University News

Prof’s book wins 2010 Mead award

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Jessaca Leinaweaver won the 2010 Margaret Mead Award for her first published book, “The Circulation of Children: Kinship, Adoption, and Morality in Andean Peru.” The award, given each year by the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology, will be formally presented in April.

“It’s the most prestigious award for a junior scholar in anthropology,” said Professor of Anthropology Catherine Lutz, chair of the department. Leinaweaver has “a very acute sensibility as to the lives of other people,” Lutz added. “She has a real ear for how people think and experience the world in different ways and a very strong ability to write what she’s learned.”

The award bears the name of anthropologist Margaret Mead, who had a “knack for communicating her findings to the public,” Leinaweaver said. According to the association’s website, winners “interpret anthropological data and principles” in a way that is accessible to a world audience, not just anthropologists. Leinaweaver, who joined the faculty in 2008, is the second member of Brown’s anthropology department to receive this award. Professor of Anthropology Dan Smith accepted it in 2008.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Leinaweaver said. “To me, it says I was successful in writing a book that can be read by many people. So it’s not just for my anthropological colleagues with extensive training in theory and methods of the discipline. For example, my husband’s grandmother read it.”

Her book opens, “This child is abandoned.” Leinaweaver brings readers along on the journey she took from 2001 to 2003 as a PhD student in Ayacucho, Peru. The book examines a phenomenon she calls “child circulation,” where Peruvian children live away from home, often with an aunt or a friend of the family. Peruvian government and adoption officials would sometimes view these children as abandoned.

“I was interested in finding out why that was so common,” Leinaweaver said. “I saw it as a sort of adoption, even though sometimes kids would only move temporarily, like for a year or two.”

The book compares this phenomenon to another method of relocating children: legal adoption. Ultimately, Leinaweaver was interested in “how the government and Quechua-speaking people thought differently about where people should be and who should take care of their children,” she said. She gathered a wealth of perspectives, interviewing social workers, parents of the children, receiving families and the kids themselves.

“I think she does a good job of understanding kinship as something to do with bonds that are more than just biological,” said Alfredo Aguirre ’10, who did independent research with Leinaweaver in 2009. “So kinship is more than just a blood type. But it’s also a social phenomenon.” Aguirre said it was “really important” to move away from the “very Western” view that kinship is “purely biological.”

Leinaweaver found that parents often sent their kids away to provide them with opportunities, perhaps at a better school in an urban area. In other cases, a godparent would request to take care of the kids to have companionship, to gain extra help around the house or to help out the child’s family. Some of the kids she spoke to expressed a desire to leave to ease their parents’ burden. Leinaweaver told The Herald she found many “layers of motivation” that were in the end “difficult to untangle.”

“The thing I miss most about Peru is the people I got to know,” Leinaweaver said. “One of the strange things about anthropology is we’re trying to find out about interesting anthropological (phenomena), but because we stay there so long . . . often it becomes a friendship.”

Leinaweaver is on leave this semester. While she was studying families in Peru, she was a single, childless PhD student. Now, she’s taking phone calls with her newborn baby in hand. She writes articles in between the baby’s naps, she told The Herald, and her latest work is on Peruvian immigrants in Spain. She said she spent the last two summers in Spain, comparing young Peruvians who have been adopted by Spanish families to the children of Peruvian families who migrated to Spain. Some of these families were the ones she encountered during her work in Peru.

“In some sense, it’s a continuation of the earlier study,” she said. “I’m looking at the same question in a transnational sphere: adoption versus migration, how are they similar or different.”

Next year, Leinaweaver will bring her “communication skills into the classroom” by teaching an introductory anthropology course, Lutz said.

“I love to talk about my research when I’m teaching,” Leinaweaver said. “That is a way to make anthropology more real to students, to show pictures and say this is me doing fieldwork — harvesting potatoes and looking like an idiot. I think that incorporating that level of personal experience can be really effective in the classroom.”