Fertility & Reproduction

The FRSG (Fertility and Reproduction Studies Group) is an interdisciplinary research body founded in 1998 at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology by Dr Soraya Tremayne and Professor David Parkin. Since its inception, FRSG has developed close links with the Medical Anthropology programme, and its regular Michaelmas Term seminar series is an integral part of the Medical Anthropology Masters course at ISCA. The group provides lecture series to the University Institute of Reproductive Sciences (School of Obstetrics and Gynaecology), and holds specialist workshops on subjects including reproductive health, AIDS, and New Reproductive Technologies. Its members carry out research in conjunction with the Wellcome Trust, the ESRC, the University of Oxford and other major funding bodies.

Since 2010, Dr Philip Kreager has been the Group's Director, and current senior members include Dr Morgan ClarkeDr Kaveri Qureshi, Dr Nadine Beckmann, Dr Alex Alvergne, Dr Laura Fortunato, Dr Sian Pooley, Dr Elizabeth Ewart, Dr Elizabeth RahmanProfessor Elisabeth Hsu, and Professor Stanley Ulijaszek.

FRSG's aim is to promote research and publications on the anthropology of fertility and reproduction, with emphasis on interdisciplinary methods. It addresses the changing dynamics of fertility from a cross-cultural perspective with implications for policy and planning. Its work has combined anthropologival, demographic, epidemiological, historical and biomedical perspectives in understanding the institutions, networks, and meanings that structure fertility and reproductive behaviour in different cultures.

FRSG is the first such group to be set up within an anthropology department in the UK, and has established itself as a focal point for inter-action between academics and practitioners in several fields. Examples of seminar themes addressed by the Group include links between fertility and sexuality, anthropological demography, cousin marriage, generational change, religion, reproductive ecology, identity, adoption, infant feeding and nutrition, ageing, infertility and ethnobotany. Publication of several of these series, together with research monographs, appear in the Group's award winning book series.

Ongoing Research

Human reproduction is a complex process which is determined by biological, environmental, social, cultural, political, and economic factors.  While the analysis of kinship, as the social expression of reproduction, has been a central theme in anthropological theory from the outset, the study of the dynamics of the social and cultural factors involved in sexuality and reproduction is relatively recent, and has only emerged as an important part of anthropological theory in the past few decades. Fertility and reproduction are important themes within the realm of medical anthropology, but go beyond medical anthropological research fields and include the study of kinship, notions of relatedness, practices of child care, gender relations, and STDs such as HIV/AIDS, to name but a few. Responding to shifts in the global demographic environment is an important part of FRSG, embracing the anthropological demography of reproductive health, ageing, changing systems of marriage, family formation, and sexuality.

While the Council on the Anthropology of Reproduction (CAR), located within the American Association of Anthropologists (AAA) provides a network for researchers working on reproduction, the FRSG is the only research group in the UK on issues around fertility, sexuality and reproduction which runs its own seminar and publication series.

The complexity and scale of the AIDS crisis in Africa has so far eluded effective prevention and treatment. It has also eluded full comprehension. This is in large part due to the limits of the methodologies that have been brought to bear on the problem where each research programme – epidemiological, public health, medical etc. – has operated independently of the others, with relatively little cross-communication. In all this, social science research has been starved of resources and, to a degree, has lacked imagination.

It is however signally important as AIDS in Africa has penetrated every aspect of social, political, economic and cultural life. This project started with two workshops in 2007, funded by the British Academy International Collaboration Grant and the Oppenheimer Foundation, to develop an ecological approach to the HIV/AIDS crisis, which straddles the boundary of the natural and social sciences and aims at combining human ecological and social anthropological approaches to illness and healing. It goes beyond a merely interdisciplinary approach by analysing the complex interactions and interdependencies between social and biological worlds and between the processes studied within the different disciplines. Building on Prof Robert Thornton’s work on sexual networks, it advocates the use of a systems-analytic methodology characteristic of ecological thinking. The first workshop, organised in collaboration with Prof Suzette Heald by Nadine Beckmann and Professor Elisabeth Hsu, brought together social, medical and natural scientists working on HIV/AIDS at Oxford (see here for details), the second, organised by Prof Robert Thornton, was held with PWA and several activist groups in Johannesburg.

Such an ecological approach to the study of sexuality, fertility and reproduction, with a special focus on HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, will be advanced by Dr Nadine Beckmann’s two-year long John Fell research project on ‘AIDS, Sex and Reproduction on Zanzibar’ from 2010 to 2012. The role of ‘risk’, of individuals, and individual choice in sexual matters has been given too much attention. There are larger social structures—including those of sexual networks, kinship, family and household structure, formal and informal institutions and social networks—that determine overall trends of infection and that respond (or not) to its consequences. This has far reaching implications for our study of AIDS, and of sexual health more broadly; sexual networks are the primary ‘object’ that must be understood in investigations of the spread of STDs in any context.

Dr Philip Kreager’s work on a multi-site longitudinal study of ageing in three communities, supported by the Welcome Trust during 1999-2007, when he was Director of Ageing in Indonesia, has led to continuing collaboration with the University of Indonesia, as it establishes its own ageing research programme.  For example, current work as Consultant to the New Dynamics of Ageing, project (SUS-IT) at University of Loughborough continues research in Ageing in Indonesia's field sites under the direction of Professor E. Hogervorst (Loughborough) and Professor Tri Budi Rahardjo (UI) on the association of phytoestrogens, sex steroids and folate with dementia.  More generally, Dr Kreager’s research as a demographer and social anthropologist addresses aspects of the life course in which fertility change and its implications are primary concerns: childlessness, age-structural transition, gender, migration, comparative family systems, vulnerability and socio-economic status. Recent work includes study of the nexus of family and civil society organizations in the context of deficient state support, and the application of combined methodologies embracing multi-site ethnography, panel surveys, and network analysis.

Most research on the adoption of contraception in sub-Saharan countries focuses on why modern contraception is not adopted more widely. However, previous research suggested that attention should be directed to individuals who do adopt modern contraception but then later decide to switch method or abandon it altogether. Indeed, a significant number of women experience side effects that are not compatible with their everyday life. Dr Alex Alvergne is investigating the magnitude of contraceptive discontinuation and the reasons underlying it using both analyses of the Demographic and Health Surveys and qualitative data. The research focuses on the Ethiopian context in collaboration with Prof E. Gurmu (Univ. Addis Ababa).

Islamic, Civil and International Perspectives on Personal Status Law in Lebanon
Dr Morgan Clarke's book project, developed through postdoctoral work at Cambridge (British Academy PDF, 2006-9) and Manchester (Simon Research Fellowship, 2009-11), is an ethnography of sharia discourse in Lebanon, focusing on the sharia (family law) courts and their relationship to non-state Islamic institutions. That involved fieldwork in both Sunni and Shi‘i contexts, including mosques, Sufi circles and the offices of major religious authorities, most notably Lebanon’s late Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah. With regard to the latter, Clarke has an enduring interest in Shi‘i Islam, with recent and forthcoming publications on the impact of the Internet and other new media on the social construction of religious authority within the tradition.
Morgan Clarke was awarded an Oxford-Princeton Collaborative Grant to work with Professor Mirjam Künkler of Princeton (Near Eastern Studies) on a project entitled “Traditional authority and transnational religious networks in contemporary Shi‘i Islam: Results from recent empirical research”. The project was funded by the John Fell OUP Research Fund at Oxford and the Council for International Teaching and Research at Princeton.
British Asians have been described as ‘flying the flag for traditional family life’. However, since the statistics on marital status across ethnic groups were last analysed in the mid 1990s, there have been signs of a trend towards marital breakdown and divorce among British Asians. Community- and faith-based organisations have been struggling to provide marriage counselling and mediation services, and to respond to problems of mental wellbeing and welfare for lone parent families.
This project seeks to provide concrete data on the rise in marital breakdown among British Asians. The focus is two major British Asian populations: Pakistani Muslims and Punjabi Sikhs. Whilst these groups differ in traditional marriage patterns and religious identity, they have high rates of transnational marriage, similar gender dynamics in families, and similar migration histories.

Dr Kaveri Qureshi has been conducting repeated interviews with Pakistani Muslims and Punjabi Sikhs to understand the causes, processes and consequences of marital breakdown. Intended outputs will inform questions of legal pluralism and diversity in welfare, reorient debates about conservatism in British Asian families, and engage with theory concerning the family. Ethical approval has been granted by the Central University Research Ethics Committee of Oxford University.

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For more information on Fertility and Reproduction Studies visit our website here.