People share with goods the fundamental quality: both people and goods tend to circulate. Anthropologists have a history of describing tribal societies in which children circulate between households as if they were goods. Inuits and Melanesians are now especially famous for that. Oftentimes a newly-born is named after a recently deceased relative or neighbor, takes on his soul and status and grows up living in a new house with a new set of parents. The child may address them as ‘son’, ‘daughter’, ‘younger brother’ or ‘younger sister’ depending on the relationship his deceased namesake had with them during his life. These bizarre practices have been recorded among ethnic groups as far apart as the Khoisans in southern Africa, the Dravidians in India, and the Ob-Ugrians in western Siberia.
Anthropologists have developed a sense that tribal, or “cold,” societies produce, exchange, distribute and consume (sometimes literally as ritual food) people/persons/bodies/souls/names/kin terms, while industrial, or “hot,” societies do exactly the same thing to goods and symbolic signs. Meillassoux, Godelier and other French Marxists and their American sympathizers (think of Terry Turner) summarized human evolution as a transition from “systems of reproduction” to “systems of production.” The phenomenon of adoption has been a recalcitrant aspect of kinship theory, for it baffled both positivists (why would there a need arise for extensive networks of adoption if genealogical connections are at least as good in expanding one’s universe of kin?) and constructivists (if people openly construct kinship, what is there to demystify and denaturalize?). Do people adopt children (and enter in other relations of ritual/fictive kinship) in imitation of existing genealogical bonds and as a way to fill in genealogical gaps (kinship), or in an attempt to cope with the constant emergence of new generations and new phenotypes (production)?
Once again we find that kinship and economics are mysteriously related.
In the 1980-1990s, Western companies began to capitalize on the disparities in labor prices and buying power between the First World and the Third World. Nike, Inc. developed a new business model that involved the outsourcing of the production of sneakers and soccerballs to Indian, Pakistani or Southeast Asian teens. Saving millions on the production end, Nike could then splurge on marketing in the U.S. Around the same time, Western Europe and the U.S. experienced an explosion in transnational adoption, with the Swedes as trailblazers in this new intercountry adoption movement. Indian, Pakistani, Southeast Asia, Chinese and Russian kids found new homes in Stockholm, for the Swedish government declared adoption a “social responsibility.”
Over the past 20 years adoption has developed its own global marketplace supported by a network of international organizations and legal statutes. Or do I have the right to apply the term “marketplace” to the process of giving a biological child as a gift to foreign parents, on the one hand, and donating money to a foster institution in gratitude for its services in locating and negotiating the transfer, on the other? Does Angelina Jolie expand the bounds of materialism and consumerism by “shopping” for kids in Ethiopia, Cambodia and Vietnam, or does she fulfill the ancient human desire to think in terms of “human” (think of Lewis Henry Morgan) rather than “nuclear” family?
Or, note another intriguing similarity: mass customization, consumer-generated content, co-creation are all equally recent business and management trends that invite the consumer to participate in the production of goods. At the dawn of writing, every book was handwritten and unique (there are very few of those left in national libraries and museums). The Gutenberg revolution allowed people to generate an unlimited number of book copies. Now Google digitizes those very books that Johannes Gutenberg brought into our possession. All we need is a file, or a web link.
These days the producer supplies the market with bare ingredients, oftentimes giving you just a digital file or a piece of software from which you, the consumer, can generate a product the way you like it. As Europe and the U.S. were moving into Information Age, they discovered the gene, and now we understand ourselves increasingly as scripts to enact rather than as finished fruits of nature. With transnational adoption, the situation seems to be similar: biological parents offer “raw” human material, uniquely characterized by such phenotypic and geographical features as ethnicity, race, gender, age and locality, and it is up to the First World adoptive parents to raise these children as personalities and citizens.
Or, think about the phenomenon of European re-creation of American Indian cultures from books and movies. I remember watching a Bulgarian youth prancing in an Indian warbonnet in front of a mirrot, waiting for his friend to take us to a powwow. “Mom, do I look like Indian?” he yelled across the hallway. “Sure, son, as long as your mother is one” was his mother’s response. The consumption of American Indian cultures leads to “reverse transcultural adoption”: for it is the self-conscious choice of European men and women that challenges the traditional authority of their biological parents, rather than the solicitation on the part of a foreign couple.
Culture induces massive tectonic shifts in society. Surprisingly they rarely come in isolation from each other, and such seemingly disconnected spheres of life as transcultural adoption, customization, digitization, and genetic engineering are affected by the very same process of adding new codes and then enacting their scripts.