Kristin LaHatte

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Meghan Moriarty

The information in this bibliography covers a geographically broad and theoretically diverse range. The concept was to compile information that reflected current research on the topic of breaking maternal bonds as a survival strategy in a cross-cultural context. I found solid historical research on maternal bonding in the work of Harwood, Cassidy and Harkness who highlight the use of attachment theory globally and stress the importance of multi-disciplinary approaches to research into parenting belief systems. Hardy and Wolf then turn these more traditional, historical approaches around stating that these ideologies are sentimentally appealing but not true to reality. I have discovered in my research that culture and the risk factors associated within it are more impactive to the practice of maternal separation as a survival strategy than biology or universal psychological bonding patterns. Changing gender ideologies, roles and inequalities in conjunction with economic policies have a greater impact on preserving the maternal-child bond.

Economic risk factors for poverty, autonomy and security reoccur throughout the research. In all cultural contexts when the economic risk of poverty and scarcity are high the role of the mother as provider becomes more critical. This in turn creates the need for the mother to spend more time on providing materially for the family and less time on nurturing her children. This plays out differently in each cultural context. Maternal separation can take many different forms including neglect, rejection, infanticide or temporary transfer of nurturing to another individual but in all cases these are used as maternal tools for the survival of the members of the family. In Cairo, Colombia, and Ghana the research shows that in low-income households the mother focuses on the role of wife above that of the role of nurturing mother as a strategy to raise economic security for the entire family.

Gupta and Scheper-Hughes take this a step further by focusing on the changing status of women globally and cross-culturally. They recognize that as women’s autonomy increases there is a reduction in the need for maternal separation. The importance they place on autonomy addresses the risk factors associated with gender inequalities.

The current research is lacking specifics about cultural practices that directly lead to maternal separation. It is noted in several geographic locations that changes in economic policies lead to greater autonomy for women and in turn reduced need for maternal separation, but no direct research is being done in areas that are not seeing this kind of economic transition. I am interested in seeing future research look into why communities have experienced maternal-child separation strategies over long periods of time with little or no change. Specifically looking into what risk factors, cultural and/or economic, promote the continuation of this survival strategy in the face of risk.

Annotated Bibliography

Browner, Carole and Ellen Lewin. 1982.

Female Altruism Reconsidered: the Virgin Mary as Economic Woman. American Ethnologist. 9(1):61-75.

Browner and Lewin argue against the standard ethnographic descriptions of Latin American women which portray the wife-mother role as a uniform entity despite the variety of socioeconomic settings in which it is found. They collected data in Cali, Colombia, and San Francisco, California, and discovered differences in the way working-class Latin American women act in the wife-mother role. The role of wife and the importance of conjugal affiliation were found to be the primary focus of women from Colombia. San Francisco Latinas devote themselves to the maternal role and consider relations with husbands to be of secondary significance. These differences result from varying economic and social conditions present in the two settings.




San Francisco

Latino immigrants


Women’s roles

Economic strategies

Cultural anthropology

Urban anthropology

Cassidy, Jude. 1999

The Nature of the Child’s Ties. In Jude Cassidy and Phillip R. Shaver, eds. Handbook of Attachment. Pp. 3-20. New York: Guilford Press.

Cassidy’s chapter is the introduction to the handbook and provides a review of the current state of knowledge in psychology about attachment and loss in children and adults. It establishes background information about accepted theories and research on the subject of a child’s ties to its parents with emphasis on ties with the mother. The chapter touches on the long term affects of the parent child bonding period.

Attachment theory


Maternal-child attachment

Patterns of attachment

Socio-emotional development

Developmental psychology

Clark, Gracia. 1999.

Mothering, Work, and Gender in Urban Asante Ideology and Practice. American Anthropologist 101(4):717-729.

Clark’s ethnographic work since the late 1970’s in Ghana reveals how the Asante gender role focus is on biological mothering and not on nurturing contact with children. The mother’s role of working to provide for the family surpasses the need to physically mother and can be in conflict with her role of wife. This leads to emotional and often physical separation of mothers and their biological children. The role of nurturing children is placed on designated members of the family or women in the community. The article focuses on Asante ideals and practices about gender and parenting and how these roles are changing in modern practice.



Maternal-child bonds

Gender roles


Cultural anthropology

George, Carol and Judith Solomon. 1999.

Attachment and Caregiving: The Caregiving Behavioral System. In Jude Cassidy and Phillip R. Shaver, eds. Handbook of Attachment. Pp.649-670. New York: Guilford Press.

This chapter focuses on the association, in psychology, between attachment theory and care giving theory. The former is centered around the child’s attachment to its mother and the latter is focused on the parent. George makes distinctions and connections between the two areas and states that caregiving is often left out of the data presented in the traditional attachment theory framework.
Attachment theory

Maternal bonding

Child separation


Developmental psychology

Gupta, Monica Das. 1995.

Life Course Perspectives on Women’s Autonomy and Health Outcomes. American Anthropologist. 97(3): 481-491.

Gupta points out that negative demographic consequences in many societies are due to gender inequalities. She states that patterns of household formation and inheritance strongly influence these consequences. In contemporary northern India the intergenerational bond is stronger than the conjugal bond. Instead of focusing on the cross-culturally lower status of women relative to men, she focuses on the changing status of women globally, during different periods in their lives. These different periods of life, position women in varying relationships of autonomy and increase their potential for marginalization. Female autonomy here is directly related to child survival and reducing fertility.

Northern India


Child survival


Female autonomy

Women’s status

Socio-cultural anthropology

Harkness, Sara and Charles M. Super, eds. 1996.

Parents’ Cultural Belief Systems: Their Origins, Expressions and Consequences. New York: Guilford Publications.

This volume of collected chapters concentrates on a multi-disciplinary approach to researching parenting cultural belief systems. It explores the culturally constructed parental experience, cultural expression in practice, and the consequences for their children‘s well-being. Chapters are diverse in content and geographic area. All concentrate on the effects of parental belief system practices on the health and development of children. These chapters provide the foundation for a global history of parenting.


Parenting beliefs

Parenting practices

Child health

Child development

Cognitive anthropology

Social science

Harwood, Robin L., Joan G. Miller and Nydia Lucca Irizarry. 1995.

Culture and Attachment: Perceptions of the Child in Context. New York: Guilford Publications.

Harwood et al. explore Puerto Rican culture and parent-child attachment. They explore attachment from the perspective of culture and then from the more specific mothers’ perceptions of attachment behavior. This book is a research guide providing frameworks for analysis of cross-cultural attachment studies, which are universal and culturally forged. The comparative study provided as an example of the framework focuses on Puerto Rican culture.

Puerto Rico

Child development

Maternal-child attachment

Cross-cultural attachment

Cultural framework

Social policy

Developmental Psychology

Cultural Psychology

Hardy, Sarah. 1999.

Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hardy argues that contemporary views of motherhood are sentimentally appealing but fail to take into account the wide range of responses that comprise maternal "instincts," including many that may seem counterintuitive to reproductive goals. Using data from her non-human primate research as well as new evolutionary theories, literature and folklore, Hardy shows that animal mothers make constant "trade-offs" such as infanticide, to negotiate conflicts between their own needs and those of their offspring. She explores sexual selection of offspring, the use of helpers or various levels of withdrawal from particular babies, ranging from mild neglect to abandonment and infanticide. Hardy discusses the adaptive behaviors newborns use to ensure their mothers' attachment.

Maternal sentiment



Evolutionary theory

Biological anthropology

Hoodfar, H. ed. 1990.

Survival Strategies in Low Income Households in Cairo. Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.13(4):22-41.

This article focuses on the political economy of Egypt and the impact of the introduction of structural adjustment policies as they are reflected in the household economy and survival strategies of people living in low-income and newly-urbanized neighborhoods of Cairo. It examines socioeconomic and ideological changes in Egypt resulting from rapid structural adjustment policies implemented in the 1980’s. A portion of the paper focuses on changes in gender ideology and the women's variety of responses to structural adjustment policies.


Women’s survival strategies

Domestic politics

Urban poverty

Gender ideology

Structural adjustment

Cultural anthropology

Last, Murray. 1992.

The Importance of Extremes: The Social Implications of Intra-Household Variation in Child Mortality. Social Science & Medicine. 35(6): 799-810.

This article looks at the extreme variation in child-rearing among women of the same polygamous household in Maguzawa in southern Katsina. It questions the factors involved in child mortality and the social processes that enhance the variation among households in West Africa, particularly in Nigeria. In households, child mortality rates increase dramatically with second and third wives. Risk factors for child survival include poverty and high divorce rates. Severe economic inequalities between men and women contribute to these socially anticipated variations.


West Africa

Child mortality

Birth order

Gender inequality

Cultural anthropology

Miller, Barbara D. 1997.

The Endangered Sex: Neglect of Female Children in Rural North India. Oxford University Press. USA.

Miller focuses on the power of culture in shaping family attitudes towards children and determines how children are treated differently, depending upon their sex. Although focused on India, this is a cross-cultural look at gender imbalance based on gender preference. This book addresses the practice of female infanticide as a reason for unbalanced sex ratios among children in present-day rural India. A regional and social pattern of infanticide shows that this practice is most prevalent in north-west India and among the higher castes there. Miller considers some of the cultural links between the present and the past.

North India


Gender inequality

Sex ratios

Female infanticide

Cultural anthropology

Nations, Marilyn K. and L.A. Rebhun. 1988.

Angels With Wet Wings Won’t Fly: Maternal Sentiment in Brazil and the Image of Neglect. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry.12(2):141-200.

This multidisciplinary project evaluating current theories of fatalism and maternal detachment among the poor in Northeastern Brazil determined that that these theories are incomplete. Through intensive interviews and observations the researchers find that due to lack of access and bureaucratic or geographic barriers Brazilian mothers of severely ill children do not seek medical assistance rather than a lack of emotional attachment.
Brazil, Northeast

Maternal detachment theory

Maternal grief


Structural violence

Medical anthropology

Nations, Marilyn K. and Mara Lucia Amaral. 1991.

Flesh, Blood, Souls and Households: Cultural Validity in Mortality Inquiry. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 5(3):204-220.

Nations and Amaral note that in the developing world the deaths of infants and young children are frequently unrecorded in vital event registries. They argue that cultural context grounds the meaning of mortality inquiries as much as statistical standards. Ethnographic findings from Northeast Brazil are incorporated into vital registries information and are found to increase accuracy and enrich the meaning of mortality rates. The ethnographic and statistical data analyzed give insight into the magnitude of infant and child deaths and explores the cultural context in which they occur.

Child mortality

Maternal grief

Infant mortality

Mortality statistics

Medical anthropology

Sargent, Carolyn and Michael Harris. 1992.

Gender Ideology, Childbearing and Child Health in Jamaica. American Ethnologist. 19(3):523-537.

The research centers around the dominance of low-income Jamaican women as heads of household, kinship pillars, and participants in the labor force. This female centered society produces a strong favoritism for female children. The research shows not only a higher survival rate at the end of the first year of life for female children, but this trend continues until the ninth year of life. Sargent and Harris explore the social implications of this preference for female children.

Matrifocal households

Kinship networks

Infant mortality

Daughter preference

Cultural anthropology

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1985.

Culture, Scarcity and Maternal Thinking: Maternal Detachment and Infant Survival in a Brazilian Shanty Town. Ethos. 13:291-317.

Scheper-Hughes argues that maternal thinking and practices are socially produced rather than biologically constructed. She explores the conditions in one Brazilian shantytown that have developed due to changes in the economic environment. These changes have produced high levels of child neglect and infant mortality due to economic, material and emotional deprivation.
Northeast Brazil

Maternal detachment

Child mortality

Child neglect

Economic insecurity

Cultural anthropology

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy ed. 1987.

Child Survival: Anthropological Perspectives on the Treatment and Maltreatment of Children. Boston: D. Reidel.

This collection of 18 essays edited by Scheper-Hughes addresses important issues in nutritional/medical anthropology. Decisions by parents to kill a child or “let it die” are explored here in terms of cultural relativism. The western concept of child abuse is addressed as to whether or not it is an anomaly of Western industrialized societies. The struggle for mothers to survive and provide for their children in poor Third World nations is analyzed with regard to their decisions about risk, time management, energy, money and cultural beliefs.

Cultural relativism


Child abuse

Child neglect

Medical anthropology

Nutritional anthropology

Cultural anthropology

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1997.

Lifeboat Ethics: Mother Love and Child Death in Northeast Brazil. In Lancaster, Roger N. The Gender/Sexuality Reader: Culture, History, Political Economy. New York: Routledge Press.

This essay targets the impact of Catholic church on the attitudes of indigenous people toward child death in a shantytown of Northeast Brazil. The environment is one of high risk for child mortality due to poverty and Scheper-Hughes argues that this factor along with other variables has created a “lifeboat ethic” guiding ideas about survival of the fittest. Research is focused on selective nurturing which leads to the prevention of over-attachment and grief at the death of a child. The role of the Catholic Church is highlighted as a contributing factor in the cultural acceptance of the reduction in maternal bonding.
Northeast Brazil

Child security

Child mortality



Lifeboat ethics

Cultural anthropology

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy and Carolyn Sargent eds. 1998.

Small Wars: The Cultural Politics of Childhood. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chapters in this book demonstrate how the treatment of children vary by geographic location and are affected by global political-economic structures. Everyday practices embedded in the micro-level interactions of local cultures affect the survival rates of children. Part 2 of the book entitled “The Cultural Politics of Child Survival” centers around the concepts of child mortality and patterns of abandonment and how they vary in several locations globally.

Cross-cultural childhood

Child abandonment

Child survival

Child mortality

Cultural anthropology

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 2001.

Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland. Anniversary edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Originally published in 1977, the book examines the cultural context of schizophrenia in rural Ireland. Scheper-Hughes focuses on the effects of isolation and change on the family, in particular the effects on children. She describes the cultural basis for the high rates of mental illness and provides comparisons to the current rise in depression in many western societies. Separation of mother and child is portrayed here in the framework of structural violence by explaining the treatment of later-born sons by their mothers as controlling. Socialization of later-born sons is based on dependency as compared with the socialization of earlier born sons and all daughters, which is based on competency.


Maternal bonds

Gender socialization

Structural violence

Mental illness



Wadley, Susan S. 1993.

Family Composition Strategies in Rural North India. Social Science and Medicine. 37(11):1367-1376.

Recent evidence on child mortality and fertility trends in the village known as Karimpur in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh shows increasing female bias in child mortality among the poor. Wadley contends that this trend can only be understood in the larger context of family composition strategies, which have changed due to the socio-economic conditions of the past 25 years. She argues that mortality cannot be understood without considering fertility behavior and the overall shape of the resulting families. Wadley’s hypothesis is that the Karimpur poor are using high fertility and sex-specific child mortality to maximize the number of surviving males in attempting to insure family welfare.

India, north rural


Child mortality

Gender specific mortality

Family survival strategies

Cultural anthropology

Wolf, Arthur P. 2003.

Maternal Sentiments: How Strong Are They? Current Anthropology. 44(Supplement):S31-S49.

This article exams the practice in Taiwan of women giving away their daughters as infants and young children. This separation is not forced by the family but is an act of maternal choice as part of a strategy for securing the future survival of the family. Wolf focuses on dispelling the assumption that this practice is psychologically painful for the mother and contests the commonly held idea in western psychology that mothers naturally bond with their children and find it incredibly difficult to part with them.

Maternal-child bond


Family survival strategy

Marriage and kinship

Cultural anthropology

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