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Posted by: on Sep 26, 2011 | No Comments

Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian SlumBy William Foote Whyte

My family has been considered white since before I was born – probably since about 1960. But it was not always so. When my parents decided to get married in the mid-1950s, my father’s family called my mother “the white woman” (she is of Northern European extract). Her family similarly didn’t consider an Italian-American to be white.

I thought about this bit of family history when I read the classic ethnography Street Corner Society, set in the Italian slum of “Cornerville” (in reality a neighborhood in Boston) in 1937-1938. These Italian-Americans were decidedly not considered “white” by others or by themselves. Furthermore, they formed more fine-grained strata within the community. As Whyte describes it, this slum was populated by an older generation of Italian immigrants (“greasers”) and their American-born children, who are “strongly attached to their parents, and yet they look down on them” (p.xviii). These immigrant families came from various regions in Italy, with the lowest-rank region being Sicily. (The name Spinuzzi is Sicilian.)

At the height of the Depression, these young Italian-Americans had trouble finding work, so they spent much time hanging around on corners – in gangs at younger ages, but as they grew older, in informal groups or more formal societies.

Whyte took advantage of a fellowship by living in Cornerville and spending most of his waking time with these men, who were in their late 20s. The result is a classic sociological ethnography that, despite its flaws, holds great insights.

First, the insights. Whyte, a careful student of human interactions, begins to detect patterns of status and mutual obligations in the groups, clubs, and societies he frequents. For instance, Doc, his main informant was the leader of The Nortons. As leader, he had to meet heavier obligations than lower-rank, less capable members. In fact, Doc, though he had no job, often spent his free money on helping lower-status members.

But leadership does have its privileges. To his surprise, Whyte realizes that the men’s bowling scores closely track the men’s current rank in the group – to the extent that a low-ranking member who is an excellent bowler in other contexts would bowl poorly against higher-ranking members, apparently despite himself. Furthermore, someone who loses status bowls progressively worse against lower-ranking members.

Whyte studies a drama club, a social club, a local political club, and (from a distance) racketeering, and sees these sorts of rank relations throughout. But in each context he gains fresh insights. For instance, in racketeering, he realizes that in Cornerville, “the primary function of the police department is not the enforcement of the law but the regulation of illegal activities” (p.138).

In politics, Whyte draws out some of the ethnic tensions in Cornerville’s relations with the rest of the city. For instance, one Cornerville man tries to persuade another to vote for his preferred candidate, who is also Italian-American: “Why not give a Wop a chance?” (p.161). Elsewhere, an Irish-American politician complains to Whyte that “the Italians will always vote for one of their own,” even if they claim they will vote for another candidate: “The Italian people are very undependable,” and hard to hold to account because “You can’t tell one Italian from another” (p.195). Indeed, Whyte concludes elsewhere that “the Italians are looked upon by upper-class people as among the least desirable of the immigrant peoples” (p.273).

No wonder that, as Whyte relates in his retrospective appendix, Saul Alinsky loved the book (p.358).

This version of the book, the 50th anniversary version, has three appendices. The first is a retrospective in which Whyte discusses the book’s reception and impact, its criticisms, and a bit of his methodology. He also reveals the real name of the community he studied and the names of his informants, who had all passed away by that point, and he describes discussions he had had with them about the book. These are all interesting, but raise some important questions about Whyte’s work.

Recall that Whyte studied Cornerville as a junior fellow at Harvard, before beginning his PhD work. He quickly fell in with his main informant, Doc, the 29-year-old leader of the Nortons. Doc was by his accounts upright and honest, but also very savvy about maintaining leadership. Doc also, Whyte reveals, read and commented on every line of Whyte’s manuscript.

Doc doesn’t come off as a completely strong leader in the manuscript, which frankly describes some of his failures and loss of rank. But he generally comes off better than, say, Chick, an aspiring politician who is his main rival. Revealingly, Whyte describes a talk he had with Chick years after the book’s publication. Chick is unhappy with his portrayal, and tells Whyte that Doc vocally agreed with him the last time the two had talked. Whyte is startled at first, but realizes that of course Doc would say that: he has to deal with Chick and probably doesn’t want to admit that he knew about the portrayal beforehand.

A less charitable interpretation is that Doc steered Whyte’s account to damage his rival, while maintaining deniability.

Nevertheless, Whyte’s book is really exceptional. The references are very thin – something that apparently caused controversy on Whyte’s dissertation committee – but the study is well told and well textured. Despite my less charitable interpretation, no one really comes off very badly in the story, even the racketeers. I highly recommend it.

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