Stack was interested in observing and describing how participants constitute and expand their network of exchange and how they themselves interpret this process. Stack, who was pregnant at the time, became part of the network of contacts, becoming known as “white Caroline,” and participated in child-keeping exchanges with her contacts after her child was born. Stack’s initial contacts were Viola and Leo Jackson and their kin, followed by Magnolia and Calvin Waters and their network. When Stack acquired a car, she was kept busy transporting members of the network to one another’s homes, as well as on a variety of other errands, as such constant movement on a daily basis is essential to the exchange system. When the car broke down, she decided not to fix it, as its constant use prevented her from spending long hours in individuals’ homes.
Stack observed that cooperative networks composed of kin who do not necessarily reside in a single household stood out as the normative pattern in the community. The basis of the network was exchange of goods and services among both male and female kin. Networks were composed of people who prove themselves trustworthy and thereby share reciprocal obligations toward one another. Stack’s subjects reported that the poorer one is, the more likely it is that one will repay the exchange, since degree of poverty is defined by reliance on the network and more affluent members with steady employment are likely to withdraw.
Persons actively sought to expand their networks; for example, mothers sought to involve their children’s father’s kin. Kin did not necessarily have to be related by blood or marriage to be included in a network; persons developed “fictive kin” relationships wherein they “went for” “sisters” or “cousins” with friends who had proven their kinlike reliability.
Parenthood and rights in children were also defined by the community networks differently than through conventional legal definitions of rights. Parental responsibilities and rights in children could be informally transferred, both temporarily and permanently, within the kin network and were subject to informal community controls such as gossip and community opinion.
Most significant for Stack’s analysis, she discovered that individuals had loyalties to more than one household. Using her subjects’ interpretations, Stack concluded that the household was not a particularly meaningful category for understanding family dynamics. Stack observed that it was the kin network that functioned as the meaningful unit. She defined the kin network as an ego-centered network of reciprocally responsible kin (and others defined as kin) who interact on a daily basis and who provide for the needs of children. The family network extends over several households and is not unduly affected by changes in household composition.
For Stack, the exchange network is a functional adaptation to life in poverty conditions. She describes how norms of obligation to repay make each gift in an exchange into a form of bank account or credit on which the giver can draw in the future. Exchange networks are not without tensions; Stack’s respondents reported strains and a sense of personal sacrifice of self to kin obligations, especially between mothers and daughters. Middle-class norms of privacy in financial matters did not obtain, as everyone in the kin network knew when a welfare check arrived or who had a job. Any change in resources available to the network constituted news, and these resources are known precisely by members.
Exchange, or “swapping” as it is called in the community, allows the network a chance to recirculate scarce goods, clothing, large and small household items (such as televisions and sofas) services, and cash to pay bills. Such recirculation is important in a community with no possibility to accumulate surplus cash to buy goods and services....
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