Ethnographies of Breastfeeding

I am very honored to have been invited to write a chapter for a new book edited by Tanya Cassidy and Abdullahi El Tom entitled, Ethnographies of Breastfeeding: Cultural Contexts and Confrontations, published by Bloomsbury  Press.

The synopsis below is taken from the publisher’s website:

“Breastfeeding is an intimate and deeply-rooted bodily practice, as well as a highly controversial sociocultural process which invokes strong reactions from advocates and opponents. Touching on a wide range of issues such as reproduction, sexuality, power and resources, and maternal and infant health, the controversies and cultural complexities underlying breastfeeding are immense. Ethnographies of Breastfeeding features the latest research on the topic. Some of the leading scholars in the field explore variations in breastfeeding practices from around the world. Based on empirical work in areas such as Brazil, West Africa, Darfur, Ireland, Italy, France, the UK and the US, they examine the cross-cultural challenges facing mothers feeding their infants. Reframing the traditional nature/culture debate, the book moves beyond existing approaches to consider themes such as surrogacy, the risk of milk banks, mother-to-mother sharing networks facilitated by social media, and the increasing bio-medicalization of breast milk, which is leading its transformation from process to product. A highly important contribution to global debates on breast milk and breastfeeding.”

My particular contribution to the book is a chapter on milk sharing. It represents my formative thinking about the relationship between online milk sharing and processes of medicalization and demedicalization of breastfeeding and breast milk.

“The medicalization of breastmilk refers to the manner by which breastmilk has been defined as a medical substance that requires scientific testing, surveillance, and regulation (Conrad 1992).”

Human milk sharing intersects with biomedicine in interesting ways. I unpack some of these intersections by looking at the discourses (the language of social interaction about milk sharing), identities (the various roles people play, the meaning, and importance of these roles), and practices of milk sharing (the activities of milk sharing and what happens on the ground). Sociologist, Drew Halfmann, originally developed this framework for conceptualizing demedicalization, and I found it to be helpful in framing a discussion of milk sharing. I also think that the methodology I developed to gather data for this chapter is kind of cool (nerd alert). 7f19faa09e0552acf7e145a5e0086b1a It combines traditional ethnographic research with digital ethnographic and auto-ethnographic approaches. I put a lot of thought into collecting and analyzing online data in a way that would be systematic and thorough. I collected and categorized over 1200 individual online posts between 2011 and 2013 and then analyzed the content of these posts using qualitative analytic techniques. Further, my interpretations reflect triangulation of these data with insights gained from participant observation conducted as an IBCLC trainee in hospital, out patient, and community based settings in which breastfeeding, breast milk, and milk sharing were discussed. I had also shared my breast milk with a friend, and this auto-ethnographic experience helped me to think about milk sharing donors’ experiences in a new light.

In this chapter, I argue that there are aspects of milk sharing that signify a feminist social movement of resistance against trends to increasingly medicalize breastfeeding and regulate parents’  (but mostly women’s) decisions about when, how, and why to use breast milk.

“Understanding demedicalization as acts of resistance is also important in refocusing attention on the ways individuals exercise agency and seek empowerment despite hegemonic influences; a focus on demedicalization leads to an understanding of the everyday practices of resistance to medicalization (Lock 2001). This analysis is on the ways in which milk sharing is enacted to demedicalize women’s bodies, the fluids they produce, and the babies they nourish.”

There are also many other wonderful chapters on breastfeeding in this book. If you are interested in  in cross-cultural, ethnographic studies of breastfeeding, I think you will enjoy this collection. Check it out!


-Conrad, P. (1992) Medicalization and social control. Annual Review of Sociology, 18: 209-232
-Conrad, P. (2007) The Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions into Treatable Disorders, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press
-Halfmann, D. (2012) Recognizing medicalization and demedicalization: discourses, practices and identities. Health 16(2): 186-207
-Lock, M. (2001) The tempering of medical anthropology: troubling natural categories. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 15(4): 478-92

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

3 thoughts on “Ethnographies of Breastfeeding

  1. Great stuff! Thanks for the references and discussion about Halfmann and Lock. This intersects nicely with my research plans. Wish I could have had my project done already to be included…but I too will read with interest.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s