Annotation: Stack, Carol B. 1974. All Our Kin

Stack, Carol B. 1974. All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community. New York: Harper & Row.

Using ethnomethodology (i.e. researching without middlemen), Stack studies for three years the cultural and structural adaptations of black families in the poorest quarters of an urban ghetto, which the author fictitiously calls The Flats. Rather than the perceived culture of poverty characterized by “family disorganization, group disintegration, personal disorganization, resignation, and fatalism” (23), Stack argues that the cooperative networks of the poor families in The Flats are in fact very stable, because it is this stability that enables their survival (24). The residents of The Flats surround themselves with what Stack calls “essential kin,” which refers to both kinsmen and non-kin who become immersed into each other’s networks and share reciprocal obligations (43). A “personal kindred” refers to the socially recognized reciprocal responsibilities existing in the community (54-55). Families in The Flats operate within two different systems: 1) folk system, through which they determine their personal kindred network, and; 2) legal system of courts and welfare, which they use to maximize the resources and services available to them. These two systems are often in conflict with each other. For instance, in the Flats, child-keeping responsibilities are shared by friends, or across generations, or with the personal kin. This practice contradicts the concept used by the courts, which only consider genetic relationship when awarding child custody. Stack argues that it is not because of these structural adaptations that the poor are locked in a cycle of poverty. Instead, it is the welfare laws and policies that prevent the poor from 1) forming a nuclear family (e.g. welfare payments are cut off when co-residing partners have work, even if their jobs are merely temporary and low-paying) and 2) obtaining equity (e.g. those who chance upon temporary cash surplus are immediately cut off from welfare). Thus the system serves to maintain the dire state of this impoverished class. It is from this class that eager employees are recruited, and it is because of their willingness to work for low wages that the present economic/labour system prevails.

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