1 The Chicago School

2 Chicagoans as ameliorists

3 Chicagoans as ethnographers

4 The quantitative tradition at Chicago

5 Chicagoans as atheoretical empirical researchers

6 G.H. Mead and the Chicagoans
7 Chicago dominance
8 Schools and metascience



About Myths of the Chicago School (1987)



© Lee Harvey 1987, 2017

Page updated 19 September, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., [1987] 2017, Myths of the Chicago School, available at, last updated 19 September, 2017, originally published in Aldershot by Avebury, Gower Piublishing, all rights revert to author..


A novel of twists and surpises


Myths of the Chicago School

2. Chicagoans as ameliorists

2.1 The myth

The 'Chicago School' of sociology has often been associated with both amelioration and social reform. Friedrichs (1970, p. 73), for example, characterises the leaders of the 'Chicago School' as 'prophetic seers dedicated to the progressive amelioration of social ills' and Madge, (1963, p. 125) talks of the 'Chicago School's' 'faith in human betterment'. Tiryakian (1979a) linked the 'School' with civic reform and a number of other commentators refer to the Chicagoans involvement in, or concern with, amelioration and reform (Berger and Berger, 1976; Molotch, 1976; Castells, 1977; Greeley, 1977; Philpott, 1978; Brake, 1980; Kuklick, 1980).

Often, amelioration and reform are conflated in the literature on the history of sociology, especially in relation to Chicago. For example, Hunter (1983, p. 473) observed

The concluding chapters of Zorbaugh's [1929] study, as did most analyses of the early Chicago social scientists (Hunter, 1980), turned to the issue of applying his knowledge and insights to ameliorative social reform.

A clearer understanding of the role of reform in the development of sociology in the United States and the role of the Chicagoans in the development of sociological theory is facilitated if a distinction is made between reform and amelioration. Amelioration is taken here to be action guided by personal ethical values and a sense of Christian mission. Usually, ameliorative practices are linked to charitable works. Social reform, on the other hand, is linked to civic action and aimed at longer-term structural change [1]. However, the distinction between the two did not become clear until at least the 1920s. Lapiere (1964), indeed, suggested that sociology did not escape reformism until much later.

As you no doubt learned in your first course on the history of sociology, American sociologists of the first two decades of this century were — with some few exceptions, of which Cooley is the only one who comes to mind — just moralistic reformers in scientists' clothing. What you may not know, or at least not fully appreciate, is that well into the 1930s the status of sociology, and hence of sociologists, was abominable, both within and outside the academic community.
The public image of the sociologist was that of a blue-nosed reformer, ever ready to pronounce moral judgements, and against all pleasurable forms of social conduct. In the universities, sociology was generally thought of as an uneasy mixture of social philosophy and social work.

Lapiere further suggested that it was only through the work of individuals using quantitative methods and located in isolated, mainly 'one man' departments, that sociology threw off this image. Yet this contradicts what the Chicagoans believed themselves to be doing. They, like other pioneers in the field, were concerned to establish a scientific approach to society devoid of ameliorative or reformist interests.

The view of Chicago sociology that suggests they were reformist or ameliorist is primarily aimed at the early years of the 'Chicago School', from the inception of the department in 1892 to the end of the 'golden era' (Faris, 1967; Cavan, 1983) around 1933. It tends to encompass the work of Small and Henderson, through to Burgess. The later work of the Chicagoans, especially as embodied in the deviancy studies of Becker in the 1950s, is seen to be explicitly antimeliorist (Gouldner, 1973).

Arguably, however, Chicago sociology was never committed to amelioration although some of the very early work encouraged by Henderson was possibly mediated by an interest in intervention. Chicago's involvement in reform was tempered by a concern with objective science and, from at least the First World War, it consistently adopted an attitude of 'detached' sociological enquiry, reflecting changes throughout the discipline. An analysis of the research conducted at Chicago will indicate the extent to which reformist tendencies were evident and illustrate that the 'School' changed its position in relation to reform in a way that paralleled American sociology as a whole.



[1] Janowitz (1975) argues that social reform is guided by a concern with social control. He went on to argue (Janowitz, 1978) that social control served as a central concept in the development of sociological theory in the United States. He suggested that social control has been a 'sensitizing concept' or 'theoretical orientation' of sociology from the inception of sociology until the 1960s. Social control, he suggested, emerged as a central theoretical thrust by which sociologists sought to integrate substantive and theoretical interests. Sociological theory up to 1930 was heavily dominated by the concept of social control and this was also used as a 'vehicle for joining sociological analysis to "social problems" and social policy' (Janowitz, 1975, p. 40).
However, as we shall see, it is the theoretical analysis of social change and disorganisation that lead the Chicagoans, especially Thomas, to advocate an approach to sociology that did not concern itself with the direct, practical reformist potential of its enquiry. Thus Thomas' concern with social control and disorganisation is similar to Durkheim's concern with collective order and anomie.



Next 2.2 Small and Henderson and Christian reform