Notes on: Richardson, L.  (1992). Trash on the corner. Ethics and technography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 21 (1) 103 – 119

Dave Harris

[A critique of Whyte's Street Corner Society -- SCS]

 This is the bestselling sociology book ever, it legitimated PO and stimulated further research, questioned the notion of the socially disorganised gang. It is a classic, canonical. We now can see it in a different context however especially in terms of various posts which doubt that 'any discourse has a privileged place' (104), advocate the death of the author and challenge authority. Even Mead and Freud have been accused of being frauds. Is there another scandal?

Knowledge is constructed 'in humanly situated social practices' reflecting biography history and particular social locations. 'There is no Archimedean point', so we are always on some corner, expressing ideological preference and political programme. Writing acts out desires which are often hidden. We can see the problems with text making. The point is to '"enact" a text  that ties together and transcends the other texts by situating all of them in the human practice of "storytelling" that produced them'.

She is fascinated by reflexivity and the processes by which texts are created and disseminated, 'how knowledge is "made"', hence her contribution to this special edition of JCE. For example she reviewed an article by Boelen and commented about the need to reconstruct Whyte's actors and how it might be affected by academic settings, what ethical responsibilities are available, and how credibility might be ensured, how a new streetcorner society might be written, say from the point of view of a woman, recognising that science and literature are not distinct genres. She'd been writing about writing strategies and rhetorical devices in classic ethnographic texts. When she saw one of the other contributions, she realised that the 'emotional core' (106) had gone replaced with '60 pages of "Ho – hum" indictments' that Whyte and his defenders have been able to reply to. So she read SCS for herself together with other books by right, then 'my heart went out to the people in this developing drama, and my head was obsessing over the issues' (106). She realised that Whyte had pointed out problems himself in his second edition, admitting that he had been selective to follow his interest, and that his own picture of a slum informed his work. What is needed is more empirical work and post-modern critique. Apparently, Boelen was annoyed that Whyte had trashed the subculture with terms like slums or rackets and wanted the voices of other boys to be heard — but she has her own anger and as a solo author claims that she has truth and Whyte does not. This 'idea of a single "take" on the complexities of human lives is naive and anti-human. Our understanding of our own and others' lives is enhanced by multiple and multifaceted readings' (107) Boelen apparently did her own fieldwork, but apparently spent her time trashing Whyte rather than writing her own book, especially getting access to some of the women whose voices are presently absent. Boelen thinks that hosts should always read and comment on the work but this is 'both a false universal and a shallow resolution because it is lives over the complexities of the human practices that constitute research' (108).

How to do sociological research in such a way that the people 'who teach me about their lives are honoured and empowered, even if they and I see their worlds differently'. There are questions of authority and authorship, social privilege, how authors write themselves into the text 'without being self-absorbed or unduly narcissistic', who owns rights, the consequences and ethical responsibilities. Reflexivity is required.

Whyte did struggle with language issues that emerged when he discusses ethnographic problems. For example, 'biographical positioning' (109) or what to write about yourself. You need to do this without essentializing or valorising yourself. How did Whyte position himself in relation to his research? He tells us about his background -- upper-middle-class --  and his interest in writing novels, his own dullness, his liberal convictions. This might become 'a rhetorically excellent move for staving off the hounds of academia' or it could be simply that Whyte listed what he thought mattered. He did not talk about his race and gender, even though they were important in him being able to enter Cornerville and do research. His generation of researchers were similar, but the whole issue of how social categories shape research and construct knowledge has been suppressed. We need to know more about his biography and how it affected what he knew, so we can 'come to recognise our own and others' social positionings as both constructed and constructing of knowledge' (110)

All writing depends on literary devices to convey content. There are grammatical tropes like the separation of subject and object, metaphors such as social structure. They largely go unnoticed. Writing 'always involves ideological, aesthetic, and ethical decisions. There is no innocent writing, including this.' Some people think ethnographic writing is fiction because facts are always interpreted, but if it claims to be only fiction, then 'it loses any claims that it might have for groundedness and policy implications, and thus the ethnographer is doomed to fail in competition with those who have mastered the art of fiction writing'. The answer is 'not to deny social scientific grounding' but to explore its 'grounds for authority'. There is a lot of literature on this. Let's see how Whyte's writing choices negotiate the 'fact/fiction dilemma' (111).

The North end of Boston looked like an ideal community to study, 'it looked like a "slum"'. Whyte wanted to observe individuals to reconstruct their actions — 'particular people doing particular things' rather than the earlier work on groups or statistics. But how can a general sociology then be written? Whyte developed 'the narrative way of knowing', using 'the primary code through which humans organise their experience into temporally meaningful episodes', not 'the logico  – empirical code… [That] looks for universal truth conditions'. Here, Whyte 'enters the domain of the novelist.

Novelists [sic] write narratives with plots, character, dialogue and settings, and 'causality governs narrative sequence [!]' Stories are arranged in a time sequence, causality is emphasised in plot, sometimes through character — Forster is cited for explaining that plots ask why. Whyte also tried to write a text about humans and change and this required him 'deploying fictional techniques' because 'the logico – empirical method would have prohibited' him otherwise [?].

Many fictional techniques are used. Settings have fictional names and so do the people. Extended stories are provided by people, including their trajectories through interweaving plots. Whyte has obviously made up the names, but other things have been overlooked. He did not take notes or take recordings, and yet he presents what looks like verbatim quotations. He develops 'monologues in the first person, uses ellipses and dialect, all ways of suggesting verisimilitude'. The characters are made to sound different, given different voices, with their own stories, but these are actually Whyte's renditions. Some scenes might have been invented — 'but does it matter if he did?' (113). Why should scene building be different from naming characters and ventriloquism [my term]. Do the techniques detract from the general sociological points, or are they crucial in making points and generating further research projects. Whyte's book is not fiction, not a novel, and there are 'real' neighbourhoods and people.

How should ethnographers treat informants? Are there generic rules? Must traditional ethnographers inevitably appear as offensive or rude? Pomo writers want to find 'a principled solution by using their skills and privileges in the service of those they have researched', but can this recuperate ethnography, or must it remain contradictory, relating both to host communities and to sociological texts.

Doc was the key informant, but also, later, a collaborator helping to resolve puzzles, and he reports no longer acting by instinct but how to explain things. Some of the interpretations are his, but Whyte claims it is impossible to disentangle the contributions. The final draft was shown to Doc who acknowledged that '"this is the way it was"', despite pride and embarrassment. Doc tried to discourage other corner boys from reading it. He went on to guest lecture at Harvard. However, there was an eventual estrangement and Doc seemed unwilling to see Whyte any more. What material might that have embarrassed him? He was simultaneously corner boy, informant and co-researcher: the first was a low status expected to help out clique members and Doc did not want to break away from his friends, although life changed him — unemployment caused a nervous breakdown. As a key informant he was able to defend Whyte and explain personal relationships such as when to remain silent, when not to ask questions and so on. Perhaps he violated these norms himself, and was put in an untenable position by his cooperation with Whyte. He felt responsible for the contents of the book. He was staged 'as a credible and sensitive insider who told Whyte the truth', but the truth is not flattering to his friends. He felt guilty and paranoid, and eventually withdrawn. As a co-researcher, there was some inequality — Whyte received the fame and fortune. Was he seen as turning against a friend for profit? A college boy would have seen that way.

Ethnography has consequences, including the possibility of hurting members of the host culture. Participants can identify themselves, they are 'not hidden in numbers or trends or as a generic "someone"' (117) the norms of Cornerville society meant there should be no offence or violation of trust, and sharing of resources. Doc became self reflexive and unable to act naturally again in his home culture — 'he could never go home again'. Other inhabitants were assisted by Whyte — help to write a book, helped with training and feedback [where we are talking about Franco not Doc]. Franco only appears three times in the book he is not a key informant, but apparently helped nonetheless. He does validate Whyte. There is a connection between his absence in the text and the ability to be helped by Whyte — 'Franco did not have to bear the burden of validating the book — he only had later… to enjoy the prestige of validating its author' (118).

These are general ethnographic problems. Whenever we situate ourselves as participant observers, we affect others. Our social skills lead to real attachments. Our texts can have 'unintended, often hurtful consequences for those who have trusted us' and this can be magnified if the text is very successful.

The estrangement between Whyte and Doc 'is the emotional crux of this commentary, and I have constructed a "plot" to explain it' I have made sense of the materials 'both as a foundationalist and as a post-foundationalist. I do not know if the story of "Doc and Whyte" is "true" but it feels humanly plausible, and I want it to be true. I want it to be a metaphoric story for the plights of ethnography' (118 – 9).

We do not have to give up ethnography, but rather 'seriously and self reflexively "deconstruct" our practices so that we can "reconstruct" them with fewer negative consequences' (119). This will require different methods like 'participatory research, autobiography , and critical methods'. We can break genre with for example 'the poetic representation of the social, performance science, and community authorship' we need to deeply rethink who is author and who is subject. 'I hope this article, itself, stands as a mini example of genre breaking and the reconstitution of what "constitutes" a "subject".

[NB the accompanying blurb says that 'laurel Richardson is Prof of sociology at Ohio State University she is author of {6 books} many journal articles and editor of Feminist Frontiers II' How else would we know this is a 'good' article?]

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