Caroline H. Bledsoe Melville J. Herskovits Professor of African Studies | Graduate Advisor

Research and teaching interests

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


Bledsoe’s projects in West Africa have centered on cultural visions of marriage, fertility and contraception, and child fosterage, several of which have been followed by U.S. and European counterpart studies. 

Her most formative project, in The Gambia (Contingent Lives: Fertility, Time, and Aging in West Africa, 2002, University of Chicago Press; contributions by Fatoumatta Banja), confronted Western views of the life course, which equate aging with the passage of linear time, with a West African model, which views aging as contingent on the cumulative effects of “wear,” especially, for women, that encountered in obstetric trauma. A subsequent study of technical writings in Western obstetrics, most notably by Chicago obstetrics pioneer Joseph B. De Lee, both revealed unmistakable support for the African view and deepened ideas of how “nature” comes to be.  A book is in preparation (Selecting Populations, Selecting Memories:  The Evolution of Visions of Childbearing in Twentieth Century America.) 

Her current project is “Transnational vital events: birth, law, and migration between Africa and Europe,” based at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany.  It asks how people distribute their key life moments – especially birth and marriage – across international boundaries as rights to work and live in Europe shift so dramatically.  A book, The Demography of Family Reunification in Afro-Iberia, is planned, and in 2007, she will co-chair The Berlin Roundtables on Transnationality, Irmgard Coninx Foundation.  Theme: “Population Politics and Human Rights.” 

She has been supported by the Ford, Rockefeller, and Mellon foundations, the National Science Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. 

Recent courses taught

  • 332   Anthropology of Reproduction
  • 389   Ethnographic Methods and Analysis
  • 390   Making Numbers Talk
  • 490   Transnational Vital Events

Recent books

2002. Contingent Lives: Fertility, Time, and Aging in West Africa, with contributions by Fatoumatta Banja.  University of Chicago Press, Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures.  Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture Series. University of Chicago Press, 2002. 

  • Amaury Talbot Prize (Royal Anthropological Institute, UK)
  • Eileen Basker Prize
  • Society for Medical Anthropology; finalist
  • Melville J. Herskovits Book award, African Studies Association

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

Selected publications 

2007. Caroline H. Bledsoe and Rachel Scherrer.  “The dialectics of disruption: paradoxes of nature and professionalism in contemporary American childbearing.” Reproductive Disruptions: Gender, Technology, and Ethics in the New Millennium. Marcia C. Inhorn, ed.  Oxford: Berghahn.

2007. Bledsoe, Caroline H. et al.  “Regulating creativity: research and survival in the IRB iron cage.”  Northwestern Law Review.  Special issue:  “Censorship and Institutional Review Boards.”  Philip Hamburger and James Lindgren, eds.

2006. “From circulation to substitution:  family reunification policy and African migrant life in Spain.”  Globalism, Reproduction, and the State.  Carole Browner and Carolyn Sargent, eds. 

2005. Caroline H. Bledsoe, René Houle and Papa Sow. “High fertility Gambians in low fertility Spain: mutually entailed lives across international space.”  Demographic Research.

2005. “Reproductive relativity:  time, space, and Western contraception in rural Gambia.” Ahfad Journal: Special issue. 

2004. “Reproduction at the margins: migration and legitimacy in the New Europe.” Demographic  Research, Special Collection 3.  Pp. 85-116.

2002.  Jane Maslow Cohen and Caroline Bledsoe, "Immigrants, agency, and allegiance:  some notes from anthropology and the law." Engaging Cultural Differences: Multicultural Challenges in Liberal Democracies. Eds. Richard Shweder, Hazel Markus, and Martha Minnow. New York: Russell Sage Press.

2001. "The bodily costs of childbearing: Western science through a West African lens.” Children and Anthropology: Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century, Helen Schwartzman, ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. Pp. 57-81

Recent presentations and invited lectures

2006  “The unsettling power of ethnography:  interpreting public-use quantitative data on African immigrants in Spain.”  University of Chicago MacLean Center in Medical Ethics. 

2006  "The demography of family reunification:  from circulation to substitution in Gambian Spain."  Paper for the Bay Area Colloquium in Population, Berkeley, California. 

2005  "Joseph B. De Lee and the battle over obstetrics in tenement Chicago." University of Chicago Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology.  Grand Rounds presentation.  

2005  “High fertility Gambians in low fertility Spain: the ethnographic exploration of a demographic anomaly.”  Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany.  Kollokvium presentation.

2005  “High fertility Gambians in low fertility Spain: the ethnographic exploration of a demographic anomaly.”  Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona.

2004  "Acts of selection:  reproduction and risk in contemporary America." 

  • University of Chicago.  Committee on Human Development.
  • Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research
  • Working Group on Anthropology and Population.  Brown University.
  • Working Group on Health, Healing and Ritual Practice, Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies.  Harvard University: 

2004  “Generating Northwestern anthropologists: evidence from the archives.” Melville J. Herskovits Roundtable discussion organized by Richard Joseph, African Studies Association, New Orleans. 

2003  "It's about time -- and space:  the bodily costs of reproduction in West Africa and beyond."  Inaugural Melville J. Herskovits Professorship lecture, Northwestern University.

2003  "African reproduction and the dynamics of time and space." 

  • Global Development, Population, and Rural Livelihoods seminar, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands.
  • Institut National d'Études Démographiques, Paris.