Sunday, April 1, 2012

Fictive Kinship and the Anthropologist’s Position

I went to Amman, Jordan in 2008 mentally prepared to deal with the large, gregarious extended family whom I imagined would host me. As an only child from a small, quiet family, I was steeling myself for the stereotypical Middle Eastern family who, I was certain, would not give me a moment’s privacy. They would be loud, with many children running circles around my beginner’s Arabic; I’d probably have to share a room with the hellions. I dreaded the sure-to-be constant stream of inquisitive relatives. As a demonstration of their culture’s famed hospitality, they would make me eat. A lot. Imagine the astonishment on my face when a solemn, middle-aged Jordanian couple with no children, picked me up in their luxury vehicle and escorted me to my own room: painted a gaudy pink, with my own bed, my own desk, and my own copy of the Qur’an translated into English. I glanced at my host mother, who smiled slightly. And then, doubling my astonishment, my Jordanian “parents” politely excused themselves as if they were hotel staff and shut the door, leaving me standing in the middle of “my” room. I remember vividly the disappointment mixed with relief that I was not going to experience the “traditional” Jordanian household.

I was to experience many more of these reversals during my fieldwork in Jordan in 2008 and 2009, reversals which I use in this ethnographic essay to contemplate the implications of globalizing field sites, particularly the practices of fictive kinship and the anthropologist’s position. As local sites become more globally connected, through media, tourism, and other development processes, locals become increasingly aware of the world of the researcher, increasingly able to imagine that world and to project it onto their local one. Arjun Appadurai (1996) has described the resulting disjunctures as “ethnoscapes,” shifting landscapes in which more people in more places exercise social imagination. Mobility not only characterizes modernity but becomes, for many people the desired feature of modernity.

It is not uncommon to find locals esteeming the anthropologist-as-world-traveler, as cosmopolitan and modern. I found my interactions with Jordanians and with migrant workers characterized by this same esteem. In Jordan I saw my position of desirable mobility reflected in the thousands of migrant workers, women from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, who had come to Jordan to work as live-in household “maids,” cleaning, cooking, and taking care of the children and elderly of their Jordanian employers. At the time I conducted my fieldwork, the Jordanian Ministry of Labour estimated 70,000 maids were working legally, with many thousands more working illegally, most by violating the terms of their labor contracts. Since the 1980s, Jordan and other Middle Eastern states have adopted a labor recruitment system called the kafala, or sponsorship system (from kafeel, sponsor). In this system, labor recruitment agencies match female laborers to an employer-family which “sponsors” the women’s employment. The sponsor becomes the sole legal employer during the contract, usually a two year term in which the female laborer must live in the same household with the employer-family. Consequently many Jordanian employer-families, motivated by economic concerns or by cultural concerns, restricted their maid’s movement. In the most extreme cases, employers confined the maid to the house, confiscated her passport, withheld her pay, prevented her from communicating with other maids, and sometimes verbally or physically abused her. More moderate employers allowed maids more freedom of movement, even giving them a weekly day-off in Amman to do as they pleased.

Although I have since lived with three host families, in Jordan and later in Tunisia, I still feel more akin to these female migrant workers than to my fictive families. We were women doing our best to negotiate our mobility in cultures critical of feminine mobility. We lived with families who grafted us into their kin group but left us puzzling over the nuanced and often contested web of family obligations. Both maids and myself, alone and abroad, were presumed by locals to be vulnerable and in need of kin protection, yet that protection involved a daily series of negotiations. And so I found my position as anthropologist not unlike the maids’ position as contract workers imagined as family members.

Although cultural pressures to protect feminine honor-mobility motivated some employers’ behavior, few Jordanians spoke of it. Instead Jordanian informants framed the maid phenomenon within variants of an international human rights discourse circulating in Jordan at the time. While I could write of the experiences of migrant workers, particularly how they negotiated mobility and even subverted human rights discourse to their own ends, I’m more interested here to consider how globalizing discourses like human rights affect fictive kinship practices as well as my position as a researcher. To evaluate the human rights discourse, I interviewed a Jordanian Ministry of Labour employee, labor recruitment agents, human rights activists, and Jordanian employers of maids. In doing so, I experienced the uncanny reversal of having informants presume to know what I as a Western woman thought and then recycling discourses in their interviews with me. For example, one afternoon I visited a Jordanian garment factory representative and his wife in their home. I’ll call them “Anjad” and “Deema.” Not only had they employed two maids, but they also had assisted extended family members in hiring and managing their purportedly unruly maids. Additionally, Anjad and Deema had hosted a series of foreign exchange students, and thus considered themselves to be more open-minded and experienced than the average Jordanian family.

Anjad described how a Swiss foreign exchange student had criticized the family for failing to invite the maid to join them in watching television. Incredulous, Anjad explained he “had his own family,” maintaining that the maid was only a contract worker. Sympathizing with the Swiss student, I agreed that it would be ok for the maid to watch television with the family. Anjad turned on me by questioning my own position: “Now talk about where you’re coming from, Alabama. There are still houses that employ servants, that employ maids. In the South, it still exists, but not in the same form that we have here.” I was shocked. Anjad continued his diatribe by asking if I had seen the film Babel, which he then used to frame his discussion of migrant work in the United States, where he had attained a university degree. He offered the same romanticized modernization narrative my other Jordanian informants told: Jordan is modernizing, families are becoming more nuclear, women increasingly work outside the household, and thus maids are needed in the household. But “human rights” were a political tool, he said, a Western imposition.

I couldn’t have felt more of a Western imposition than I did one evening when I found myself interviewing a women’s rights activist, “Noura,” in an all-male coffee-shop, per her request. As she sat opposite me, heavily made up and wearing tight leather pants, she smoked her argeelah with an impressive degree of nonchalance considering every man in the cafĂ© was staring at us. I described my discussion with Anjad. She replied by emphasizing the importance of understanding cultural differences, criticizing Jordanian employers like Anjad for their lack of empathy. At least a dozen times during our three-hour conversation, Noura said of the maids, “They are human after all.” Noura was also an employee of the Domestic Workers Division of the Jordanian Ministry of Labour, and she had ambitious ideas for regulating labor, including a household inspection team:
But then again, it’s very difficult if you want to send an inspector inside the home. What if there is a man? This is connected to the culture in Jordan, which is very important. Maybe one male inspector and one female inspector can do the job…How else can we know what is inside the homes? What is inside the homes? Men.
Noura complained that men, as guardians of the households, likely would prevent inspection teams from examining working conditions because such an inspection is tantamount to criticism of kinship practices. “Some employees are a little bit tough, even with their daughters, not only with their domestic workers,” Noura explained.

Herein lies the disjuncture. My Jordanian host family employed two contract workers: an Indonesian maid and an American student, me. Whereas the maid was confined to the house, I was given my own room, my own key, and all the freedom to come and go or stay in my room with the door shut. I never observed my host family mistreating the maid, yet I pondered over the gulf between her position and mine. Human rights discourse situated maids within a human family and dignity narrative. Employers claimed maids were part of the family, although whether these affirmations laid claim primarily to labor or to belonging was unclear. Maids developed supportive networks in Jordan, treating one another as fictive kin while supporting their biological kin at great distance and cost with remittances. And I, the cultural anthropologist, was adopted into a host family which anticipated my American expectations and conceptions of family belonging and privacy. The people we meet as anthropologists in the increasingly globalized field are increasingly aware of the possibilities of modernity, of the potential expressions of kinship obligations, of the multiple, complex ways that people make appeals to family membership. Discourse that originates elsewhere, like human rights discourse, comes back to us in the field, often in unexpected reiterations. How can we begin to disentangle these discourses and be more attuned to the interpretations and expectations of modernity in our field sites? What are the implications for anthropologists and their increasingly globalizing field sites, where our own frameworks are reiterated and positions as knowers are challenged?

Diana Patterson is a first-year PhD student of cultural anthropology at the University of Kentucky. She has explored intersections of migration, honor, and kinship in Jordan. For her Master’s thesis at the University of Chicago, she studied state regulation of homeschooling in the United States, and for her dissertation research at the University of Kentucky, she plans to continue examining the state and education in the context of Iraqi Kurdistan.


Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy. In Modernity at Large. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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