Background: Organisational culture and place of birth have an impact on the variation in birth outcomes seen in different settings. Aim: To explore how childbirth is constructed and influenced by context in three birth settings in Australia. Method: This ethnographic study included observations of 25 healthy women giving birth in three settings: home (9), two birth centres (10), two obstetric units (9). Individual interviews were undertaken with these women at 6–8 weeks after birth and focus groups were conducted with 37 midwives working in the three settings: homebirth (11), birth centres (10) and obstetric units (16). Results: All home birth participants adopted a forward leaning position for birth and no vaginal examinations occurred. In contrast, all women in the obstetric unit gave birth on a bed with at least one vaginal examination. One summary concept emerged, Philosophy of childbirth and place of birth as synergistic mechanisms of effect. This was enacted in practice through ‘running the gauntlet’, based on the following synthesis: For women and midwives, depending on their childbirth philosophy, place of birth is a stimulus for, or a protection from, running the gauntlet of the technocratic approach to birth. The birth centres provided an intermediate space where the complex interplay of factors influencing acceptance of, or resistance to the gauntlet were most evident. Conclusions: A complex interaction exists between prevailing childbirth philosophies of women and midwives and the birth environment. Behaviours that optimise physiological birth were associated with increasing philosophical, and physical, distance from technocratic childbirth norms.