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Colleagues Salute William Foote Whyte

One of the most provocative, active and prolific sociologists of the last 50 years died on Sunday, July 16 in Ithaca at the age of 86. Bill Whyte was among the first faculty members at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, arriving in 1948. He was professor emeritus at Cornell at the time of his death. In a fascinating and admirable career, he served as president of both the ASA and the American Anthropological Association. Bill was a major and controversial figure at Cornell, as well as in the discipline of sociology. He was also an excellent colleague and the kindest of friends.

Bill led major changes in our discipline, bringing legitimacy to the anthropological methods of participant observation. He later led the movement toward developing Participatory Action Research (PAR) in sociology. But for most of us, Bill Whyte was our introduction to sociology, to “Street Corner Society.” We remember the life of Italian street gangs in Boston in the 1930’s, his involvement in gang life, his mistakes from which we all learned, and the room rented from the Orlandi family that afforded him entry to the society of the street gang.

What’s always of great interest to me is how many people know what Street Corner Society is about, even if they had never read it. When he and I went to interview a vice president or president of a company in Kansas, Pennsylvania (or just about any place), frequently the corporate officer would say, “Professor Whyte, before we begin, would you mind autographing your book that I used in college? It’s an honor to have you here.” A well-beaten copy of Street Corner Society appeared and was signed. Of course, there was the occasional faux pas of asking about how he had done William H. Whyte’s classic The Organization Man. I guess the difference in middle initials was too subtle for some.

Street Corner Society was a great indicator of what was to come. When he needed funds for an informant in the gang, he simply asked Harvard for a small grant, expected it and it came. When he wanted to understand something, he did what the subjects of study did. When he found poor literacy skills, he helped teach reading and when the rent strike came, he practically led the demonstration. He told us that in all these cases, the sociologist had a value commitment to helping solve social problems. He continually told all of us that an involved participant can still step back and do objective analysis. The provocative issues with which he confronted us were visible in his earliest work.

Bill was about to go to Harvard in 1943 when he developed polio. The Harvard appointment evaporated. He and his family spent two years at the Warm Springs Foundation in rehabilitation as he relearned walking with a cane and arm crutches. He exercised in a swimming pool every day to keep what muscle tone he could in his legs, but more importantly, in the rest of his body. Bill’s upper body strength was often a surprise to visitors.

I always attributed his perseverance, confidence and energy to having overcome the constraints of polio at a time when the rehabilitation equipment of today was unavailable. But that might not give his natural talents their due. Bill had an ability to focus and concentrate on issues. He could push toward a goal or project with incredible vigor and be sure that the task would be completed. One afternoon as we drove back from an interview and plant walk- through, he pulled out his dictaphone. “Bob, let’s talk about what we observed today.” My simple “OK” in reply was the last thing I said for the next hour and a half. Bill proceeded to dictate what he observed and transcribe interviews from his head. Single minded concentration.

Bill was always struck by the unwillingness of sociology to make its learning known to the rest of society. He told us this in his ASA presidential address and wrote about it in his autobiography. He was described to me the first year I came to Cornell as wanting to “empower the disenfranchised and narrow the gap between rich and poor.” As many sociologists know too well “those are fighting words.” The values finally came to focus on the Participatory Action Research. As an anthropologist at Cornell, Davyyd Greenwood noted “his practice of social science was really aimed at social reform and social change.” We should marvel at and appreciate a man who wrote more than 20 books and several hundred articles. Bill was a scholar who participated in movements for worker ownership and participatory decision making, who vigorously promoted participatory action research, and who worked to narrow the income gap in Peru. He caused many of us to think about things that we preferred to tuck in the closet.

He also left as part of his legacy, two sons, two daughters, twelve grandchildren and eight great grandchildren. He is survived by his wife, partner, editor and sometimes co-author, Kathleen. I’ll remember his friendship and help, and his model of a scholar who cared about the society he studied.

Robert N. Stern
Cornell University and ILR

What I admired most about Bill Whyte was his unusually well developed sense of fairness in academic matters. This sense was based not solely on those rules that have been developed to help groups arrive at decisions that are as fair as possible, although he knew those rules as well as anyone and followed them faithfully. With Bill, it was more a matter of an internal balance system that impelled him to try as hard as he could to behave in a fair manner and soberly to persuade others to do the same. It is temperament that will be sorely missed.

Joan Huber
The Ohio State University (Emerita)

A recent meeting at Cornell allowed us a visit with Bill in his office. We hadn’t seen him for several years, but his wit and charm seemed broader than ever, if that is possible. In thinking about that visit, neither Jack nor I could imagine any other sociologist who made such a seminal contribution to the field so early in his career. Today it would be hard to find any respectable sociologist who has not been significantly influenced by Street Corner Society. That seemingly small study has had an undeniable impact on such fields as systems analysis, interpersonal relations, small group research, and even social change. But that, of course, was only the beginning of his rich career.

Matilda White Riley
National Institute on Aging (Emerita)

The death of Bill Whyte means that sociology has lost one of its greatest practitioners. His inspired, sensitive, and meticulous fieldwork was an inspiration to my generation and to successive ones as well. There are not very many who could match his ability to describe and interpret how human behavior is conditioned by social structure. He has contributed strongly to our field for more than a half century. Bill’s presence will always be with us in his published work but it is sad that we cannot look forward to further work in the future.

Peter H. Rossi
University of Massachusetts-Amherst

William Foote Whyte was a pathbreaker in participant observation sociology but also a significant contributor to our knowledge of how solidarity and affiliation are constructed within what are often considered the wastelands of inner cities. There is no question that Street Corner Society was one of the most important studies of urban life ever to be written —though published in 1943, its insights and descriptions are useful to this day. But beyond that work, he was a prolific and valued scholar to the end of his life. A recent work, Participant Observer, published in l994, carried on the tradition that he pioneered in showing how one’s personal circumstances and standpoints affected what one could see and understand in one’s research. Beyond his gigantic contribution to sociology and his research into industrial areas, I think it is important to remember what a gallant and large hearted man he was. That late book on the Participant Observer shows how open and ingenuous he could be about telling us how he related his life to his work. Those who knew him had the pleasure of seeing how that simplicity, directness and warm heartedness worked out in his professional and personal relations. I knew him best in his later years when he and his wife lived in the retirement home at Savage Farm Avenue in Cornell. He was busy and alert, professionally concerned, and always genial and welcoming. He had a long and fruitful career, but he will be missed just the same.

Arlene Kaplan Daniels
Northwestern University (Emerita)