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

3. Chicagoans as ethnographers

3.1 The myth

One of the most common views of Chicago sociology is to see it as embodying a qualitative approach to sociology and thus at variance with a 'quantitative tradition' embodied in the approach adopted at Columbia (Glaser and Strauss, 1967, p. vii; Berger and Berger, 1976, p. 48). In this chapter the nature of the ethnographic work undertaken at Chicago will be examined. Chapter four will take up the 'forgotten tradition' of quantitative social research at Chicago.
Chicago is portrayed as rooted in 'qualitative sociology' (Deutscher, 1973, p. 325; Mullins, 1973; Tiryakian, 1979a, p. 227; Wiley, 1979, p. 56; Kuklick, 1980, p. 207). Some commentators suggest that map drawing, life history collection and even walking (Bell, 1977, p.52) were the major preoccupations of the Chicago sociologists (at least until 1930); while others imply that the Chicagoans were principally, if not exclusively, participant observers (Madge, 1963; Pusic, 1973; Bogdan and Taylor, 1975; Meltzer, et al., 1975; Rock, 1979). This methodological aspect of the myth of the 'Chicago School' is the most enduring and specific.

The idea of Chicago as the bulwark of ethnography is usually supported through reference to the work of three people at Chicago, namely Thomas, Blumer and Park. The latter is popularly seen as having instituted a programme of research that led to the adoption of participant observation. The views on ethnography of these three key figures, along with that of other significant figures in the history of Chicago, will be examined below. The extent to which the Chicagoans relied on participant observation will be explored and the approaches adopted at Chicago will be put into the context of American sociology as a whole in order to assess the extent to which Chicago sociologists offered something methodologically unique.

Next 3.2 The nature of ethnography