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Bearing Culture: Resources, Networks and the Transition to New Motherhood


This dissertation is about women and their cultural resources as they progress through pregnancy, birth, and early parenthood. Specifically, it focuses on a key interpretive resource: the "cultural frames" (Goffman 1974) women encounter that are relevant to the settings, practices and outcomes they face during this important social moment (e.g., labor and delivery as a high- or low-risk environment, breast-feeding as compulsory or optional).

Pregnant women's perspectives, and individual-level cultural resources more generally, are under-researched in the social sciences. Few scholars study how pregnant women in the U.S. perceive self-, birth- or infant-care practices during this key life stage. Those that do typically focus on narrow topics and/or narrow segments of the population. And, significantly, a great deal of research in this and other health-related subfields assumes that individuals' views track with--and are sufficiently measured by--characteristics such as race/ethnicity, immigrant status, and nationality. At the same time, research on individual-level cultural resources has been stalled by the difficulty of operationalizing them. Cultural repertoire theory, for example, is conceptually useful and widely used (Swidler 1986, 2001; Lamont 1992), but it has been the subject of very little direct empirical study.

For this dissertation I designed a survey instrument that could (a) capture multi-dimensional data on pregnant women's perspectives, and (b) operationalize the cultural resources--here cultural frames--in individuals' repertoires. The module appeared in a series of longitudinal surveys and interviews of a socio-economically- and racially-diverse group of pregnant women in Northern California. I use the survey data to answer the following three questions.

Chapter 1: What is the cultural landscape of pregnancy for contemporary women, and in what regards does it vary by social location? Focusing primarily on the cultural frames that these women encounter about peri-natal practices and settings, I find (a) that more and less privileged women have divergent--but not radically different--landscapes, and (b) that exposure to contradictory frames is universal, though greater among highly-educated women. I also find a complex relationship between individuals' exposure to and endorsement of specific cultural frames. Investigating these "cultural landscapes" contributes novel data to the study of pregnancy and birth in the contemporary U.S., and enriches the study of culture in health research.

For Chapters 2 and 3, I conceptualized familiarity with diverse frames about a topic as having multiple cultural "tools" in one's repertoire, and calculated a cultural repertoire diversity score (CRD) based on this. Repertoire theory posits that culture affects individuals by giving them tools, such as cultural frames and styles of self-presentation, with which they interpret, navigate, and act in and on social life (Swidler 1986).

Chapter 2: What individual-level characteristics predict more or less diverse cultural repertoires? I use CRD score as a dependent variable to investigate whether more privileged respondents "consume" a wider variety of cultural frames than do less privileged individuals; and whether this consumption is related to respondents' social network characteristics. I find that educational achievement and social network diversity independently predict repertoire diversity. These analyses reveal a new way in which human and social capital confer cultural resources.

Chapter 3: Does having a more diverse cultural toolkit lead to greater individual well-being, as cultural repertoire theory would predict? Employing longitudinal data and CRD score as an independent variable, I find that women with more diverse cultural repertoires in fact experience worse postpartum socio-emotional outcomes than do their counterparts, net of relevant covariates. Drawing on social psychology, I posit that diverse cultural resources in this context may function less as tools individuals use to "solve" problems, and more as reference points against which to compare their experiences. This paper overcomes a long-standing barrier to understanding how culture impacts social life and identifies a previously unrecognized socio-cultural influence on postpartum mental health.

By operationalizing and directly measuring individual-level cultural resources, and by doing so in a more diverse sample of women then is typically studied in research on women's reproductive lives, this dissertation contributes new information to cultural sociology, to the study of culture in health contexts, and to research on contemporary pregnancy, birth and new motherhood.

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