Living Above The Martinis

For a year I lived above a pizza parlor, just like the sociologist William Foote Whyte did in 1936, the year he was doing field research for what would later become his famous urban ethnography, Street Corner Society. And every time I felt the heat of the pizza ovens seeping up through my kitchen floor I thought of him and the family who owned the pizza parlor he lived over. The Martinis, I think, was their name.

That, at least, was the name William Foote Whyte gave to them. All of the people and places in Street Corner Society were fictionalized. They had to be. Sociologists often change the names of their subjects in order to keep them anonymous, to protect their identity. This didn’t matter so much in the early, early days of the discipline when there weren’t actual people animating sociologists’ texts. In the early, early days, say, the late 1800s or so, sociologists wrote about things like class struggle or suicide or the iron cage of bureaucracy without an actual person, dead or alive, anywhere in sight. The one exception to this was Sigmund Freud, who often, in his studies, featured the stories of not only real live people, but sometimes, even ghosts, up close.

But all of this slowly started to change by the 1920s, especially for sociologists working in North America, who, from the very beginning insisted that their analyses be timely and rooted in the mundane circumstances of people’s everyday lives. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote The Philadelphia Negro, W.I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, Nels Anderson’s The Hobo and the Chicago School under Robert Park, jack-rollers and unadjusted girls, taxi-hall dancers and street gangs. From the very beginning, North American sociologists thought it was important to give their analyses a body and a voice and a few of these sociologists, Robert and Helen Lynd, for example, or Clifford R. Shaw, deliberately fictionalized the bodies and voices they wrote about, the Lynds creating “the X family” in their two classic studies of a small American town, Middletown and Middletown in Transition and Shaw, an entire case book filled with the life histories of an unofficial community of delinquent, juvenile boys.

This, I have to admit is what lured me into the discipline of sociology in the first place, this chance to tell stories about the world that may or may not be true. This is the promise that all sociologists make, whether they cast their stories in words or images, numbers or graphs. They all start from the earthly terrain of people’s everyday lives and struggles or, at least, the idea of people’s everyday lives and struggles, and then, to varying degrees of objectivity, accountability and certainty, try to figure out how these lives and struggles are lived. Social theorists match abstract ideas to places and people and their social problems. Survey researchers turn places and people and problems into populations, then samples. Social psychologists create natural, partly natural or simulated settings, where, just like on reality television, they document the ways people act or interact when they stop being polite.

Which brings me back to Street Corner Society and the very imaginative sociological imagination of William Foote Whyte. He was an ethnographer, which meant he created narrative analyses about the world told from the perspective of his own subjective mind. Much like the way I started this story about living above a pizza parlor, except for the ethnographer, every anecdote must be tallied and accounted for, should their analyses ever be challenged or maligned.

End Note: More on the “imaginative sociological imagination” is right here.

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5 replies »

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