power—a sort of follow-up to our book, Birth Models That Work (2009), which has been called “seminal” (though we would have preferred “ovarial”) because it was the first book to describe truly functional birth practice models that are woman-centered and evidence-based—as opposed to the dysfunctional, non-evidence-based maternity care models that predominate almost everywhere.
This new follow-up volume describes models that are way more “out on the edge”—in high-poverty, disaster, and war zones, for example. It also discusses birth models that are more iconoclastic, while addressing professional bullying and competition among doctors, and the de-skilling of obstetricians in techniques for vaginal breech birth.
Our next project will be an edited volume called The Global Witch Hunt: The Ongoing Persecution of Woman-Centered Birth Practitioners. Its purpose is to call attention to the often-intense persecution of some of the most skilled midwives and obstetricians in the world, who will often go out on a limb to honor the wishes for a normal birth of women considered high-risk, by attending them at home or in hospital, but then get punished for putting the woman, not the protocols, first. The “witch-hunted” practitioners will tell their own stories in each chapter, while we co-editors (Betty Anne-Daviss, Hermine Hayes Klein, and myself) will contextualize those stories in the Introduction and Conclusion.
In another vein, for years I have been writing short stories, which I hope to publish some day in a book called Robbie’s Reader: Vignettes of My Magical Life—for my life has indeed felt magical, primarily because my anthropological research and international talks have taken me all over the world, filled my life with adventure, and given me great stories to tell!