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Uncertain Honor

Modern Motherhood in an African Crisis

In most countries, educated women have fewer children and have them later than uneducated women. In Uncertain Honor, Jennifer Johnson-Hanks argues that this demographic fact has social causes by offering a rich case study of contraception, abortion, and informal adoption among educated, ethnic Beti women in southern Cameroon.

Combining insights from demography and cultural anthropology, Johnson-Hanks argues that Beti women delay motherhood as part of a broader attempt to assert a modern form of honor only recently made possible by formal education, Catholicism, and economic change. Through itinerant school careers and manipulations of marriage, educated Beti women now manage their status as mothers in order to coordinate major life events in the face of social and economic uncertainty.

Carefully researched and clearly written, Uncertain Honor offers an intimate look at the lives of African women trying to reconcile motherhood with new professional roles in a context of dramatic social change.

288 pages | 23 figures, 7 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2005

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: African History

Sociology: Demography and Human Ecology, Sociology--Marriage and Family


“Why does formal schooling for women delay childbearing? Jennifer Johnson-Hanks provocatively begins where other studies end. Rather than assuming a generic ‘modernity’ that inexplicably shapes pregnancy decisions, she probes deeply to find a complex tangle of lived realities that shape the maternity/education nexus among Beti women in Cameroon. Anthropology, education, and demography combine in this work to produce a bold and beautifully realized meditation on schooling and education.”--Alma Gottlieb, author of The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: A Culture of Infancy in West Africa


Alma Gottlieb | Alma Gottlieb

“Fusing both anthropological and demographic methods, Jennifer Johnson-Hanks transforms a tremendous field corpus into an outstanding analysis of the triumphs and travails of young women in Southern Cameroon. With its unswerving cultural emphases on concepts of dignity, respectability, and modernity, this book’s seamless integration of demography, history, and philosophy tells a compelling anthropological story about young women who strive for both an education and a respectable marital life in a volatile economy. Uncertain Honor sets a formidable standard in social science writing in ethnography and population in contemporary Africa.”--Caroline H. Bledsoe, author of Contingent Lives: Fertility, Time and Aging in West Africa

Caroline Bledsoe | Caroline Bledsoe

"A short review cannot do justice to this carefully argued, well-crafted demographic ethnography. Uncertain Honor will be of interest not only to the demographer and anthropologist of Africa, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to the social scientist seeking insight into the sociocultural bases of demographic numbers. An impressive achievement."

Population and Development Review

"This book is an exemplar of anthropological demography: reading it should convince any demographer that anthropology can contribute more to demography than a set of qualitative methods for reaching those domains inaccessible by survey methods."

Sara Randall | Population Studies

"A superb book that demonstrates the insights possible when anthropological fieldwork and theory are applied to the study of population processes by a scholar well versed in both fields. . . . In the emergent field of anthropological demography, Uncertain Honor is destined to become an instant classic, but it will be of equal interest to a broad range of scholars and readers in anthropology, demography, development, public health, and African studies. As much as any book I can think of, Uncertain Honor provides a rich and eminently readable example of the analytical gains achieved when central issues in population studies are approached using anthropological theory and methods."

Daniel Jordan Smith | Studies in Family Planning

"A compelling reading to all scholars interested in demographic and social change in the relation to the diffusion of formal education in contemporary Africa and a  remarkable piece of beauitifully written anthropological demography. The author skilfully combines anthropological theory and methods with descriptive demographic tools in a consistent analysis of the relationship between formal schooling and delayed childbearing among educated Beti women in Cameroon. This relationship is pivotal in the understanding of demographic and social change in Western Africa."

Laura Bernardi | European Journal of Population

"Written in an elegant style, this book is a pleasure to read and a great candidate for use in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses. Its ideas are profound, and its methodology is clearly described in a useful preface."

Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. A Social System in Transformation
3. The Making of Honorable Women
4. School in the Social World
5. Learning Honor in School
6. The Secret Politics of Sex
7. Vital Conjunctures
8. The Horizons of Honor

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