Knowing childbirth: A Plan of Concentration in medical anthropology

Plan Author

  • Cailin Mardsen, 2012

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Tutorial:Ethnographic Expression
  • Tutorial: Ethno-obstetrics of Phaphlu
  • Tutorial: Graphic Design for Bookmaking

Project Description

A cross-cultural exploration of pregnancy and childbirth with a focus on obstetrical knowledge, ethnographic writing, and inter-subjectivity.

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Sienna Craig, Associate Professor of Anthropology Dartmouth College


Though modern medicine has largely replaced traditional healing in developed countries, there are still many communities around the world that rely on local knowledge for their medical care. Many of these societies have only recently gained access to a hospital, and are undergoing significant cultural change as they integrate Western medicine into their longstanding traditions. This Plan looks at the intersection of local and biomedical knowledge through the lens of the author’s fieldwork studying childbirth traditions in Nepal.

Women in the remote Phaplu area of Nepal have developed a culture around maternity that integrates their traditional knowledge with Western medicine. The Phaplu Maternity Center, which was built in 2004 to serve women in the region, provides hospital services and reproductive health information. However, because of cultural factors, cost, and the challenge of reaching the Center on foot from the surrounding villages, many women prefer to give birth at home.

To help identify high-risk pregnancies that may require hospitalization, the Maternity Center operates Mobile Health Camps which perform ultrasounds in remote villages, giving women a more informed choice of where to give birth. This synergy of modern technology and traditional methods has helped reduce Nepal’s infant mortality rate by almost a third since the Center was constructed.


“From what some respondents of younger generations expressed, it seems that the biomedical system is gaining ascendancy as the legitimate knowledge to which increasing numbers of villagers are turning for pregnancy and childbirth support.”

“According to local knowledge, a child’s development and wellbeing are shaped by families’ treatments of the placenta and umbilical cord. The folk name for placenta (naani-ko saathi) translates to ‘the baby’s friend’ and demonstrates the connection between the infant and its ‘friend’ that continues after birth.”

“Villagers in the Phaplu area assume a pluralistic approach to the local and biomedical systems, using them sequentially or in parallel for the particular purposes of supporting pregnancy and childbirth.”


“One of my strongest memories from working on Plan is the satisfying challenge of having a self-defined work schedule during my final semester – I was able to produce work related to subjects I was most interested in, without interruption.”