Anthropology: A View of Adoption and Kinning in Kinship Studies


Adoption is, of course, intimately related to kinship studies. In anthropology, we know that kinship is the web of social relationships that form an important part of the lives of all humans in all societies, and is defined by ties of blood or marriage. What happens when kinship is built from neither one of these (ties of blood or marriage)? How is kinship created between two people that weren’t related before? Adoption is the answer. In this article you’ll read an anthropological summary on how adoption is analysed in kinship studies. 

In this blog we will go through the work of several authors that take a look into adoption in kinship studies from different points of view and locations. Howell, for example, does ethnography in Norway, while Carroll did one in Oceania forty years earlier. The objective of this article is to simply share the findings on how anthropology studies adoption. Signe Howell, born in Norway, is the creator of the concept kinning. Grau Rebollo explains that it is basically the action by which kinship is created. Howell defines kinning as the process in which a fetus, newborn or person previously not connected is introduced into a permanent and significant relationship with a group of people that share kinship” (Howell, 2003). 

Adoption. Photograph of child's and parent's hands.
Source: Getty Images

What is kinning?

Howell’s ethnography was located in Norway and it has a focus on transnational adoption. She explains that even though there has been a huge increase and improvement in reproductive technologies and medicine, transnational adoption is increasing as well, as an option for infertile parents. The author explains kinning as a process full of tension, ambiguity, ambivalences and contradictions. She clarifies that all this is due to the dilemma parents go through when incorporating an adopted child into their kinship system (families) and, simultaneously, understand the existence of unknown biological parents. This process, of introducing a transnationally adopted child,  is called transubstantiation. She defines it as a process in which parents transmit a sense of belonging to the adopted child (or children). The dilemma, mentioned above, is not only a parent’s issue, but also the child’s. It can be seen as the understanding the child has of having active parents and other inactive, silent and biological parents.

Two adopted children hugging their mother.
Source: Google Images

Adoption compared to pregnancy

The process of kinning can be compared to pregnancy and birth. Pre-pregnancy stage would be the stage in which adoptive families decide to enter the adoption process. Then, pregnancy would be like the stage in which adoption agencies and the state accept the family in the process. Howell explains that the adoption process can last between a range of 6 months to 3 years. In that sense, the stage of birth could be compared to the moment when the adoptive family receives a picture, or the name and information of their child, from the agency.

The adoption process

However, even if we try to understand the adoption process by comparing it to pregnancy and birth, it is truly impossible. That is why, in adoption, the next stage would be a re-birth. This is when the child is given to the family, in person. Howell describes other stages related to the adoption process. One that stands out is called going back to the roots. This is a moment where the family travels back to the country where the child was born. A controversial thing about this kind of trip is the fact that they are organized as a touristic one. The family gets to experience the cultural attractions, food, and places. However, they are never exposed to socioeconomic realities, as well as political ones. 

Howell has another important approach to the adoption process. She explains it is considered a successful one when social kinship is over the biological one. 

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Adoption, feminism and kinship studies

Monica Tarducci is an Argentinian feminist anthropologist. She refers to Howell’s work, and agrees with the fact that Anthropology does not pay enough attention to adoption. Currently, adoption is mostly studied by women feminist anthropologists who dive into gender and reproductive studies and give a more human view to kinship studies  (Tarducci, 2013). This anthropologist notices that, unfortunately, there is still a clear differentiation between “normal” families and adoptive families.

Transnational adoption

She mentions, too, that this differentiation is due to the fact that, in adoption, it is the institution that creates maternity and paternity through the law, which, at the same time, erases the past. However, in the western part of the world, we can see a trend towards maintaining bonds with blood related (biological) families (Tarducci, 2013).

She explains that this trend of a more open adoption allows and promotes adopted people to know their origin and for both families to know each other. Tarducci explains that adoption, in this case, functions as a mechanism by which poor children have access and become part of families with much better economies. Children from peripheral countries transnationalize through families from countries with more socioeconomic power (Tarducci, 2013). 

Haiti Child that belongs to Children of All Nations NGO

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Kinship is not given by blood ties

Traducci shares the points of view of Mary Weismantle (1995). She (Weismantle), explains that kinship is not given by birth, but is built from a laboriously produced relationship. This, she understands, from an ethnography she did in the Ecuadorian Andes (highlands). Weismantle (1995) narrates that she approached a man with a child that was taken out of an orphanage and asked the child if the man was his father. To which the man responded: I am being his father. Aren’t I eating with him right now? 

Tarducci explains this event, narrated by Weismantle in the Ecuadorian highlands, considering that eating is a ritual and a symbol that creates a bond. That is where the opinion of Joan Bestard becomes important. Bestard mentions that blood ties do not constitute kinship ties, for kinship ties are created through feeding, affection and care. 

Adoption and violence

Tarducci, goes deep into a less romanticized view of adoption, that is the dark reality of Latin America. She discussed the work of other anthropologists like Sabina Regeuiro (2011), who studies child trafficking and kidnapping or disappearance at the hands of the military during violent dictatorships. Now, even if the consequences of these violent acts still exist in Argentina, rumours of child trafficking, in these times, are not common in the country. However, international adoption and child trafficking are interrelated in various Latin American countries. 

Child Trafficking. Image of an indigenous child staring at the camera.

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History of Adoption

An important fact about adoption, that Tarducci revises as well, is the historical perspective of it on humanity. She explains that in classical Rome, adoption was fairly normal. Then, during feudalism, it was prohibited and adoption became godparenting (an idea imposed by the Catholic Church). A long time later, adoption became an institution regulated by the state, for the first time, in Massachusetts in 1851. This gave place to the first law of adoption in the world (Tarducci, 2013). 

Adoption and Feminist Anthropology

Tarducci (2013) also discussed the lack of interest and professionalism of the workers in the area of adoption (in her country). She explains that people still think of maternity as an instinct, and even worse, judges are usually very religious and conservative. This is how she relates the feminist abortion rights movement to adoption. It is important to understand that adoption usually occurs from unwanted pregnancies. State authorities should not turn a blind eye to this relationship. 

Diversity in the Adoption Concept

Adoption is a broad field of study. This means it is extremely diverse, like any other social or cultural phenomenon. This is why the approach of Vern Carroll, in Adoption in eastern Oceanía  (1970) is important. He discusses the difference in the meaning of adoption between America and Oceania. He explains that adoption in the United Sates was usually conceived as a transaction between strangers, while in Oceania it was usually a transaction between family members. In Oceania, he described, adoption was not characterized as a legal process. Adopted children, in Oceania, were adopted by a single person who had more biological children, while in America, adoptive parents were usually couples with no children. There are a lot more differences like these ones. 

Book cover of Vern Carroll Adoption in Eastern Oceania
Source: Google Images. Book cover.

An Adoption Ethnography

Carroll presented other kinship terminology and its meanings in his study location. For people in Oceania there was a big difference between adoption and fosterage. Adoption meant assuming the responsibilities of a permanent natural parent. On the other hand, fosterage meant taking care of the child of another person because of a kinship obligation. In that sense, in the case of orphanhood, by the death of both parents, Americans would consider the action of taking  responsibility for the orphan as adoption, while in Oceania that would be considered fostering by the family members of the  dead parent’s, analyzed Carroll. 

Anthropologists and Adoption

Through these examples, Caroll concludes how very important it is to establish the meaning that concepts have to the community or social group that is being studied (through ethnography). The diversity of meanings works in accordance to the diversity of human groups and individuals. It is essential for an anthropologist to identify what adoption means to the people that are a part of their studies. Anthropologists can proceed to understand kinship relationships and, therefore, the social organization of the group, once these meanings are established, (Carroll, 1970). 

Another Example of Adoption in Kinship Studies

Image of a 6 member Foster Family

Jorge Grau Rebollo is another author and Anthropology teacher at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. In his book, Nuevas formas de familia: ámbitos emergentes, he addresses adoption and specifically international adoption. He refers to the concept of kinning and Howell’s work as well. Adoption is defined as a process of subsidiary procreation by which a minor is attached to a family unit in which he wasn’t conceived (Grau Rebollo, 2016). He explains that the way adoption is handled by judicial systems is by replicating the process to the “natural one”. Therefore, adoption is usually limited to heterosexual spaces. This, indeed, is problematic. 

He also explains that in Spain, national adoption of a previously related person (family member), can only happen when the family member is related in the third degree and as long as they are an orphan. Here we can contrast other examples and ethnographies shared previously. The cultural conception of adoption is definitely not universal. 


In conclusion, anthropology has not given adoption, as a theme within kinship studies, the attention it deserves. Some of the highlights discussed in this article are the following: 

Adoption. Photo by Dylan Goldby Two adopted siblings playing. Photographed in Black and White.
Photo by Dylan Goldby
  • There is an existing discussion on the diversity of meanings of adoption and fostering in different cultures. 
  • An important subject within adoption studies is orphanhood. 
  • To study adoption, anthropologists must study the meanings and significance of such terms in the human group they are studying. 
  • Adoption in Latin America is tinted by violence and gender inequality. Anthropologists suggest that adoption should be further analyzed to create positive social change. 
  • Feminist Anthropology sees adoption as a process not dictated by maternity, as an instinct, but as a choice. 
  • In European countries, transnational adoption is a process of kinning created by the effort of the adoptive parents. 

Thank you for reading this article! The magic of anthropology lies in the broadness of its fields of studies. There is a lot to do with this profession and it should definitely be a basis for all other careers around the globe. Here is another anthropology article written by me for YOAIR Blog if you are interested in my short investigations surrounding the study of humankind.


Ball, Carlos A., and Carlos A. Ball M. The Right to Be Parents: LGBT Families and the Transformation of Parenthood. NYU Press, 2012.

Beatriz Moncó Rebollo, and Ana María Rivas. “La importancia de ‘nombrar’. El uso de la terminología de parentesco en las familias reconstituidas.” Info:eu-repo/semantics/article, December 2007.

David M. Schneider. “What Is Kinship All About?” In Kinship and Family, 257–74. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Jociles, Mª Isabel, and Ana Mª Rivas. “Entre el empoderamiento y la vulnerabilidad: la monoparentalidad como proyecto familiar de las MSPE por reproducción asistida y adopción internacional.” Revista de Antropología Social, 2009, 45.

Jorge Grau Rebollo. Nuevas Formas de Familia: Ámbitos Emergentes. Navas de Tolosa, 289 bis. 08026 Barcelona: Ediciones Bellaterra, S.L., 2016.

Ligia Galvis Ortiz. Pensar La Familia de Hoy. Bogotá, D.C.: Ediciones Aurora, 2011.

Monica Tarducci. “Adopción y Parentesco Desde La Antropología Feminista.” La Ventana Núm. 37 (February 22, 2013): 106–45.

Pena, M. (2016). La Integración de Niños y Niñas a Familias Adoptivas en Argentina.

Conexiones Legítimas. Revista Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Niñez y Juventud, 14 (1), pp. 445-461.

Signe Howell. “Kinning: The Creation Of Life and Trajectories in Transnational Adoptive Families.” Royal Anthropological Institute 2003, 2003, 465–84.Vern Carroll. Adoption in Eastern Oceania. United States of America: University of Hawaii Press, 1970.

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