Research: Children commodified on adoption websites

Photo illustration from iStock photos
How similar is adopting a child from another country to buying an import sports car or a piece of exotic furniture?
The very comparison is repulsive. Yet research by WSU doctoral student and instructor Diane Carter is synthesizing earlier lines of research to expand understanding of how adopted children can become commodities in the international adoption process.
Carter’s research interests in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication include intercultural communication, organizational communication, family communication and intercountry adoption. An adoptive parent herself, Carter will be writing her Ph.D. dissertation on transnational adoption and the treatment of children as commodities. This research is an early attempt to look at one facet of the issue.
For this work, Carter brought together previous research by others that has considered:
• The West’s fascination with the “mysterious,” “exotic” Orient – and the West’s tendencies to take pleasure from, colonize, develop and wield power over less developed nations.
• “Governmentality,” or the tactics that governments use to exercise power over people. 
• The ways in which our consumer-driven society has caused all types of communication to become increasingly pervaded with advertising pitches.
• The ways in which communication can transform and construct social meaning.
• The Internet’s role as a powerful communication tool.
Synthesizing these ideas, Carter sought to answer the question, “How do transnational adoption-agency websites visually depict and discursively construct foreign children as suitable subjects for adoption by U.S. American families?”
To do so, she identified 69 U.S. adoption agencies that specialize in international adoptions and analyzed their websites for:
• Photos. Were the children healthy, smiling, clean or visibly handicapped? Were their clothes worn, dirty or traditional? Were their surroundings squalid or comfortable?
• Text. Carter read the texts multiple times to identify prominent repetitive themes.
Her findings included:
• Most websites reflected the presence of government influence and oversight, especially in the wake of the 2008 ratification of the 1993 Hague Convention, which established provisions for protecting children involved in intercountry adoptions.
• Several websites used romanticized “journey” metaphors – “life-changing journey,” “sailing the stormy seas of international adoption” – to describe the interaction between prospective parents and the exotic Orient. Some websites described children as needy waifs waiting to be rescued by heroic parents. Others used flags, maps or cultural costumes to emphasize the children’s cultural uniqueness. Some cropped photos so as not to show the children’s actual surroundings, which might put off potential parents.
• Adoption agency websites often constructed children as commodities – betraying the role the websites play as advertising vehicles rather than information sources. Some sites touted their “affordable” or “low-cost” services. Several said they desired to facilitate parent “choice” of agency or country and “desirability” of children. One, for example, offered “Children with minor and correctable conditions … for an expedited adoption process.” Many tried to hide their promotional functions beneath a veneer of educational, informational services: “Explore our website … Then, when you’re ready, call our friendly adoption counselor, toll free …”
Carter concluded that:
• Mass media, governmentality and a marketplace mentality are impacting the process of intercountry adoption.
Sometimes governments introduce rules that seem to be in the interests of the children who are up for adoption, Carter said, but these restrictions can backfire in unforeseen ways that prevent truly helpful adoptions.
And, as adoptive parents, Carter said of course she and others don’t intend to be shallow consumers – “but we actually become consumers through the process.” While intercountry adoption websites are designed to look educational and informative, she said, they also are promotional tools that market a message – and a commodity.
• Her study supports the contention that children are commodified in international adoptions, but adds information as to how this happens: through the use of troubling images and texts on intercountry adoption websites.
“What I plan to address is how this commodification of children that many critical adoption scholars decry actually occurs,” Carter said. “I believe it is a communication issue.”
• While these adoption messages at first appear to benefit parents, increasing government intervention coupled with thinly veiled advertising sales pitches may, over time, result in disillusioned adoptive parents.

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