Book Book

‘Race’ and Childbirth

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 02 December 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:1418
  1. Kathryn Ehrich, research fellow
  1. Centre for the Study of Health, Sickness and Disablement, Brunel University

    Savita Katbamna

    Embedded Image Open University Press, £18.99, pp 144

    ISBN 0 335 19946 1

    Rating:Embedded ImageEmbedded ImageEmbedded Image

    Meg Stacey, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, recently commented with characteristic honesty that much of the early sociological research on childbirth was performed by people who wanted to make things better for people like themselves. They were unwittingly colluding in a failure to recognise how we make invisible the experiences, beliefs, and practices of “others”. This “blindness”, which academia and medicine have shared along with other British institutions, provides fertile ground for racism and impoverishes us all, both personally and professionally.

    Perhaps, like me, being reminded of uncomfortable truths often makes you switch off. But Savita Katbamna is way ahead of us. Instead of preaching to those who would call themselves believers anyway, she lays out something much more inviting. She gives us knowledge that we would otherwise find hard to access, laced with carefully thought out and balanced arguments. These open our eyes to things we know little about, yet which are important to people that we live and work with. The writing style is deceptively straightforward.

    The main body of the text presents the diverse experiences of women of Gujarati Hindu and Bangladeshi Muslim origin, as they negotiate their way between the British medical system and traditional health practices. The author discusses, among other topics, the sexual politics of conception, the perception of health states, and the management of both mothers' and infants' health through diet and other means. She addresses these issues with sensitivity, drawing on her in-depth interviews with 30 women as well as on other key informants working in hospital and community settings.

    The book is not purely descriptive. In addressing these topics, Katbamna reveals the diversity of experience between the two groups of women, arguing that there is no justification for treating all south Asian women in the same way. She explores the tensions between dominant and minority cultures, and between Western biomedical and traditional childbirth practices. In this sense, the book connects with existing mainstream literature on the medicalisation and hospitalisation of childbirth. It raises questions about the categories used in much research into health services, the reification of culture and ethnicity, and the tendency for majority groups to define and locate “problems” in minority or less powerful groups.

    ‘Race’ and Childbirth should appeal not only to practitioners wanting to understand the experiences of childbearing women, but to researchers and students in a broad range of medical and social sciences. The politics of research, which are implicated in these larger issues, make it perhaps unsurprising that so little has been published on this topic; all the more valuable then is Katbamna's timely contribution.