Notes on: Denzin, N. (1992). Whose Cornerville is it anyway? Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 21, 120 – 132. DOI: 10.1177/0891241692021001007

Dave Harris

[His contribution to the special on Whyte and Cornerville]

The debates about the study show that there are 'just different versions of different, not the same, stories' (120). Whyte has written a classic, and the legacy includes an interest in everyday life. There is 'a gritty realism' (121) compared to various film studies of Italian-American life. Social disorganisation or slum models are repudiated, and instead a 'richly detailed, finely grained, realistic picture of human beings interacting in a making sense of a world' is offered. Such a world is 'foreign and distant to the middle class and its values'. The text was widely cited, including by people like Merton or Parsons, and later Chicago urban ethnographers. The result is 'a book for all seasons and all theories' (122).

Boelen's critique revived interest. Whyte argued that there was 'order, honour, dignity and pride here in Cornerville', with a reciprocal system of exchange and obligations. Your place in the status order affected your life chances. The primary group was the male club or gang, and that 'mediated the interaction experiences of the immigrant'. Boelen argued that Whyt imposed 'normative judgements', to reject earlier stereotypes. He also overlooked the place of the family and focused too much on the criminals. He broke the confidence of the respondents by publishing the book without telling the gang members. She visited Cornerville and interviewed both Whyte and his respondents. Whyte was not an insider. He did not speak Italian or understand the importance of the family. He did not gather feedback from his informants and so he 'misrepresented many facts' thus the book is 'more fiction than fact' and can be corrected by Boelen's data. In particular, she wanted to give the subjects of the study a chance to voice their opinion — 'social science in the service of the people'. Whyte disputes each these charges as does one of the respondents, Franco, and there have been multiple meanings on offer since.

However Boelen argues that she is right, and Whyte argues the opposite, both within 'the epistemology of social realism' (124). This epistemology assumes that 'an obdurate social world exists' and that events in it can be accurately recorded. Transcriptions of subjects' talk are assumed to map their experiences, and so do ethnographic writings. This is the 'camera theory of reality', assuming that the closer you get to events the more accurate you can be. 'But suppose that the camera theory of realism is wrong'. What if the ethnographer's text creates the subject, that subjects exist 'only insofar as they are brought into our written texts', language and speech do not just mirror thought, subjects may not know what they think and they can change their mind and even deliberately mislead. There might be 'other forms of textuality and interaction' informing their statements (125), such as 'folklore, characters in novels, advertisements, and myths, filmic, literary and scientific representations' [and Goffman is referenced in support]. We cannot get back to individuals in the real world, 'we can only encounter the representations'. Events can be inscribed multiple times in memory, and 'here is no original, only multiple inscriptions… Each with as much validity as any other. This, of course, is William James's theory of the stream of consciousness'. This has implications for the debate between Boelen and Whyte, especially in rendering 'fruitless their debates over who got the facts right'. There are 'only facticities or concrete social experiences given different definitions by the same and different individuals over the course of time. Boelen got one set of factiities, Whyte another'.

The social realist tradition 'has been simultaneously positivist and post positivist, or interpretive' but it maintains 'a commitment to a science that renders the invisible world visible'. One output has been 'a series of realist, melodramatic, social problems texts that have created an identification with the powerless in society'. This 'valorized the subjectivity of the downtrodden individual… Made a hero of the sociological theorist', and so 'Boelen emerges a heroine', and Whyte a villain.

The realist tradition was also found in 'Romantic and Victorian fiction' which quickly grafted itself onto social science. However, there are now the new aesthetics and philosophies of science of modernism and post-modernism. The texts of both Whyte and Boelen 'move uneasily between old-fashioned correspondence theory, positivism, and the new post structuralisms'. Social realism is now under attack and is seen as 'but one narrative strategy'. New poststructuralist writing and reading styles have emerged 'grafted into the cinematic society, where a thing exists if it can be captured in a visual or printed text'. Things do not exist outside their representations. Thus 'if we want to change how things are, we must change how they are seen' (126) the old realist and modernist agendas 'presumed worlds out there that could be mapped by a realist scientific method — [a] hegemonic vision'.

Neither Boelen norWhyte take up this challenge, and think that the world will prove their approaches right or wrong. But how is this world to be found and how can it be recorded? There are no answers, and thus poor statements: social realism will never produce definitive statements nor adequate political foundations. If anything, Boelen's text is worse because she never acknowledges 'poststructural moves', as in Clifford or Marcus, Denzin or Richardson, and thus fails to grasp anthropology's 'fourth moment, wherein all forms of writing and interpretation are made problematic' (127). Now the observer is part of the text and positivist criteria of validity reliability and generalisability no longer apply. Both texts look dated, as if they were written before these poststructural transformations.

Thus both romanticise life in Cornerville. Doc and the others are 'sociological versions of screen heroes' reminiscent of James Cagney or Edward Robinson. Those films employed a social disorganisation model, offering bad children healthy role models. Their realistic and melodramatic framework had happy endings as the moral careers of individuals developed — a state of grace, seduced by evil, and finally being redeemed — although not all sociological stories follow this track to redemption — often the story itself is the endpoint. The films did not even represent 'brooding disillusioned individuals' who refused integration. The films were made as 'moral social realism', prevalent in Hollywood. They drew on literary naturalism, depicting slices of life as individual struggled for survival. Researchers became heroes making sense of the subjects life [citing Clough], even offering active assistance as Whyte did. Sociologists remain experts, and 'the subject is displaced' (129) only appearing in excerpts. This is an 'interactionist complicity', offering imaginary solutions to immigrants problems, through better interaction, loving fathers, proper values, reformed neighbourhoods. There were no flaws in the system itself. This melted with the cinema to produce 'ameliorative social pragmatism with the goal of eradicating crime', resting on philanthropic individuals with big wallets or big hearts. Cinematic representation supported this view, but it also requires 'morally inclined sociologists who would sympathetically study these people with the interpretive methods of a new scientific (pragmatic) sociology'. They had to be committed to rebuilding a free and open American society, based on effective 'communication, informed public's, and morally responsive leadership… The Chicago sociologists complied'.

So the actual discussion between Whyte and Boelen is disappointing, entirely within positivist and social realist traditions in its focus on the facts. 'Its legacies are tragic' because life in Cornerville goes on unaffected. Each writer should have just told this story as they experienced it, and Whyte is better than Boelen here: she ends up with a sour grapes account.

Overall, 'the melodramatic, realist, interactionist social (problems) text reproduces a romantic over identification with society's undesirables'. 'Interactional and emotional solutions'only, not economic ones, are on offer there is a claim that 'if one identifies with and understands another's plight, then somehow that sorry situation will go away' [very similar to Denzin's own later sympathies as a fellow traveller?] 'This,  of course, is pure fantasy' (all from 130), 'a romantic ideology… Agendas that make individuals responsible for their own problems… Interactionist complicity [which] reproduces the conditions the theorist–as–moralist find so discomforting'. Moral realism is required if interactionist are going to sympathetically project themselves into the situation. 'Realism thus functions to perpetuate the status quo. It brings to the interactionist the halo of the one who identifies with the downtrodden of the world'.

But more is always going on — whose Cornerville is it? White and Boelen acted like voyeurs. They found different structures because their visions were different. However each one ends by endorsing 'the validity of the cultural voyeurs project' (131). They never challenge their own rights to look and ask questions, and thus preserved 'the disciplinary eye of the positivistic social science', which 'justifies its existence in terms of its "positive" contributions to a surveillance society that requires greater and greater information about the private lives of its citizens'. Do we still want this kind of social science? Whyte has produced it, but Boelen 'in her own negative way, endorses [it]'

[Whyte himself apparently references Hollywood movies about gangs. Boelen cites Godfather films. This serves 'to direct attention away from the economic realities of capitalism, while suggesting that the "deterioration of daily life in the United States today is an ethical rather than economic matter" [citing Jameson, who probably does a lot of work elsewhere]. Neither address women.]

[A strange contrast between the 'postructural' stuff, where only texts exist, to the more marxist stuff later?]

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