Slim’s Table Review: Ethnography/Symbolic Interaction

This paper will analyze the book Slim’s Table, an ethnography that was written by Mitchell Duneier. Duneier’s book focused on the lives of a group of black men in the Valois Cafeteria on the south side of Chicago. The book gives some insight into the different worlds that these men must navigate every day. Analysis of Slim’s Table will include the purpose of the ethnography, epistemology, theoretical framework, methods, and findings.


            The purpose of the study was to share the lives of a group of men who frequented the Valois Cafeteria on the south side of Chicago. Through a series of events, Duneier finds himself inside a community of lower socio-economic black men inside the café. He records the conversations that he hears, the ones that he participates in, and the interactions of several of the regulars. He is trying to communicate the challenges that these men face and how they have tried to overcome stereotyping that has had such a strong label on them.


            Duneier follows on epistemology of constructionism, building meaning from a dialogue with those he is learning about. As Duneier becomes more familiar with the society and culture that these men are a part of, he starts to make meaning of the different objects that are important to this group. One of the early examples of this was the description of the key ring. For Slim and his colleagues, having a large key ring symbolized responsibility (Duneier, 1994, p. 9). There were also several examples where men would greet each other in very rough language (see page 38), language that would have been offensive to Duneier without the context in which he participated in the conversation.

Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework that guided Duneier on his research was symbolic interactionism. This framework takes an uncritical view of culture and attempts to understand culture through symbols, language, and communication. One part of the book that really showed this framework was the interaction between the men of the café and Bart. Bart was not your typical person to participate inside of this culture, he had some very biased thinking in regard to black men. However, he came to depend on them in times of need and these men looked after him when he was sick in the hospital. They even took time to buy Bart some of his favorite candy, which Bart had a very hard time taking from them as a gift (Duneier, 1994). Duneier also talked about how the men of the café would “use humor to embarrass their associates in a good-natured way, they do not usually attempt to humiliate them or put them in their place” (Duneier, 1994, p. 40). There is also the time when a drunk man approached the owner of the café, Spiro. Spiro asked the man to leave and ultimately threw the drunk out – with the police and the regulars watching. When Duneier asked whey Spiro did not seek help from the regulars in the café, some of them policemen, he responded “all I [sic] had to do was ask” (Duneier, 1994, p. 96).


Methods for researching this study was to become a part of the culture in the Valois café and try to participate in the culture that existed inside.   Duneier does not relate that he did research in any other neighborhood locations and was warned, by the men of the café, not to go to certain places. His research was an ethnography, recording the things going on around him, he participated in conversation, he sought to make meaning of the unique mix of humanity that occurred inside of the Valois. The sample that was used was unique to this particular study. I do not think that Duneier’s intention was to go the Valois and write an ethnography, but upon happening to see Bart – a person who had some very persistent habits – there was curiosity. Why would Bart leave his normal place in the cafeteria of the dorm? Why did Bart create a new normal place in café where there was so much diversity? I think these questions led Duneier to Slim and his table.


One of the key thoughts in the conclusion of the book was “White men can learn much about the possibilities of the masculine role from black men who have had to engage in adaptions unusual in white society” (Duneier, 1994, p. 159). The men of the Valois were frustrated by actions of the youth in their neighborhoods and how violent these streets had become. They often tried to do the right thing, checking on each other and sharing advice back and forth. Racism and the prevailing view of mainstream society have given the impression that “the ghetto” is not a safe place to live. Yet this group of men most admired the characteristics of genuineness and honesty.

Knowledge and Reality

            Gurin found knowledge in the analysis of the surveys that were used for the diversity studies. There were controls for variables, regressions and interpretations that led to the conclusion that there was a “positive relationship between diversity experiences and educational outcomes” (Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, & Gurin, 2002, p. 358). The epistemology of the Gurin study was post-positive, they were the researcher and the data was the object. No interaction with those people taking the survey occurred.

Duneier constructed the knowledge from those around him. He spent a lot of time trying to live in the environment of the Valois café. He wanted to try and understand what the men of the Valois were thinking and how culture and society informed those thoughts. Duneier was willing to change some of his thinking about the men of Valois as he got to know them.

Reality for Gurin was defined by the results of the surveys that were used for analysis. He did not have any way to communicate with the participants or ask them any follow up questions. He was not able to see the context in which the surveys were given or the state of mind of the students as they took them. Reality for Duneier was constructed as he lived among and interacted with those who frequented the Valois café. He made meaning from the symbols they used and the playful banter of the conversation. He had the opportunity to see the mannerisms of the men and hear the tone of voice that they used.


The book Slim’s Table, is an ethnography that was written by Mitchell Duneier and is focused on the lives of a group of black men in the Valois Cafeteria on the south side of Chicago. Duneier used an epistemology of constructionism and a theoretical framework of symbolic interaction. The research that Duneier completed was done as an ethnography and the results of that research became the book Slim’s Table.


Duneier, M. (1994). Slim’s table: Race, respectability, and masculinity: University of Chicago Press.

Gurin, P., Dey, E., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes. Harvard Educational Review, 72(3), 330-367. doi:doi:10.17763/haer.72.3.01151786u134n051

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