William Foote Whyte

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William Foote Whyte at home in Lansing, New York, 1996.

William Foote Whyte (June 27, 1914 – July 16, 2000) was an American sociologist, chiefly known for his ethnographic study in urban sociology, Street Corner Society. A pioneer in participant observation, he lived for four years in an Italian community in Boston while a Junior Fellow at Harvard researching social relations of street gangs in Boston's North End.


  • [The Hawthorne studies was] perhaps the first major social science experiment... and we feel that continued efforts in this direction will yield rich returns in the development of the social sciences.
    • William Foote Whyte (1946), Industry and Society, New York. p. v-vi; Cited in: Richard Gillespie (1993), Manufacturing Knowledge: A History of the Hawthorne Experiments. p. 255

Street Corner Society, 1943[edit]

W.F. Whyte, Street Corner Society, University of Chicago Press, 1943; 2nd ed. 1955.

  • They [social workers] were always calling police stations telling them. 'There is a riot in the Northon street settlement. Send the riot squad right away.' A couple of cops would come down and joke with the boys [Native Whites], because they were good friends.
    • p. 7
  • We didn't rally them there. We never went looking for trouble. We only rallied on our own street, but we always won there.
    • Doc, leader of the Nortons, quoted in Whyte, 1943, p. 51
Hanover Street, 1930s
  • The corner-gang structure arises out of the habitual association of the members over a long period of time. The nuclei of most gangs can be traced back to early boyhood, when living close together provided the first opportunities for social contacts... The gangs grew up on the corner and remained there with remarkable persistence from early boyhood until the members reached their late twenties or early thirties. In the course of years some groups were broken up by the movement of families away from Cornerville, and the remaining members merged with gangs on near-by corners; but frequently movement out of the district does not take the corner boy away from his corner. On any evening on almost any corner one finds corner boys who have come in from other parts of the city or from suburbs to be with their old friends...
  • Home plays a very small role in the group activities of the corner boy. Except when he eats, sleeps, or is sick, he is rarely at home, and his friends always go to his corner first when they want to find him. Even the corner boy's name indicates the dominant importance of the gang in his activities. It is possible to associate with a group of men for months and never discover the family names of more than a few of them. Most are known by nicknames attached to them bv the group. Furthermore, it is easy to overlook the distinction between married and single men. The married man regularly sets aside one evening a week to take out his wife. There are other occasions when they go out together and entertain together, and some corner boys devote more attention to their wives than others, but, married or single, the corner boy can be found on his corner almost every night of the week.
    • pp. 255-63, as cited in: Mercer (1958, p. 35-36)
  • Each member of the corner gang has his own position in the gang structure. Although the positions may remain unchanged over long periods of time, they should not be conceived in static terms. To have a position means that the individual has a customary way of interacting with other members of the group. When the pattern of interactions changes, the positions change. The positions of the members are interdependent, and one position cannot change without causing some adjustments in the other positions. Since the group is organized around the men with the top positions, some of the men with low standing may change positions or drop out without upsetting the balance of the group. For example, when Lou Danaro and Fred Mackey stopped participating in the activities of the Nortons, those activities continued to be organized in much the same manner as before, but when Doc and Danny dropped out, the Nortons disintegrated...
    • pp. 255-63, as cited in: Mercer (1958, p. 39)
  • One may generalize upon these processes in terms of group equilibrium. The group may be said to be in equilibrium when the interactions of its members fall into the customary pattern through which group activities are and have been organized. The pattern of interactions may undergo certain modifications without upsetting the group equilibrium, but abrupt and drastic changes destroy the equilibrium.
    • p 263
  • Instead of getting a cross-sectional picture of the community at a particular point in time, I was dealing with a time sequence of interpersonal events.
    • p. 358

Human relations in the restaurant industry. 1948[edit]

Restaurant in 1946

William Foote Whyte. Human relations in the restaurant industry. New York: McGraw-Hill. (1948).

  • An organic system is like a fountain balanced upon a pyramid of fountains.
    • p. 49
  • In addition to interviewing and participating, we spent a good deal of time in observing the interaction of the various people who make up the restaurant organization. For example, we observed waitresses getting their food from service-pantry girls and picking up drinks from bartenders, and we stood with the checker while she checked the waiters’ orders as they left one kitchen we were studying.
    • p. 361

Making Mondragón, 1965[edit]

Whyte, W. F., & Whyte, K. K. (1965). Making Mondragón: The growth and dynamics of the worker cooperative complex. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.

  • The personnel man should regard personal resistance as entirely normal and simply as presenting problems that he has to contend with. At the same time, he must have a clear idea of his own role and functions. He must be prepared to explain them fully when asked. He must also be prepared to take a firm initiative in cases where others take such actions as may jeopardize his role.
    • p. 170; As cited in: Ickis (2014)
  • I must confess at the outset that I never felt at ease in dealing with Smith. Perhaps my insecurity stemmed in large part from my youth and lack of much previous experience in dealing with management people. Beyond this, Smith was known even to his associates as “a hard fellow to get to know.” He did not encourage informality. My meetings with him were generally held in his office, with an atmosphere of strictly business. Even when we had lunch together, the businesslike atmosphere prevailed. Had I been able to see him more than once a month, it might have been possible to reduce these barriers, although I am convinced that much of the problem would still have remained.
I now feel that my approach to Smith was too indirect and cautious. While I found many shortcomings in is pattern of managerial leadership, I never discussed these with him directly. Our talks centered on what he should do with Kraus, how group meetings might be stimulated, and so on—all matters in which Smith necessarily played a prominent role. No doubt he could infer from things I said some criticisms of his own behavior, but in our discussions I never confronted him with these criticisms.
    • p. 176-177; As cited in: Ickis (2014)

Learning from the Field, 1984[edit]

W.F. Whyte, Learning from the Field, California: Sage. 1984.

  • Full-time participant observation over an extended period of time tends to be an age-graded phenomenon. Such studies are most likely to be done by young people, in our student years. When we are established professionals, with teaching or other professional responsibilities, we are unlikely to have the time and the motivation to make such a full commitment.
    • p. 63

Participant observer, 1994[edit]

W. F. Whyte (1994). Participant observer: An autobiography. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press

  • At the alley that night, I was fascinated and a bit awed by what I had witnessed. Here was the social structure in action right on the bowling alleys. It held the individual members in their places—and me along with them. I did not stop to reason then that, as a close friend of Pecci, Frank, and Gillo, I held a position that was close to the top of the gang and therefore was expected to excel. I simply felt myself buoyed up by the situation. My friends were for me, had confidence in me, believed I would bowl well. I felt supremely confident. I have never felt quite that way before—or since. I was feeling the impact of the group structure upon me. It was a strange feeling, as if something larger than myself was controlling the ball as I went through my swing and released it toward the pins.
    • p. 38; As cited in: Ickis (2014)
  • As I later thought about the bowling contest, I became convinced I had discovered something important: the relationship between individual performance and group structure. I believed then (and still believe now) that this relationship can be observed in all manner of group activities.
    • p. 84; As cited in: Ickis (2014)
  • I had felt compelled to report everything important that I had found out, as if I were writing an academic paper. Instead of submitting a formal report, I could have simply informed the IR authorities that I had some ideas and information on the IR program that I wanted to discuss with them. In that case, the IR people might have given my criticisms some attention. In any event, they would have been more likely to let me know whether any of the recommendations in my other reports had been acted on—and with what results.
    • p. 196; As cited in: Ickis (2014)
  • Without this combination of research methods, it is hard to imagine how this theoretical advance could have been achieved. If I had only relied on the anthropological studies, I would not have believed a student's report when professional anthropologists provided conflicting interpretations of the same community. Relying on the survey data alone, it would not have occurred to me to check the correlations between perceptions of conflict and perceptions of cooperation. If I had found a zero correlation, I could not have known how to interpret it.
    • p. 242; As cited in: Ickis (2014)

Quotes about William Foote Whyte[edit]

  • The name of William Foote Whyte is most frequently associated with Street Corner Society, the sociological study of life in Boston's North End during the late 1930s, but his research spanned another sixty years in a range of settings on three continents. This article traces his achievements over the decades, as he developed and applied a participatory action research methodology in the kitchens of Chicago restaurants, the oilfields of Oklahoma and Venezuela, subsistence farms in Peru and Guatemala, and industrial cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain. It describes how this methodology, grounded in case research, led to social change at the “Tremont Hotel” in a Midwestern city. It questions why his achievements have not received greater recognition among by academicians and practitioners, perhaps because his ideas and findings on social change produced discomfort among peers and the sponsors of his research.
    • John C. Ickis, "William F. Whyte: Contributions to management." Journal of Business Research 67.7 (2014): 1493-1500.

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