Collaborating across Generations and Experience

From the Series: Co-authorship as Feminist Writing and Practice

Photo by Ryan Anderson, licensed under CC BY NC SA.

In this article, we engage with the topic of collaborative co-authorship by thinking about what it can be when it is multi-generational and multi-disciplinary. We acknowledge that senior scholars often offer their expertise and support to junior scholars who are carrying on their work. In the anthropologies of childbirth and midwifery, Brigitte (“Gitti”) Jordan, author of the field-founding and widely used Birth in Four Cultures (Jordan 1993), mentored Robbie through the processes of collaboration on writing projects. Robbie then mentored Melissa (Missy) for a time on various research and writing endeavors. Here we examine our collaboration process, as well as the joy in companionship we (Robbie and Missy) both strongly feel.

We come to the topic of collaborative co-authorship fresh from a joint book project that engaged us—Gitti, Robbie, and Missy—across three generations of scholars, two still in this world and one who has crossed over. In 2016, the three of us (including brilliant Gitti, as her words still live) began working together to produce an edited volume called Birth in Eight Cultures (Davis-Floyd and Cheyney 2019), published in 2019 as a follow-up and tribute to Jordan’s timeless classic mentioned above. Robbie has been deeply engaged in childbirth, obstetric, and midwifery studies for around thirty years, while Missy has been engaged in multiple such projects for about twenty years and is also a practicing homebirth midwife. We trace our academic matriline through one another: Robbie was one of Missy’s advisors for her PhD and Gitti acted as advisor and facilitator for Robbie’s first book, Birth as an American Rite of Passage (Davis-Floyd 2003 [1992]). Robbie, in turn, made sure that Gitti’s work would stay relevant for future generations by revising and updating Birth in Four Cultures (Jordan 1993) and conceiving and co-editing Childbirth and Authoritative Knowledge: Cross-Cultural Perspectives with Carolyn Sargent (Davis-Floyd and Sargent 1997), another important figure in our matriline. Both books gave new life to Gitti’s important concept of authoritative knowledge, which continues to be widely employed to make sense of the power and structural relationships among various knowledge systems. Robbie further expands this concept in her recent anthology, Ways of Knowing: Mothers, Midwives, Medicine, and Birth Activism (Davis-Floyd et al. 2018). In a chapter on postmodern midwives, she features Missy in a section called, “A Daya’s Omen: Chronicling Melissa Cheyney as a Scholar, Postmodern Midwife, and Activist,” written by students who have worked with Missy—Holly Horan, Bonnie Ruder, and Courtney Everson—and are carrying their own academic contributions into the next generation.

All three of us—Gitti, Robbie, and Missy—have worked internationally, with some overlap in our regions of study, yet over very different periods of time. Gitti’s fieldwork on midwifery and birth was conducted during the 1970s and 1980s, Robbie’s from the early 1980s on, and Missy started her fieldwork in 2000. The opportunity to incorporate Gitti’s voice as we worked on the above-cited Birth in Eight Cultures was delightful, and her spirit was never far away. We even “co-authored” a chapter with her called, “Authoritative Knowledge: Ways of Doing, Teaching, and Learning About Birth,” which we constructed as a “trialogue” among the three of us, using excerpts from Gitti’s former works.

We believe that our collaboration has borne fruit in both depth and breadth, and we agree that the quality of the work we created together was much greater than the three of us could have accomplished alone. Our experiences writing together have shown us how collaboration can work to integrate multiple perspectives, and how it pushes us to rethink some of the things we think we know. Yet the process was not always easy. While we have truly enjoyed writing together, we did experience moments that Robbie humorously described as “The Battles of Two Titans.” Below we reflect on these challenges, describing the ways we learned and grew from refracting each other's views and perspectives. We focus on two lines of thinking and inquiry: (1) the value and the difficulties of collaboration across generation, experience, and subdiscipline; and (2) the importance of acknowledging the work that has come before, even as we offer critiques and additional ways of seeing. We argue that through the challenges, conflicts, friction, and messiness that can emerge in such collaborative work, opportunities for individual and professional growth arise and scholarship moves forward.

The Challenges of Collaborating across Generations, Experiences, and Subdisciplines

In this section, we explore the challenges we experienced in collaborating across different generations, fieldwork experiences, and subdisciplines within anthropology. Specifically, we focus on our widely differing perspectives on language, terminology, referencing, and appetites for nuance versus simplicity.

Gender-Inclusive Language: Bridging a Generational and Ideological Divide

Missy was trained as a biocultural anthropologist, epidemiologist, and midwife. Robbie’s academic training was in folklore and symbolic/interpretive cultural anthropology, and later in medical and reproductive anthropology—all in an era in which gender-inclusive language was not yet on the horizon. When Missy first started sharing sections of her writing for Birth in Eight Cultures that included gender neutral language (“pregnant persons” versus “pregnant women,” or “birthing parent” versus “mother,” for example), Robbie at first felt as though Missy was effectively erasing women. Robbie struggled to adapt—not out of transphobia, she has reflected, but because she is acutely aware of women’s oppression, especially in lower-resource countries where it is so overt. Missy emphasized the need for inclusivity and a desire to call research participants what they wish to be called. We now agree that working to ensure that trans, genderqueer, and intersex people in the communities where we work are visible and respected does not undermine our ability to do the same for women. Robbie’s initial fear of women’s losing ground offered Missy a powerful reminder of the decades of work Gitti, Robbie, and so many others engaged in to help elevate “women’s topics” like menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, menopause, and midwifery to legitimate areas of anthropological inquiry. Missy reminded us that many voices are still missing or infrequently centered.

Terminology Debates: Compromise, the Effects of Embodiment, and Lessons Learned

We also grappled with the distinctions Robbie makes among what she has long identified as “the technocratic, humanistic, and holistic models of birth and health care” (Davis-Floyd 2001, 2018a) and their relationship to “the midwifery model of care” (Rothman 1982; Rooks 1999; Davis-Floyd 2018b). Missy wanted to say that the midwifery model encompasses all three paradigms, as homebirth midwives have technological skills, practice humanistically, and many incorporate the full range of the holistic model with its emphasis on the oneness of mind/body/spirit and on the intangibles of “energy” and intuition. Missy sees midwives as moving fluidly across these models, depending on factors such as the health of the people they are caring for. Robbie insisted that the humanistic model as she defines it does incorporate technological skills and risk factor evaluation due to its focus on scientific evidence—right along with its focus on relationship, compassion, and caring—and that the technocratic model is an ideology that most homebirth midwives do not share. Yet Missy felt strongly that to say that homebirth midwives practice only according to the humanistic and holistic paradigms might obscure the times when midwives employ interventions in service to client choice or to help ensure the best possible outcome for a client with a medically complicated pregnancy. Furthermore, refusing to acknowledge that homebirth midwives also highly value technology when appropriate has the potential to deepen the rift between homebirth clinicians and their hospital-based counterparts on whom they rely when complications do arise. So in the end, we do say in Birth in Eight Cultures that the midwifery model of care can occasionally reach across all three paradigms, as Robbie did not want in any way to appear to denigrate homebirth midwives—despite her continued insistence that the humanistic model does encompass such skills and perspectives. During these intense discussions and arguments, we learned that sometimes it’s worth it, as Donna J. Haraway (2016) has noted, to “stay with the trouble”—which, to us, means continuing to dialogue until we reach a deeper understanding, rather than one of us just giving up. We made a commitment to walking through, rather than around, the difficult conversations.

Through collaboration, we also came to understand more deeply the challenges of working in an arena where one’s own engagement is so deeply personal and embodied. This challenge was nowhere more evident than in our struggle over how to refer to births that do not occur in their culturally normative space. The term out-of-hospital (OOH) has long been used to collectively index births in freestanding birth centers and at home. Robbie initially preferred this term, and has used it extensively over her long career. Yet Missy has argued for the term community birth so as to describe such births for what they are, not for what they are not (Cheyney et al. 2019). While keenly aware that “OOH” reifies hospital birth and reinforces its normativity, Robbie’s problem with replacing it with community was that she, like so many U.S. childbearers who gave birth at home in the 1980s and 1990s when homebirth was extremely rare (under 0.5 percent) (MacDorman, Matthews, and Declerq 2012), felt so isolated—that is, not at all a part of a community. As we talked, Missy was able to grasp the isolation, struggle, stigma, shaming, and blaming that many homebirthers of Robbie’s generation had endured and embodied. And Robbie could hear that Missy did not intend the term community to convey that women necessarily feel a part of a community of like-minded and supportive people, though Missy certainly did when she gave birth at home in 2009. Missy’s embodied experience of homebirth embedded in a strong and vocal community highlights the slowly increasing cultural acceptance of an array of birth settings as viable options in many places; the homebirth and birth center birth rate in the United States has quadrupled, and is just under 2 percent today (MacDorman, Matthews, and Declercq 2014). Robbie did finally embrace Missy’s use of community birth as a space/place shorthand meant to convey a geographic, and not necessarily a social, location. But perhaps more importantly, we were able to see, and thus grapple with, the influence of embodiment on perception and how powerfully our own personal connections to birth and midwifery shape our respective work as anthropologists—something we might not have seen so clearly working alone.

Referencing: Too Much versus Not Enough

Being globally considered a senior “expert in the field” and often called a “field-founder” sometimes went to Robbie’s head, as she honestly confesses, making her feel, “Well, I said that, so that should be enough!” Whereas Missy argued that it was necessary to reference all assertions—even statements that to Robbie seemed self-evident. This resulted in what Robbie felt were too many references. Concerned about word limits and “overkill,” Robbie would cross out about half of them, and we would both (usually) content ourselves with that compromise. Forced to confront both her ego and her laziness (looking up references can be so time-consuming), Robbie learned humility in the face of Missy’s commitment to honoring the work of others by referencing them. And Missy learned to trust her own expertise a bit more and to feel more comfortable making assertions that stemmed from her own personal knowledge and lived experience (so long as they were clearly stated as such).

Nuance vs. Clarity: A Conflict that Led to Enhanced Collaboration

Missy is enamored of nuance, and Robbie has a greater tolerance for generalization, especially when it contributes to greater clarity. Robbie often argued that Missy was “always trying to overcomplicate things,” and Missy would retort, “But you are oversimplifying!” Ultimately, we both came to understand that we can share similar theoretical perspectives and still not see birth and midwifery in quite the same ways. And this is a good thing. It speaks to the complexity of the worlds and cultures we attempt to write, and it is precisely why collaboration can produce a better product than solo-authoring, for over the course of our long collaboration, we were able to clarify for ourselves and for each other where nuances were indeed needed and where simplicity, brevity, and clarity should prevail.

Conclusion: Standing on the Shoulders of Our Foremothers

Our trans-generational and mutually feminist collaboration, with all of its trials and tribulations, has led us to a second and much more succinct set of observations. Working together enabled us to see clearly that we can add to the scholarship of our mentors, standing on the shoulders of our mother and grandmother anthropologists within a culture of critique yet without tearing down those who paved our way. We can see what we see today because of what they saw, but also, on occasion, because of what they missed. In this way, we make room for multiple voices without falling prey to the ageist tendency of “out with the old, in with the new.” Our work can be expansive, appreciative, new, different, and additive without being destructive, superior, and necessarily or exclusively critical. We can push at the edges of what we know and how we know it, while acknowledging what their seeing enables us to perceive as we grow our fields together across age, generation and experience. We hope this collection of works will provide additional tools that can galvanize more scholars toward that end.


Cheyney, Melissa, Marit L. Bovbjerg, Lawrence Leeman, and Saraswathi Vedam. 2019. “Community Versus Out-of-Hospital Birth: What's in a Name?Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health 64, no. 1: 9–11.

Davis-Floyd, Robbie. 2001. “The Technocratic, Humanistic, and Holistic Paradigms of Childbirth.” International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics 75, supp. 1: S5–S23.

———. 2003. Birth as an American Rite of Passage. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press. Originally published in 1992.

———. 2018a. “The Technocratic, Humanistic, and Holistic Paradigms of Birth and Health Care.” In Ways of Knowing About Birth: Mothers, Midwives, Medicine, and Birth Activism, 3–44. Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland.

———. 2018b. “The Midwifery Model of Care: Anthropological Perspectives.” In Ways of Knowing About Birth: Mothers, Midwives, Medicine, and Birth Activism, 323–38. Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland.

Davis-Floyd, Robbie, and Melissa Cheyney, eds. 2019. Birth in Eight Cultures. Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland.

Davis-Floyd, Robbie, Etsuko Matsuoka, Holly Horan, Bonnie Ruder, and Courtney L. Everson. 2018. “Daughter of Time: The Postmodern Midwife.” In Ways of Knowing About Birth: Mothers, Midwives, Medicine, and Birth Activism by Robbie Davis-Floyd, 221–65. Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland.

Davis-Floyd, Robbie, and Carolyn F. Sargent. 1997. Childbirth and Authoritative Knowledge: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Jordan, Brigitte. 1993. Birth in Four Cultures: A Crosscultural Investigation of Birth in Yucatan, Holland, Sweden, and the United States. 4th ed. Revised and updated by Robbie Davis-Floyd. Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland. Originally published in 1978.

MacDorman, Marian F., T. J. Matthews, and Eugene Declercq. 2012. “Home Births in the United States, 1990–2009.” NCHS Data Brief No. 84, January. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

———. 2014. “Trends in Out-of-Hospital Births in the United States, 1990–2012.” NCHS Data Brief March, no. 144: 1–8.

Rooks, Judith P. 1999. “The Midwifery Model of Care.” Journal of Nurse-Midwifery 44, no. 4: 370–74.

Rothman, Barbara Katz. 1982. In Labor: Women and Power in the Birthplace. New York: WW Norton.