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(Re)viewing the Classics: Carol Stack’s All Our Kin

Randall F. Clemens

I originally published this post on February 01, 2011, at www.21stcenturyscholar.org. At the time, I was just beginning to study neighborhood ethnography--the methodology that I would later adopt for my dissertation.

Carol Stack, with her three-year-old son in tow, spent several years collecting data in The Flats, a poor, black neighborhood in an unidentified Midwestern city. Her purpose was to examine the strategies poor people adopt in order to survive. The researcher, now a faculty member at University of California, Berkeley, did not seek access through a church or school; wanting a more representative sample of families, she gained access to two families through a mutual acquaintance. From there, she networked.

All Our Kin challenges the stereotype of black families as dysfunctional and self-destructive. Stack presents a complex network of real and fictive kin working together with few resources to survive. Among these networks exist complex rules about topics such as gifting and child-rearing. Some may see these families as similar to the families presented in texts like the Moynihan Report or The Truly Disadvantaged, but Stack provides the reader with a more personal, nuanced portrait. A single-parent household does not automatically equal social disorganization.

The book is as relevant now as it was when published in 1970. The writing is clear and concise. Stack’s use of theory is unobtrusive but useful. More importantly, buzzing in the background of the text is a persistent feeling of uncertainty and precariousness. The individuals in All Our Kin want to succeed, but they can’t. Their material conditions are lacking and government policies and programs do not support upward mobility. Critiquing the welfare state, she says:

It is clear that mere reform of existing programs can never be expected to eliminate an impoverished class in America. The effect of such programs is that they maintain the existence of such a class. Welfare programs merely act as flexible mechanisms to alleviate the more obvious symptoms of poverty while inching forward just enough to purchase acquiescence and silence on the part of the members of this class and their liberal supporters. As we have seen, these programs are not merely passive victims of underfunding and conservative obstructionism. In fact they are active purveyors of the status quo, staunch defenders of the economic imperative that demands maintenance of a sizable but docile impoverished class. (p. 127-8)

As I said before, the book is as relevant now (if not more) than ever.