March 03, 2021

Sociology of Adoption

Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

I wasn’t really eager to write about adoption. It’s a little personal, and still new. And yet, I can’t help but to think about everything in a sociological way and so, over the past two years, I’ve been mulling over the issues, and thought it would be a useful way to think about the sociology of families.

Joshua Gamson’s book Modern Families details how today’s family is the product of complex societal changes that weave together incredibly intimate and complicated personal experiences with larger social forces (e.g., reproductive technologies, international policies, reproductive freedom, gay and lesbian family rights, geopolitical power, changes in work, delayed parenting, global inequalities and war). Adoption is one piece of the story of what being a family means today.

There are many reasons why sociologists should be interested in adoption. Allen Fisher, in his review of the sociological literature, wrote that there are at least four reasons. First, the American family is getting increasingly diverse: there are increases in “families of never-married, single parents, divorce, cohabitation, same-sex, multi-partnered fertility, and co-residence with grandparents” (Also see this article for more information).

Second, families are socially constructed and, important, we often forget it that’s the case. As Stephanie Coontz famously noted about families when American culture began to panic over family diversity, we have a nostalgia trap of thinking about how families once were, and how we want them to be now. Kinship by Design is a book about the history of adoption that traces the changes in how matching was done, and how adoption enters into the nature/nurture debates.

Third, adoption raises complex questions about race and ethnicity, class, and gender. Barbara Katz Rothman’s Weaving a Family is a sociologist’s on the ground experience with adopting her children (including a typology of how adopted children can be understood as proteges, trophies, or pets), who says that there are not many “accidental adoptions” for middle class white families but details the many issues of culture and identity in transracial adoptions. Kim Park Nelson’s Invisible Asians examines how adopted Korean children are used to perpetuate the model minority myth, and SunAh Laybourn’s article “Adopting the Model Minority Myth” provides additional context for adoption and its relationship with “honorary whiteness” and “forever foreigner” statuses. 

And fourth, adoptions affect millions of people in the “adoption triad:” birth parents, adoptive parents, and adopted children. Two percent of Americans have adopted a child, and same sex couples are four times more likely to adopt or have foster children: 15% of the 1.1 million same-sex couples in the U.S. have adopted. Same-sex couples who are women are more likely to adopt or foster than same sex couples who are men. (The 2000 Census was the first to attempt to include questions that differentiate adoptive and biological children.) Adoptions, however, declined between 2007 and 2014, with declines in international adoptions being one of the reasons why. (See “Adoption by the Numbers.”)

We got our newest family member a little over a year ago. The process was long and included a minefield of difficult choices that only those who’ve gone through it--either as an adoptive parent or, later, as an adopted child who learns about it--can really fathom. Domestic or international? What kinds of health issues can your family responsibly take on? A private adoption or go through the foster system? Should you make a trans-racial adoption or do you say that you are unwilling to consider adopting a child from a different race than your own? Some of these choices are easier, but many are very difficult.

New research informs these choices, and approaches to adoption change over time. For example, it used to be commonplace to not tell children that they were adopted, but as adoption stigma has diminished, openness and clarity about being adopted has become more common.

Similarly, closed adoptions (where the family is not in communication with the birth parents) used to be more common, but now it’s understood that open adoptions have the potential for positive outcomes for members of that adoption triad over time. (There are also semi-open ones, which are mediated by an adoption agency.)

In a section of Jennifer Reich’s new edited volume The State of Families: Law, Policy and the Meanings of Relationships, the editor introduces the section on adoption by detailing post-adoption data from the Children’s Bureau: contact with biological parents is more common in private domestic adoption (68%) as compared with international adoption (6%), and that most (95%) of domestic infant adoptions were open.

Some of the larger ethical dilemmas can be quite challenging. The process requires a great deal of faith, humility, but also living with some uncomfortable decisions, perhaps particularly with trans-national adoption. Heather Jacobson’s Culture Keeping: White Mothers, International Adoption, and the Negotiation of Family Difference, for example, examines how adoptive families attempt (and fail) to “keep” the culture of their adoptive child’s homeland?

And in her book Somebody’s Children, Laura Briggs details the asymmetries of power between “sending” and “receiving” countries and that such exchanges are not without a tie to the west’s (and America’s) colonial and imperialist rule. Briggs also notes that birth mothers who relinquish custody of children can experience short and long term trauma. In her book, Disrupting Kinship: Transnational Politics of Korean Adoption in the United States, Kimberly McKee calls it a “transnational adoption industrial complex” that commodifies children, and undermines connections between children and others from their culture. (see also Oh’s book, To Save the Children of Korea which makes the case for Korea being where, post Korean War, the idea of international adoption really took off.)

If you would like to read more, “Toward a Sociology of Adoption” in the Annual Review of Sociology is a good place to start. (I also want to give a nod to sociologist SunAh Laybourn, who does work in this area, and whose high information twitter post for Adoption Awareness Month included many of the readings linked to in this post—it took me this long to get through most of them!) And last, if you’re interested in studying adoption, my campus has the Rudd Adoption Research Program, that you can check out.

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