Research Seminar: The Value of multi-sited Ethnography for Researching and Informing Effective Adoption Education in the United States

The School of Education and Childhood Studies was pleased to host its October research seminar with The MICE Hub. The session was presented by Dr Rachael Stryker, Associate Professor, Department of Human Development and Women’s Studies, California State University. The research focus included the holistic well-being of the adoptive families who formed part of the study, as well as how to effectively inform adoption education programs. Ten years of ethnographic research was summarised, indicating cultural differences which influenced the expectations of US parents who adopted from Russia. This highlighted the impact of geo-political agendas and cross-cultural influences when considering attachment socialisation throughout the adoptive process.

The research was well received and a quote from one of the delegates summarised the talk by saying,

“I thought Rachael showed a strong level of knowledge and expertise which is clearly something you need from a speaker. I was also impressed by the way she took a subject that wasn’t of inherent interest to my work and made it totally compelling.”

 

Dr. Stryker introduced the qualitative studies that were carried out to uncover themes that informed the adoption experience of US parents and Russian children. Since Russian adoption began in 1991, choices are driven by religious beliefs as well as cultural influences such as babies not adopted before 6 months of age. Clear social differences emerged, such as the use of language – describing children as ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’ and high instances of fetal alcohol syndrome.

It was explained that parents were having difficulty bonding with their adopted child and social expectations of attachment were not met. The biomedical model labelled these children as having an inability to attach and inadvertently blamed the child which led to the use of therapies that involved discipline in order to force the child to attach, including cathartic (holding) therapy. This raised questions about how children are socialised in Russia and implored the use of the ethnosemantic methods so that the story (narrative) could be heard.

It emerged that Soviet socialism and the nativism approach had a great impact on how children viewed themselves. These children believed that they belonged to the state. The Russian approach to parenting includes non-responsive care in order to ‘toughen-up’ up their children which changed the children’s expectations and trained them out of attachment. It was necessary to expand US adoptive parents’ perspectives on what they thought they know about wellbeing so that they could create the space that their adopted child needed and acknowledge that different issues originated from different places.

Prospective parents reported feeling nervous and anxious as they wanted to ensure that they were doing the right thing. Following adoption, parents were asked what they wish they had known beforehand. It is also important to acknowledge that different parents have different experiences and may not always seek support. An important aspect for any parent is the provision of education for the children and many parents expressed concern about this. The program sought to explore ideas about what education should look like for the adopted children.

The Institute for Internationally Adopting Families collected data over the course of the project to identify themes. This led to the ‘Whole Child’ Program which was centred on the whole family and focused on discussing specific issues they were experiencing with anthropologists and why these issues may have arisen. Parental satisfaction was reported through the filling of gaps in knowledge which reduced their anxiety.

Dr Stryker concludes that, there is value in cross-cultural, trans-national adoption but the overlaps need to be addressed. Future studies will look at institutional versus family culture and follow-up studies will be carried out. This was a fantastic insight for staff and students at the University of Portsmouth to consider cross-cultural aspects and influences of children’s wellbeing and how approaching issues from a different perspective may be the key to finding solutions in terms of supporting the holistic wellbeing of families and the education of children.

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