Anthropology of Birth, Sex and Death

The details
Colchester Campus
Full Year
Undergraduate: Level 5
Thursday 03 October 2019
Friday 26 June 2020
01 August 2019


Requisites for this module



Key module for

BA LL36 Social Anthropology,
BA LL3P Social Anthropology (Including Year Abroad),
BA LL6P Social Anthropology (Including Placement Year),
BA LL37 Social Anthropology with Human Rights,
BA LL38 Social Anthropology with Human Rights (Including Year Abroad),
BA LL39 Social Anthropology with Human Rights (Including Placement Year)

Module description

This module looks at some of the basic facts of human existences, birth, sex and death, from a cross-cultural perspective. All humans face these 'facts of life' but they do them in different as well as similar ways. The first part of the module looks at the human body and in particular how different peoples understand the process of procreation. To what extent are the body and bodily processes understood and experienced the same ways around the world? Are things that seem obvious to Westerners equally obvious to other people? How does culture affect how we experience and understand the body?

We will spend several weeks looking at gender and ideologies of gender and ask some broad questions about gender and power, specifically focusing on how these questions relate to issues of the body and birth and sex and death.

We finish the module with looking at death and the experience of death varies across cultures and why.

Module aims

• To give students an appreciation of cultural difference;
• To challenge students’ understandings of key issues relating to sex and gender;
• To explore issues of power and ideology cross culturally.

Module learning outcomes

• To examine issues, experiences, and rituals surrounding birth, sex and death across cultures and through time;
• To develop students critical reading skills;
• To engage in open debate over a range of challenging and sensitive issues.

Module information

The module follows a clear path and each week builds on the previous one. Later sessions will refer to previous ones and regular attendance is essential.

Learning and teaching methods

The course group meets weekly for two hours at a time. The sessions will be characterised by a mixed format of lecturing, group activity and open discussion. A typical session will consist of a half-hour lecture after which students will read a short piece of text relevant to the lecture. After a period of small group work the discussion is opened to include everyone. The process is repeated with more lecturing for short periods followed by group work and discussion. The final twenty minutes to half hour of the session will normally be devoted to discussion of the key texts set for reading.


  • Ott, Sandra. (1979) 'Aristotle Among the Basques: The 'Cheese Analogy' of Conception', in Man. vol. 14 (4) , pp.699-711
  • Rosaldo, Renato. (c1993) Culture & truth: the remaking of social analysis, Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Canessa, Andrew. (2012) Intimate indigeneities: race, sex, and history in the small spaces of Andean life, Durham, NC: Duke University Press. vol. Narrating native histories
  • Carolyn Pedwell. (no date) 'Theorizing 'African' Female Genital Cutting and 'Western' Body Modifications: A Critique of the Continuum and Analogue Approaches', in Feminist Review: Palgrave Macmillan Journals.
  • Bloch, Maurice. (1982) 'Death, women, and power', in Death and the regeneration of life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • L.J. Jondanova. (1980) 'Natural facts: and historical perspective on science and sexuality', in Nature, culture, and gender, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Holy, Ladislav. (1985) 'Fire, Meat and Children: the Berti Myth, Male Dominance and Female Power', in Reason and morality, London: Tavistock Publications. vol. ASA monographs
  • Gay-Y-Blasco, Paloma. (1997) 'A 'Different' Body? Desire and Virginity Among Gitanos', in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. vol. 3 (3) , pp.517-535
  • Fuambai Ahmadu. (2000) 'Rites and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision', in Female circumcision in Africa: culture, controversy, and change, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers. vol. Directions in applied anthropology
  • Bloch, Maurice; Parry, Jonathan. (1982) 'Introduction', in Death and the regeneration of life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Laqueur, Thomas Walter. (1990) Making sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
  • Dorkenoo, Efua. (1994) Cutting the rose: female genital mutilation : the practice and its prevention, London: Minority Rights Group. vol. Minority rights publications
  • Harries, Patrick. (1990) 'Symbols and Sexuality: Culture and Identity on the Early Witwatersrand Gold Mines', in Gender & History. vol. 2 (3) , pp.318-336
  • (1984) Ritualized homosexuality in Melanesia, London: University of California Press.
  • Harris, Olivia. (1982) 'The dead and the devils among the Bolivian Laymi', in Death and the regeneration of life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Whitehead, Harriet. (1981) 'The bow and the burden-strap: a new look at institutionalised homosexuality in native North America', in Sexual meanings, the cultural construction of gender and sexuality, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Giallombardo, Rose. (1966) Society of women: a study of a women's prison, New York: Wiley.
  • Melissa Llewellyn-Davies. (1981) 'Women, Warriors and Patriarchs', in Sexual meanings, the cultural construction of gender and sexuality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • (2011) Genesis 1-11: tales of the earliest world, Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
  • Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. (1992) Death without weeping: the violence of everyday life in Brazil, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Delaney, Carol. (1986) 'The Meaning of Paternity and the Virgin Birth Debate', in Man. vol. 21 (3) , pp.494-513
  • Wikan, Unni. (1977) 'Man Becomes Woman: Transsexualism in Oman as a Key to Gender Roles', in Man. vol. 12 (2) , pp.304-319
  • Harris, Olivia. (1980) 'The Power of Signs: Gender, Culture and the Wild in the Bolivian Andes', in Nature, culture, and gender, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gose, Peter. (c1994) Deathly waters and hungry mountains: agrarian ritual and class formation in an Andean town, Toronto: University of Toronto Press. vol. Anthropological horizons
  • Ortner, Sherry. (1974) 'Is female to male as nature is to culture?', in Woman, culture, and society, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Martin, Emily. (1991) 'The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles', in Signs. vol. 16 (3) , pp.485-501
  • Jean Jackson. (1996) 'Coping with the Dilemmas of Affinity and Female Sexuality: Male Rebirth in the Central Northwest Amazon', in Denying biology: essays on gender and pseudo-procreation, Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  • Monica Konrad. (1998) 'Ova Donation and Symbols of Substance: Some Variations on the Theme of Sex, Gender and the Partible Body', in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. vol. 4 (4) , pp.643-667
  • Shepherd, Gillian. (1987) 'Rank, gender and homosexuality: Mombassa as a key to understanding sexual options', in The Cultural construction of sexuality, London: Tavistock Publications.
  • Bloch, M.; Guggenheim, S. (1981) 'Compadrazgo, Baptism and the Symbolism of a Second Birth', in Man. vol. 16 (3) , pp.376-386
  • Gillison, Gillian. (1980) 'Images of nature in Gimi thought', in Nature, culture, and gender, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • (no date) Shinjuku Boys 1995 - YouTube.
  • Chris Curling. (2003) Masai women, London: Granada Television International. vol. Disappearing world

The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course. The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students. Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Weighting
Coursework   Reading Assignment 1   10/10/2019   
Coursework   Reading Assignment 2   17/10/2019   
Coursework   Reading Assignment 3  31/10/2019   
Coursework   Reading Assignment 4  14/11/2019   
Coursework   Reading Assignment 5  21/11/2019   
Coursework   Reading Assignment 6  05/12/2019   
Coursework   Essay 1  10/01/2020  20% 
Coursework   Reading Assignment 7  23/01/2020   
Coursework   Reading Assignment 8   06/02/2020   
Coursework   Reading Assignment 9   13/02/2020   
Coursework   Reading Assignment 10  20/02/2020   
Coursework   Reading Assignment 11  19/03/2020   
Coursework   Essay 2   17/04/2020  20% 
Coursework   Reading Assignment 12  30/04/2020   
Exam  120 minutes during Summer (Main Period) (Main) 

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
70% 30%


Coursework Exam
70% 30%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Prof Andrew Canessa, email:
Professor Andrew Canessa
Jane Harper, Student Administrator, Telephone: 01206 873052 E-mail:



External examiner

Dr Monika Krause
London School of Economics
Available via Moodle
Of 40 hours, 38 (95%) hours available to students:
2 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).


Further information

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