William Foote Whyte, Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum (University Of Chicago Press, 1943/1993)


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A Colorful Picture of Urban Life and Politics, by Kevin R. Kosar, November 17, 2007

Pair this book with Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” and you’ll get a great feel for what life in the poor part of a big eastern city was like between 1900 and 1940. While “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a fictional account of life from a young female’s perspective, “Street Corner Society” is a nonfictional examination of the world of adolescent and post adolescent males.

The book shows the various means through which low-income men fritter away their days in idle amusements and through activities to raise or defend their places in the hierarchies of the various groups to which they belong. This book must have been a shock to economists and social reformers—in it, on sees individuals provided with opportunities to improve their socioeconomic well-being, yet, they don’t chose the ostensibly “rational” course of action. For example, rather than save their money, the men gamble it away, because spending money is a way of showing off to other men.

Though a bit dated —this book was published in 1943— this book remains a very interesting read. Anyone interested in the lives of the poor and ideas for improving their lot should read this book. (As an addendum, I would suggest readers interested in poverty also should take up: Clifford Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” which features similar financially risky and status-seeking behavior; and Edward C. Banfield’s Government Project: An Account of Big Government in Action. It deals with poor individuals in rural areas during the 1940s. Here again we see poor men fighting for status amongst themselves, to the detriment of their well-being.)

One Reply to “William Foote Whyte, Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum (University Of Chicago Press, 1943/1993)”

  1. […] known for its shoe-leather sociological research. Its Prof. William Foote Whyte, for example, wrote Street Corner Society in 1943 after four years studying a slum in Boston’s North […]

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