In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Socio-Cultural Approaches to the Anthropology of Reproduction

  • Introduction
  • Early Conceptual Frameworks and Edited Volumes
  • Critiques of the Medicalization of Reproduction
  • Pregnancy and Prenatal Care in North America
  • Fertility: Contraception, Menstruation, and Family Planning
  • Breastfeeding
  • In Vitro Fertilization and Surrogacy
  • Infertility and Reproductive Loss
  • Abortion
  • Adoption
  • Prenatal Genetic Testing
  • Male, Gay and Lesbian, and Transgender/Genderqueer Experiences of Reproduction
  • State Interventions into Reproduction: Policies and Practices

Anthropology Socio-Cultural Approaches to the Anthropology of Reproduction
Elise Andaya, Mounia El Kotni
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0197


Attention to reproduction within anthropology emerged in early cross-cultural studies, largely descriptive and ethnomedical in nature, that examined reproduction in the context of cultural and religious beliefs around conception, childbirth and postpartum taboos, and knowledge about fertility regulation. However, the topic was given a new theoretical framing and disciplinary significance beginning in the 1980s when feminist scholars built on prior work on gender and kinship to articulate a new field of analysis that firmly situated reproduction at the nexus of power and politics. As Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp argued in their article, “The Politics of Reproduction” (Ginsburg and Rapp 1991, cited under Early Conceptual Frameworks and Edited Volumes) that demarcated this new field that they called the “politics of reproduction,” biological and social reproduction are inextricably intertwined. Social struggles over biological reproduction were also struggles over the reproduction of communities, states, and the shape of cultural futures. This insight provided a new theoretical language and analytic optic for future anthropological research. The field has flourished in the past three decades, with anthropologists drawing on cross-cultural data to demonstrate how reproduction is interwoven with culturally and historically specific ideals of gender and personhood, as well as beliefs about the morality and modernity of people and societies. From this breadth of research have emerged two primary, but not mutually exclusive, foci. The first builds from the early feminist critiques of the medicalization of pregnancy to examine experiences of pregnancy and birth, as well as the uptake and social effects of reproductive technologies, around the globe. The second analytical trajectory focuses on the politics of reproduction in the context of social inequality. Drawing on the concept of stratified reproduction, research in this arena examines policies, ideologies, and practices that work to devalue and discourage the reproductive capacities of groups of people deemed less desirable by virtue of race/ethnicity, class, nationality, religious or cultural practices, and so forth, while valorizing and enabling the reproduction of other groups. Newer work also employs the concept of reproductive governance to describe the centrality of reproduction to diverse moral, political, economic, and national agendas. Given the wealth of research in this field, including important work in qualitative sociology and biological anthropology, citations here refer to full-length ethnographic monographs or edited volumes by socio-cultural anthropologists (a few of which contain chapters written by anthropologists from other subdisciplines). Articles or edited book chapters have been included only if the work has been extremely influential, if there are few full-length monographs in the topical area, or if the author is influential but has not published a monograph. The field is also distinguished by a number of excellent edited book collections, which represent research from an array of authors and ethnographic locations. The anthropology of reproduction has significant overlap with the anthropology of motherhood/parenthood and the anthropology of childhood, which are not treated in depth here.

Early Conceptual Frameworks and Edited Volumes

The conceptual framework for the anthropology of reproduction was first articulated in Ginsburg and Rapp 1991 and elaborated in the introduction to Ginsburg and Rapp 1995. Colen 1995, a chapter in the volume, introduces the productive concept of “stratified reproduction.” Many of the scholars of the anthropology of reproduction are represented in the contemporaneous edited volumes of Franklin and Ragoné 1997 and Ragoné and Twine 2000, as well as in the later edited volume of Inhorn 2007. Strathern 1992 is also important in interrogating the reconfiguration of concepts of nature, culture, and kinship in the context of new reproductive technologies.

  • Colen, Shellee. 1995. Like a mother to them: Stratified reproduction and West Indian childcare workers and employers in New York City. In Conceiving the new world order: The global politics of reproduction. Edited by Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp, 78–102. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    The most influential article in an important edited volume, Colen develops the concept of stratified reproduction to describe the unequal valuing of women’s reproductive capacities.

  • Franklin, Sarah, and Helena Ragoné, eds. 1997. Reproducing reproduction: Kinship, power, and technological innovation. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

    An edited volume that elaborated the centrality of reproduction as an analytical lens onto a broad array of processes, including abortion, prenatal screening, and adoption.

  • Ginsburg, Faye, and Rayna Rapp. 1991. The politics of reproduction. Annual Review of Anthropology 20:311–343.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    A pioneering argument about the centrality of reproduction to social theory and a review of contemporaneous research.

  • Ginsburg, Faye, and Rayna Rapp, eds. 1995. Conceiving the new world order: The global politics of reproduction. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    A landmark early edited volume that elaborates on the politics of reproduction as a key analytical framework and presents ethnographic research from around the world.

  • Inhorn, Marcia, ed. 2007. Reproductive disruptions: Gender, technology, and biopolitics in the new millennium. Oxford: Berghahn.

    Chapters draw ethnographic research conducted by a number of prominent anthropologists in different global sites and examine local concerns and responses to “reproductive disruptions,” such as abortion, infertility, prenatal genetic testing, and assisted reproduction. A good overview of then-current state of the field.

  • Ragoné, Helena, and Frances Winddance Twine, eds. 2000. Ideologies and technologies of motherhood: Race, class, sexuality, nationalism. New York: Routledge.

    An edited volume with a range of early ethnographic studies of ideologies of mothering in the context of cross-racial adoption, infertility, child loss, and the new reproductive technologies.

  • Strathern, Marilyn. 1992. Reproducing the future: Anthropology, kinship, and the new reproductive technologies. New York: Routledge.

    An analysis of the legislative debates around artificial reproductive techniques in Britain, interrogating assumed boundaries between nature/culture and underscoring the centrality of reproduction to culture.

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