All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community is an anthropological study of the poorest section of an African American community in a small Midwestern city. Author Carol Stack uses the fictitious names of Jackson Harbor for the city and the Flats for the lower-class community that she studied for three years beginning in 1968. Having studied black migration from the rural South to Northern cities, Stack chose to study the family dynamics of second-generation, poverty-class urban dwellers who depended on welfare benefits from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).
Stack’s purpose is to describe the kinship networks through which family members exchange the essential goods, services, and cash that allow them to survive in a community characterized by chronic unemployment and irregular employment. Citing social analysts such as Charles Valentine and sociologists Frances Fox Pivin and Richard A. Cloward, Stack situates her study in the tradition of structural analyses that see structures of the American economy—the need for cheap labor and a pool of unemployed, available workers; institutionalized economic racism; and a welfare system to administer the poor population—as setting the socioeconomic conditions in which the subjects of her study live.
The structural paradigm that Stack employs rejects the culture-of-poverty perspective associated with anthropologist Oscar Lewis, which sees a self-perpetuating poverty cycle deriving from a pathological lower-class culture. Stack’s study finds instead a culture based on adaptive strategies that her subjects devise to cope with the structural conditions of unemployment, welfare residence rules and rules against accumulation, and less-than-adequate income that circumscribe their lives.
Stack used what has come to be known as a snowball sample of her participant-observation study. She made a calculated decision in beginning her work: Instead of working through recognized community leaders such as politicians and clergy, she entered the community through introductions to two ordinary families. Befriending these contacts and actually becoming part of their exchange network, she was able to follow the daily patterns of exchange and to trace the patterns of their networks, thereby coming in contact with other exchange networks in the community. The exchange network, the vehicle of introduction to the community, was the feature of the community that Stack found to be the center of its vitality and the key to its survival.