Review of The Routledge Handbook of Anthropology and Reproduction By Sallie Han, Cecília Tomori (Eds.), Oxford: Routledge. 2022. 676 pp.

Reviewed Book

The Routledge Handbook of Anthropology and Reproduction By Sallie Han, Cecília Tomori (Eds.), Oxford: Routledge. 2022. 676 pp.

Cover of The Routledge Handbook of Anthropology and Reproduction (2022)

Emma Varley

Brandon University

The Routledge Handbook of Anthropology and Reproduction offers a masterful and ambitious interdisciplinary overview of the state of the field, with emphasis on some of the most important contemporary scholarship and the diverse precedents, conversations, and provocations—past and present—which inspire anthropologists’ work. Organized and edited by Cecília Tomori and Sally Han, accomplished researchers and leaders in the subject area, the handbook draws together an impressive array of experts, including early-career scholars and practitioners working beyond the academy, whose contributions span sociocultural and biological anthropology. In placing equal importance on these two fields, the handbook facilitates vibrantly cross-disciplinary conversations and highlights an expansive and exciting array of methods, concepts, and theories. The collection comes at an important moment for anthropology. Tomori and Han note how the “multiple intersecting crises of a pandemic, climate change, and racial injustice” (1) and other “emergencies have thrown into sharp relief” (Ibid, 1) the challenges and risks associated with reproduction, for which, they argue, anthropology is excellently positioned to provide insights and develop solutions.

Comprised of 40 chapters organized into 9 thematic sections, the handbook expertly guides readers through a compelling series of contributions. As reproductive health is experienced along a continuum of time and life course, so, too, the collection proceeds from a focus on conception to menstruation and fertility, through pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period, until menopause. Many chapters go beyond addressing the reproducing body alone to explore and explain the social and structural milieus in which reproduction takes place, past as well as present, with attention paid to the relationships from which birthing persons gain the support needed to not simply survive but thrive. Biological anthropology and bioarchaeology chapters take readers on deeply historical dives, detailing how our evolutionary origins and development as a species impact present-day physiologies and health processes, such as the ‘obstetric dilemma’ theory attests. Sociocultural and ethnographic case studies draw our attention to the many ways the social worlds in which we live inflect, enrich, and trouble our experiences of reproduction at personal and body politic levels. Many authors zero in on the political, structural, and racial dynamics of reproduction and reproductive health, medicine, and technologies to explore how reproduction operates as a site of sociality and wellbeing, as well as profound neglect, exclusion, and necropolitical harm. By elaborating the forces, aspirations, and imaginaries that not only animate and give meaning to, but also impinge on matters of reproduction, readers come face-to-face with the ways that reproductive medicine and laws, for instance, have been weaponized against women and other vulnerable populations. Several tackle the entrenched ideologies and hierarchies that dominate reproductive health and, in the doing, imperil women and others. For example, the collection confirms how heteronormative values overdefine reproductive health and medicine to the detriment of LGBTQ people. Valuably, several chapters touch on COVID-19’s impacts. The collection is so richly populated that reviewers will be hard-pressed to account for the totality of its achievements; indeed, the need for brevity permits me only the briefest spotlighting of the book’s exemplary goals and key contributions.

The collection opens with Tomori and Han’s “Introduction,” which establishes the importance of anthropology for the study of reproduction worldwide. Here, the editors expand on their goal “to open a conversation among scholars and researchers of reproduction across the subfields of archaeology and biological (physical), sociocultural, and linguistic anthropology” (Ibid, 4). Section I (“Opening Conversations”) further sets the stage by emphasizing the need for more frequent and fully realized cross-interdisciplinary investigations and uses of evidence. We are reminded of the “centrality of reproduction in the study of human evolution and biological variation and the contribution of biological anthropology to the study of reproduction” (Tomori and Han, 6; see Kramer, Veile, and Henry). Contributors also explore men’s role as carers (Gray, Straftis, and Anderson), discuss evidence of reproduction in the archaeological record (Nowell, Mitchell, and Kurki), and affirm how contemporary “conditions of poverty, discrimination, violence, and warfare can be observed in … biological consequences” (Tomori and Han, 6; see Thayer and Gildner). Section II (“Governance, Stratification, Justice, and Freedom”) spotlights ethnographic case studies which explore “the interests and interventions that state and like-state actors enact upon the reproductive capacities of women, particularly those of racialized and poor women, and women’s assertion of their own priorities” (Tomori and Han, 7–8; see Browner and Sargent). Special attention is paid to the inequitable, coercive, racist, and even life-threatening necropolitical forms reproductive governance can take (see Mishtal and De Zordo, Mullings, López).

Section III (“Making Fertility”) affirms biological and sociocultural anthropologists’ research on menstruation, menopause, and post-reproductive life (see Rogers-LaVanne and Clancy, Renne), and critically assesses the technologies (and social, economic, political, gendered, and racialized values these give rise) which enhance or suppress fertility and generate solutions for infertility (see Inhorn, Gerritts), such as the latter includes surrogacy and adoption (see Deomampo, Whittaker). Section IV (“Queering Reproduction”) centralizes the experiences of LGBTQ people and challenges the “normativized practices and ideas that form the understandings of reproduction taken for granted among anthropologists” (Tomori and Han, 10). Contributors adopt intersectional and critical (auto)ethnographic approaches (Falu) to “make visible” communities and issues otherwise “marginalized and significantly unseen” (Ibid: 10), and detail the “choreography of queer kinship” that operates at the heart of lesbian and gay family formation (Twine and Smietana, 290). Section V (“Made and Unmade: Personhood and Reproduction”) assesses the historic and contemporary ways that the “gradations of personhood” (Layne, 331) invoked by matters of abortion (Ibid), prenatal screening (Schwennesen and Gammeltoft), pregnancy loss (van der Sijpt), and infant death (Scott and Betsinger) are not only diversely constituted, but also contingent on a complex array of cultural and spiritual beliefs, medical technologies, and legal statutes across the Global North and South.

Section VI (“Pregnancy”) ethnographically explores how women’s social and spiritual experiences of “normative” pregnancy are “complicated by technological screening for abnormalities” (Teman and Ivry, 383), details the sociolinguistic ways that reproduction is “talked about” in public discourse and mediated by the “reading and writing of texts” like medical records (Han, 397), and, through a focus on men’s couvade beliefs and practices in Senegal, helps correct anthropological inattention to expectant fathers’ experiences (Powis). Section VII (“Birth”) returns us “to central debates about childbirth, gender, and human evolution”—specifically, the obstetric dilemma (Rosenberg and Trevathane, Dunsworth)—and explores the colonial and decolonial social, political, and medical milieus in which birth takes place. Contributors discuss how birth is managed as “intimate labour” (Searcy and Castaneda) by persons such as midwives (Et Kotni) and note the ways that medical-technological rituals of labour and birth can be profoundly injurious and iatrogenic (Cheyney and Davis-Floyd). They detail women’s experiences of obstetric injustice and violence in poorly managed medical settings (Oluouch-Aridi, Smith-Oka, Dailey, and Milan), and movingly illustrate how “underfunded and overwhelmed” hospitals amplify risks of maternal mistreatment and death (Strong). Section VIII (“Postpartum and Infant Care”) balances biological and sociocultural attention to the medicalization and biocapitalization of breastfeeding. Here, we learn about colonial-era control of breastfeeding, which estranged Indigenous women, for example, from traditional knowledge and practices (Tomori, Quinn, and Palmquist). Others explore bioarchaeological research on the impacts of age and gender on infant feeding practices (Halcrow, Miller, Pehenkina, Dong, and Fan), and confirm the specific ways that cross-cultural biological anthropological research has “advanced knowledge of how human infants have evolved to sleep and feed” (Rudzik).

Finally, Section IX (“Care as Reproducing Kinship”) attends to the cultural variability and importance of broader networks of kinship and community for family formation and infant survival. Contributors show how often maternal and infant survival—in evolutionary and contemporary terms—hinge on the support played by grandmothers (Block) along with other “helpers” (or “allomothers” [Herlosky and Crittenden]). In ways that reconfirm the handbook’s critical thrust, contributors detail the vital benefits of fostering and adoption while also recognizing their associations with “broader [kinds] of unequal social relations—ones that are characterized by reproductive injustice and racialized marginalization” (Ibid, 15).

Ultimately, the handbook serves as a master toolkit, by which anthropologists can gain the knowledge needed to better harness the full potential of the anthropology of reproduction. Indeed, the collection affirms the evidentiary as well as actionable, even political power of our inquiry to explore, explain, and intervene on a complex array of reproductive needs and concerns. Tomori and Han are encouraged to consider additional editions in the years to come, when even more of the rich work that defines our field and sets the stage for its future, can be illuminated. For instance: What of the impacts and threats posed to reproductive health and outcomes by climate change? Or those yielded by other epidemics and pandemics, past and present? What more should readers know about the methodologies and ethics that guide our efforts? In which ways can decolonization help reframe and enrich our inquiry and praxis?

The collection is as well-suited for researchers as practitioners, and productively challenges the siloes that mean sociocultural and biological anthropology operate largely if not totally separately. With academic topics, terminologies, and theories clearly defined and discussed, and the length of each chapter helpfully below 10,000 words, the handbook is eminently appropriate for undergraduate and graduate degree programs, and academic and non-academic applications within and beyond the social sciences. Capable of inspiring and sustaining anthropologists’ formative and more advanced steps in the study of reproduction, the collection will serve as a crucially important contribution to the field for many years to come.