Anthropology Faculty Publications and Presentations

Authorizing tradition: vectors of contention in Highland Maya midwifery

Document Type


Publication Date



In Guatemala, midwives deliver the majority of children and play an important health care role in rural areas. Maya midwives, using time-proven methods, are the chief providers of care for mothers and infants in these areas. In recent decades, however, the medical establishment has become interested in Maya midwives, and is currently engaged in training and certifying many of them. This study examines how Guatemalan health authorities have sought to change Maya midwifery, refashioning its vocational framework and retooling it in accordance with Western medical principles. I focus on the place of obligatory formal training and the use of biomedical materials in the experience of Kaqchikel Maya midwives, and consider how the health officials employ these means to undermine the midwives' knowledge base. Encounters between midwives and formal health personnel reveal an ongoing privileging of biomedical knowledge, one that preserves asymmetrical relationships between these practitioners. This creates an environment favorable to health personnel, and helps them to extend their influence through the midwives into the community. Given this, I contend that health personnel value local Maya midwives primarily for their role in furthering the goals of biomedicine.


Publication Title

Social science & medicine