Reading Tip: ‘The Book That Would Not Die’

Donna Gabaccia reflects on the reception of William Foote Whyte’s famous Street Corner Society at the Migrant Knowledge blog:

William Foote Whyte’s study of Italian immigrants in the North End of Boston was not particularly successful after its release in 1943. In the years after 1970, though, Street Corner Society garnered great success and became, in the words of its author, “the book that would not die.” Paradoxically, specialists in Italian American studies found little to love in the book. Here I argue that a hidden history of gender and ethnic dynamics in the academic production of knowledge can explain the paradox. In the book’s second edition, revised and expanded, Whyte’s ethnographic methods, his penchant for story-telling, and his personal reflections on research provided beginning students in sociology an accessible introduction to qualitative methods in an increasingly quantitative discipline. Specialists, by contrast, saw Whyte choosing to study a depression-era immigrant community in Boston’s North End not out of any interest in immigration or Italian immigrants but as a typical and conveniently located slum—a foil for dated theoretical debates.

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