This week’s readings offer us a number of methodological, analytic and ethnographic openings within the discourses of public health, women’s reproduction and theological anthropology. Each article brings another facet to bear upon the thematic questions of agency, intentionality and contingency in women’s reproductive lives. As a number of authors have noted, women’s experience in childbirth is a privileged location to address such concerns since it is an experience that is often imbued with a range of cross-cutting meanings in their social and spiritual lifeworlds.
Jennifer Johnson-Hanks article, “When the Future Decides Uncertainty and Intentional Action in Contemporary Cameroon,” introduces these topics through the lens of women’s reproductive action and intention in the uncertain world of Cameroon at the end of the 1990s. She approached her fieldwork within the typical language of family-planning literature common in public health discourse about intentionality, namely that women engage in family planning in order to enact their intentions regarding their family size and timing. She was met with a very different reality in the field when women responded to her questions about desired family size with a blanket uncertainty about the future and what it holds. She uses theoristics in the phenomenological and philosophical schools, namely Schutz and Searle, to build a complex notion of what constitutes intention. Her conclusion, which is that there is a meaningful relationship between intentional projects and behaviors, is called into question when it is brought into ethnographic situations in which uncertainty and particularly economic and social instability are pervasive. She also raises the inconsistency between experiential uncertainty and the uncertainty measured in models in social statistics which quantify uncertainty in charts and scales. In a skillful analysis, Johnson-Hanks shows the disciplinary limits of fields that speak in numbers and abstractions compared to the lived-experiences of women in Cameroon; however, I was left wondering if her response that uncertainty and “judicious opportunism” are the primary ways to tell a more “true” story.
In conversation with “Blessing Unintended Pregnancy: Religion and the Discourse of Women’s Agency in Public Health” and Don Seeman’s,“Divinity Inhabits the Social,” it seemed that some discussion or recognition of the way that divine players are part of the uncertainty in women’s reproductive discourse in Cameroon might be useful. Although we were not privy to her full ethnographic data, in a few of the accounts or interviews Johnson-Hanks relates point to God or local religious beliefs as actors in people’s lives. For example, when she replied to questions about how many children she would like to have with the number two, “any bystanders would laugh uproariously and tell me that it was God who gave children” (pg 369). In the article “Blessing Unintended Pregnancy,” a team of researchers from various backgrounds investigated the experience of unintended pregnancies among women in a homeless shelter in the American Southwest and found that such recourse to divine agency and the category of “blessing” was, in fact, an important analytic frame. Seeman posits in his article that to engage theology in anthropological work could involve using it as a prism through which to generate more accurate insights into the complexities of human affairs. This appears to be the way that “Blessings Unintended Pregnancy” sought to bring to light the experiences of women in Naomi’s House, the homeless shelter.
What is raised here most prominently for me in the above discussion is the usefulness and validity of different methodological tools. The crux seems to be what the scholar of a certain discipline or field seeks to accomplish through their work. A social statisian may be less concerned with how women experience uncertainty than with how a quantifiable graft of uncertainty can be used to track economic growth or decline over time. A public health official might need to divide pregnancies into intended/unintended in order to distribute resources for contraceptives to locations with higher need. The question, then, is what does an ethnography, which serves to complicate and blur such binary or rigid analysis, hope to accomplish? I think in both cases it serves a valuable tool. There must be an awareness of what categories people use to frame their lives in order to accurately ask questions and provide them resources. As the women in the homeless shelter showed, access to medical help or contraceptives does not necessarily mean they will use or trust them. In Cameroon, Johnson-Hanks found that her questions may have failed because “numbers simply do not matter very much… whereas the social goal of honorable motherhood—being a woman who bears all her children within monogamous marriage” does.
Theological discourse and the attending vernacular language attached to it may be a critical way to read ethnographic data. Don Seeman makes this point powerfully in his article when he writes that, “revered ancestors, village goddesses, and possessing spirits are all encountered as actors, moral agents, and participants—sometimes overwhelmingly important participants—in the social order that anthropologists study” (pg 336). This is evidenced in the experience of the homeless women in Naomi’s House who experience pregnancy often as an act of divine agency that they do not want to or are not able to resist. Don also raises important distinctions between the use of strong doctrinal theology compared to the more vernacular language used by people in the field. They can both be mobilized in ethnographic analysis but not to the exclusion of one of the other or to define to narrowly the factors in people’s lives. This balance is something I hope to explore more in class and I wonder how much this is also a divide between discursive readings and phenomenological readings of events.
For my own work, I found Seeman’s discussion of non-Christian uses of theology compelling. He defines theology there more broadly as “a family of different kinds of expert discourse about religion” (pg 353). This sort of engagement is at the heart of his article “‘Where is Sarah Your Wife?’ Cultural Poetics of Gender and Nationhood in the Hebrew Bible” where the use of open and closed imagery is explored across biblical and anthropological locations. Read in conjunction with the other articles this week, its discussion of motherhood as blessing in a biblical context was perhaps the theological backdrop that could be employed to better understand cultural realities surrounding reproduction. I am interested in looking at the ‘cultural poetics’ of birth in Hasidic texts, which relate it to a larger redemptive project, as they may play out in the lives of Hasidic women for whom childbirth and rearing are overwhelmingly large parts of life. I am curious to see how much they use the language of Hasidus, which may be a “Jewish Theology,” and how much they employ their own vernacular language.
Some closing questions I am left with from our readings are about how to attribute agency to different actors and how to read divine agency in ethnographic settings. As Don wrote, using a theological lens is just one of many analytic tools available to an anthropologist upon their secondary step of work then their own analysis comes into play. How does this push up against methodological atheism that we have discussed? Can we employ a theology that we are actively engaged with personally without entering into the danger of using the wrong analytic tool? Or perhaps our privileged position will help us see what other cannot.