On Methodology in Street Corner Society

One of the most exciting aspects of Street Corner Society is not directly about crime and its relation to Prohibition, fascinating as that has been, but about the methods Whyte used to bring out the relationship between individual and society in his research. The copy I bought was the third edition of 1981 (revised and expanded). Much of the background to the book and how it was researched is found in the Introduction (pp. xv-xx) and in the three Appendices, especially the lengthy Appendix A (On the evolution of Street Corner Society pp. 279-360). Appendix B The Whyte Impact on an Underdog (pp. 367-385) is written by one of the residents of Cornerville who was born in the area and who collaborated with Whyte: Angelo Ralph Orlandella). Appendix C is a Selected Bibliography (pp. 376-380).

I will begin with Whyte’s Introduction.The Introduction opens with the following paragraph:

 “In the heart of “Eastern City” the is a slum district known as Cornerville, which is inhabited almost exclusively by Italian immigrants and their children. To the rest of the city it is a mysterious, dangerous and depressing, area. Cornerville is only a few minute walk from fashionable High Street, but the High Street inhabitant who takes that walk passes from the familiar to the unknown.”

I was fascinated to learn that the area of Boston had much in common with Soho in London’s West End. My Jewish Uncle Béla Kovács, had a tiny workshop there where he designed and made quality men’s clothing. He cut the cloth by hand and produced excellent fits using first class material. I visited him there many time as a child and young teenager. It was just a few steps from Oxford Street, and Savile Row was a short distance away. Soho was a red light district.

There the similarity ends. But now I come to the main point of the Introduction, which is Whyte’s understanding of power and influence in Cornerville. One of the charms of the book is the way everything that happens in Cornerville is understood at the individual level. Whyte puts it like this:

“If we can get to know these people intimately and understand the relations between little guy and little guy, big shot and little guy, big shot and big shot, then we know how Cornerville society is organized. On the basis of that knowledge it becomes possible to explain people’s and the significance of the political and racket activities.” Introduction p. xx)

Here, then is the kernel of the problem. Whyte was trying to understand the micro-macro distinction in the context of an Italian slum. He was working with a small locality and spent several years on it. So he was able to explain much. Reading his book I was struck by how he never left the inter-personal level.

There are even many illustrations using the hierarchy he was trying to understand. A simple example is on p. 250, Making and Fixing a Pinch, where Whyte shows how the hierarchy of police on the one hand and the hierarchy of state government on the other were not reacting to demands for something or other to be done. When one approach proved to be not yielding results the head of the gang tried another, and by such means came to exert more effective pressure, so obtaining results.

All this is backed by concrete examples of experimentally finding the most effective way to get results, with positions of gang leader, police officers, racketeers, and politicians. In fact the book comprises many cases of how gang leaders learn to use their potential influence to best effect in different situations. Bringing the action down to such a detailed level is one of the achievements of William Foote Whyte’s famous study.

The method that Whyte uses is essentially a prototype form of symbolic interactionist analysis that is applied to a small area local study. The case study explanations add much to the book’s value. And by the publication of the third edition in 1981 symbolic interaction was an established and rapidly growing perspective. This must surely have played a part in widening interest in the book.

Toward the end of Appendix A, from p. 354-360 Whyte begins to bring in the Chicago School of Sociology where he was preparing for his doctorate on the basis of the first draft of the book. Louis WirthW. Lloyd Warner and Everett C. Hughes especially, gave much advice and encouragement.

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