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Different Times of the Month: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Menstruation Taboos - STIRS Student Case Study

Justin Armstrong, PhD
The Writing Program and Department of Anthropology
Wellesley College

Wellesley, Massachusetts
jarmstro@wellesley.edu

Abstract: This case study examines how attitudes toward menstruation have varied widely and manifested in culturally specific ways across time and space. The case introduces many key concepts in cultural anthropology while also developing writing, presentation and research skills through hands-on interactions and problem-based class discussions. Students work in small groups, using qualitative reasoning to analyze menstruation taboos from a variety of cultures (including their own). Using an anthropological lens to examine the cultural significance of this most essential element of human life, students gain both methodological and theoretical knowledge about how and why anthropologists engage with cultures at home and away.  Topics covered include the origins of complex symbolic narratives and beliefs, ethnographic field methods, and the process of 'writing-up' research. 

 The case may be used in its entirety, or instructors may choose to examine more closely the field methods element, the cross-cultural comparisons or the writing component. This case focuses on analysis and also contains elements of discussion/debate that can be adapted to a variety of classroom/workshop settings.  It can be taught through class-wide discussion and/or instructor facilitated small group workshops. Assignments and discussion topics are suggested and may be tailored to fit students' interests and instructors' learning goals. 

 This case study is best utilized by instructors familiar with key concepts in cultural anthropology (including ethnographic theory and methods) and/or sociology.  Instructors unfamiliar with the discipline may need to do some background reading in symbolic, medical, and/or feminist anthropology before teaching this case study (several useful resources are listed).

Use in Courses:  Designed as part of a first-year seminar course on the topic of blood (cross-listed Anthropology/Chemistry), this case does not require students to have any prior knowledge of anthropological theory or methods.  The case serves as an introduction to these topics through the study of menstruation taboos, a near universal phenomenon that serves as a useful entry-point into the discipline of cultural anthropology and the practice of cross-cultural comparison.  The case offers the instructor the option of delving more deeply into particular topics to suit the nature of their individual courses, and could function as a component part of an introductory anthropology course, or add a cultural compliment to a biological science course (assuming the instructor has some knowledge of anthropology/sociology and/or it is cross-listed with a complementary department).  Additionally, it could function as a module in an upper-year anthropology course on research ethics, cross-cultural analysis, and/or research methods.

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Professor Armstrong was named an AAC&U STIRS Scholar in 2014 and developed this case for the STIRS Program.