Date of Award


Degree Name

PhD Leadership Studies

Dissertation Committee

Robert Donmoyer, PhD; Mary McDonald, PhD; Zachary Gabriel Green, PhD


Little Italy, Italian Americans, ethnic identity, San Diego


The literature suggests that identifying with a particular place can promote a sense of ethnic identity. This study focused on eight Italian American community members’ perceptions of San Diego’s Little Italy as both a container and creator of ethnic identity. The study addressed a) how the participants define and convey their Italian American ethnic identity and b) how the participants perceive the role of San Diego’s Little Italy pre-redevelopment and post-redevelopment in creating and shaping their sense of being Italian American.

The study employed a case-study design. Ethnohistoric accounts of life experiences were gathered from participants selected through convenience and maximum variation sampling procedures. Polkinghorne’s narrative analysis process was used to organize and display the individual accounts, and a cross-case analysis was conducted to identify emergent themes.

Three overarching themes emerged from the narratives: a) Elements and Manifestations of Social Capital, b) Cultural Characteristics and Dynamics, and c) Evolving Purpose of Place. Each theme in turn comprised four subthemes that helped to illuminate each theme’s dynamics.

Overall, a sense of community ownership was evident in the narratives from both former and current residents. For some participants, Little Italy was less about ethnicity and more about an upscale urban lifestyle enhanced somewhat by an Italian American cultural sensibility. For others, Little Italy in its current manifestation holds little meaning; instead, these participants look to the former neighborhood and its characteristics to maintain an emotional connection to place and their cultural heritage. A noteworthy subgroup comprises participants who grew up in San Diego’s Italian neighborhood and are now an integral part of Little Italy’s rebranding. For them, a measure of tension exists: They are focused on continued progress in Little Italy but also lament the community’s changing cultural climate along with the disappearance of its historical assets.

Further studies could illuminate dynamics of Little Italy’s managing organization and its role in shaping an updated Italian American culture. Studies of Italian Americans with no connection to a designated Italian American place also would provide opportunities to better understand the role of place in the development and maintenance of ethnic identity.

Document Type

Dissertation: Open Access


Leadership Studies