Elizabeth M. Armstrong

Associate Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs
Head of Butler College
Office Phone
253 Wallace Hall

Elizabeth M. Armstrong is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology with joint affiliations in The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and the Office of Population Research.   Her research interests include public health, the history and sociology of medicine, risk in obstetrics, and medical ethics. She is currently conducting research on diseases and agenda-setting, and on fetal personhood and the evolution of obstetrical practice and ethics. She is the author or coauthor of articles in Health Affairs, Social Science and Medicine, Journal of Marriage and the Family, International Family Planning Perspectives, and Studies in Family Planning and is the author of Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Diagnosis of Moral Disorder (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). She was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan from 1998-2000. Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania.

How Does Culture Shape Medical Knowledge?

When obstetricians view the ultrasound screen, they see a fetus; their pregnant patients are more likely to see a baby. Today, the fetus is increasingly regarded as a distinct person, with its own rights. How does technology shape the way that we see and imagine the fetus, and the relationship between the fetus and the pregnant woman? How does lay knowledge shape or constrain professional practice? Who is the obstetrician’s patient—the pregnant woman or the fetus? In my current research I am investigating the notion of fetal personhood and its impact on the ethics and practice of obstetrics. I am interested in the ways that medicine both reflects and reinforces social norms.

In my first book, Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Diagnosis of Moral Disorder, I trace the evolution of medical knowledge about the effect of alcohol on reproduction, from nineteenth-century debates about drinking, heredity and eugenics, to the modern diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), discovered in 1973. The book shows that medical beliefs about alcohol’s effect on offspring have always reflected broader social and moral preoccupations, particularly concerns about women’s roles and place in society, as well as the fitness of future generations.


Ph.D. Sociology and Demography
University of Pennsylvania, 1998