Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

All Our Kin is cited by scholars and textbooks as a structural study that addresses the issue of the derivation of culture and avoids the pitfall of blaming the victim associated with the culture-of-poverty approach. Stack’s study looks at the phenomenon of single parenting not only from a woman’s perspective but also with a view of how a community may define parental responsibility differently than the dominant society. She does not employ a middle-class, nuclear family structure as the normative lens through which to view family patterns. The shared parental responsibility that she describes has implications for scholarship and policy concerning the issues of parenting and the social definitions of motherhood.

While clearly addressing the structural conditions and lower-class status of her subjects that gave impetus to the adaptive strategy of the kinship network, Stack continually refers to “black” kinship patterns and contrasts them with white, middle-class patterns. Stack does not note that kin networks have been found to be an adaptive feature of most lower-class and even working-class communities; she does not cite studies such as those by sociologist Herbert Gans of Italian Americans or the many studies of lower-class, European-immigrant communities in the United States. Stack can be criticized for reiterating the race of her subjects, rather than using a class idiom, as if it were race rather than class that was the relevant factor in the genesis of the cultural formations which she describes.

Bibliography (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Blackwell, James E. The Black Community: Diversity and Unity. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Blackwell provides an overview of issues affecting African Americans, with chapters on family relations and class stratification.

Gordon, Linda, ed. Women, the State, and Welfare. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. This collection of cross-cultural and historical articles provides analyses of welfare dynamics in a variety of settings. All Our Kin is used to illustrate how recipients define their needs differently than the institutionalized delivery system.

Hutter, Mark. The Changing Family: Comparative Perspectives. New York: Macmillan, 1988. This text describes and critically analyzes a wide variety of family studies, including All Our Kin and those by Herbert Gans and others who describe the significance of kin relationships in lower-class and working-class communities. Also discusses the culture-of-poverty and structural approaches.

Malson, Micheline R., et al., eds. Black Women in America: Social Science Perspectives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. This collection of articles that originally appeared in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society looks at the socioeconomic and familial lives of African American women. Several of the articles—“Black Matrilineage,” “Family, Race, and Poverty in the Eighties,” and “The Dialectics of Black Womanhood”—cite All Our Kin and discuss its continuing relevance to later research.

Stack, Carol. “The Culture of Gender: Women and Men of Color.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11, no. 2 (Winter, 1986): 321-324. In this article, Stack makes the claim that African Americans of both genders share a system of making moral judgments that differs from the dominant culture and is similar to what Carol Gilligan described as a woman’s perspective in In a Different Voice (1982).

William, William Julius. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Wilson examines the dynamics of class and race in the inner city, using a structural analysis that critically evaluates the effects of unemployment and welfare policy.