University of Rochester

EVENT: Anthropologist Gives Annual Morgan Lecture

October 11, 1999

Caroline H. Bledsoe, an expert on Africa family life whose latest research involves Western reproductive health, will present the 1999 Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture Oct. 21. The title of her lecture is "The Contingent Life Course: African Challenges to the Culture of Western Science."

A professor of anthropology at Northwestern University in Chicago, Bledsoe will speak at 7 p.m. in Room 2-162 of Dewey Hall on the River Campus of the University of Rochester. A reception will follow in the Eisenberg Rotunda of Schlegel Hall. The lecture, which is sponsored by the Department of Anthropology, is free and open to the public.

Bledsoe's work blends the cultural interpretation of an anthropologist with the statistical analyses of a demographer. Like other anthropologists studying birth and death in human populations, Bledsoe focuses on the human lives behind the numbers.

Her theory of "the contingent life course" grows out of her work with an interdisciplinary team studying child spacing and Western contraceptive use in rural Gambia, West Africa, a region in which many people value large families and in which fertility is very high. In this view, the pace of aging is not understood as the automatic product of the passing of linear time, but instead is the contingent outcome of physical trauma, especially those associated with high fertility and frequent child bearing. Under difficult socioeconomic circumstances, it is less the case that aging brings an end to reproduction, than that reproduction ages the body.

Turning to Western demographic and medical science, Bledsoe argues that our increasing personal distance from the high-and-difficult fertility of our recent past combined with unprecedented levels of health and life expectancy, have obscured our view of the inevitable contingencies of human aging and reproduction. She retrieves an earlier American view of the contingent life course by examining a prominent early 20th-century obstetrics textbook.

Anthony Carter, professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester and editor of the Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures, notes that Bledsoe's work has aroused considerable interest among policy makers concerned with international family planning and reproductive health programs.

Bledsoe is the author of major studies in rural Liberia and of foster children in Sierra Leone, among other work. She is a member of the board of directors of the Population Association of America, and has served on the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Population and on an advisory committee studying Research Agendas for the 21st Century for the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development.

Her research has been supported by the Ford, Rockefeller and Mellon foundations, the National Science Foundation and Northwestern research grants. Earlier this year, she was named a Guggenheim Fellow by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

Bledsoe also will participate at an invitation-only conference Oct. 22 on campus with specialists in the fields of population, pregnancy loss, and family planning.

The Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures were established in 1963 by the University's Department of Anthropology to honor a founder of American anthropology and a major benefactor of the University. Morgan (1818-1881) was a distinguished Rochester attorney and the author of The League of the Iroquois, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, and Ancient Society.