Kathryn Mariner’s Contingent Kinship

This month, the Association for Black Anthropologists presents an interview with Kathryn Mariner, assistant professor of anthropology and visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester.

A close-up photograph of the author, Dr. Kathryn Mariner, gazing into the camera. She is wearing a black jacket, and golden earrings.
Portrait of of Kathryn Mariner. Miguel A. Cardona

Her forthcoming book, Contingent Kinship: The Flows and Futures of Adoption in the United States, examines the making of kin and futures through the lens of transracial adoption. Based upon ethnographic research with First Steps, an adoption agency specializing in transracial adoption in Chicago, Mariner examines the role of agency workers in negotiating relationships between expectant mothers and prospective adopters.

Many of us begin our work from a central curiosity or frustration with discourse about a subject. What are those seeds in this work, and what brought you to this project?

I came to this project with an abiding interest in race and kinship for reasons which will become clear and are elaborated further in the book. When I started the project, I was intensely curious about the adoption process itself—the nuts and bolts of how social workers brokered these exchanges—how it worked, and what “working” even meant in this context. I had read many accounts of the post-adoption experiences of adoptees and adoptive families, but I wanted to get at their conditions of possibility. I think a major contribution of the book is its attention to the various ways the adoption process can fail. Indeed, I found that the adoptive family is only one possible outcome of the adoption process. Another of my central curiosities with transracial adoption has always been the ways in which popular discourse erases so much of the nuance, and in particular, the structural conditions that make adoptive families possible in the United States. Domestic transracial adoption—often celebrated as progressive or even humanitarian, “the best of a bad situation”—tends to get cleaved off from its own structural conditions of possibility (residential segregation, poverty, dispossession, the devaluation of Black and other forms of marginalized motherhood). I hope my book helps elucidate the reverberations and traces of these enduring historical patterns in the contemporary engineering of kinship, and serves to inspire imaginings of other, better futures.

Contingent Kinship begins with a discussion of your own positionality with respect to adoption—as ethnographer and trained social worker—in your field site. How did you navigate these roles, and what are some of the moments that crystallized this conflict?

 One of the things that has drawn me to anthropology is its robust tradition of reflective critique. Locating ourselves with respect to our sites and subjects is such a crucial skill and tool for social analysis. In addition to being an ethnographer trained in clinical social work, I am also a transracial adoptee, so my positionality was often front-and-center throughout my fieldwork—allowing me to connect more deeply with my interlocutors at certain times, and creating uncomfortable distance and misunderstanding at others.

One of the things that has drawn me to anthropology is its robust tradition of reflective critique.
My way of navigating this in the book was to consider a question posed to me by my series editor, Kevin Lewis O’Neill: “When are you evidence?” The question was initially a way to think through the writerly issue of using the first person, but it really helped me fold issues of positionality into the analysis itself, rather than simply relegating it to something like a “positionality statement” or similar mechanism in the discussion of methods. In this way, I could think of my refusal to participate in expectant mother recruitment at one point in my fieldwork as evidence of the politics of invisibility I describe in relation to the figure of the “birth mother.” I could think of one expectant mother’s curiosity about my experience growing up as evidence of the temporal logics of imagined future kinship. I could think more critically about the ways in which my interviewing encounters with prospective adopters sometimes reproduced certain aspects of home study surveillance. I think my position as an adoptee complicated the research in perhaps more interesting ways than my position as a “social worker,” since I completed my social work degree in the midst of my fieldwork and went right back into my anthropology PhD program, without formally practicing social work beyond my graduate training. In that sense, during fieldwork, “ethnographer” was my primary professional identity, although it was one highly inflected by social-work-y ways of thinking and my association with the adoption agency as institution, if that makes sense. As a result, I tend to think of social work as a kind of field language that shaped the way I moved through ethnographic spaces in a variety of ways.

A book cover for the book Contingent Kinship which depicts the text "Contingent Kinship: The Flows and Futures of Adoption in the United States" against a backdrop of red and pink flowers with thin petals.You develop the concept of “intimate speculation” with respect to the relationships between actors in cases of adoption. Can you share what you mean by this?

To go back to this movement of attention from outcomes to process, in the book, intimate speculation is way to describe the temporally-inflected aspects of the adoption process—so it is a shift in thinking away from the adoptive family as adoption’s logical outcome. This move doesn’t so much ignore outcomes, as it opens up all kinds of other possibilities for what an outcome might be. The concept of intimate speculation describes the construction of adoptive kinship as at once anticipatory, economic, and visual—three frames for thinking through speculation more broadly. I chart how, for example, the anxieties felt by prospective adopters, the brokerage activities of social workers, and the erasure of expectant mothers are all deeply imbricated in the production of the adoptable child as a potent and highly contingent imagined future.

I’m struck by how language associated with the economic and financial markets—risk, investment, futures—permeates the adoption landscape. How can we think through adoption as an enterprise that is economic but not, as you say, “all about the money”? 

 This goes back to intimate speculation as a frame for thinking both through and beyond the economic.

The concept of intimate speculation describes the construction of adoptive kinship as at once anticipatory, economic, and visual—three frames for thinking through speculation more broadly.
In adoption, the child is an imagined future that is produced not only through the investment and circulation of money, but also through practices of observation, waiting, and worry, involving tremendous investments of time and affective energy too. Adoptive kinship is thus highly speculative, in more ways than one. My hope is that within the contemporary climate of neoliberalism, a multivalent concept like intimate speculation can help us think through various social formations beyond adoption—such as home ownership, higher education, and immigration, all areas where understanding the temporal resonances of intimacy and economy are crucial. The work of Viviana Zelizer and the Gens collective (Laura Bear, Karen Ho, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, and Sylvia Yangisako), among other scholars grappling with these intersections, has been really influential for me in this respect.

Much like birth, bringing a book into the world is a complex endeavor. What have you learned about ethnography, and what advice might you give to scholars doing this for the first time? 

Baby steps, no pun intended! In all seriousness, it is vital to remember that a book—most academic writing projects, really, at least in my experience—is a marathon, not a sprint. This book took ten years. I found it really helpful to set goals at various scales, and also to simply trust the process. Also, and apropos of this, I think I have learned that the book is not my “baby,” but rather the crystallization of perhaps a decade of thought frozen at a particular moment in time. As in, it isn’t really finished; it just ends in what I hope is an interesting place. Books can be distressing to write, as we know, because life “in the field” goes on happily (or unhappily, as the case may be) after we leave. And we keep growing and developing as ethnographers too. I am starting a new project now on urban racial segregation, and it is exciting to refine my ethnographic technique this time around, as I am sure I will continue to do with each subsequent project. It is a great comfort to me that I will hopefully get to write another book after this one—indeed, I hope Contingent Kinship is the “worst” book I ever write (in the sense that ongoing improvement is the goal). Lastly, it is important to remember that although writing can be isolating at times, we do not write books alone—so many people helped usher this book into the world, not least of whom are those in whose lives its insights are rooted. So while in a sense it is “my” book, it belongs to them as well. They are its condition of possibility, and for that I am grateful.

Kathryn Mariner is assistant professor of anthropology and visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester. Her book, Contingent Kinship: The Flows and Futures of Adoption in the United States is forthcoming in 2019.

This interview was brought to you by Michelle Munyikwa and Amelia Herbert, Contributing Editors for the Association of Black Anthropologists. If you’d like to contribute to this column, please reach out to us at [email protected] and [email protected].

Cite as: Mariner, Kathryn. 2019. “Kathryn Mariner’s Contingent Kinship.” Anthropology News website, April 18, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1144

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