Tanya Cassidy’s and Abdullahi El Tom’s “Ethnographies of Breastfeeding: Cultural Contexts and Confrontations” by Ben Kasstan

Ethnographies of Breastfeeding: Cultural Contexts and Confrontations

Tanya Cassidy and Abdullahi El Tom (editors)

Bloomsbury, 2015, 255 pages


Ethnographies of Breastfeeding offers a timely insight into how milk feeding is confronted in multiple socio-cultural and political contexts. The edited volume comprises twelve chapters which together explore the boundaries and contentions that milk flows across. By aggregating the historical and ethnographic chapters, the reader can devise how ‘traditional’ or past practices (such as wet-nursing) are now taking on more emergent forms of distribution (such as milk banks and sharing). Offering much more than a study of conceptual shifts over time, the various takes on the ‘product’ and ‘process’ of milk feeding as a reproductive and socio-political conduct make the book a fascinating read.

In her bold foreword, Penny Van Estrik immediately challenges the reader to reconfigure their views and positionality of breastfeeding by referring to it as ‘human milk’ rather than the status quo of ‘breastmilk’. After all, she asks, ‘we don’t call cows’ milk udder milk – why stress the container over the species?’ Perhaps this simple change in how milk feeding is regarded will be a first step in pushing into the shadows the primary status of the breast in the ‘West’ as hyper-sexualized. This opportunity, however, is lost by Van Estrik’s term of reference remaining largely in the foreword and not being used exclusively in the volume’s successive chapters. It seems curious that there is no common stance, especially when ‘confronting’ practices of (breast)milk feeding is an obvious objective of the book and etched in the title.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.