Associate 1995-96

Alma J. Gottlieb


The Culture of Infancy: A Case Study of the Beng of Côte D'Ivoire

Professor Gottlieb intends to work on a book on infant-rearing practices and values among the Beng people of Côte d'Ivoire, a rural, severely impoverished and largely animist population living in the rain forest of West Africa. She will emphasize the cultural context of infant-rearing practices, locating infants in relation to religious, economic, political, and historical circumstances. Addressing herself to the escalating challenges of a world that is increasingly self-reflexive about its multicultural nature, she thus hopes to provide Western readers with intellectual tools to understand the motivations behind child-rearing practices that are radically different from those with which most Westerners are familiar, thereby allowing for empathy towards a cultural system that may appear unapproachable or perhaps even condemnable. In so doing, she also aims to problematize mainstream Western child-rearing practices as one of a large number of possible strategies dependent on cultural as much as biological imperatives.

More generally, Professor Gottlieb hope to contribute directly to an enduring Western debate concerning the role of culture in shaping human behavior. In brief, her underlying argument will be as follows: the child-rearing strategies and developmental patterns she documented in Côte d'Ivoire suggest that cultural factors may play a considerable role in shaping human behavior and development from the very first days of life ex utero. Her decision to study the behavior of, and culturally-shaped attitudes towards, infants--a somewhat unusual subject for an anthropologist--responds to the popular (Western) assumption that the younger the individual, the more dependent on biology is the child and, accordingly, the more biologically-oriented are the decisions of her caretakers. Hence, the demonstration of considerable cultural variability in both infant-rearing strategies and concomitant infant behaviors should make a significant contribution to the ongoing conversation about the role of nurture in shaping lives.

The data on which this book will be based derive from Professor Gottlieb's long term and continuing involvement (since 1979) with the Beng community in Côte d'Ivoire.