New Faculty 2008-09
Jessaca Leinaweaver Assistant Professor of Anthropology Credit: John Abromowski/Brown University

Jessaca Leinaweaver
Assistant Professor of Anthropology

By Sarah Kidwell  |  August 20, 2008  |  Email to a friend

When Jessaca Leinaweaver describes the life of an anthropologist, it sounds very appealing. “The best thing about it is that you travel and meet people and hang out with them.” She hopes to convey a sense of adventure, coupled with a deep understanding of different cultures when she takes up her new post of assistant professor of anthropology at Brown this fall.

Her primary interest is in studying families, and she believes that Brown students will benefit from examining family structures different from their own. “Learning about how families work in other cultures shows students that the way their family works is not the only way nor even the ‘natural’ way. That opens a gateway to critical thinking skills — being able to look critically at the things that feel most natural and learning to recognize them as historically, economically, and culturally shaped,” she says.

Leinaweaver did her undergraduate work at Whitman College, where she majored in anthropology and Spanish literature. She received both her M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Michigan. During her travels for those degrees she discovered a different child-rearing practice that became the focus of much of her work and writing.

While visiting Andean Peru, several women offered her their babies to raise. Her initial surprise turned to curiosity, and she began investigating the practice of what she came to call “child circulation,” or informal arrangements in which Andean children are sent by their parents to live in other households. Her ethnographic analysis has revealed child circulation to be a meaningful, pragmatic social practice for poor and indigenous Peruvians — a flexible system of kinship that has likely been part of Andean lives for centuries.

While many people may register shock at the practice of child circulation, Leinaweaver cautions against imposing one’s own cultural values on a traditional system. “Families in other cultures use varying organizational strategies,” she says, “and it’s often quite pragmatic.” Leinaweaver has found that child circulation usually stems from economic hardship, is often temporary, and has benefits to both the child and the host family. Her research has led to a book that will be published by Duke University Press this fall.

Leinaweaver learned to respect cultural differences early in life. As a 10-year-old, her family spent a year in Costa Rica while her father, a theatre professor, completed a Fulbright. That year sparked her interest in anthropology, and when she got to college, the first few courses confirmed it. She’s hoping to pass that inspiration on to her Brown students.