In the late 1930s, Whyte lived in a slum district of Boston that was mostly inhabitated by first and second generation immigrants from Italy. The neighbourhood was considered dangerous and crime was prevalent. Some Italians were suspected to be potential allies of Italian fascism under Benito Mussolini. Whyte lived in that district for three and a half years, including 18 months he spent with an Italian family. Through this work, Whyte became a pioneer in participant observation.
Street Corner Society describes various groups and communities within the district. Paesani – people originally from the same Italian town – are one example. The first part of the book contains detailed accounts of how local gangs were formed and organized. Whyte differentiated between "corner boys" and "college boys": The lives of the former men revolved around particular street corners and the nearby shops. The college boys, on the other hand, were more interested in good education and moving up the social ladder.