FROM Forum, the journal of the National Institute for...


September 01, 1994

FROM Forum, the journal of the National Institute for Dispute Resolution, by Beth Roy:

"Family feuds are a vivid part of American folklore. How easy to assume we know what they are about -- hostilities among 'ignorant' hill people, handed down from generation to generation. Indeed, family feuding could be a prototype for truisms about escalation and intractability. . .

"In their study of Appalachian feuds, Kathleen Blee and Dwight Billings set out to challenge the notion that feuds are irrational responses to petty disputes. The researchers explored the community conditions under which violent disputes develop. They particularly focused on the effects of social, political and economic changes on feuding and dispute resolution among family groups. Blee and Billings studied a particular feud in the context of the times and society in which it occurred. The Whites and the Garrards were two families who began warring in Clay County, Kentucky, in 1844. The feud began during the trial of a local man for the murder of his brother-in-law. Apparently a crime of passion (the killer accused his victim of having a sexual liaison with his wife), the murder was followed by years of feuding. Widening their lens from acts of violence to larger issues, the researchers uncovered the method to the madness.

"First, both families enjoyed considerable wealth. Blee and Billings explain the two economic worlds of the county: subsistence farming and slave-based salt manufacturing. After Emancipation the salt industry declined and new opportunities appeared for producing wealth. In this context, the former slave owners battled for political and economic control with new economic actors. Particular battles (murder and attacks) between the two families appeared irrational. However, the fights, attacks and murders were forays in the larger war with significant spoils for the winners.

"The researchers challenge the notion that feuding was a response to hardship. They showed that poor, hill-dwelling, economically independent farmers were less often involved in feuding than were the 'smaller group of elite . . , who were more commercially involved.' Blee and Billings wondered when disputants resorted to violence rather than the courts. They assumed that these two approaches to conflict were alternative to each other. In fact, what they found was that those who feuded also sued. The families apparently pursued conflict by whatever means possible."

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Wheelbarrow races used to be a common summer-time summer diversion around West Baltimore's Hollins Market. Such a contest will be revived Sunday, when the neighborhood sponsors its "first annual Labor Day street nick." The free festival is at Hollins and Arlington streets, with eats, drinks and fun.

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