Anthrolactology is not a real word.

But maybe it should be. I wish I had thought of it last year, when Cecilia Tomori and I first kicked around the idea of organizing a session on anthropology and breastfeeding for the 2014 American Anthropological Association (AAA) meeting. The theme was “Producing Anthropology.” What better way to embrace this theme than by producing a catchy portmanteau? The breastfeeding research anthropologists are doing in the 21st century is pretty rad –  it deserves a fancy word.


At the AAAs in December, we had a stellar line up of anthropologists who discussed the ways that breastfeeding research adds to our understanding of what it means to be human.

Our session title wasn’t very catchy  (Anthropologies of Breastfeeding: Producing New Conversations) BUT the presentations were outstanding! I reckon many of our panel participants are a new generation of anthropology trailblazers. If you’re interested in what these anthropologists have to say about human lactation, milk, breastfeeding, and culture you should def check out their work. Our panelists were:  Tanya Cassidy, Carrie Hough, Melanie Martin, Elizabeth Miller, Aunchalee Palmquist, EA Quinn (you really should also check out her blog Biomarkers & Milk), Beatriz Reyes-Foster, Sarah Sobonya, Cecilia Tomori, Kristin Tully, Amanda Veile, and Michelle Walks. Our distinguished panel discussants were James Mckenna and Penny Van Esterik.

The 2014 AAA "Anthropologies of Breastfeeding" panelists
The 2014 AAA “Anthropologies of Breastfeeding” panelists

Below is an abbreviated description of the sessions, adapted from the AAA 2014 online program:

Drawing on the 2014 Meeting Theme, Producing Anthropology, this panel seeks to open a conversation about producing anthropologies of breastfeeding. The papers in this panel draw together socio- and bio-cultural disciplinary traditions to address the above issues with the goal to stimulate dialogue and collaboration. The abstracts feature research from geographically diverse settings and populations that employ a wide array of methods, analyses, and insights.

Namibia, a woman and her infant Photo by Yves Picq (2007)
Photo: Yves Picq, CC By-SA 3.0

In Part I of our conversations, we focus on research that produces anthropologies of breastfeeding decisions. These papers highlight the complex factors that shape breastfeeding decision-making and its consequences using the lenses of ecology, social change, evolutionary theory, and ethnography. Veile’s and Kramer’s research investigates the changing ecology of intensive breastfeeding in relation to the building of a health clinic among Yucatec Mayan mothers. Just as Mayan mothers negotiate breastfeeding decisions in relation to changing social circumstances, Hough’s and Prussing’s ethnographic study examines how the return to paid employment outside the home figures into Midwestern American mothers’ decision-making process.

Photo: Ben Shahn (1935) Library of Congress

Sobonya’s paper addresses how divergent perceptions of the term “natural” among African American women in St. Louis may influence their responses to public health campaigns that draw on this term to promote breastfeeding. Walks and colleagues explore the decision-making process and experiences of transmasculine chestfeeding to demonstrate the ways in which lactation facilitates emergent expressions of gender and identity. 

Tully’s paper expands on both evolutionary biological perspectives of parent-offspring conflict and contextual studies of breastfeeding to offer a broader ecological model for maternal breastfeeding decision-making.

IMG_1939 - Version 2
Photo: A. Palmquist

Finally, Tomori’s paper illustrates how parents balance competing desires for closeness and responsive breastfeeding, concerns about co-sleeping, and a need for rest in her ethnography of nighttime breastfeeding decisions in the U.S. Together, these papers offer new directions for integrating biological and sociocultural perspectives to provide insight into breastfeeding decisions and to offer better support for breastfeeding families.

Photo: A. Palmquist

In Part II of the Anthropologies of Breastfeeding we focus on research that produces new anthropologies of breast milk. This set of papers examines the interaction of the biological, ecological, social, and cultural processes that circumscribe variations in breast milk production, conceptualizations of breast milk, and uses of breast milk.

Quinn and Childs address the interactions between the environmental challenges of living at high altitudes and breastfeeding physiology through their study of breast milk composition in Tibet. Miller and colleagues examine the ways in which breast milk reflects nutritional, environmental, and behavioral contexts of integrated maternal-infant immunity among breastfeeding dyads in Kenya.

Palmquist employs a biocultural framework to describe the significance of passive immunity among breast milk donors and recipients in the U.S., where shared breastfeeding is rare but interest in breast milk-sharing is growing. Reyez-Foster and colleagues’s work reveals profound cultural contradictions in media portrayals of breast milk sharing as both life-saving and life-threatening. 

Photo: Ilya Hakinson
Photo: Ilya Hakinson, CC BY-SA 2.0

Cassidy’s research explores mothers’ ambivalence about their use of technology in the embodied experiences of expressing breast milk for premature babies in neonatal intensive care units. Finally, Martin and Quinn illuminate the interaction of biological and sociocultural factors that influence mothers’ experiences of insufficient breast milk in a comparative cross-cultural context.

Together, these papers showcase the potential for producing new anthropologies of breast milk that flow across the subfields and beyond.

Medical Anthropologist | Lactation & Infant Feeding Researcher | IBCLC | Podcaster | Blogger. Opinions are my own.

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