Sociology Transnational Adoption
SunAh Laybourn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0241


The first transnational adoptions to the United States or “intercountry” as they were originally called, began in the wake of World War II, but it was not until after the Korean War that international adoption to the United States became institutionalized. Transnational adoption changed ideas around family and kinship as children were not only being adopted cross-nationally but also cross-racially. Because transnational adoption quickly began to transgress the race-matching procedures that guided initial intercountry and domestic adoptions, this new form of family making drew both public attention and research interests. This article primarily focuses on transnational adoption to the United States and the controversies, politics, and outcomes surrounding it. Initial research studies in the 1960s and 1970s in social work and psychology began with a focus largely on children’s psychological and social adjustment into their adoptive families before continuing across disciplines such as law; gender and family studies; cultural studies; and sociology. As research continued, attention reflected disciplinary foci expanding from outcome studies to examinations of the effect of policies, politics (domestic and geopolitical), and race, class, and gender. Given the growth of transnational adoption globally, in 1995 the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-Operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption entered into force with the goal of securing the “best interests of the child” and preventing child trafficking and other abuses. In recent decades, new sending countries have open and closed relatively quickly, though China remains a major sending country to the United States for the past two decades, while longer-standing sending countries such as Korea have changed their policies, resulting in decreased adoptions to the United States. These changes, along with a growing awareness of the inequalities inherent in transnational adoption and increased consideration for first families, raise new research questions around the future of adoption.


These anthologies provide a broad overview of the beliefs, issues, and research on transnational adoption. Marre and Briggs 2009 provides research on a variety of sending and receiving countries. Goodwin 2010 presents a broader conceptual argument about “baby markets.” Contemporary issues in creating culture within transnational adoptive families are examined in Volkman 2005. In Treitler 2014, one of the continued central issues in transnational adoption— race—is reviewed along all stages of the adoption process. Bagley, et al. 1993 presents research on transnational adoptees’ “adjustment” into their new families and countries, and although contemporary research does not take this approach, this anthology provides important insights into traditional research on transnational adoptees.

  • Bagley, Christopher, Loretta Young, and Anne Scully, eds. 1993. International and transracial adoptions: A mental health perspective. Aldershot, UK: Avebury.

    Represents the traditional focus on adoptees’ “adjustment” in research on international and transracial adoption. Includes essays on the causes and concerns affecting successful “adjustment” including genetic and physical features as well as the differential outcomes based on pre-adoption setting and various adoption populations (e.g., age of child, special needs).

  • Goodwin, Mechele Bratcher, ed. 2010. Baby markets: Money and the new politics of creating families. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Covers the various “baby markets” including, but not limited to, transnational adoption, foster care, assisted reproduction, sperm banks, and egg donations. Though transnational adoption is not the main focus, the broader question of family making as a type of market is relevant to understanding choice, policies, and commodification in transnational adoption.

  • Marre, Diana, and Laura Briggs, eds. 2009. International adoption: Global inequalities and the circulation of children. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    An outgrowth of the first International Forum on Childhood and the Family held in 2006 at the University of Barcelona, this collection includes research on a range of sending countries (e.g., Brazil, Peru, Russia, Lithuania) and receiving countries (e.g., multiple European countries, United States). Includes trends in international adoption, controversies, and new considerations for adoptive parents.

  • Treitler, Vilna Bashi, ed. 2014. Race in transnational and transracial adoption. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Examines race in various aspects of the adoption process from “Constructing Desire in the Adoption Market” (Part I) to “Constructing Ethno-Racial Identities in Adoption” (Part II). Research primarily focuses on adoption agencies’ commodification of children, race, and ethnicity or adoptive parents’ choices, whether through decision making in adopting or through parenting practices with regard to incorporating their adopted child’s heritage culture.

  • Volkman, Toby Alice, ed. 2005. Cultures of transnational adoption. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    Explores contemporary issues in navigating and creating culture among transnational adoptive families. Essays include research on adoption imagery, experiences with homeland tours to adoptees’ birth countries, and diasporic identity making. Examinations of families and policies in sending countries are also included.

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