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–

Current undergraduate courses

Colonialism, Anthropology, Politics

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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Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Global Adoptions: An Anthropology of Kinship

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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Queering Africa: Gender and Sexuality Across the Continent

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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Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Telling Lives: Life History Through Anthropology

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 such issues 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

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

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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First-Year Studies: Making Connections: Gender, Sexuality, and Kinship From an Anthropological Perspective

FYS

Like Goldilocks in her selections of porridge and resting places, human beings are supposed to choose marriage partners who are “just right.” To marry a close relative or someone of the same gender may be deemed unnaturally close; but marriages across great differences such as age, race, culture, or class can also be perceived as problematic due to social distance. This question of closeness or distance in marriage prescriptions is particularly timely in light of the current debates about gay marriage and will be one topic of exploration in this yearlong seminar on gender, sexuality, and kinship from an anthropological perspective. Anthropology is a discipline that explores the ways in which people make sense of the world and the social relations in which we engage. In this class, we will explore two parallel themes: the extraordinary diversity in the ways that people understand and enact kinship, sexuality, and gender cross-culturally and changes in the ways that anthropologists have understood and documented (or failed to document) these themes. We will read ethnography, oral history, and anthropological theory, as well as literature beyond the discipline; we will also view some films. Topics under our consideration will include female husbands in southern Africa, hermaphrodism in 19th-century France, institutionalized homosexuality in New Guinea, transnational and interracial adoption, childhood, and sexual rights. Along the way, we will learn to be better writers, readers, speakers, and listeners. 

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Global Kinships

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.

Faculty

Kinship: An Anthropological Story

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—which, 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 lecture, we will draw upon many different kinds 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.

Faculty

Telling Lives - Life History Through Anthropology

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 such issues 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.

Faculty