Domestic Networks in a Black Ghetto

Carol Stack’s work on residence, family, and kinship patterns in an African-American ghetto, which she calls “the Flats,” provides a cogent analysis of the matrifocal concept (Stack 1970, 1974). The Flats is an exclusively Black and poor neighbourhood in a large midwestern American city. Unemployment is high, incomes are low, and many families are dependent upon welfare. This source is mainly available to women with children, and, accordingly, men’s contributions to family support are often marginal. Marriages or more informal conjugal unions are quite fragile and often end in separation. Women will often have their first child out of wedlock in their teenage years and then go through a series of liaisons with boyfriends and husbands, acquiring responsibility for children by different fathers. The erratic presence of males leads to a statistical pattern of matrifocal households, at least according to a narrow census definition. Stack actually provides no statistics on the prevalence of this form, but other surveys of Black ghettos have indicated an incidence of as much as two thirds of all households. However, the frequency hides the fact that the actual household composition is a stage of a domestic cycle where women regularly cohabit with men when they can develop relative stable relationships or sometimes combine with each other to form larger kinship units. In addition, children may be raised in households other than their mother’s. In one fifth of the cases, resident caregivers were other relatives. These included the maternal grandmother, who regularly assumed the status of a parent for the children of their teenage daughters. Other older female relatives as well as the relatives of the child’s acknowledged father would also foster children for varying periods of time.

In general the process of fosterage was episodic. Except for grandmothers who became permanent “mamas” to their immature daughters’ children, a child might be returned a natural mother, who had, in the interim, found a job or established a stable conjugal relationship. As such much more than the 20% of families in the sample had been involved in boarding their sons and daughters with other kin.

The exchange of children between households followed a broader pattern of “swapping,” in which relatives gave goods and cash to people in need on a regular basis. This was basically a system of reciprocities in which donors would eventually receive a return from their contributions when the tables were turned and they fell on hard times themselves. Contributions to childcare included not only full fostering but lesser services as well, such as regularly providing meals, babysitting, or simply entertaining or teaching an important skill. Aid of various sorts came primarily from mothers and sisters but also from male kin, especially brothers. Husbands, ex-husbands, or other men who accepted paternal responsibility would also help out, as would their kin. As such, the household by itself reflected only a fragment of the full system of support, which Stack identifies as the domestic network. This complex of kin ties, rather than the physical household, forms the effective domestic unit. Its members usually choose to reside in close proximity to each other to facilitate the communication and exchange on which the system is dependent.

The major conclusion of Stack’s analysis of the domestic network is that the matrifocal concept is inappropriate because it masks the more significant patterns of inter-household cooperation and changes through the domestic cycle.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created: October 2003