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The Anthropology of Parenthood: Child Circulation in Africa

In Africa, child circulation is a widespread and long-standing practice. Children frequently circulate among households where they are taken care of by different people over a certain period of time. Child circulation is a dynamic and distributed form of parenting, embedded into complex systems of social, economic, and affective exchange that shape, and are shaped, by kin-based networks. However, the practice of child circulation interacts with other domains of analysis, such as national and transnational institutions that provide the legal framework for cases of child circulation to be negotiated. Additionally, these legal frameworks reveal implicit and explicit values about family and parenthood. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), for instance, states that the nuclear family is the “natural environment for the growth and well-being of children (preamble), and adoption must be considered only when it is in “the best interest of the child” (article 21).

In many African countries, the nuclear family is not the norm.

Rethinking Kinship Through Shared Parenting

Despite the high frequency and widespread distribution of child circulation in Africa, the practice had not been investigated until recently. This lack of interest is partly due to the declining popularity of kinship studies in anthropology following David Schneider’s (1984) fundamental critique of kinship. Schneider (1984) demonstrated that anthropology’s analytical concept of kinship was not transcultural, but located in the conditions of the 19th century United States and was, therefore, an ethnocentric imposition. Kinship studies were temporally abandoned before regaining interest with particular attention to gender, sexuality, and new reproductive technologies. New kinship studies emphasize social and non-biological relatedness (Carsten 2004; Strathern 1992). Carsten (1995) proposes a fluid approach to kinship as a process that establishes relations among the things individuals do in their everyday lives. She emphasizes the role of the domestic space, commensality, and shared food in the making of kinship. Therefore, kinship as doing better capture the processual and performative aspect of kinship, as well as the dynamic nature of social and economic exchanges that unfold in various localities (Carsten 2020). Paralleling Cole and Groes (2016), the fluidity of kinship is particularly relevant in the context of global mobility. Material and emotive resources, therefore, circulate more intensively in “affective circuits.” The “dynamic reservoir of resources” that constitutes kinship allows individuals to envision a future in which movement and migration are made easier for themselves and their children (Cartsen 2020, p. 321).

New kinship studies emphasize social and non-biological relatedness

As they circulate among households, children create an extensive network of relationships that can help them move along their life course. These relationships may simultaneously be exploitative (Berman 2012; Delaunay 2013; Jacquemin 2006; Schrauwers 1999). Delaunay (2013) explains that the practice of child circulation may expose children to discrimination – access to health care, food, and education – and different forms of violence, including forced labor and sexual exploitation. The practice of child circulation is negotiated within kin-based networks, and these negotiations often go along with social tensions, conflicts, and contradictions inherent to kinship relations. Berman (2014), for example, highlights the contradictions between adoptive and birth kinship in the negotiation of children’s belonging and upbringing. She explains that, while the adoption practice emphasizes children’s belonging to the kin group as a whole, children are often considered closer to their family of birth, resulting in poorer care from the adoptive family.

The Legal Framework of Kinship

The tensions inherent to kinship are embedded within broader legal frameworks. Looking at the national legal context in which child circulations take place in Ayacucho, Peru, Leinaweaver (2007) demonstrates that “the best interest of the child,” as defined by global moral principles, often conflicts with local strategies of creating kinship and of looking after children.

The UNCRC defines the "best interest of the child"

Using the example of a child that has been legally recognized as abandoned while being taken care of by extended kin, she demonstrates that two conceptions of parenthood overlap and contradict each other. The legal context that promotes “the best interest of the children” based on global morality and international legality, conflicts with local strategies of child circulation necessary to the economic survival but also fundamental to the making of kinship (Ibid, p. 164). The multitude of positions from which people act shows that different voices and interests are involved in the practice of child circulation that change in time and space. Informed by the UNCRC, global discourses put forward a particular model of childhood promoting “the best interests” of children. However, children’s rights are not mutually exclusive but deeply interrelated. For example, Montgomery (2001) argues that, in Thailand, child prostitution is linked to moral obligation toward the family. She highlights the contradiction between the right for children to be free from sexual labor and the right of the family. While these two rights cannot be exercised together, the UNCRC does not indicate which right should take precedence. In everyday practices, ideologies and moral principles about parents are being negotiated by multiple actors.

The institutionalization of childhood and parenting

Listening to Children’s Voices

A focus on children's experience of mobility and different forms of parenthood offers an interesting lens to consider how the local practice of child circulation interacts, and conflicts, with the national and international legal framework of childhood. Including children’s views on the phenomena has led to recognizing both a certain degree of agency and vulnerability (Bluebond-Langner and Korbin 2007). Children are often limited by structural constraints. Decisions regarding children’s care are usually made by adults. The ways that young people perceive and experience different forms of parenting may significantly diverge from the perspectives held by the adults involved. For example, the decision to foster or confide a child does not always reflect children’s desires. While adults often refer to the normative conception of fostering, children more explicitly refer to the difficulties and suffering of living with foster parents (see Delaunay 2013).

Children's perception of mobility and parenthood

On the other hand, recent years have seen a growing body of literature on children's agency. For example, in his study of child fostering in Central Sulawesi, Schrauwers (1999) shows that when subjected to abusive fostering arrangements, children may develop creative ways to criticize it. In referring to fostering arrangements in terms of slavery, children have agency by making sense of the interplay between their lived experiences and the broader capitalist system embedded within prevailing forms of power and inequality. The tension between different representations of children as either vulnerable and in need of protection or possessing agency manifests in different times and places and under particular social, political, economic, and moral contexts (Bluebond-Langner and Korbin 2007). The “new sociology of childhood” opposes the idea that children are incomplete beings and passive actors in the process of identity formation and instead emphasizes children’s ability to act and interest the world around them (Allerton 2016, p.3).


The reshaping of children’s upbringing as a global social issue does not necessarily fit with local conceptions of parenthood, and conflicts may arise between written norms and rules, and people’s lived practices. By engaging with children’s lived experiences, one can observe the great diversity of children’s life trajectories while taking into account the intersection of different factors – gender, age, ethnicity, and kinship relations – when studying the practice of child circulation in Africa.

Bibliographical References

Alber, E. (2010). “No School without Foster Families in Northern Benin: A Social Historical Approach.” In Parenting after the Century of the Child: Travelling ideals, institutions negotiations and individual responses, edited by Tatjana Thelen and Haldis Hakane. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

Alber, E., Jeannett M. and Catrien N. (2013). Child Fostering in West Africa: New Perspectives on Theory and Practices. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.

Allerton, C. (2016). “Introduction: Encountering Children.” In Children: Ethnographic Encounters, edited by Catherine Allerton. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Berman, E. (2014). “Holding On: Adoption, Kinship Tensions, and Pregnancy in the Marshall Islands.” American Anthropologist 116 (3): 578-590.

Bluebond-Langner, M. and Korbin, J. E. (2007). “Challenges and Opportunities in the Anthropology of Childhoods: An Introduction to “Children, Childhoods, and Childhood Studies.” American Anthropologist 109 (2): 241-246.

Carsten, J. (1995). “The politics of forgetting: Migration, kinship and memory. On the periphery of the southeast Asian state. The Journal of the Royal. Anthropological Institute 1 (2): 317-335.

Carsten, J. (2004). After Kinship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carsten, J. (2020). “Imagining and living new worlds: The dynamics of kinship in contexts of mobility and migration.” Ethnography 21 (3): 319-334.

Cole, J. and Christian G. (2016). Affective Circuits: African Migration to Europe and the Pursuit of Social Regeneration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Convention on the rights of the child (1989). Treaty no. 27531. United Nations Treaty Series, 1577, pp. 3-178.

Delaunay, V. (2013). “Child Labour in Madagascar as Evidence by the 2008 Demographic and Health Survey.” Population 68 (2): 293-309.

Jacquemin, M.Y. (2006). Can The Language Of Rights Get Hold Of The Complex Realities Of Child Domestic Work? Childhood 13: 389 - 406.

Leinaweaver, J. B. (2007). “On moving children: The social implications of Andean child circulation.” American Ethnologist 34 (1): 163-180.

Montgomery, H. (2001). “Imposing Rights? A case study of child prostitution in Thailand,” In Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives, edited by Jane Cowan, Marie-Benedicte Denbour and Richard A. Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rodriguez, N. (2016). “Translating “Best Interest”: Child Welfare Decisions at the US-México Border.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 19 (S1): 154-168.

Schneider, D. M. (1984). A critique of the study of kinship. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Schrauwers, A. (1999). “Negotiating parentage: the political economy of “kinship” in central Sulawesi, Indonesia.” American Ethnologist 26 (2): 310-323.

Strathern, M. (1992). Reproducing the future: Anthropology, kinship, and the new reproductive technologies. London: Routledge.

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Valentine Hallard

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