Global Adoptions: An Anthropology of Kinship

Sophomore and above—Fall

We tend to assume that family-building involves deeply personal, intimate, and “natural” acts in making a relationship (marriage) and in becoming parents (sex). But in actual practice, the pragmatics of forming (and disbanding) families are much more complex. There are many instances where a desired pregnancy is biologically impossible: infertility or gay parents, for example. Conversely, there are children born to individuals who will not parent them for a wide variety of reasons. This seminar examines the meanings and processes, cross-culturally, of adoption—defined here as the placement of children to be raised permanently by others. We will explore this process anthropologically in countries and cultures across the globe, including the United States, Australia, Hawaii, Tanzania, China, Argentina, Sweden, Chile, Nigeria, and Korea. As well as looking within particular ethno-local sites, we will pay considerable attention to the global movement of children to adoption. There is great variety in the circumstances of transnational adoption from Swedish people seeking adoptive daughters in Chile to the Kindertransports at the start of World War II and to the North American Orphan Trains of the 19th and 20th centuries. Questions we will examine include: What is the difference between fostering and adoption? Why do people talk about “giving up” a child for adoption? Why is adoption welcomed in some cultures and hidden in others? When and why do adoptive parents attempt to expose their children to their cultures of origin? Why is adoption discourse more about parents getting children than children getting parents? Why are the legal records of an adoption sealed? How do race, class, and gender play out in adoption scenarios? The materials for this class include literature, scholarly articles, ethnographic accounts, historical documents, and film. Conference work may be done on any aspect of the class, as well as on other topics in the anthropology of kinship or in the ethnographies of cultures and places encountered in the course materials.