William Foote White
Street Corner Society

William Foote Whyte was from a reasonably well off academic family. Grounded in Economics not Sociology, he considered a quantitative survey of the poor Italian district in Boston in the 1930s- what families did with their limited money.
Would he go door to door? It would be difficult research and even dangerous. He looked at other approaches and arrived at participant observation. Economics became Sociology - seeking out locals he ended up spending time with a gang and being part of a gang. This was intending to give a true valid picture of this one place.
He called his neighbourhood (in Boston) Cornerville - for anonymity - and the research from 1937 was called Street Corner Society. The corner boys were those who hung about on street corners and around shops, whereas the college boys wanted an education and to get out of the slum.
How could he get started? His dad is a professor, he is middle class; the corner boys are not educated, they are an underclass. He hung around in cafes. He was nearly thrown out of one of them when he tried to join one table of people.
Eventually "Bill" met "Doc", and Doc was a privileged person (compare with Tim, in Patrick's Glasgow gang). Doc was his research maker and saver as well as leader of the Nortons (on Norton Street). When he was with Doc, William Whyte was accepted by others. Doc told him how to look, act and speak. William Whyte wanted to ask questions, as hanging about seemed inadequate. He wanted to join in others' questions, and be part of the corner gang. So after others had spoken, he asked a question about paying the police off at Chichi's gambling joint, and caused the informant about a gambling situation to deny paying off the "cops" and change the subject. So Doc advised William Whyte not to ask awkward questions - don't ask who, what , why, when, where questions implying judgments - but wait for the information to emerge. Doc even told him to stop his swearing - Whyte was, after all, considered an outsider by Doc for whom higher standards were expected. Incidentally, Whyte was a thorough researcher and even learnt fluent Italian.
Doc was so involved in the research that Doc as observed began to change his behaviour. Whereas he used to just do what he did, with "Bill" around he had to think what was wanted of him and how to explain to William Whyte what was happening. Whyte wrote about fully this in the Appendix.
Unlike James Patrick in GlasgowClick for material about covert participant observation in Glasgow, Whyte was not covert to the group. He started almost as an observer, having told them he was writing a book. He could discuss sex and baseball, but knew little about horse racing. Yet as he researched he became more and more a non-observing participant (again fully discussed in the Appendix), and moved into Cornerville. He realised he was losing his research purpose being there - going native, and thinking as they thought (the subculture of hanging around on street corners) - so moved away. Going native is really useful for a participant observer, or ethnographer, so long as the research is done.
Notice that Whyte discusses his methods as part of the research. This came about because he was an untrained researcher - he was trained by Doc! - but it is also good practice.
One interesting finding was the leading members of the gang achieved higher scores from bowling!
Whyte's work went on, and he was unsure when it was finished. This is often a problem in participant observation: is there a point where the narrative (story of the people studied) uncovered finishes?
The book itself also describes the setting - the neighbourhood and the essential background of the racketeering and relying on state provided jobs in the depression. So as well as the interpretivism of the gang (Doc and His Boys, Chick and His Club, Racketeers and Local Politicans, The Racketeer in the Cornerville S. and A. Club) there is also analysis of local social structure (Social Structure and Social mobility, Politics and the Social Structure) and much on methodology itself (Appendixes). The book is called Whyte, W. F. (1993, 1943 originally), Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an italian Slum, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ethical and Methdological issues

In any particpant observation, what practical steps can be taken to secure anonymity? Is this enough? (Look at the next question before answering.)
Gang members could read the research afterwards. It shows what people did, what they said about each other. They can work out who is who. What might this do to the gang?
The police might also recognise the area and work out who is active. Who is put at risk through this?
Should researchers ever pass privileged knowledge on illegal activity directly to the police (prior to writing up the research, and later publishing)?
Whyte joined in the gang's illegal activities (whereas James Patrick in GlasgowClick for material about covert participant observation in Glasgow held back and indeed got out). Was this necessary? Answer in terms of overt and covert research: didn't Whyte have the excuse not to get involved and Patrick have no excuse not to get involved?
Whyte became, in effect, the interpreter and spokesperson for this gang to the outside world. He did so first relying on Doc, the Nortons leader. This is an ethical problem (he decides what is important and how to state it) and a methodology problem. Using what happened with Doc, what are the dangers of relying on a key informant?
Whyte changed as a result of doing the research and Doc changed too. How did they each change and what criticism can be made of the methodology?

Adrian Worsfold