The Afterlife is Where We Come from
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The Afterlife is Where We Come from : The Culture of Infancy in West Africa

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When a new baby arrives among the Beng people of West Africa, they see it not as being born, but as being reincarnated after a rich life in a previous world. Far from being a tabula rasa, a Beng infant is thought to begin its life filled with spiritual knowledge. How do these beliefs affect the way the Beng rear their children? In this unique and engaging ethnography of babies, Alma Gottlieb explores how religious ideology affects every aspect of Beng childrearing practices--from bathing infants to protecting them from disease to teaching them how to crawl and walk--and how widespread poverty limits these practices. A mother of two, Gottlieb includes moving discussions of how her experiences among the Beng changed the way she saw her own parenting. Throughout the book she also draws telling comparisons between Beng and Euro-American parenting, bringing home just how deeply culture matters to the way we all rear our children.

All parents and anyone interested in the place of culture in the lives of infants, and vice versa, will enjoy The Afterlife Is Where We Come From.

"This wonderfully reflective text should provide the impetus for formulating research possibilities about infancy and toddlerhood for this century." -- Caren J. Frost, Medical Anthropology Quarterly "Alma Gottlieb's careful and thought-provoking account of infancy sheds spectacular light upon a much neglected topic. . . . [It] makes a strong case for the central place of babies in anthropological accounts of religion. Gottlieb's remarkably rich account, delivered after a long and reflective period of gestation, deserves a wide audience across a range of disciplines."--Anthony Simpson, Critique of Anthropology
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Product details

  • Paperback | 392 pages
  • 134 x 227 x 19mm | 592g
  • University of Chicago Press
  • Chicago, IL, United States
  • English
  • 53 halftones, 2 maps, 2 line drawings, 6 figures
  • 0226305023
  • 9780226305028
  • 28,494

Flap copy

When a new baby arrives among the Beng people of West Africa, they see it not as being born, but as being reincarnated after a rich life in a previous world. Far from being a tabula rasa, a Beng infant is thought to begin its life filled with spiritual knowledge. How do these beliefs affect the way the Beng rear their children? In this unique and engaging ethnography of babies, Alma Gottlieb explores how religious ideology affects every aspect of Beng childrearing practices--from bathing infants to protecting them from disease to teaching them how to crawl and walk--and how widespread poverty limits these practices. A mother of two, Gottlieb includes moving discussions of how her experiences among the Beng changed the way she saw her own parenting. Throughout the book she also draws telling comparisons between Beng and Euro-American parenting, bringing home just how deeply culture matters to the way we all rear our children. All parents and anyone interested in the place of culture in the lives of infants, and vice versa, will enjoy The Afterlife Is Where We Come From.
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Review quote

"Welcome to the Beng world, where toddlers welcome strangers, and parents consult infants and diviners to better accommodate the desires and gifts that very young babies bring from their former lives in the afterworld. This delightful, insightful, and quite provocative book about very small people makes a very large contribution--an anthropology of infancy enables us to rethink nature and culture in new and important ways."--Rayna Rapp, New York University "A tour de force of deep ethnography, nuanced reflexivity, and characteristic elegance. Alma Gottlieb has produced a sparkling text on an utterly neglected topic--the anthropology of infancy---that will challenge and change the way we think about culture and do ethnography."--Charles Piot, Duke University "With the publication of this astonishing book about reincarnation beliefs and infant development in West Africa, the study of the cultural psychology of childhood has come of age. . . . Read The Afterlife Is Where We Come From for an eye-opening interpretation of the local cultural meanings of developmental milestones, such as the transition from crawling to walking or the child's early articulation of intelligible speech. Read the book as a brilliant expos of the dangers of presumptively universalizing culture-specific ideals for human development. Read it to deeply fathom why infant development is not, and perhaps ought not to be, the same wherever you go."--Richard Shweder, University of Chicago "The Afterlife is Where We Come From is marvelously written. Gottlieb is
able to contextualize Beng infancy in terms of specific issues arising out of the slender field of anthropology and infancy, while at the same time drawing attention to how infant research might proceed in the future... Specialists in the study of infancy will find this book to be invaluable for its topical completeness and powerful methodology."--Phillip Kilbride, Bryn Mawr College "This is a wonderful book--intelligent, clear, fascinating, humane, and often very moving. Gottlieb strikes the perfect balance between intellectual detachment and personal empathy. The book is a long overdue and extremely exciting start to an anthropology of infancy. But any reader who cares about children will be caught up in the story of the Beng people and their babies. Like all the very best anthropology it makes us conscious simultaneously of the idiosyncrasies of our own techniques of child rearing and the universal human significance of the relations between babies and the people who take
care of them. The book gives us a chance to discover and empathize with a very different, faraway world of mothers and babies, and at the same time makes us think about our own children in a new way."The Scientist in the Crib--Alison Gopnik, author of The Scientist in the Crib "The Afterlife Is Where We Come From is some of the finest anthropological work I have ever seen. The book is not just an analysis of Beng babyhood but a complete analysis of life as a Beng. Alma Gottlieb is able to tie together the slippery strands of ritual, ideology, daily practice, and expression to come up with a comprehensible look at Beng life."--Meredith Small, Cornell University "[Afterlife] contributes to the field of anthropological research on children at many levels, revealing above all that children can be imagined by adults in ways that differ markedly from Western popular, religious, and scientific models alike."--Nicolas Argenti "Current Anthropology " "Alma Gottlieb's careful and thought-provoking account of infancy sheds spectacular light upon a much neglected topic. . . . [It] makes a strong case for the central place of babies in anthropological accounts of religion. Gottlieb's remarkably rich account, delivered after a long and reflective period of gestation, deserves a wide audience across a range of disciplines."

-- (05/11/2006) "This text would be extremely informative for undergraduate and graduate students. . . . This wonderfully reflective text should provide the impetus for formulating research possibilities about infancy and toddlerhood for this century." -- Caren J. Frost, Medical Anthropology Quarterly -- (04/18/2005) "The Afterlife Is Where We Come From is a sophisticated, insightful and compelling analysis of infants, infant care, and Beng Religious ideology. . . . Gottlieb's approach to the study of infants is systematic, comprehensive, and satisfying. The resulting analysis is beautifully organized and provides a model for all of us seeking to explicate complexity without reductionism. . . . This book will be a welcome addition to the growing number of courses on the anthropology of children and youth, as well, as to anthropologists teaching or researching the life cycle, family, African ethnology, and religion. It has the added attraction of being highly readable by both scholar and undergraduate." -- (03/25/2005) "The Afterlife Is Where We Come From is filled with richly layered (and often moving) material on the daily lives of Beng people, especially on what they say about babies and how what they say informs their day-to-day practice in caring for infants. . . . The breadth of [Gottlieb's] knowledge is admirable and the book is engagingly written and bound to be widely read by the public at large as well as by anthropologists." --Christina Toren "Anthropological Quarterly "
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About Alma Gottlieb

Alma Gottlieb, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is the author of Under the Kapok Tree: Identity and Difference in Beng Thought and coauthor of Parallel Worlds: An Anthropologist and a Writer Encounter Africa, both published by the University of Chicago Press. She is also the coeditor, most recently, of A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies.
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Rating details

44 ratings
4.15 out of 5 stars
5 43% (19)
4 36% (16)
3 14% (6)
2 7% (3)
1 0% (0)
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