Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Barbara Yngvesson's "Belonging in an Adopted World"

Barbara Yngvesson is professor of anthropology at Hampshire College, the author of Virtuous Citizens, Disruptive Subjects: Order and Complaint in a New England Court and Law and Community in Three American Towns (co-authored with Carol Greenhouse and David Engel), and an associate editor at American Anthropologist.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Belonging in an Adopted World: Race, Identity, and Transnational Adoption, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Belonging in an Adopted World focuses on a central theme of the book: the ways that transnational adoption contributes to projects of nation-building by countries that “send” and “receive” children in adoption. Drawing on anthropologist Arturo Escobar’s (1995) understanding of development discourse as a “secular theory of salvation,” the first paragraph argues that narratives of rescue underpinning policies of transnational adoption can be mapped onto development theories of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that positioned the developing world as “a child in need of guidance.” In this sense, transnational adoption can be understood as one of the forms and practices of modernization through which the relations of First and Third Worlds took shape in the second half of the twentieth century.

The page goes on to describe specific visions of national identity and racialized community that accompanied these practices of modernization. I make use of Etienne Balibar’s (1991) insightful exploration of the role of “familialist discourse,” to describe the relationship between sending and receiving nations that took shape with the emergence of the adoptable child as a natural and national resource, referring to the analysis in chapter 3 of my book. That chapter focuses on transnational adoption in India from the 1960s through the 1980s, and the ways informal networks of elite women involved in finding families for abandoned children made the value of the abandoned child visible, transforming such a child from “the only thing, as an underdeveloped nation, that we can give away” into a precious national resource.

Page 99 also examines the role of international legal agreements such as the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1993 Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption in affirming on a global scale a specific modernist vision of childhood and of children’s rights. I argue that the adoptable child became a key symbolic resource in this modernist project. “This child represented a form of love that exceeded the boundaries of nations and the ethnicized and racialized exclusions through which national identities are constructed. At the same time, this child hinted at the contingency of national identity on incorporating such excess and at the key role of the adoptive parent (and especially the adoptive mother) in such incorporations.”

While page 99 of Belonging in an Adopted World provides a condensed presentation of the relationship of transnational adoption to issues of national identity, it is not representative of the ways I illuminate this relationship throughout the book. Rather I move back and forth between narratives of the lived experience of adoption by adult adoptees, adoptive parents, birth parents, agency representatives, orphanage directors, and others to explore how the power of cultural forms—“the child,” “the family,” “the nation,” “abandonment”—figure their lives.
Read more about Belonging in an Adopted World at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue