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Barbara Cooper, a history professor in the School of Arts and Sciences, is studying reproductive issues in Niger, a world leader in population growth and infant mortality. Part of the research is funded by a Mellon New Directions Fellowship, which she was awarded in 2008. Here, she discusses why an exploration of the human side of these issues is critical to solving a problem of global significance.

What was the goal of your research funded by a $263,000 fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation?
I wanted to bridge the gap between research in social sciences and demography.

Why is that important?
Reproduction is intimate, and it’s a disaster that the quantitative studies that help set public policy are not taking into account the social and human issues.

What are some human issues in Niger that the policymakers are missing?
Despite the high population, there’s a fear of infertility. Children work the farms, peddle goods, watch siblings, and take care of parents in retirement. Because of the high infant mortality rate, parents don’t have confidence they’ll have enough. The woman’s status is linked not only to the number of children but also to the number of boys she delivers. Marriages can be polygamous, and there’s competition among the co-wives. It’s a Muslim context—contraceptives are not forbidden, but self-esteem is measured by babies. There’s also a need to shore up one’s religious or ethnic group because political favors, wealth, jobs, and infrastructure are granted on demographics.

The grant allowed you to study demographics and public health at Princeton University’s Office of Population Research and train with midwives at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. What does this add to your research?
Princeton helped me see how far apart researchers in the social sciences and demography are. The midwives helped me understand the medical issues of childbirth. I needed to think of the realities of giving birth in Niger, and midwives are closer to the conditions there. Lots of women give birth in the home.

What’s your next step?
I’ll do ethnographic fieldwork in Niger, and I’m writing a book on the demographic and anthropological aspects of childbirth and reproductive health in Niger.

Is research funding just as important for the humanities as it is for the sciences?
Absolutely. In my work, it might lead to changes in approaches to public policy that would help decrease world population, which just hit 7 billion.

Originally published in Rutgers alumni magazine. Photography by Matt Rainey.

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