1 Chicago School
1.1 Introduction
1.2 The concept of 'school
1.3 Constructions of the School
1.4 A Chicago School?
1.5 Designations of the School
1.6 Brief chronology of the Department
1.7 Myths of the Chicago School

2 Chicagoans as ameliorists
2.1 The myth
2.2 Small and Henderson
2.3 Thomas and pure research
2.4 Park's anti-reformism
2.5 Burgess and action research
2.6 Local Community Research
2.7 Society for Social Research

2.8 Conclusion

3 Chicagoans as ethnographers
3.1 The myth
3.2 Nature of ethnography
3.3 Case study
3.4 Nomothetic orientation
3.5 Participant observation at Chicago
3.6 PO and community studies
3.7 PO and the Chicago approach

4 The quantitative tradition at Chicago
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Case study v statistics
4.3 Park's approach to quantification
4.4 Ogburn and quantification
4.5 Burgess as barometer
4.6 Methodological debate in SSR
4.7 Chicago eclecticism
4.8 Interdisciplinary network
4.9 Conclusion

5 Chicagoans as atheoretical empirical researchers
5.1 The myth
5.2 The empirical approach
5.3 Urban sociology at Chicago
5.4 Conceptual development
5.5 Chicago theorising
5.6 Chicagoans epistemology
5.7 Chicago alternatives
5.8 Conclusion

6 G.H. Mead and the Chicagoans
6.1 The myth
6.2 Mead's involvement in sociology
6.3 Mead's theoretical impact
6.4 Mead and symbolic intractionism
6.5 Mead and Blumer debate
6.6 The debate and the work of the Chicagoans
6.7 Conclusion

7 Chicago dominance
7.1 The myth
7.2 Chicago's role to 1930
7.3 The coup and decline
7.4 Chicago neglect
7.5 Chicago introspection
7.6 Loss of research ethos
7.7 Structural factors
7.8 Extent of the decline
7.9 Conclusion

8 Schools and metascience
8.1 Introduction
8.2 Potential of a unit approach
8.3 Conclusion



About Myths of the Chicago School (1987)



© Lee Harvey 1987, 2019

Page updated 1 February, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., [1987] 2019, Myths of the Chicago School, available at, last updated 1 February, 2019, originally published in Aldershot by Avebury, Gower Piublishing, all rights revert to author.


Myths of the Chicago School

3. Chicagoans as ethnographers

3.2 The nature of ethnography

Part of the problem in assessing the methodological tendencies of the Chicago sociologists lies in the confusion over the use of terms. Ethnography has emerged, in the 1980s, as a term preferred to 'qualitative approach' but is no clearer in its delimitation of methodic practice or methodological tendency. Hammersley and Atkinson (1983, p.1) pointed to the diversity of usage of the term 'ethnography'.

There is disagreement as to whether ethnography's distinctive feature is the elicitation of cultural knowledge (Spradley, 1980), the detailed investigation of patterns of social interaction (Gumperz, 1981), or holistic analysis of societies (Lutz, 1981). Sometimes ethnography is portrayed as essentially descriptive, or perhaps as a form of story-telling (Walker, 1981); occasionally, by contrast, great emphasis is laid on the development and testing of theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967, Denzin, 1978).

The tendency in most approaches to ethnography is to view it as somehow opposed to the 'positivist' approach to sociology embodied in the 'quantitative tradition'. Ethnography is seen as aligned with 'naturalism' and concerned with 'meanings' rather than 'causes'. It is viewed as aiming essentially at an understanding of the processes of interaction and the way people construe their world in interactive settings. In this sense, ethnography is usually contrasted with the attempt at causal abstraction associated with quantitative research practice.
There are probably as many definitions of participant observation as a method as there are participant observers; any general definition is bound to be disputable. The terms 'ethnography' and 'participant observation' are often used interchangeably. Both imply certain methodic practices and a methodological attitude. The distinction between ethnography and participant observation has become blurred. Ethnographers participate 'overtly or covertly, in people's daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions; in fact collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues' (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983, p. 2)

Involvement, observation and an insatiable eclecticism, all elements of participant observation, seem to be covered by this definition. The re-emergence of the term ethnography draws methodic practice, such as non-participant observation, in-depth interviewing, into a common sphere with participant observation. Although there is no agreement on what ethnography or participant observation attempts to do, I would argue that the core of the modern concept of ethnography is 'getting out among the subjects of enquiry' in such a way that their perspective is engaged. Participant observation is thus the exemplary method.
However, the term participant observation has changed over time and has not always been associated with the current wide notion of research practice associated with ethnography. Thus retrospective reconstructions sometimes attach current meanings to past research practice and in so doing are misled by them.
Lindeman (1924) first published an account of participant observation as part of his critique of current methods of investigation, notably the absurdity of surveyors in regarding their scheduled questions as free from bias. He argued for more emphasis on observation. But for Lindeman, observation was a form of asking questions and involved two things. First, the 'objective observation' of all external phenomena connected with behaviour and, second, 'participant observation from the inside'. For him, no one could do both and so joint investigations were imperative. Lindeman's approach was essentially behaviourist and concerned with the 'objective' observation of behaviour from two perspectives. The participant nature of the participant observation Lindeman recommended required no engagement with the subject's perspective.

Subsequently, in the 1940s, participant observation tended to mean the adoption of a role that would enable one to participate, to varying degrees, in the life of the subjects, in order to get first-hand information (Daniel, 1940) usually as an adjunct to other research methods, notably the use of documentary material from other sources, such as case records. Only during the 1950s did participant observation emerge as a potentially exhaustive method in its own right (Becker and Geer, 1957) and, with it, the varied and extensive nature of the enterprise. Along with this came the ostensive engagement with the issue of the subject's perspective, expounded forcefully in Becker's (1967) question 'Whose Side Are We On?'.
 The emergence of participant observation in its own right was related to the critique of 'positivism' and the emergence of 'naturalism'.

Participant observation research still produces much ethnographic description but its keynote has shifted to a more 'phenomenological' register, in which the texture of symbolic exchanges is highlighted in order to display the practical commitment of individuals to making their own sense out of their social encounters. (Butters, 1973, p. 2)

Thus participant observation involved a 'style' of sociological research

characteristically used for seeking analytic descriptions of complex social organisations. This style emphasises direct observation, informant interviewing, document analysis, respondent interviewing, and direct participation, and is made possible in large part by repeated, largely social interaction with members of the organisation under study. The use of these techniques is organised by unusual research design in which hypothesis generation, data gathering and hypothesis testing are carried on simultaneously at every step of the research process. (Butters, 1973, p. 1)

In this sense, participant observation research was not a conspicuous feature of American sociological research at Chicago or elsewhere until the second half of this century. The excursions into this form of research were fairly rare and virtually non- existent prior to 1940. An examination of some early examples of studies generally assumed to be based on participant observation research will illustrate the gulf between the approach adopted and the 'naturalistic' concerns now apparently central to participant observation. If these studies (Anderson, 1923; Cressey, 1929; Zorbaugh, 1929) are participant observation studies they are so only in the limited sense of 'first hand descriptive studies' and not in the sense of engaging the perspectives of the subjects in the field situation. First, however, the notion of case study, a far more familiar term and technique for Chicagoans, will be considered.

Next 3.3 Case study