Sunday, September 25, 2011

Reading :: Street Corner Society

Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian SlumBy William Foote Whyte

My family has been considered white since before I was born - probably since about 1960. But it was not always so. When my parents decided to get married in the mid-1950s, my father's family called my mother "the white woman" (she is of Northern European extract). Her family similarly didn't consider an Italian-American to be white.

I thought about this bit of family history when I read the classic ethnography Street Corner Society, set in the Italian slum of "Cornerville" (in reality a neighborhood in Boston) in 1937-1938. These Italian-Americans were decidedly not considered "white" by others or by themselves. Furthermore, they formed more fine-grained strata within the community. As Whyte describes it, this slum was populated by an older generation of Italian immigrants ("greasers") and their American-born children, who are "strongly attached to their parents, and yet they look down on them" (p.xviii). These immigrant families came from various regions in Italy, with the lowest-rank region being Sicily. (The name Spinuzzi is Sicilian.)

At the height of the Depression, these young Italian-Americans had trouble finding work, so they spent much time hanging around on corners - in gangs at younger ages, but as they grew older, in informal groups or more formal societies.

Whyte took advantage of a fellowship by living in Cornerville and spending most of his waking time with these men, who were in their late 20s. The result is a classic sociological ethnography that, despite its flaws, holds great insights.

First, the insights. Whyte, a careful student of human interactions, begins to detect patterns of status and mutual obligations in the groups, clubs, and societies he frequents. For instance, Doc, his main informant was the leader of The Nortons. As leader, he had to meet heavier obligations than lower-rank, less capable members. In fact, Doc, though he had no job, often spent his free money on helping lower-status members.

But leadership does have its privileges. To his surprise, Whyte realizes that the men's bowling scores closely track the men's current rank in the group - to the extent that a low-ranking member who is an excellent bowler in other contexts would bowl poorly against higher-ranking members, apparently despite himself. Furthermore, someone who loses status bowls progressively worse against lower-ranking members.

Whyte studies a drama club, a social club, a local political club, and (from a distance) racketeering, and sees these sorts of rank relations throughout. But in each context he gains fresh insights. For instance, in racketeering, he realizes that in Cornerville, "the primary function of the police department is not the enforcement of the law but the regulation of illegal activities" (p.138).

In politics, Whyte draws out some of the ethnic tensions in Cornerville's relations with the rest of the city. For instance, one Cornerville man tries to persuade another to vote for his preferred candidate, who is also Italian-American: "Why not give a Wop a chance?" (p.161). Elsewhere, an Irish-American politician complains to Whyte that "the Italians will always vote for one of their own," even if they claim they will vote for another candidate: "The Italian people are very undependable," and hard to hold to account because "You can't tell one Italian from another" (p.195). Indeed, Whyte concludes elsewhere that "the Italians are looked upon by upper-class people as among the least desirable of the immigrant peoples" (p.273).

No wonder that, as Whyte relates in his retrospective appendix, Saul Alinsky loved the book (p.358).

This version of the book, the 50th anniversary version, has three appendices. The first is a retrospective in which Whyte discusses the book's reception and impact, its criticisms, and a bit of his methodology. He also reveals the real name of the community he studied and the names of his informants, who had all passed away by that point, and he describes discussions he had had with them about the book. These are all interesting, but raise some important questions about Whyte's work.

Recall that Whyte studied Cornerville as a junior fellow at Harvard, before beginning his PhD work. He quickly fell in with his main informant, Doc, the 29-year-old leader of the Nortons. Doc was by his accounts upright and honest, but also very savvy about maintaining leadership. Doc also, Whyte reveals, read and commented on every line of Whyte's manuscript.

Doc doesn't come off as a completely strong leader in the manuscript, which frankly describes some of his failures and loss of rank. But he generally comes off better than, say, Chick, an aspiring politician who is his main rival. Revealingly, Whyte describes a talk he had with Chick years after the book's publication. Chick is unhappy with his portrayal, and tells Whyte that Doc vocally agreed with him the last time the two had talked. Whyte is startled at first, but realizes that of course Doc would say that: he has to deal with Chick and probably doesn't want to admit that he knew about the portrayal beforehand.

A less charitable interpretation is that Doc steered Whyte's account to damage his rival, while maintaining deniability.

Nevertheless, Whyte's book is really exceptional. The references are very thin - something that apparently caused controversy on Whyte's dissertation committee - but the study is well told and well textured. Despite my less charitable interpretation, no one really comes off very badly in the story, even the racketeers. I highly recommend it.

Reading :: The Penguin and the Leviathan

The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-InterestBy Yochai Benkler

Yochai Benkler's previous book, The Wealth of Networks, was an academic book about how peer production works. This one is a popular book that explores the related question of how peer production and similar cooperative enterprises can work, since they seem to contradict the seemingly natural impulse of self-interest. As Benkler points out, this assumption of rational self-interest underpins so many things that we take for granted: in economics, rational choice theory; in law, harsh punishments; in business, top-down hierarchies; in government, the Leviathan. Yet, Benkler argues, cooperation is deeply ingrained in us and can serve to revolutionize all of these areas.

Benkler's examples are familiar to anyone who has read others' books in this vein, such as The Starfish and the Spider and What's Mine is Yours. (I confess that I thought: again with Linux, Zipcar, and Toyota? Surely there are other examples.) But Benkler covers new ground by delving into the nature/culture debate, describing evolutionary as well as cultural roots of cooperation; psychological and social influences; empathy; fairness; and morals. That is, Benkler follows themes of cooperation through several disciplines.

The result is a fine popular contribution. But in covering so many disciplines, Benkler spreads his argument too thin. For instance, he touches on the nature-nurture debate that stretched through the entire 20th century, but doesn't engage in it deeply except to summarily conclude that both are influences. Similarly, his discussion of psychological and social influences hinge on the notion of Goffman's work with frame, but he doesn't do much with that notion besides demonstrating that when people see the same task within competing frames, they perceive it differently. In these, and in the other chapters, Benkler takes relatively narrow conversations happening within a given discipline and characterizes these conversations as what those disciplines have discovered about cooperation. Obviously he has to gloss if he's going to apply all of these disciplines to one topic in one book - but that's a very thin gloss. I would have preferred much more hedging and, well, framing.

However, Benkler does manage to counteract so many of the obvious yet flawed objections to peer production, objections predicated on a view of humanity as simply selfish or self-interested. If you deal with people who roll their eyes at the notion of open source software or who caution you not to look at Wikipedia because "anyone could write anything there," this might be the right book to give them.

Reading :: Patterns of Culture

Patterns of Culture
By Ruth Benedict

Ruth Benedict's 1934 classic Patterns of Culture deserves a more detailed review than this one, but unfortunately I don't have that review in me right now. It's an interesting book, strongly taking the side of culture in the nature-vs.-culture debate that raged throughout the 1930s: "Culture is not a biologically transmitted complex," she argues (p.14), particularly for human beings, who are marvelously plastic. But cultures do have larger tendencies, larger patterns, that show up in individual actions and gestures (p.79).

Indeed, Benedict argues, we can think of cultures as broadly Dionysian (seeking to annihilate bounds and limits and "break through into another order of experience" through excess, pp.78-79) and Apollonian (seeking to reinforce and follow bounds, p.79). She illustrates these two sorts of cultures with extended discussions of the Pueblos of New Mexico, the Dobu of New Guinea, and the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. All of these accounts are fascinating.

"The three cultures ... are not merely heterogeneous assortments of acts and beliefs," she asserts in Chapter VII. "They have each certain goals toward which their behaviour is directed and which their institutions further" (p.223). She adds that these cultures are essentially incommensurable (p.223).

But, she adds, "it would be absurd to cut every culture down to the Procrustean bed of some catchword characterization" (p.228). "Facile generalizations about the integration of culture are most dangerous in field-work. ... None of the people we have discussed in this volume were studied in the field with any preconception of a consistent type of behaviour which that culture illustrated" (p.229). Indeed, the discussed characterizations are not types, she says, but rather "each one is an empirical characterization, and probably is not duplicated in its entirety anywhere else in the world" (p.238).

Benedict goes on at some length in this vein in Ch. VII. That's a relief, since that's what I took her project to be up to this point in the book. But the number of times she goes over this point makes me wonder if that's the reaction she originally received when she shopped around the manuscript. I would have liked it better if she had been able to integrate this clear point much more thoroughly earlier in the book, especially in pp.78-79 and throughout the three cases, so that we didn't receive this impression at the outset.

In any case, the book is certainly worth reading as an anthropological classic. But in terms of careful explication and analysis, I was not entirely impressed.

Reading :: Victim Advocacy in the Courtroom

Victim Advocacy in the Courtroom: Persuasive Practices in Domestic Violence and Child Protection Cases
By Mary Lay Schuster and Amy D. Propen

Over the last few years, the two authors have written some important articles on domestic violence and child protection cases in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. These articles are really quite strong, describing the cloud of different advocates, volunteers, and texts that surround the courtroom in these chaotic, emotionally charged cases. And in this book, the authors summarize their three-year study of Victim Impact Statements, including interviews with judges and advocates, analysis of models and sample VISes, and courtroom observations.

The book builds on and amplifies the work of the previously published articles. Here, the authors take us on a tour of these difficult cases, introducing us to the judges, advocates, victims, and defendants; the many genres that accompany each stage of the process; the competing interests; the tangled practices; and the standards of proof used to make decisions. We feel sympathy for the victims and their families, but - and here I think the authors are to be commended - we begin to feel some sympathy even for the defendants, who may have given in to poor impulse control and now face the possibility of losing their kids forever. We also become to understand the difficult, conflicted jobs of the judge and the court-appointed special advocates, who must determine the best course of action from what are sometimes a set of unappealing alternatives. After reading this book, I began to understand how difficult and complicated such work is, how genres and practices help to structure and guide it, and how families are affected by it. If you're interested in the court system or genre studies, take a look.

Reading :: Tristes Tropiques

Tristes Tropiques
By Claude Levi-Strauss

Tristes Tropiques is Claude Levi-Strauss' memoir. It's a remarkable book for a number of reasons, not least because Levi-Strauss sees the humor and vanity in every human connection. At many points, the book made me laugh out loud - remarkable, since the book begins with Levi-Strauss fleeing Nazi-occupied France and attempting to make it through US bureaucracy with his ethnographic materials. From this scene, Levi-Strauss' previous journeys to South America are told in flashbacks, flashbacks that unfortunately never quite bring us back to the original scene. The book lacks closure, both in this large sense and in the smaller encounters he describes with Brazilian aristocrats, South American missionaries, various Native American tribes, and informants in India.

The encounters with the Native American tribes were the most interesting ones for me. Levi-Strauss describes himself as a once-idealistic, but eventually cynical and crafty, ethnologist who must use his wiles to extract information and avoid being exploited by his informants. At one point, he makes a gift of bolts of red flannel to a nomadic tribe; when he wakes up the next day, they are all covered from head to foot in flannel, men, women, children, even pets. By midday they tire of the flannel and leave it on the ground. This inspires a hatred of red flannel in him, and he trades away the rest of the bolts as soon as possible. At another point, the chief of another tribe admires his aluminum pot and offers to trade it for a large supply of (loosely speaking) beer. After Levi-Strauss refuses, the chief smiles and simply takes the pot. After encounters like these, Levi-Strauss begins using his own tricks: in one tribe, it is forbidden for outsiders to know members' names, but he realizes that he can get children to tell him each others' names by provoking fights between them.

More interesting to me was what Levi-Strauss did not cover. Levi-Strauss conducted many of these visits with his wife, but she rates only one mention in his book - when she had to be evacuated due to an injury. Up to this point, Levi-Strauss had described his visits with the tribes as if he were the only anthropologist on the expedition!

Levi-Strauss is a marvelous writer, but there's something a little too neat about his interpretations. For instance, he notes that the face tattoos in one tribe are similar to the arrangement of huts in another tribe, and he postulates that the tattoos are a subconscious yearning for the other tribe's arrangements. At other points, he makes similar leaps.

Toward the end of the book, rather than returning to the opening scene, Levi-Strauss compares and discusses religions. At one point, which is perhaps more shocking in 2011 than it was in 1955, Levi-Strauss claims that religions have devolved into more and more controlling forms, with their early pinnacle being Buddhism and their late nadir being Islam. The book ends with the sort of contemplation about the future of mankind that was fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s.

Overall, the book was highly interesting and entertaining. It gave me new insights into Levi-Strauss, provided more context into his anthropological work, but didn't necessarily give me a lot of faith in his methods. Nevertheless, it's a terrific read. Pick it up and take a look.

Reading :: Linked

By Albert-Laszlo Barabasi

A while back, Mark Zachry, who knew of my interest in networks, recommended that I read this book. It's a popular book that overviews "the new science of networks," which is to say, network analysis. Needless to say, it's fascinating.

Network analysis shouldn't be confused with networked organizations (e.g., Castells; Arquilla & Ronfeldt) or sociotechnical networks (e.g., Engestrom; Miettinen; Latour; Callon; see my second book). Rather, it's a way of examining how any particular type of node connects with other nodes. It has a strong mathematical component. And although it can be applied to people (as in social network analysis), it can also be applied to atoms, bits, citations, bus terminals - anything that can be conceived as a class or type, then connected to others of the same class/type.

Barabasi does a terrific job of describing how network analysis has developed as it is applied in different fields and to different problems. Along the way, he discusses concepts such as emerging clusters, hubs and connectors, small worlds, and power laws. Due to his clarity and examples, he illuminated several things for me about network analysis - and particularly its differences with, and strengths and weaknesses in comparison with, networked organizations and social network analysis.

If you're interested in networks under any of these headings, I strongly recommend this readable book.