Possibility in constraints: culture in structure-- III

The "Black Family" (African-Americans and others in poverty)

This is the twelfth in a series of notes to fifteen lectures for my class TF5005: Interdisciplinary Study of the Family.
  1. Our discussion of slavery and its impact on the families that slaves may have been able to build, even if only temporarily, took us to the first relative consensus in understanding the effects of family life in the most difficult of stratified social systems:
    1. Slavery is but one extreme form of unequal access to the resources that allow for a "normal" (i.e. Freudian/Parsonian/American) nuclear family.
      1. Migration into the economic bottoms of large urban centers is equivalent in its "disruptive" effect as slavery was.
      2. This is a general process observable whatever the cultural background of the people in slavery or migration 
        1. research on Polish immigrants, Puerto-Ricans as well as African-Americans all point in the same direction.
    2. The normal family is constituted by two married (that is acknowledged by all institutions as having entered into a special relationship with each other) heterosexual (this went without saying since the two must produce their own children biologically) adults who have divided psychosocial labors among each other (instrumental roles for the male, expressive roles for the female), produce biologicaly and socialize children that are acknowledged by all as theirs.
    3. Under many conditions this family form cannot be constituted with two sets of results
      1. short term: children will not get properly socialized and will engage (that is it is statistically more probable that they, rather than peers in proper families, will engage) in a whole set of antisocial behaviors.
      2. long term: as they have children themselves, this next generation will itself reproduce the psychosocial problems of its parents.  
        1. Thus, in this second generation, the problem becomes less 
          1. one of unequal access to resources potentially amenable to remediation through institutional change (e.g. the abolition of slavery, or the success of trade unions in ensuring relative prosperity for the working classes, or the opening of class mobility through education, etc.)
              than a
          2. problem of values and attitudes potentially amenable and requiring psychological remediation. 
  2. This consensus had two classical forms: the "culture of poverty" model (Lewis for Puerto-Ricans in New York City) and the "disintegration" model (Moynihan for Blacks)
  3. This consensus was attacked in several ways
    1. politically by people pointing that the reproduction model of psychosocial disruption ended up "blaming the victim" (and possibly absolving the privileged, as well as stopping research into the process that produce priviledge)
      1. The difficulty with invectives attacking the motivation of researchers like Parsons or Moynihan (ethnocentric, racist, male, bourgeois,...) is that invectives do not allow for the kind of (rational? culturally hegemonic?) kind of discourse that can change opinions and, above all, policy.
    2. empirically by many studies demonstrating what was called overall as "the strengths of the Black family"
      1. one of the most famous in Carol Stack's All our kin.  The papers we are reading to day belong to the same genre.
    3. theoretically by many social scientists attempting to move beyond a psychosocial theory of social processes, including the family, the local community of families, the polity (families within a particular institutional framework) and global society.
      1. The basic theoretical underpinning of this course is one example of this search.
  4. The two papers and the evidence for the importance of complex extended kin networks for American Blacks:
    1. Black rural life in the south
      1. "Family" (pp. 66-76): concept, rights and obligations, marriage, fosterage, extension and corporation, "strong and weak"
        1. Question: what would a sociology of the family based on these principles look like and what "problems" might it identify looking at independent nuclear family as prevalent form?
      2. Household/family (pp. 108-112)
    2. Black life in an urban ghetto with some implications for the interface between this life and various institutional contexts, particularly the school
      1. reciprocity, mutual concern and help organized by a core, multiplicity of arrangements--particularly concerning child-rearing and household organization (p.220)
        1. Question: accepting this as "normal," what would a psychosocial theory of socialization look like?
  5. The difficulties in the empirical argument: ethnographic (case study) vs. statistical evidence, ecological vs. epidemiological modeling, long term process vs. short term product.
  6. The recent reconstitution of the culture of poverty model (Ogbu, Comer) and the continuing critique.


November 23, 1999