Mary A. Porter

BA, Manchester University. MA, PhD, University of Washington. Ethnographic studies in East Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Areas of expertise include kinship theory, postcolonial studies, feminist anthropology, queer anthropology, educational studies, and oral history. Current work examines discourses of race, class, and kinship embedded in foster care and adoption, both domestically and transnationally. Co-author of Winds of Change: Women in Northwest Commercial Fishing and author of articles on gender, kinship, education, and sexuality. Grants include Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Research fellowship and Spencer fellowship. Consultant, UNESCO. Associate Dean of the College, 2007-12. SLC, 1992–

Undergraduate Courses 2017-2018

Anthropology

On Whiteness: An Anthropological Exploration

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

Putih, Blanken, Blankes, Wazungu, Caucasian, Blanc, White, Oyibo, Onye ocha, Putih, Brancos, Blancos. All these words, in different parts of the world, have denoted particular populations as white. Who counts as white people, however, varies and has as much to do with behaviors and perceptions as with pigmentation. Settlers in overseas colonies, for example, ensured their ongoing privileged whiteness through particular behaviors, including racial segregation and the creation of leisurely pursuits and manners that mimicked the metropole. Whiteness is a complicated and messy category of particular relevance at this historical moment, and we will approach it in several ways. First, we will consider the discipline of anthropology as the source of an analytical toolkit. Having mastered that, we can conduct a more critical exploration of the discipline of anthropology and its practitioners’ work on questions of white and nonwhite. We will then turn to the examination of particular sites where whiteness has been generated and contested. These include the Dutch colonies of South Africa and Indonesia and British-occupied Kenya, followed by contemporary and more local expressions of whiteness—including white nationalism and popular culture in postwar Great Britain and shifting notions of whiteness in the United States. In all our explorations, we will examine the constructions of whiteness as it articulates with gender, class, sexuality, and popular culture and with broader political contexts. Our resources will include anthropological texts, film, memoir, and fiction. We will read, in no particular order, from the works of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Pauline Black, Paul Gilroy, Jane Lazarre, Ann Stoler, Franz Boas, Vincent Crapanzano, and others still to be determined. Students will have the opportunity to participate in a Radical Empathy workshop early in the semester in order to strengthen our work together as a group.

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Gendering (in) African Postcolonies

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

The African continent and its peoples have experienced many interventions, both material and discursive, at the hands of Europeans from the period of 19th-century colonization to the present. The continent itself was gendered female by 19th-century European writers with their metaphors of penetration and conquest. Colonial officials, settlers, explorers, and missionaries all wrote about gender arrangements that were, at the very least, puzzling, while institutions such as polygynous marriage, women political leaders, and “female husbands” were considered un-Christian and uncivilized. In more recent decades, African gender systems regarding women's and queer rights have been the subject of European advocacy. In Malawi, for example, the British government made aid to that country dependent on their government's humane treatment of queer citizens. In this class, we will focus primarily on African gendered experiences, from African perspectives, through anthropological, historical, and literary texts. We will note ways in which various African gender practices shift and are contested, both locally and at state levels, in a number of societies and nation states, including in Sudan, Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa. We will look at changes of gendered experience and how organization changed as the period of European colonization made way for African “independence” in the context of globalization.

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Global Adoptions: An Anthropology of Kinship

Open , Seminar—Fall

We tend to assume that family-building involves deeply personal, intimate, and “natural” acts in making a relationship (marriage) and in becoming parents (sex). But in actual practice, the pragmatics of forming (and disbanding) families are much more complex. There are many instances where a desired pregnancy is biologically impossible: infertility or gay parents, for example. Conversely, there are children born to individuals who will not parent them for a wide variety of reasons. This seminar examines the meanings and processes, cross-culturally, of adoption—defined here as the placement of children to be raised permanently by others. We will explore this process anthropologically in countries and cultures across the globe, including the United States, Australia, Hawaii, Tanzania, China, Argentina, Sweden, Chile, Nigeria, and Korea. As well as looking within particular ethno-local sites, we will pay considerable attention to the global movement of children to adoption. There is great variety in the circumstances of transnational adoption from Swedish people seeking adoptive daughters in Chile to the Kindertransports at the start of World War II and to the North American Orphan Trains of the 19th and 20th centuries. Questions we will examine include: What is the difference between fostering and adoption? Why do people talk about “giving up” a child for adoption? Why is adoption welcomed in some cultures and hidden in others? When and why do adoptive parents attempt to expose their children to their cultures of origin? Why is adoption discourse more about parents getting children than children getting parents? Why are the legal records of an adoption sealed? How do race, class, and gender play out in adoption scenarios? The materials for this class include literature, scholarly articles, ethnographic accounts, historical documents, and film. Conference work may be done on any aspect of the class, as well as on other topics in the anthropology of kinship or in the ethnographies of cultures and places encountered in the course materials.

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Telling Lives: Life History Through Anthropology

Open , Seminar—Spring

Through studying life-history narratives (one person’s life as narrated to another), autobiographical memoir, and more experimental forms in print and on screen, we will explore the diverse ways that life courses are experienced and represented. Throughout our readings, we will carefully examine the narratives themselves, paying attention to the techniques of life-history construction and familiarizing ourselves with ethical, methodological, and theoretical challenges. We will consider a number of questions about telling lives: What is the relationship between the narrator and his or her interlocutor(s)? How does a life-history approach inform debates about representation? What can the account of one person’s life tell us about the wider culture of which he or she is a part? How can individual life narratives shed light on issues such as poverty, sexuality, colonialism, disability, racism, and aging? The selected texts attend to lives in various parts of the world, including Australia, Great Britain, the Caribbean, East Africa, and the United States. Students will also analyze primary sources and create a life history as part of their work for the course.

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Previous Courses

Global Kinships Into the New Millennium

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

A common feature of human societies is the enforcement of rules that determine social relations, particularly regarding kinship: With whom may one be sexual? Whom can a person marry? Which children are “legitimate”? To marry a close relative or someone of the same gender may be deemed unnaturally close in some societies, but marriage across great differences such as age, race, nation, culture, or class can also be problematic. Social rules govern the acceptance or rejection of children in particular social groups, depending on factors such as the marital status of their parents or the enactment of appropriate rituals. And configurations of gender are always key to family arrangements. Kinship has always been plastic, but the range and speed of transformations in gender and kinship are accelerating due to globalization and to new medical and digital technologies. New medical technologies create multiple routes to conceiving a child both within and without the “mother’s” womb. New understandings of the varieties of gender and new techniques in surgery permit sex/gender confirmations and changes. Digital media permit searches for babies to adopt, surrogates to carry an embryo, blood kin separated through adoption, and siblings sharing the same sperm-donor father. Globalization permits the movement of new spouses, infants, genetic material, embryos, and family members. Kin who are separated by great distance easily chat with each other in virtual family conversations on Skype. In this yearlong seminar, we will look at many sites of gender and kinship through a variety of conceptual approaches, including theories of race, gender, queerness, the postcolonial, and anthropological kinship studies. Our topics will include transnational adoption between Sweden and Chile, the return of adoptees from China and Korea to their countries of birth, commercial surrogacy in India, polygamy in East and West Africa, cross-class marriage in Victorian England, incest regulation cross-culturally, African migrations to Europe, and same sex marriage. Questions to explore will include: Who are “real” kin? Why do we hear so little about birth mothers? Why were intelligence tests administered to young babies in 1930s adoption proceedings? What is the experience of families with transgender parents or children? What is the compulsion to find genetically connected kin? How many mothers can a person have? How is marriage connected to labor migration? Why are the people who care for children in foster care called “parents”? How is kinship negotiated in interracial families? Our materials for this class include ethnographies, scholarly articles, films, memoirs, and digital media. Due to the interconnectedness of all of the materials, students should be committed to the class for the entire school year.

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Related Disciplines

First-Year Studies: Telling Lives: How Anthropologies Narrate the World

Open , FYS—Year

Anthropology is a discipline begun in a period of 19th-century colonialism that explores the ways in which people make sense of the world and the social relations in which we engage. One of the main goals of 20th-century anthropology was to demonstrate that practices that seem “natural” to one culture are understood very differently in another and so should not be ranked one above another. For example, incest taboos are universal, but the specifics of kinship are not: In one place, you absolutely should marry your first cousin; in another, you absolutely should not. In addition to the great variety of cultural understandings in different populations, there has been extraordinary diversity over time and place in the work of anthropologists themselves. Some have lived in another part of the world for years at a time; others have studied their own cultures. Some have argued that anthropology is a science; others, that it is in the humanities. Increasingly, anthropologists have become involved in advocacy work at home and abroad. We might now argue that there are multiple anthropologies and competing narrations of the world. In this First-Year Studies seminar, we will focus on the field methods, interpretations, and forms of representation generated by anthropologists; in particular, historical, political, and geographical contexts. We will immerse ourselves in works by anthropologists and by people historically studied by anthropologists. These will include ethnographies, oral histories, films, diaries, memoirs, and digital media. We will learn about fieldwork in colonial Nigeria and New Guinea, land-rights activism among indigenous Australians, human-rights debates about female genital mutilation, the anthropological work of Zora Neale Hurston, experiments in writing ethnography, and much more. Along the way, we will learn to be better writers, readers, speakers, and listeners.

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Global Kinships Into the New Millennium

Seminar

A common feature of human societies is the enforcement of rules that determine social relations, particularly regarding kinship: With whom may one be sexual? Whom can a person marry? Which children are “legitimate”? To marry a close relative or someone of the same gender may be deemed unnaturally close in some societies, but marriage across great differences such as age, race, nation, culture, or class can also be problematic. Social rules govern the acceptance or rejection of children in particular social groups, depending on factors such as the marital status of their parents or the enactment of appropriate rituals. And configurations of gender are always key to family arrangements. Kinship has always been plastic, but the range and speed of transformations in gender and kinship are accelerating due to globalization and to new medical and digital technologies. New medical technologies create multiple routes to conceiving a child both within and without the “mother’s” womb. New understandings of the varieties of gender and new techniques in surgery permit sex/gender confirmations and changes. Digital media permit searches for babies to adopt, surrogates to carry an embryo, blood kin separated through adoption, and siblings sharing the same sperm-donor father. Globalization permits the movement of new spouses, infants, genetic material, embryos, and family members. Kin who are separated by great distance easily chat with each other in virtual family conversations on Skype.

In this yearlong seminar, we will look at many sites of gender and kinship through a variety of conceptual approaches, including theories of race, gender, queerness, the postcolonial, and anthropological kinship studies. Our topics will include transnational adoption between Sweden and Chile, the return of adoptees from China and Korea to their countries of birth, commercial surrogacy in India, polygamy in East and West Africa, cross-class marriage in Victorian England, incest regulation cross-culturally, African migrations to Europe, and same sex marriage. Questions to explore will include: Who are “real” kin? Why do we hear so little about birth mothers? Why were intelligence tests administered to young babies in 1930s adoption proceedings? What is the experience of families with transgender parents or children? What is the compulsion to find genetically connected kin? How many mothers can a person have? How is marriage connected to labor migration? Why are the people who care for children in foster care called “parents”? How is kinship negotiated in interracial families? Our materials for this class include ethnographies, scholarly articles, films, memoirs, and digital media. Due to the interconnectedness of all of the materials, students should be committed to the class for the entire school year.

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Queering Africa: Gender and Sexuality Across the Continent

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

South Africa and Zimbabwe abut each other, both were colonized by white settlers, and each won its independence through civil war. Despite these similarities, in this postcolonial era the security of self-identified Queer Africans in each polity are in striking contrast with one other. How that has come to be will be just one of the questions that we explore in this anthropology seminar. We will begin our studies with accounts of the varied experiences of gender relations by different African populations and individuals within their own cultural and political settings. These will include colonial era phenomena such as “Sitting on a man” in Nigeria, the politics of female circumcision in Kenya, and discourses of masculinity in Tanzanian pastoral communities. Following that, we will briefly study European descriptions (often those of Christian missionaries) of “deviant” sexuality before turning to our primary text, The Queer African Reader, edited by Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas. From these African writers, we will learn about the phenomenal diversity of “queerness” on the continent in terms of gender identities and objects of desire. We will look at discourses of “traditional” homosexuality and transnational connections in a global gay rights discourse. While this seminar is about Africa, students are not confined to that continent for their conference work and may research anything they choose that is in some way connected to the course.

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Colonialism, Anthropology, Politics

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

When Jomo Kenyatta’s ethnography of Gikuyu (Kenya) society was published in the 1930s, the forward to this nationalist, anticolonial text was provided by Bronislaw Malinowski, a “founding father” of British social anthropology. This apparently unlikely alliance is just one example of the many paradoxes and contradictions to be found in the political history of anthropology. Over the past two centuries, anthropology has been the site of liberation and antiracist activism on the one hand and of studies that justified colonialism and slavery on the other. The course will explore the ways in which this intellectual discipline has formed in various social and political contexts both within and beyond the academy. Our questions will include the following: How have the practices of anthropologists contributed to interrogation of the concept of race? Why have particular theoretical approaches arisen in specific geographical locations? How have the subject positions of anthropologists—in terms of their nationality, class, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation—informed their anthropological research and writings? What have anthropologists done in wartime? What have been the relations between anthropologists and their funders (both large foundations and individual patrons)? We will study the writings and images of anthropologists, historians, novelists, and activists in many parts of the globe. This class may be of particular interest to students wishing to examine questions about diversity.

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Desire Across Boundaries: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Postcolonial World

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

A common feature of both colonial and postcolonial societies has been the enforcement of rules, both cultural and legal, that determine with whom one may be sexual and whom one may marry. Laws in the European colonies focused most intensively on regulating intimate connections among people of different races; but the nature of those regulations varied over time and by location, depending on the underlying political goals and gendered logics of local governments. For example, subaltern white men were encouraged to form households with colonized women in 19th century Dutch Indonesia and prohibited from doing so in the 20th century. And in the post-independence era, indigenous same-sex intimacies, which were of little concern to colonial governments, have now come under fierce government scrutiny and persecution in countries such as Uganda and Zimbabwe. In this yearlong seminar, we will examine articulations among race, gender, and sexuality in the period from the European scramble for colonies to the present era of post-independence (the postcolonial.) For this exploration, we will mine the works of 19th-century sexologists Freud and Foucault and their feminist critics, the writings of colonizers and anticolonial activists, and ethnographic and historical accounts of race and sex in particular colonial and post-independence settings. We will study the writings and images of anthropologists, filmmakers, historians, novelists, and activists in many parts of the globe.

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Related Disciplines

Global Kinships

Open , Seminar—Year

A common feature of human societies is the enforcement of rules that determine social relations, particularly regarding kinship: With whom may one be sexual? Whom may a person marry? Which children are “legitimate”? To marry a close relative or someone of the same gender may be deemed unnaturally close in some societies, but marriage across great differences—such as age, race, culture, or class—can also be problematic. Social rules govern the acceptance or rejection of children in particular social groups, depending on factors such as the marital status of their parents or the enactment of appropriate rituals. During the colonial era, European observers imagined that “primitive” societies had sparse social regulation, as they reported cases of “marriage by capture,” “primitive promiscuity,” and “paternity uncertainty.” In the postcolonial world, anthropologists and everyone else are deeply engaged in questions about kinship that, in fact, strongly echo 19th-century concerns. Now we frame the topics as queer families, gay marriage, unmarried mothers, interracial families, the absence of fathers, transcultural adoption, and new reproductive technologies. In this yearlong seminar, we will draw upon a variety of sources, including ethnography, historical accounts, memoir, literature, archival documents, and film. Case studies will include transnational adoption, polygamy in East and West Africa, cross-class marriage in Victorian England, American kinship systems, incest regulation cross-culturally, and same-sex marriage in Southern Africa. To make sense of such topics, we will draw upon a number of different conceptual approaches, including those from classical kinship studies, theories of evolution, cognitive anthropology, feminist theory, queer theory, and postcolonial theory.

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Related Disciplines

Desire Across Boundaries: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Postcolonial World

Seminar—Year

A common feature of both colonial and postcolonial societies has been the enforcement of rules, both cultural and legal, that determine with whom one may be sexual and whom one may marry. Laws in the European colonies focused most intensively on regulating intimate connections among people of different races; but the nature of those regulations varied over time and by location, depending on the underlying political goals and gendered logics of local governments. For example, subaltern white men were encouraged to form households with colonized women in 19th century Dutch Indonesia and prohibited from doing so in the 20th century. And in the post-independence era, indigenous same-sex intimacies, which were of little concern to colonial governments, have now come under fierce government scrutiny and persecution in countries such as Uganda and Zimbabwe. In this yearlong seminar, we will examine articulations among race, gender, and sexuality in the period from the European scramble for colonies to the present era of post-independence (the postcolonial.) For this exploration, we will mine the works of 19th-century sexologists Freud and Foucault and their feminist critics, the writings of colonizers and anticolonial activists, and ethnographic and historical accounts of race and sex in particular colonial and post-independence settings. We will study the writings and images of anthropologists, filmmakers, historians, novelists, and activists in many parts of the globe.

Faculty