Mar 5, 2014

"Kinship Secrets and Women’s Work: Invisible Adoption and the Changing Political Economy of the Nuclear Family in Vietnam"

Ann Marie Leshkowich, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, College of the Holy Cross

Vietnam has a long history of diverse forms of adoption. Families commonly cite instances of ancestors who as children were temporarily or permanently transferred within extended kin or social networks for reasons of economics or descent. In contrast to both this past experience and the recent high profile of transnational adoption from Vietnam, domestic adoption today seems largely invisible. From 2003-2008, approximately 17,000 adoptions were registered within Vietnam. Acknowledging the actual practice of adoption to be many times higher, a Vietnamese official told me that “networks of neighbors” make legal oversight redundant: “Because of Vietnamese culture, everyone knows what’s going on in the families around them.” My research with adoptive families, however, belies this image of visible, transparent kinship. Many adoptive family members, particularly mothers, labor to keep the fact of adoption secret from extended kin, neighbors, and even adoptees themselves. Focusing on three families’ stories of secret adoption, this paper considers the complex dynamics that have naturalized the middle-class biological nuclear family as the ideal affective unit and crucible for forging the civilized, modern subjectivities necessary for a market economy. With women enjoined as wives, mothers, and daughters to do the work of making such a family visible and real, they also must make invisible other, more ambivalent relations of blood and desire. Enmeshed in classed and gendered dynamics of transparency and secrecy, kinship is thus a crucial domain for delineating the visible and invisible through which new subjectivities and forms of political economy are forged.  

Ann Marie Leshkowich is a sociocultural anthropologist whose research focuses on gender, economic transformation, neoliberalism, middle classness, fashion, social work, and transnational adoption in Vietnam. Prof. Leshkowich is currently working on a book manuscript exploring economics, kinship, politics, and agency in the lives of female cloth and clothing traders in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She earned her Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Harvard University in 2000.

For current Yale SEAS Seminars and Events calendar, see: