6 - Marginal members: Children of previous unions in Mende households in Sierra Leone  pp. 130-154

Marginal members: Children of previous unions in Mende households in Sierra Leone

By Caroline Bledsoe

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The social roots of resource distribution

Just as resources are not distributed equally throughout national populations or communities, neither do they necessarily trickle down equitably within households. Stratification and differentiation can produce selective allocations of food, medical treatment, and educational support among children in the same household.

My previous work has attempted to instill interpretations of reproduction outcomes with a dynamic view, highlighting people's social efforts to manage or achieve demographic outcomes by restructuring household compositions and influencing obligations, rather than by acting strictly within the biological bounds or cultural norms that seem to be imposed on them (e.g., Bledsoe 1990b). Instead of being tethered to demographic facts, people try to tinker with them, to create or undo them, or to construe “official” (Bourdieu 1977) versions of them. By fostering in children, for example, adults try both to meet their current labor needs and to stake future claims in a broad array of children besides their own. Here I examine people's active efforts to shed those conjugal ties whose advantages have waned and build loyalty in new directions by tracing resource allocations to children.

Anthropological works have long accustomed us to the idea of accreting family members through reproduction or marriage; practices such as marriage, adoption, and fosterage are examples.