A Critique of the Portrayal of Adoption in College Textbooks and Readers on Families, 1998-2001

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A Critique of the Portrayal of Adoption in College Textbooks and Readers on Families, 1998-2001*

Twenty-one college textbooks and 16 readers in the sociology of the family and marriage and the family were examined for their treatment of adoption. All books were published between 1998 and 2001. A content analysis of these works showed that little attention was devoted to adoption and that the coverage provided was predominantly negative, stressing the potential problems of adoption about twice as often as its probable successes and rewards.

Key Words: adoption, family, marriage, textbooks.

Adoption is certainly a common occurrence in the United States today. Although there is no official and complete count of adoptions, the best available estimates are that about 4% of Americans are adopted, nearly half of whom have been adopted by persons who are not biologically related to them (Brodzinsky, Smith, & Brodzinsky, 1998). However, adoption touches many more lives than these data suggest. A recent survey of a representative national sample of 1,416 Americans found that nearly 2 in 3 respondents (64%) had a direct personal experience with adoption, meaning that they themselves, a family member, or a close friend either was adopted or had adopted a child, or had relinquished a child for adoption (National Adoption Attitudes Survey, 2002).

Although adoption is hardly unusual, several scholars have noted that it receives remarkably little attention from social scientists. For example, Hall and Stolley found that college textbooks in marriage and the family published between 1950 and 1993 gave limited coverage to adoption, ranging from a mean of 2.0 pages per text in the 1960s to 1.1 pages per text from 1988 through 1993 (Hall & Stolley, 1997; Stolley & Hall, 1994).

The purpose of this study was threefold. First, Stolley and Hall's work was updated by examining marriage and family texts published between 1998 and 2001 to see whether adoption remains a marginal topic. Second, in addition to texts, "readers" or anthologies of works on the family that are suitable for use in an undergraduate course were included to see whether such readers might include selections on a special topic like adoption that may not be covered well in the texts. Third, and most important, this study evaluates how these texts and readers portray adoption (i.e., whether they present adoption in a predominantly positive or negative light, or whether they discuss both the successes and the potential problems of adoption in a relatively balanced manner). Wegar (1998, p. 42) argued, "When sociologists have studied adoption their focus has been mainly problem-oriented. To foster a more balanced understanding of adoption, we need to acknowledge its existing positive aspects." Just as forcefully, Brodzinsky et al. (1998) asserted, "Adoption research has been too pathology oriented. It has focused primarily on the risks associated with this form of family life" (p. 114). They concluded that even though research describing the risks and failures of adoption is valid and important, considerable research also has shown that in the vast majority of cases "adoption is a highly successful societal solution for those children whose biological parents cannot or will not provide for them" (p. 112).

Glenn (1997) argued that "The quality of college-level education about marriages and families depends heavily on the textbooks available for adoption" (p. 197), and Geersten (1977) asserted that "Next to the instructor, the textbook is probably the most important factor in what is actually taught in an undergraduate course" (p. 101). Presumably a textbook provides a responsible and reasonably comprehensive summary of what researchers regard as the main topics, issues, theories and research findings in an area of scholarly inquiry. Therefore, Stolley and Hall (1994) emphasized that, through the amount and the nature of the coverage that texts provide, those texts send a message to students about whether particular topics are regarded as central or peripheral to the study of families. …