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What can be adapted but never replaced?


Cati Coe opens her book, The Scattered Family, with a vignette about meeting a Ghanaian immigrant, Irene, on a greyhound bus at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. During their bus ride, she learns that Irene has been in the US for twenty years, has US citizenship and has been working for the past eight years as a live-in home health aide. Further details of Irene’s life are revealed during the journey; she is a mother of three children (all born in the US) and she has just returned from a nine-week trip to Ghana where she left her baby boy along with his older siblings in the care of her parents. Coe explains that Irene has not abandoned her children; in fact she has rationalised her decision to leave her children in Ghana as the best possible way to provide for them.

Coe’s opening vignette captures three of the four themes she examines in this book. First, the transnational parenting strategies of Ghanaian immigrants (such as Irene) in the US; second, how parents and children make sense of material support as a sign of parental love within transnational families; and third, the difficulties these parents face with raising their children in the US and why Ghana is perceived as a better environment for them. These three themes form the main thesis of Coe’s study, which examines the existing (old and new) ways that people adapt their ‘repertoires of family life’ (p.5) to constantly changing economic circumstances, which many studies on transnational families have overlooked.

Additionally, these themes contribute to the fourth point of the book, namely global inequalities that emerge from the movement of people. Coe notes that goods and money have a certain freedom of movement across and between nation states that people do not have. This leads to the “new” phenomenon of scattered families as observed in other studies of transnational family life (Parreñas, 2005; Dreby, 2006). As part of this theme, Coe discusses issues connected with family reunification, specifically in the context of immigration law and policy, which hindered the efforts of the Ghanaian families she met to bring their relatives to join them in the US.

What are repertoires?

Coe states that the phenomenon of scattered families is neither new nor unique to international immigrants. She uses the case of transnational Ghanaian families to argue for the need to examine the Ghanaian example within the wider historical and cultural context of West African kinship practices which shape their repertoires of family life.

In discussing how Ghanaian immigrants and children manage living apart from each other across national borders, Coe draws on the concept of ‘repertoire’ from Ann Swindler (2001) and William Sewell (2005) to examine the various responses Ghanaians have to family life. ‘Repertoires’ are similar to Bourdieu’s (1977) habitus in that they are, as Coe explains, a ‘set of cultural resources or frameworks – ways of speaking, thinking, and feeling about the family – that mobilize material resources and people in ways that are considered normal and natural’ (p.5). Thus, returning to Coe’s opening vignette of Irene’s family situation, the notion of repertoire refers to how Irene is able to mobilise her resources in Ghana for childrearing and make sense of her parenting strategies.

Coe explains that Bourdieu’s habitus has a similar level of multiplicity and flexibility as the concept of repertoires. As she says, habitus ‘disposes people to act in a certain way but is flexible enough to be applied, through analogy, to new situations people face’ (p.15). However, for her, habitus is too focused on the responses, behaviours, ways of thinking which a person acquires in their early years whereas repertoires allow for exploring how these tendencies can change over time.

The case Coe presents in this book is very similar to my own research on transnational British-Ghanaian families. Like Coe, I have conducted fieldwork with Ghanaian immigrants and their children in southern England and Ghana. Thus, my reading of Coe’s book is heavily influenced by my own observations from the field. A key feature of the book is Coe’s tracing of family reciprocities among kinship practices of the people of Akuapem (and also southern Ghanaians) through their engagement with local and global trade. I find this to be a strength of the book, particularly Coe’s use of historical analysis to inform her ethnographic work on transnational Ghanaian families. Coe’s book can be compared with Roger Magazine and Martha Areli Ramírez Sánchez’s (2007) study of the changing nature of reciprocal parent-child relations among Tlalcualpeños in Mexico through the introduction of western style education and transnational migration. Such a comparison raises questions about how people’s understandings and valuations of family members adapt with changes to family life. This review of Coe’s book will reference Magazine and Ramírez Sánchez’s study, and will draw on my own research, to address questions relating to the value of children, hardships, how the parents’ own childhood experiences influence their approach to parenting, and the children’s emotional responses to being separated from their parents.

Repertoires of family life through the history of economic production in Akuapem

The first two chapters of the book introduce the history of family life in Akuapem (Eastern Region, Ghana). Coe explores the roles of various family members (parents, caregivers and children) in matrilineal or patrilineal corporate houses. She uses this history to contextualise how the people of Akuapem draw on, and adapt, their kinship repertoires to deal with changing economic circumstances as well as internal and international migration.

Coe opens the first chapter with her observations on how international migration has changed the landscape of Akuapem through her comparison of old and new family homes. The newer American style houses demonstrate the changing structure of families where nuclear families are considered the ideal. Through her discussions with a young boy, Paul, on his aspirations to one day reciprocate his grandparents – who are his caregivers – for their care and affection through material goods, Coe introduces the notion of how goods are used to evaluate the quality of relationships. Before embarking on the history of kinship in Akuapem, she argues that the exchanges between young people and their kin, which were once centered on debt, changed over time to become reciprocities of care that link to similar practices among transnational Ghanaian families today. She asserts that while most studies on transnational families have argued that transnational migration creates issues for ‘existing kinship repertoires’ (p.41), her work shows how previous economic instabilities and internal migration have already altered these kinship repertoires.

Her history of family life in Akuapem begins around the fifteenth/sixteenth century and continues to the early twentieth century, including the development of a cash economy through oil palm agriculture in the nineteenth century and, later, cocoa farming. Throughout this history, she highlights how economic developments shaped family life and how people adjusted their repertoires to meet changes in household production. She argues that Akuapem family life and modes of production pre-cocoa farming relied on reciprocal exchanges. These were not monetised exchanges, but rather exchanges of services between husbands and wives and other co-dependents, such as children and siblings. Cocoa farming altered kinship repertoires through increasing demand to raise capital for land purchase. Consequently, internal migration grew as people had to move for work and to acquire land. Men also needed the labour of their wives and children to cultivate the land, as slavery and debt pawning became less viable options, and justified their control over their wives and children through the increase in marriage payments to the wives’ families. In essence, while relationships between adults and children remained reciprocal, marital relations were shaped by cash payments and forms of debt.

Another change to family life that occurred in Akuapem during the twentieth century, was the generational shift in kinship exchanges, with parents investing more to raise their children. Elders no longer commanded the same level of control over their juniors; consequently, their control decreased in value, and obligations for children to reciprocate caregivers became more conditional, based on affection or on the child’s future success. Care for care reciprocity became the norm and children were seen as investments for the future of the caregiver(s). Coe concludes her history of Akuapem kinship by reminding the reader that other literature on transnational families has portrayed the materiality of migrant parents’ love as an ‘imperfect replacement’ (p.59) of emotional love. Conversely, Coe’s history of family life in Ghana shows that materiality of care between parents and children is more commonplace and is understood as a ‘signal of emotional depth and closeness between giver and receiver’ (p.60). She explains that exchanges of material goods between parents and children in transnational Ghanaian families form part of their existing kinship repertoires rather than being a sign of families having to adopt a more commodified way of expressing and understanding familial love, as other studies on transnational families suggest. These reciprocal exchanges also create relationships of indebtedness, or entrustment over a lifetime, which the child may repay upon reaching adulthood.

In reading Coe’s history, I find myself wondering how Coe’s participants are making sense of multiple notions of the child, the purpose of childhood, and the family. Coe addresses these questions to a certain extent in her discussions of Akuapem practices of fosterage in the twentieth century. With fosterage, child rearing was a collective practice involving multiple caregivers catering for a child’s need to acquire different skills and experiences. The practice also forged interdependent relations between caregiver(s) and care receivers through mutual obligations and reciprocities of care.

Roger Magazine and Martha Areli Ramírez Sánchez’s (2007) study on kinship among the Tlalcualpeños in Mexico describes very similar reciprocal parent-child relations. However, their work explores the changes in perceptions of the value of children among the Tlalcualpeños in more detail. They explain that Tlalcualpeño children reciprocate parents’ investment in them through ‘ayuda (“help”)’ such as work, household chores and, when they get paid jobs, through giving their wages to their parents; in return they receive their parents’ nurture (2007: 58). Magazine and Ramírez Sánchez compare the Tlalcualpeño model of childhood to European notions of childhood and argue that, unlike the European approach to childhood where children are dependent on their parents, parent/child relations in Tlalcualpan are interdependent, both materially and personally. However, this process was altered by the transnational migration of Tlalcualpeños to California, which created an imbalance in the ayuda process of mutual reciprocation. Furthermore, western-style education introduced new notions of social production among children and altered the existing practices of ayuda. Like Coe, Magazine and Ramírez Sánchez also assert that these newer ideas of social reproduction work alongside the older, more established notions of childhood. Both parents and teachers tried to balance western notions of childhood that were introduced through schooling and migration with the ‘ayuda’ process (Magazine & Ramírez Sánchez, 2007: 66). The main difference between Magazine and Ramírez Sánchez’s work and Coe’s is that the former discuss how the changes to the Tlalcualpeño concept of childhood have led to villagers adopting some of the attitudes that Scheper-Hughes & Sargent (1998) attribute to Western children: that is, they are seen as economically worthless but psychologically priceless to their parents (Scheper-Hughes & Sargent, 1998: 12). Magazine and Ramírez Sánchez argue that Tlalcualpeños ‘can now be heard referring to children as delicate and to education and inculcation of values, rather than participation in exchanges, as the key to a better future’ (2007: 70).

While Coe observes similar changes in social reproduction among the people of Akuapem and Ghana, these changes appear to be based on class. For instance, Coe briefly mentions, in Chapter 2, how the influence of Christianity and Western ideas of the nuclear family among middle-class Ghanaians led to their preference for “looking after one’s own children” and to fosterage being increasingly stigmatised. One question which comes to mind from reading Coe’s discussion on middle-class Ghanaian parents centres around how these changes in preferred parenting styles have influenced the parents’ views on children and childhood. In the following section, I attempt to address this question by drawing on my own research.

Changing views of the value of children and preferences for nuclear families among middle-class British Ghanaians

During my work with middle-class British-Ghanaian parents from the UK, I observed that their preferences for nuclear families and concerns with ‘intergenerational transmission of cultural capital’ (Coe, 2014: 82) shaped, and were shaped by their changing perceptions of the child and ideal childhoods. I found that their aspirations for wanting to live in nuclear families and lessen the types of adversities their children had to endure was based on the parents’ own difficult childhood experiences of fosterage in Ghana. Like the Tlalcualpeños from Magazine and Ramírez Sánchez’s study, these middle-class Ghanaian immigrant parents often referred to and treated their children as delicate beings and greater emphasis was placed on education and extra-curricular activities than on household chores. The parents cited happiness and success among their aspirations for their children’s futures rather than reciprocity for care and they seemed to be more concerned with achieving upward social mobility as a family project rather than reciprocal parent-child relations. When these parents wanted their children to learn more about their Ghanaian heritage, the whole family moved to Ghana as they did not want to separate the nuclear family. Likewise, these parents were extremely careful in choosing schools and typically opted for the top international schools for their children to have a smooth transition between the British and Ghanaian educational systems. They also did not want their children to experience what the parents saw as negative aspects of their own childhoods in Ghana, such as corporal punishment, and poor facilities and sanitation. The parents even discussed the decision to move to Ghana with their children. One of the fathers explained to me that he and his wife tried to involve their children in the decision-making process regarding moving to Ghana because of his experiences of a lack of agency as a child, when his own father did not tell them anything but claimed ‘he was thinking of [them]’.

I found that these kinds of personal histories are also useful for understanding how the parents adapted their repertoires of family life. Coe’s book provides a detailed and well-argued account of how people in Ghana, and Akuapem, have a long history of ‘adapt[ing] their repertoires to respond to local opportunities and constraints generated by a long and changing engagement with global trade’ (p.42). However, exploring detailed individual life histories of the immigrant parents and how that influences their decision and actions was beyond the scope of Coe’s book. Such accounts could, though, have been beneficial to better understand people’s individual experiences of drawing on existing and altered repertoires of family life. As Nigel Rapport argues, ‘[e]mbedded in different interpretive schemata and world-views, amid personal life-histories and life-projects, individuals engage in social interactions – social movements, exchanges, institutions, revolutions – on different terms, along individual trajectories’ (2002: 180). Coe interviewed Ghanaian immigrant parents, and foster parents in Ghana, regarding their own childhood experiences, but these were not discussed in depth in the book. More insights into Coe’s participants’ individual trajectories would have been useful to illustrate the wide range of ‘interpretive schemata’ through which people ‘rationalise’ social action.

Hardships as part of the repertoires of family life?

Coe focuses on transnational parenting among Ghanaian immigrants in the US in Chapters 4 to 7. She discusses how Ghanaian immigrants manage the demands of work and lack of affordable childcare in the US by sending their children back or fostering their children out to relatives in Ghana. She makes it explicitly clear that this is not ‘a sign of a rigid cultural tradition, but rather of a flexible repertoire adjusting to new challenges and constraints experienced in the United States’ (p.125). She also explores how Ghanaian immigrant parents are adapting their repertoires by using schooling in Ghana to address anxieties over their children becoming too ‘wayward’ in the US (also Bledsoe and Sow, 2011). Many of the examples she gives in these chapters resonate with my findings from research among working class Ghanaian immigrant parents in the UK: for example, parental anxieties over children misbehaving, not performing well in school, or ‘worse’, teen pregnancy or falling into a life of crime.  A major theme from Coe’s work, which is very similar to my research, is how the parents have idealised Ghana as a place with strict discipline and hardship which they remember from their childhood and how the experience of hardships in Ghana is character-building. Consequently, the parents I met during my fieldwork tended to offer their children an altered version of hardship. Hardships within this context are something that teach children to appreciate the opportunities they have in the UK, without necessarily having to experience the same hardships their parents experienced growing up in Ghana. As one Ghanaian immigrant mother in Milton Keynes, England, explained to me:

When you take the children to Ghana you have to take them to the village so they can see how privileged they are, this helps them, I want them to know that what they have is by the grace of God because in Ghana it’s not easy to get what you want so all that you know is about books, it’s go to school, come home, revise.

I found Coe’s work useful for understanding why the Ghanaian immigrant parents from my study adhere to what they perceive to be a certain “Ghanaian” way of parenting in the UK. As Coe explains in Chapter 5 of the book, ‘[a]s Ghanaian immigrants examined their parenting repertoires, they tended to organize parenting differences into rigid and oppositional categories defined by national borders’ (p.129). She argues that the parents’ perceptions of, and concerns over, the ‘Americanization’ of their children adds to, rather than replaces, their existing repertoires and contributes to their ‘representing some aspects of their repertoire self-consciously as “Ghanaian”, in opposition to “American”’ (p.153). Coe’s discussions in these three chapters illustrate how various aspects of kinship repertoires play out within transnational families. She gives a relevant and comparatively applicable framework for understanding the parents’ responses, and offers thought about how to avoid essentialising cultures  by not taking these responses too literally.

Focusing on children’s voices

Coe’s discussions on the children’s responses to living apart from their parents (see Chapter 7) focus on children “left” behind in Ghana.  Some of the children assessed the level of material care they received from their migrant parents and the quality of the care they received from their foster parents as signs of affections and closeness. Others used the ‘idiom of emotional intimacy’ (p.185) to express their feelings regarding being separated from their parents. They described loss of parental love and assumed that they would have more “motherly” and “fatherly” love (191) if they were living with their parents. Coe suggests that the children’s responses were linked to the feeling that they lacked agency and control over their situations and how they felt about their condition. I found this part of the book particularly engaging and wondered if these responses signalled a shift in the children’s evaluations as to what constitutes good parenting? How are the children themselves reworking the “value” of parents with the context of changes of family life, such as transnational migration and increased contact with middle-class lifestyles through education? Coe attempts to deal with some of the complexities of children’s feelings about their situation, which she acknowledges ‘can be mixed-up, ambivalent, and change over time’ (p.192). Her discussions in Chapter 7 resonate with my observations among Ghanaian children from working-class families in Europe and North America sent to boarding schools in Ghana. Such “shipped children” face a similar issue of muddled and at times contradictory feelings. However, unlike the children in Coe’s study who may draw on local understandings of material care to evaluate their situation of being separated from their parents, my “shipped” participants have pre-existing negative perceptions of their situation. Firstly, in the European and American contexts from which they originate, being separated from one’s parents is a sign of family problems; secondly, being sent to Ghana is perceived as a punishment. These children are all used to their parents’ constant threats of being ‘shipped back’ for misbehaving: thus, they view being sent to Ghana as a disciplinary act.

When I interviewed Ghanaian parents regarding sending their children to Ghana, they framed the practice in terms of (re)connecting the family across national borders – the family being a continuous flow of relationships experienced transnationally. The children, however, referred to this process of being sent to Ghana as being ‘shipped’. They framed their own experiences, or that of their friends who have been ‘shipped’, in terms of lack of agency and a fear of being ridiculed, emphasising the notions of distance and disconnected intergenerational understanding of the family. Feelings of anger, boredom, frustration, unhappiness, homesickness were commonplace and appeared to be quite erratic during my time with the children. These feelings also influenced the children’s perceptions of Ghana as a place, making it somewhere they would not like to stay permanently. Having said this, some children appreciated the studious environment of their schools, as Coe also observed among the American-Ghanaian children she met in Ghana.  These children felt that their teachers in Ghana cared about their well-being and were committed to helping them achieve better grades, and would even consider educating their own children in Ghana in the future, though only for a few years. The question remains, however, as to how to interpret the children’s varied feelings and responses to being in Ghana.  Like Coe, I am aware of how these feelings can change over time and Coe acknowledges that trying to explain the varied responses of the children from her study is difficult. She attempts to use the kind of disruption the children experience with their parents’ migration to gauge the children’s responses, though as she admits:

[c]ontinuity in a child’s living situation explained some of the responses that children had to a parent’s migration, but not entirely, as they also imagined different possibilities than those they had experienced, drawing on the discourses of family life that were available to them from their churches, peers, and relatives (193).


Coe’s book neatly ties together classic anthropological works on West African kinships and the contemporary family lives of transnational Ghanaians using repertoires as an analytic framework. In doing so, she challenges the general discourse posed by other scholars studying transnational families and argues that transnational migration does not necessarily and only run counter to long established family and gender norms.  Rather, she argues that transnational migrants draw on, and alter, their repertoires of family life to deal with the new situations they encounter. In addition to illustrating alterations and continuities in kinship repertoires, Coe’s historical analysis also raises interesting questions regarding changing perspectives on the “value” of children in family life. Her inclusion of the children’s responses to their transnational family life also reveals that the children may be in a similar process of reworking the “value” of parents and their notions of a good childhood. Here, I have attempted to explore some of the pertinent themes emerging from Coe’s work in relation to other similar studies. Other, further reflections might explore how the concept of repertoires could be used as a framework for looking closely at individual choices, experiences and rationalisation of family life within transnational settings.


Bledsoe, C. and Sow, P. (2011) ‘Back to Africa: Second Chances for the Children of West African Immigrants’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 73(4), pp. 747–762.

Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. New York: Cambridge university press.

Coe, C. (2014) The Scattered Family: Parenting, African Migrants, and Global Inequality. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.

Dreby, J. (2006) ‘Honor and Virtue: Mexican Parenting in the Transnational Context’, Gender & Society, 20(1), pp. 32–59.

Magazine, R. and Ramírez Sánchez, M. A. (2007) ‘Continuity and Change in San Pedro Tlalcuapan, Mexico: Childhood, Social Reproduction, and Transnational Migration’, in Cole, J. and Durham, D. (eds) Generations and Globalization: Family, Youth and Age in the New World Economy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 52–73.

Parreñas, R. S. (2005) Children of Global Migration: Transnational Families and Gendered Woes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Rapport, N. (2002) ‘`The truth is alive’: Kierkegaard’s anthropology of dualism, subjectivity and somatic knowledge’, Anthropological Theory, 2(2), pp. 165–183.

Scheper-Hughes, N. and Sargent, C. F. (1998) Small wars: The cultural politics of childhood. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sewell Jr, W. H. (2005) Logics of History: Social theory and social transformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Swidler, A. (2001) Talk of love: How Culture Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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