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Dr. Sallie Han, SUNY Oneonta – Material Culture and Pregnancy

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Sallie Han of the State University of New York Oneonta discusses what the items we accumulate during pregnancy say about our culture. 

Sallie Han is an associate professor of anthropology at the State University of New York Oneonta. Her research interests include medical anthropology, anthropology of reproduction, kinship and relatedness, and anthropology of the body and senses. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and in 2013 she published Pregnancy in Practice: Expectation and Experience in the Contemporary United States.

About Dr. Han

Dr. Sallie Han – Material Culture and Pregnancy

Why study material objects? Because the things we make, use, throw away—even hoard or steal—offer glimpses into our everyday joys, pains, hopes, and fears. One experience illustrates this vividly. It’s a time when, for months, we accumulate new gadgets and gear that take on unimagined importance. I’m talking about pregnancy.

Having a baby on the way prompts a range of “projects.” Soon-to-be parents take stock of what things they have and what things they think they’ll need. They invest time and money preparing a nursery, which eager family and friends help fill with furniture, toys, and decorations. Some wealthier families even move into bigger houses to better fit their changing circumstances.

These aren’t merely practical matters. One’s home, the things in it, and how they’re arranged are metaphors for the people who inhabit them.

In the U.S., the path to parenthood is lined with new books, cribs, car seats, breast pumps, strollers and carriers: the list is endless. These things tell us not only about the choices moms and dads can make, but also what choices they cannot make. Having the “right” baby stuff isn’t so much a badge of good parenting as it is an indicator of socioeconomic status.

Gifts speak volumes about our values as a community and culture. Keepsakes like silver cups are made of material that is precious, while playthings are small and soft, like babies themselves.  We train our children early in the social significance of gender, clothing our newborns in pink or blue.

As an anthropologist, studying things is important to me because we learn so much about people. There’s no richer example of this than pregnancy in America, from the sonogram “baby pictures” we place in a scrapbook to the things given and received at baby showers. Whether we realize it or not, these things—and all of our things—make us who we are.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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