Street Corner Society

This book cannot be described as a symbolic interactionist study as the perspective did not exist in 1943 when the first edition was published. But it has become something of a classic in terms of the way criminality reacts to legislation, in this case Prohibition, and how after the law was abolished the criminality remained and found new outlets.

William Foote Whyte, Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum, University of Chicago Press (1943, 2nd edition 1955). Street Corner Society concerns the largely Italian immigrants to Boston North End, and how they became involved with a youth gang. Much of the initial research for this study was carried out in the late 1930s (Whyte, 1955 p.286) but it also deals with the way Prohibition (1920-1933) had formed those in Street Corner Society (Cornerville), giving rise to new forms of crime and criminality. As Whyte puts it:

“Illegal activities during the prohibition era centred around the liquor traffic. With repeal the racketeer built his career upon the control of gambling activities. Cornerville men have played prominent roles in this field, although their Irish and Jewish colleagues share in the direction of the Eastern City rackets.” (Whyte, 1955 p.xix, see the history of the national crime syndicate and the Speakeasy.).

After the repeal of prohibition in 1933 other rackets appeared to replace the liquor racket, most notably gambling (p. xix). See Ch. 4 The Social Structure of Racketeering. There was also a Police Racket and a Horse-racing Racket, among others. It seems that it was the abolition of prohibition that removed the original Racket, leaving space for new rackets. The Italians (especially the Camorra) seemed to be the main ethnic group to benefit from the criminalisation of alcohol in 1920.

However, the original racket (liquor) also created an internal differentiation among the kids of Cornerville, between the little guys and the big shots. A hierarchy of criminality was brought into being by the struggle to control the illegal alcohol trade.  Crime became increasingly centralised first into competing groups and then into a struggle for monopoly, or what today would be called criminogenic markets. Control of the illegal sills, control of deliveries of alcohol (vertically) and then first competition between the stronger gangs (horizontally) that became increasingly violent, ending with ambushes and shoot-outs using machine-guns.

Centralisation of control of  the alcohol supply became established before the end of Prohibition. In little more than 10 years In Eastern City (Boston) The Social Structure of Racketeering (ch. 4) Whyte describes how the centralising control of liquor had been fully achieved:

“As time went on, some of thee more skilful, energetic, and daring of the dealers gained in financial status and power, so they were able to push a number of the smaller independents out of business and extend their control over others. This combination of movement continued steadily, and, in Eastern City, reached a height shortly before repeal under the leadership of a man who became known as “the Boss”. Whyte (1955 p. 111).

After the abolition of Prohibition in 1933 the big shots tried to hold their illegal empires together by developing the same tactics in fields where there had been no clearly defined racket, starting with the gambling, turning it into the numbers racket. By this means they transformed the numbers gamble into a racket, by cuts being taken from winning numbers for the Boss and for other levels below that, 50%, 25% and so on. This can be done because the volume of traffic is high, with numerous small bets.

The rackets are wide-reaching and pervade every aspect of society. In a section on what Whyte calls the policy racket much of it concerns the police. You can read about it on pp. 115-139 in the third edition (1955).

Further reading for those interested (apart from the book itself referenced above at the beginning of the post).

New Directions in Crime and Deviancy (Routledge 202) Simon Winlow and Roland Atkinson (eds)

Finally, Uppsala University Political Science Department is currently discussing qualitative research in its discipline on an internal list:

On that list this book was suggested on the 3 December 2014 as a good example of the ethnographic implications of male gang culture by Li Bennich-Björkman, and on that basis I ordered a copy for myself.

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