In this article I focus on discourses of freedom and exclusive belonging that structure the conventions of giving in transnational adoption, and I examine state practices for regulating the production and circulation of children in a global market economy. I argue that while the gift child, like the sold child, is a product of commodity thinking, experiences of giving a child, receiving a child, and of being a given child are in tension with market practices, producing the contradictions of adoptive kinship, the ambiguities of adoption law, and the creative potential in the construction of adoptive families.
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In spite of efforts to reconceptualize the physical movement of a child between persons or nations as placement rather than gift, the gift child remains a powerful and persistent image in adoption discourse. I suggest that the reason this is so is related in part to the ambiguity of the concept-the difficulty of interpreting what gifts signify about the relationship (or absence of a relationship) between donor and receiver, an ambiguity that resonates with the experience of the adoptee, the adoptive family, and, in some cases, the birth family. Ambiguity, in turn, is a function of the traces gifts bear of their passage in the world-their movement from and to someone and someplace, however vague the identity of the donor may be. By contrast, "placement" conveys a sense of grounding and permanence that is at odds with the experience of being adopted, of giving in adoption, or of adopting, verbs that imply a transformation of belonging and identity.
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In what follows, I examine the concept of the adopted child as gift and explore the difficulties of an interpretation of such gifts as "freely given." Building on Marilyn Strathern's discussion of giving relationships as "enchaining" giver and receiver, rather than freeing them, and drawing on the experiences of agencies, orphanages,
adoptive parents, birth parents, and adoptees, I argue that the enchainments of
adoptive kinship open up our understandings of family and identity, and the ideas about exclusive belonging these understandings assume. Practices of adoptive kinship that seek to counter the alienation of the child and the divisions of the adoptive family by imagining placement to be a consequence of voluntarism by a birth mother or of "choice" by prospective adoptive parents obscure the dependencies and inequalities that compel some of us to give birth to and give up our children, while constituting others as "free" to adopt them. By examining the ways in which the gift of a child always leaves a trace and implies the potential for a return, I suggest how an adoptee's lived experiences of being given away may transform our understandings of personhood, identity, and belonging in an adopted world. However freestanding the child is "made" by adoption law, he or she can never be free of the "implicate field of persons" in which he or she was constituted as legally adoptable.
3 weeks ago