Danielle Tassara, Fall 2019
Department of Anthropology, University of California Irvine
Anthro 215A / “Ethnographic Methods” / Professor Kim Fortun

Infertility and Patriarchy: The Cultural Politics of Gender and Family Life in Egypt by Marcia C. Inhorn / University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996

What is the text “about” -- empirically and conceptually?
What modes of inquiry were used to produce it?
How is the text structured and performed?
How can it circulate? 

What is the text about – empirically?

Broken down by chapter (6) with each chapter except for the first (introduction) combining together the ethnographic data (stories from interviews) with historical background and analysis, combined together with her own analysis. Written in English and in an academic style, circulates probably in academic circles or those interested in patriarchy in Egypt 


What is the text about – empirically? What is the text “about” -- empirically and conceptually?

What phenomenon is drawn out in the text?  A social process; a cultural and political-economic shift; a cultural “infrastructure;” an emergent assemblage of science-culture-technology-economics?

An ethnographic study of Egyptian women in urban centers who are unable to have children (infertile) and a look at the social repercussions that come amidst “complex and countervailing pressures.” The main intervention is an examination of how there is a “valorization of motherhood” and how infertility demonstrates the complexities and paradoxes of Egyptian patriarchy and the relationships between family members as they become involved in the discovery of infertility and the repercussions afterwards.

Where is this phenomenon located – in a neighborhood, in a country, in “Western Culture,” in a globalizing economy?

1980s and 1990s urban Egypt (broadly the Middle East)


What historical trajectory is the phenomenon situated within?  What, in the chronology provided or implied, is emphasized -- the role of political or economic forces, the role of certain individuals or social groups?  What does the chronology leave out or discount?

Situated within Islamic and pre-Islamic medical philosophies, the emergence and change of Middle East patriarchy, the introduction of Western biomedicine and psychology, Western political forces that have in the past tried to limit the “size of Egyptian, and, ultimately, the muslim populations” (256), the introduction and also resistance of Western powers towards family-planning programs in Egypt. The role of the community (“spouses, in-laws, and neighbors” and potential for “community ostracism”); Examining social relations within the family and between communities.

What scale(s) are focused on -- nano (i.e. the level of language), micro, meso, macro? What empirical material is developed at each scale? 

Micro in that she is interviewing infertile, Egyptian urban women and looking  at the communities they live in, but she also examines patriarchy at a macro level, looking at how Middle Eastern patriarchy works within structures of formal and informal power and religious institutions like Islam. She also looks at how Middle Eastern women work towards resistance within “hegemonic consent” (29). She mainly looks at literature for the macro level and on ethnographic data like interviews at the micro level.


Who are the players in the text and what are their relations?  Does the text trace how these relations have changed across time – because of new technologies, for example? 

They include urban Egyptian women who are infertile and visiting hospitals for treatment, husbands, parents-in-law, neighbors, extended family members. She examines how these women’s lives change after it becomes apparent that they aren’t able to bear children. (Previously discussed -- mentions introduction of family-planning programs and Western biomedicine).


What is the temporal frame in which players play?  In the wake of a particular policy, disaster or other significant “event?”  In the general climate of the Reagan era, or of “after-the-Wall” globalization?

She doesn’t seem to zero in on any particular event or temporal frame, but works to give some historical context with her discussion of class relations in Egypt, the role religion plays in Middle Eastern and Egyptian society. She carried out her research in the 1990s and published in 1996. 


What cultures and social structures are in play in the text?

Patriarchal ideologies (Middle Eastern, Egyptian, urban contexts), complexities of gender relations and politics in the Middle East and in Muslim countires, Islamism, pronatalism and infertility, cultural construction of motherhood.


What kinds of practices are described in the text?  Are players shown to be embedded in structural contradictions or double-binds?

The tension between ideas of motherhood and gendered identity as it plays out within the family and communities


How are science and technology implicated in the phenomenon described? 

Insemination, the use of hospitals and traditional remedies, Western biomedicine and genetics 


What structural conditions– technological, legal and legislative, political, cultural – are highlighted, and how are they shown to have shaped the phenomenon described in this text?

Recent nuclearization of the family in Egypt, reforms of Muslim family law and other religious laws including ones about polygyny, recent breakdown of the patriarchy in urban areas as a “‘reaction’ to Islamism” (43) and the proletarianization of men and “women as consumers” of those wages.


How – at different scales, in different ways – is power shown to operate?  Is there evidence of power operating through language, “discipline,” social hierarchies, bureaucratic function, economics, etc?

Power as it comes emerges from gendered hierarchies, classes, especially in urban settings, gendered and religion politics. Coming from communities and families but also working within larger regional, national, and international forces like that of Islamic law and Western political and social influences 


Does the text provide comparative or systems level perspectives?  In other words, is the particular phenomenon described in this text situated in relation to similar phenomenon in other settings?  Is this particular phenomena situated within global structures and processes?

Global structures and processes: Looking at it from a “localized” level where you can dig past what it means to be an Arab Woman, Middle Eastern woman, and so on, but still keeping in mind the larger historical and political processes like religious and patriarchy.


What is the text about – conceptually? Is the goal to verify, challenge or extend prior theoretical claims?

Demonstrating how social changes like urbanization and the so-called decline of patriarchy don’t always work in favor of women, especially infertile women who are a part of the social process of motherhood and the role that religion plays in both helping and hurting. 


What is the main conceptual argument or theoretical claim of the text?  Is it performed, rendered explicit or both?

It unravels ideas of motherhood and examines whether there are connections between these “sources of identity” and the “social role” at play (48). She explicitly states it (introduction) and implies it throughout the book. 


What ancillary concepts are developed to articulate the conceptual argument?

Patriarchy in the Middle East, the “individual psychosocial,” social structures as it reproduces and reifies gender, and the impacts of the political-economic.


How is empirical material used to support or build the conceptual argument?

Mainly ethnographic data like the stories of these women in addition to references of historical processes


How robust is the main conceptual argument of the text?  On what grounds could it be challenged?

Through a normalization processes that attempt to naturalize ideas of motherhood and what it means to be a Middle Eastern woman, infertile Egyptian women face paradoxical repercussions. Perhaps a question of how closely these individual women’s lives are influenced by the aforementioned historical processes.  


How could the empirical material provided support conceptual arguments other than those built in the text?

 Broader discussions of gender politics in Muslim countries, way that patriarchy works across national lines 


Modes of inquiry? What theoretical edifice provides the (perhaps haunting – i.e. non-explicit) backdrop to the text?

Feminist theories plays a particularly strong role with ideas like resistance and power coming into play


What assumptions appear to have shaped the inquiry?  Does the author assume that individuals are rational actors, for example, or assume that the unconscious is a force to be dealt with?  Does the author assume that the “goal” of society is (functional) stability? Does the author assume that what is most interesting occurs with regularity, or is she interested in the incidental and deviant?

She’s more interested in what is supposed to be incidental and deviant but how it actually can be prevalent and who it impacts the most. I don’t think she is implicitly talking about a particular goal in society but rather attempting to point out a greater need to give “voice” to these women (45-6).


What kinds of data (ethnographic, experimental, statistical, etc.)  are used in the text, and how were they obtained?

Ethnographic with interviews of women who went to clinics and hospitals in urban Egypt and visiting those women at their homes, seeing them interact with their husbands, in-laws, and neighbors 


If interviews were conducted, what kinds of questions were asked?  What does the author seem to have learned from the interviews?

While she has quotes and stories as she calls them, most of her interview data is spoken from the third person (which gives it a less personalized view), and she’s mostly looking at discomforts and pains in daily life


How was the data analyzed?  If this is not explicit, what can be inferred?

She’s using the ethnographic data and anchoring it in theory, including psychosocial theory, feminist theory, and ideas of patriarchy and religion in the Middle East


How are people, objects or ideas aggregated into groups or categories?

She tries to get away from that by saying that it is “false” to group these women under broad categories like “Muslim woman,” “Arab woman,” and so on, but these women are grouped as infertile women living in urban settings in Egypt


What additional data would strengthen the text?

 Perhaps additional details about the historical background (more details about the introduction of Western biomedicine and accompanying medical philosophies)  along with the political/medical system and how it affects these women


Structure and performance?

However, she threads her ideas, material, and ethnographic data together through chapter headings, including occasional pictures of the women (for example, a photo of one woman on her wedding day)


What is in the introduction? Does the introduction turn around unanswered questions -- in other words, are we told how this text embodies a research project?

She brings up different themes (gender politics, patriarchy, ideology, and so on) before moving on to her project’s question of “What does it mean to be a ‘female,’ a ‘woman,’ and a ‘mother’?” and what role the politics of marriage, the “nature of familial intervention” and the importance of children as part of these cultural constructs emerges.


Where is theory in the text?  Is the theoretical backdrop to the text explained, or assumed to be understood?

Yes, she brings up theoretical literature on class systems, religion, and feminist studies


What is the structure of the discourse in the text?  What binaries recur in the text, or are conspicuously avoided?

Possibly the binary between fertile and infertile woman, mother and non-mother?


How is the historical trajectory delineated?  Is there explicit chronological development?

No, I don’t see an explicit chronological development (maybe linear type) although she is certainly bringing historical context in her writing


How is the temporal context provided or evoked in the text?

Yes, she mainly looks at women in the 1980s and 90s, but bring sup different historical constructs including religion that requires a longer historical explanation


How does the text specify the cultures and social structures in play in the text?

By talking about the different essentialist categories like woman, motherhood, and so, and working to move around them


How are informant perspectives dealt with and integrated?

Like I mention below, she brings up each main interviewees story and works to integrated it into her arguments by using quotes and other references


How does the text draw out the implications of science and technology? At what level of detail are scientific and technological practices described?

Not very in depth, she’s mostly focused on the social relations at play


How does the text provide in-depth detail – hopefully without losing readers?

By weaving it together in a story, whether it’s a story about different theorists talking with each other, historical aspects, and so on


What is the layout of the text?  How does it move, from first page to last?  Does it ask for other ways of reading? Does the layout perform an argument?

Although the first chapter starts out with the typical laying down the theoretical foundations of the book, she proceeds with every other chapter starting with someone’s story and in the second half of the chapter makes a broader point grounded in that story and details from others. I think it’s another feature of attempting to “localize” her writing and humanize those she worked with


What kinds of visuals are used, and to what effect?

Mainly pictures and photos of these women – I think it helps humanize them and works together with the story laid out at the beginning of most chapters. However, it could also problematic and reinforces particular stereotypes instead 


What kind of material and analysis are in the footnotes?

Additional cultural context, linguistic explanations, and material from studies


How is the criticism of the text performed?  If through overt argumentation, who is the “opposition”?

Inhorn does bring up policy makers and legislators who are arguing that these women are facing social repercussions due to population pressures and other quantitative methodologies, but she seems to be fighting against that through her continued concerns with having a localized” study


How does the text situate itself?  In other words, how is reflexivity addressed, or not?

 Reflexivity isn’t addressed directly, but her tone is professional, and she doesn’t try to assume that she can completely understand what these women are going through and enduring.  



Who is the text written for?  How are arguments and evidence in the text shaped to address particular audiences?

Anthropologists, academics, Middle Eastern studies, feminists


What all audiences can you imagine for the text, given its empirical and conceptual scope?

It is written for those who would like to explore ideas of motherhood and patriarchy, how they are intertwined within each other, and the paradoxical results that can occur when they are unraveled or altered 


What new knowledge does this text put into circulation?  What does this text have to say that otherwise is not obvious?

She’s looking for a localized study of these women that gets away from essentialist conceptions of what it means to be a Middle Eastern woman and the ways in which infertile women resist and succumb to social pressures. How motherhood becomes constructed within certain contexts and the paradoxical results that can occur when it breaks down or isn’t fulfilled 


How generalizable is the main argument?  How does this text lay the groundwork for further research?

It’s generalizable in that she’s speaking not just from a local level but looking at cultural constructions of motherhood and women from various perspective and socio-geographic standpoints


What kind of “action” is suggested by the main argument of the text?

I don’t realize see any type of “action” being suggested, but rather a desire to uncover the complexities of a seemingly simple phenomenon and how some things can both aid in women’s suffering as much as alleviate it 


Other modes of expression? 

Describe how the material and arguments of this text could be presented in a form other than that of a conventional scholarly book -- as a graphic novel, museum exhibit, activist stunt, or educational module for kids, for example? 

I think it would be possible for her research to be presented in a graphic novel or museum exhibit, especially since she is already trying to convey her message through pictures. I think an exhibition of body mapping (in medical anthropology, it is an art form that allows people to draw their embodied experiences as it relates to their health issues) would be especially relevant as we get some understanding of the fertility remedies and medicines being used and how it might affect these women’s bodies.



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Contributed date

October 14, 2019 - 12:01am

Critical Commentary

This sketch was done for UCI Anthro 215A, Ethnographic Methods, Fall 2019