Skip to main content

Caroline H. Bledsoe

Professor Emeritus

PhD Stanford 1976

Updated Dec. 2016

Research and teaching interests

Sociocultural anthropology, kinship and marriage, demography, medicine; Africa

Bledsoe’s studies have centered on cultural visions of reproduction and the lifecourse in West Africa and beyond.  Specific themes have included marriage, fertility, child fosterage, health, contraception, aging, obstetrics, and migration.  Several West African studies have been followed by U.S. and European counterparts. 

Conceptually, the work has examined forms of ideation, regulation, and quantitative calculus as ethnographic terrain.  It asks, among other things, (a) the politics of knowledge and the law, and (b) how formal perspectives usually attributed to demography, economics, and medicine can be combined with the softer social sciences to probe the dynamics that shape life events and to derive insights into the mutual cultural construction of nature and science. 

Following work on marriage in Liberia, child fosterage in Sierra Leone, adolescent fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa, and marriage and male fertility internationally, Bledsoe’s most formative project 1992-5 turned to the dynamics of child spacing, contraception, marriage, and aging in rural Gambia (collaborations:  Harvard School of Public Health, the Gambian Ministry of Health, and the Gambian Central Statistics Department). The resulting book: Contingent Lives: Fertility, Time, and Aging in West Africa, 2002 (University of Chicago Press; contributions by Fatoumatta Banja). This work confronted Western views of the life course and its accompanying socialities, which equate aging with the passage of linear time, with a West African model that explicitly inverts this view, seeing aging as itself contingent on the cumulative effects of “wearing” ordeals:  for women, especially those encountered in obstetric trauma.  Inspired by the findings in this project, several sebsequent analyses have centered on how contraceptive use in the contemporary US has been framed culturally. 

The key followup project to the study in The Gambia (“Through African eyes: obstetric practice and the reproductive body in Western medical history”), turned to technical writings in Western obstetrics, especially those by Chicago physician Joseph B. De Lee, who began an obstetrics practice in working class/immigrant Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, eventually becoming known as one of the two principal founders of obstetrics as a medical specialty in America. Using historical as well as contemporary materials (textbooks, archival materials, hospital and landscape architecture, cinematography, popular media), the project has exploited the cultural and historical perspective provided by the earlier African work to examine the mutual cultural construction of nature and science through the lenses of professional obstetric practice.

Drawing on these themes as well as on more classical African subjects of marriage and child fosterage, a project called, “Transnational vital events: birth, law, and migration between Africa and Europe,” began in 2004 and continues in various forms.  It has asked how people distribute their key life moments -- birth, marriage, aging, movement -- across international boundaries, as legal and humanitarian rights to work and live in Europe, as well as the definition of Europe itself, shift dramatically.  Key collaborators have been those from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock Germany, Stockholm University, the Universität Autonoma de Barcelona, the Free University of Berlin, and the University of Bonn.

Turning a similar lens to the US, C. Bledsoe and P. Sow examined the counterintuitive phenomenon of West African parents living in North America who send their older children back home to live:  that is, from places of high immigrant aspiration to those of hardship and privation. It concluded that West African immigrants, fearing the potential legal consequences of children’s indiscipline in the West, where generic suspicions directed at teens of color can undermine the security of their entire family, may send unruly children back to what is seen as a more disciplined life in the home country, to toughen their resilience to the challenges in the new place and wait for the age-specific legal risks it poses to dissipate.


1976                     PhD, Anthropology.  Stanford University.  Stanford, California. USA

1971                     B.A., General Studies.  University of Arizona.  Tucson, Arizona.  USA

Major external appointments, affiliations, honors

2010                    Visiting Researcher, Demographic Studies Center, Autonomous University of Barcelona

2007-8                 Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC

2005-8                 Visiting Researcher, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Germany

1999-2000           John Simon Guggenheim fellowship

1999                    Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures (Anthropology), University of Rochester

1996                    Visiting Mellon Fellow, Population Research Center, University of Chicago

1996                    Visiting Research Professor, Demography Unit, Stockholm University

1984‑86               Senior Research Associate, Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania

Major research projects

2004-pres           “Transnational Vital Events: Birth, Marriage and the Law in Africa and Europe.”

1999-2001         “Through African eyes: obstetric practice and the reproductive body in Western medical history.”  (Setting:  early twentieth century working class/immigrant Chicago)

1992-5                 Child spacing, fertility, contraceptive use, and bodily aging in rural Gambia. 

1990-93:             “The social dynamics of adolescent fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

1981-82              “Child fosterage in Sierra Leone” (with William P. Murphy).

1973-74:             “Women and marriage in Liberia” (PhD dissertation).


The Ford, Rockefeller, Mellon, and Wenner Gren foundations; the National Science Foundation; the Population Council; the National Academy of Sciences; the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation; the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (Rostock, Germany); the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Washington, DC).


In process:  Language, Culture, and Language-Based Knowledge in Large Dataset Collection.  Lora Koycheva and Caroline Bledsoe, co-editors.

2002:  Contingent Lives: Fertility, Time, and Aging in West Africa, with contributions by Fatoumatta Banja.  University of Chicago Press (Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture series).
           international book awards:

                                   -  Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology: Royal Anthropological Institute, UK

                                   -  Eileen Basker Memorial Prize for gender and health, Society for Medical Anthropology

2000:   Fertility and the Male Life Cycle in the Era of Fertility Decline. C. Bledsoe, S. Lerner, and J.I. Guyer, eds. Clarendon: Oxford University Press.

1999:   Critical Perspectives on Education and Fertility in the Developing World.  C. Bledsoe, J. Casterline, J. Johnson-Kuhn, J. Haaga, eds. U.S. National Academy of Sciences Press.

1994:   Nuptiality in sub-Saharan Africa: Contemporary Anthropological and Demographic Perspectives. C. Bledsoe and G. Pison, eds., Oxford: Clarendon Press.

1993:  The Social Dynamics of Adolescent Fertility in Sub Saharan Africa. Caroline Bledsoe and Barney Cohen, eds. U.S. National Academy of Sciences Press.

1980:  Women and Marriage in Kpelle Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Key papers

Ms.       P. Sow and C.H. Bledsoe. “Migration, masculinity, and pathology: ageing and sexual decline among West Africans in Europe.”  Papa Sow and Caroline H. Bledsoe.

Ms.       Caroline H. Bledsoe and Papa Sow.   “Migrants, mortgages, and banks: West Africans in the wake of Spain’s financial crisis.”

2013    Caroline H. Bledsoe and Papa Sow.  “Back to Africa: second chances for the children of West African immigrants.” The International Handbook on Gender, Migration and Transnationalism: Global and Development Perspectives, L. Oso and N. Ribas-Mateos, eds.  Elgar Press.  Rev from 2001 special issue of Journal of Marriage and Family 73(4):747-62. V. Mazzucatto, ed.

2011     C.H. Bledsoe and P. Sow. “Family reunification ideals and the practice of transnational reproductive life among Africans in Europe.”  (IN) Reproduction, Globalism, and the State. C. Browner and C. Sargent, eds.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.  Pp.  175-191.

2010     “Sociocultural anthropology’s encounters with large public data sets: the case of the Spanish Municipal Register,” (IN) Number as Inventive Frontier: Equivalence, Accounting, Calculation.  J. I. Guyer et al, eds. Special issue of Anthropological Theory 10(1-2):103-11.

2007    C.H. Bledsoe and R. Scherrer.  “The dialectics of disruption:  paradoxes of nature and professionalism in contemporary American childbearing.”  Reproductive Disruptions: Gender, Technology, and Ethics in the New Millennium. M.C. Inhorn, ed. Oxford: Berghahn.  Pp. 47‐78.

2007    C.H. Bledsoe, R. Houle, and P. Sow. “High fertility Gambians in low fertility Spain: The dynamics of child accumulation across transnational space.” Demographic Research. Vol. 16, article 12: 375-412.

2007    C.H. Bledsoe et al.  “Regulating Creativity:  Research and Survival in the IRB Iron Cage”. Northwestern University Law Review 101(2):593-641.  Special issue:  “Censorship and Institutional Review Boards.”

1998    C. Bledsoe, F. Banja, and A.G. Hill. "Reproductive mishaps and Western contraception: an African challenge to fertility theory," Population and Development Review 24(1):15-57.

1996    "Contraception and "natural" fertility in America," Fertility in the United States: New Patterns, New Theories: Population and Development Review, special supplement issue to Vol 22. J. Casterline, et al, eds. Pp. 297-324.

1994    "`Children are like young bamboo trees': potentiality and reproduction in sub-Saharan Africa." Population, Economic Development, and the Environment: The Making of Our Common Future. K.L. Kiessling and H. Landberg, eds. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp. 105-138.  

1993    "The cultural transformation of western education in Sierra Leone." La Jeunesse en Afrique: Encadrement et Rôle de la Société a l'Époque Contemporaine (XIX et XX Siècles. C. Coquery-Vidrovitch et al., eds. Paris: L'Harmattan. Pp. 383-406.  Rev. version published in Africa 62(2):182-202, 1992, and in Schooling the Symbolic Animal (B. Levinson, ed.). Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press. 2000.

1990    "`No success without struggle': social mobility and hardship for Sierra Leone children." Man (N.S.) 25:70-88.

1990    "Transformations in sub-Saharan African marriage and fertility." Special issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Sam Preston, ed. Pp. 510:115-25.

1990    "The politics of AIDS and condoms for stable heterosexual relations in Africa: recent evidence from the local print media." Births and Power: the Politics of Reproduction. W.P. Handwerker, ed. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. Pp. 197-223. Condensed version in Disasters: the Journal of Disaster Studies and Management 15(1):1-11, 1991.

1989     C.H. Bledsoe and U.C. Isiugo-Abanihe. "Strategies of child fosterage among Mende `grannies' in Sierra Leone." African Reproduction and Social Organization. R. Lesthaeghe, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press. Pp. 442-474.

1986    Bledsoe, C., & Robey, K. (1986). “Arabic literacy and secrecy among the Mende of Sierra Leone.” Man, n.s., 21, 202–226.