William Foote Whyte, street society, organizations and learning from the field

The picture of William Foote Whyte at his home, Cayuga, New York, 1996 was taken by Phillip Capper and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.William Foote Whyte, street society, organizations and learning from the field. William Foote Whyte made a seminal contribution to our appreciation of local community life and the possibilities of participant observation. He also explored organizational behavior and became an expert in employee-owned firms. We explore his work and his continuing significance for informal and community educators, animateurs and those seeking social change.

William Foote Whyte (1914-2000) greatly enhanced our understanding of social groups and networks – and to the process of learning from the field and how we can ‘do’ sociology. His Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum (Whyte 1943) is one of the great works of urban sociology and has sold over a quarter of a million copies (one of the best-selling English-language sociology books in history). Books like Organizational Behaviour (Whyte 1961) became key reference points in their field; and his later explorations of the processes of researching local settings were important to a new generation of local researchers. For those concerned with fostering learning and development in local communities and organizations his work continues to repay careful exploration.

William Foote Whyte – life

William Foote Whyte was born in Springfield, Mass. He was the only child of John Whyte, a professor of German, and Caroline Van Sickle. The family moved from there and Whyte was brought up in the Bronx, Caldwell, N.J., and Bronxville, N.Y. While in in high school in Bronxville, he reported for The Bronxville Press (Greenhouse 2000). After high school he spent a year in Germany with his father and then enrolled in Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. There he majored in economics, graduating in 1936.

From Swarthmore he moved on to become a junior fellow at Harvard. This allowed him to take any course there – but by this time he had a strong commitment to social reform and had to struggle to reconcile his research interests with this (Whyte 1994). He was able to bring these concerns together in the fieldwork that was to lead to Street Corner Society. Indeed, as part of the fieldwork he helped members of the gang he was researching to organize demonstrations to put pressure on City Hall to put more money into the neighbourhood. Something of the character of William Foote Whyte’s approach is suggested by his being able to persuade Harvard to give a $100 a grant to Angelo (Ralph) Orlandella (a high school dropout and gang member) who served as his research assistant.

In 1938 William Foote Whyte married Kathleen King – whom he had known for sometime – and they soon moved into apartment in the North End. Kathleen King Whyte was a commercial artist, but she also collaborated with him on several of his books (acting as an editor). She was co-author of Making Mondragon (Whyte and Whyte 1988) a book on worker co-operatives in Spain .

Following his time at Harvard William Foote Whyte enrolled in a sociology doctoral programme at the University of Chicago. He submitted Street Corner Society as his doctoral thesis (gaining a doctorate in 1943). The book was published by the university press – and gained little public attention until a revised edition – with much of the important, colourful detail added in – appeared in 1950. That edition took off.

William Foote Whyte moved to the University of Oklahoma in 1942 to teach sociology. In 1943 he was to move to Harvard to undertake research into army veterans but he contracted polio in 1943. He was never expected to walk but William Foote Whyte and his family (by now he had two young children, he was to have two further children) spent a year at the Warm Springs Foundation, Georgia. There he learned to walk with a cane (he also had to wear leg braces for many years) (Greenwood 2000).

From Georgia Whyte moved back to the University of Chicago and to teaching (which he did from 1944 to 1948). He then joined Cornell (Ithaca, N.Y.), where he was to spend the rest of his teaching career until his retirement in 1979. At Cornell William Foote Whyte developed a specialism in organizational behaviour. He had a particular interest in cooperatives and in employee-owned firms. The result was a significant range of books including Human Relations in the Restaurant Industry (1948), Man and organization (1959) Men at Work (1961) and Organizational Behaviour (1969).

After retiring from teaching William Foote Whyte turned to the Extension Division of ILR. There he was a co-founder of Programs for Employment and Workplace Systems (PEWS) and served as its research director. By then he was working from a wheelchair. His final book was Creative Problem Solving in the Field (Whyte 1997).

To be extended

Further reading and references

Whyte, William Foote (1943, 1955, 1966, 1981, 1993) Street corner society : social structure of an Italian slum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Whyte, William Foote with the collaboration of Kathleen King Whyte (1984) Learning from the Field. Beverly Hills CA.: Sage Publications.

Whyte, William Foote (1994) Participant Observer: An Autobiography. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press

Whyte, William Foote (1997) Creative problem solving in the field : reflections on a career. Walnut Creek CA.: Alta Mira.


Greenhouse, Steven (2000) ‘William Whyte, a Gang Sociologist, Dies at 86’, The New York Times July 20, 2000 [Section B, page 8].

Whyte, William Foote (1946, 1971) Industry and Society. Westport, Conn : Greenwood Press

Whyte, William Foote (1947) Human relations in the restaurant industry. New York: Mc-Graw Hill.

Whyte, William Foote (1953) Leadership and group participation : an analysis of the discussion group. New York: Cornell University. New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Bulletin no. 24

Whyte, William Foote and others (1954) Money and motivation : an analysis of incentives in industry. New York: Harper and Row.

Whyte, William Foote (1959) Man and organization: three problems in human relations in industry. Homewood, Ill.: R. D. Irwin.

Whyte, William Foote (1961) Men at Work. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press.

Whyte, William Foote (1969) Organizational behavior : theory and application. Homewood, Ill.: R.D. Irwin.

Whyte, William Foote (1975) Organizing for agricultural development : human aspects in the utilization of science and technology. New Brunswck: Transaction Books.

Whyte, William Foote (1991) Social theory for action : how individuals and organizations learn to change. Beverly Hills CA.: Sage Publications.

Whyte, William Foote (ed.) (1991) Participatory action research. Newbury Park, CA.: Sage

Whyte, William Foote and Giogio Alberti (1976) Power, politics and progress : social change in rural Peru. New York: Oxford.

Whyte, William Foote and Kathleen King Whyte (1988) Making Mondragon : the growth and dynamics of the worker cooperative complex. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.

Acknowledgements: The picture of William Foote Whyte at his home, Cayuga, New York, 1996 was taken by Phillip Capper and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence. [http://www.flickr.com/photos/flissphil/80745488/].

How to cite this piece: Smith, Mark K. (2009). ‘William Foote Whyte, street society, organizations and learning from the field’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/william-foote-whyte-street-society-organizations-and-learning-from-the-field/. Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K Smith 2009

Last Updated on March 2, 2013 by infed.org