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Phillip at William Foote Whyte’s home, Cayuga, New York, 1996
Organizational Psychology
Image by PhillipC
You didn’t enter this house if you weren’t ready for an intellectual challenge. And the intellectual challenges I got far exceeded any others I have ever had. I still haven’t finished processing the ideas I took away with me from the haunting last visit shown in this shot. I went straight from this moment to Syracuse Airport and embarked on the 28 hour haul back to Wellington. I spent most of that time trying to make notes so as not to forget……..

His obituary.

William Foote Whyte, the sociologist whose experience while hanging with Boston’s North End gangs as a college student was published in 1943 as Street Corner Society and eventually became a classic in the field, died July 16 of pneumonia at Cayuga Medical Center. The professor emeritus in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations was 86.

A Cornell faculty member from 1948 until his retirement in 1979, Whyte was a specialist in organizational behavior and was regarded, at the time, as America’s foremost expert in employee-owned firms. His hands-on research in diverse workplaces — from the oil fields of Oklahoma and the dining rooms of Stouffers to the rural villages of Peru and the Mondragon cooperative complex in Spain — was documented in 17 books.

But it was Whyte’s career-long and still-controversial assertion that social scientists can maintain objectivity while immersed in the societies they study that influenced methodologies in a range of disciplines from anthropology, social psychology and industrial relations to organizational behavior, agricultural development and sociology. His how-to-do-it text was titled Learning From the Field: A Guide From Experience.

Whyte was born June 27, 1914, in Springfield, Mass., and earned an A.B. in economics from Swarthmore College in 1936 before his research in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, from 1936-40, took him to the streets of Boston. He earned his Ph.D. in sociology in 1943 at University of Chicago and taught there from 1944 to 1948. Whyte also taught at the University of Oklahoma from 1942 to 1943.

He is survived by his wife of 62 years and co-author of several books, Kathleen King Whyte of Ithaca, as well as two daughters, Joyce Wiza of Manchester, N.H., and Lucy Whyte Ferguson of Taos, N.M.; two sons, Martin Whyte of Silver Spring, Md., and John Whyte, M.D., of Philadelphia; 12 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Slighted by some of his professional peers as more of a "storyteller" than a scientist, Whyte related his tale and those of many others in Participant Observer: An Autobiography, published in 1994 by ILR Press at Cornell. Within the framework of his life story, Whyte described how he undertook research on industrial organization and communities in the United States, Canada, Latin America and Spain.

After 1943, all of Whyte’s field research was conducted with the aid of braces, crutches and canes because he had contracted polio. He was not expected to walk but recovered some use of his legs, thanks in part to an experimental treatment offered in a Boston hospital. His first book, after a year of rehabilitation at the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, was Human Relations in the Restaurant Industry (McGraw Hill, 1948). In all, Whyte was the author or co-author of 22 books.

When Whyte retired from his teaching duties, the emeritus professor devoted his attention to the Extension Division of ILR and was a co-founder of Programs for Employment and Workplace Systems. Working by then from a wheelchair, he served as research director of PEWS. His final book was Creative Problem Solving in the Field (AltaMira Press, 1997).

About the storytelling sociologist who started writing for the Bronxville, N.Y., newspaper while still in high school, Cornell Professor of Anthropology Davydd Greenwood said this: "Bill Whyte is a storyteller because the stories that matter are what matter to anyone hoping to understand the complex structure of human situations. The very integrity of the subjects themselves can only be respected by telling and retelling their story in convincing and powerful ways, an art that Bill Whyte excels at."

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