Rather than participant observation, early 'ethnographic' work was oriented towards 'case studies' in which the collection of 'life histories' was regarded as important (Platt, 1981). The core of case study research was the extraction of contextualised 'attitudes'.  The formation of attitudes through the impact of both personal experience and social milieu, were seen as crucial for an interactionist sociology .
Certainly for Thomas, at least initially, the optimum approach was to concentrate on life histories. These would reveal the processes by which individual attitudes were mediated by social values and vice versa.
We are safe in saying that personal life-records, as complete as possible, constitute the perfect type of sociological material, and that if social science has to use other materials at all it is only because of the practical difficulty of obtaining at the moment a sufficient number of such records to cover the totality of sociological problems, and of the enormous amount of work demanded for an adequate analysis of all the personal materials necessary to characterize the life of a social group. If we are forced to use mass-phenomena as material, or any kind of happenings taken without regard to the life histories of the individuals who participate in them, it is a defect not an advantage of our present sociological method. (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1918, volume 3, p. 1)
This statement has to be put into context. First, it is the only time that such a forceful advocacy of life history is set out in the Polish Peasant, and Thomas did not repeat it in his work throughout the twenties, indeed his position, in practice, was far less dogmatic (Thomas, 1928). Second, it prefaces the one complete life history included in the first edition of the Polish Peasant and is clearly designed to legitimate the inclusion. In the second edition the life history was shifted from its central position and located at the end of the last volume as a kind of appendix. In practice, Thomas and the other Chicagoans rarely used complete life histories.
There was an appreciation at Chicago of the problematic nature of life history records, which was to lead to the development of attitude scales (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1918; Stouffer, 1930; Burgess, 1944a). Life history collection was cumbersome, requiring vast resources and patient and very co-operative subjects. Second, it was retrospective and therefore suspect because of unconscious distortions of reconstruction. (Although, for the same reason possibly revealing of social phenomena, as the psychoanalytic case study is revealing of 'suppressed causes' of 'disturbance'). Third, it was difficult to use for generalisation.
Consequently, there was a tendency to approximate the life history approach; and this is evident from the Polish Peasant onwards. The collection of surrogate life histories in various forms became a hallmark of sociology in the United States for more than a decade, despite retention of the idea that life experiences as expressed by the subject provide the essential base for eliciting subjective meaning (Burgess, 1944a). The approximations took the form of case studies of one sort or another as there was no definitive view of the course methodic practice should take in order to gather life experiences.
In their research on the problems of adjustment facing Polish immigrants to the United States, Thomas and Znaniecki had relied heavily on correspondence between Poles in the United States and in Poland. This data constituted a 'slice' of life history pertinent to the research area. The surrogate life histories provided by the letters revealed the personal attitudes and social values to which they responded.
Later, in his work on female delinquents, Thomas (1924) used court and social work records. These case records provided a ready source of material for the elaboration of the theory of social disorganisation and accompanying thesis of 'wishes' in the particular area of delinquency. Such case records were abbreviated life histories that bore upon the issue at hand. (They were, of course, uncritical sources but the aim of qualitative research has not been with structural critique).
[ 1] Case study refers to individual cases, particularly information achieved through personal documents either existent or derived through interview or written by the respondent. This usage does not necessarily coincide with current usage. Chapin (1920) referred to case study as a 'technique for an intensive and many-sided study of the individual compared to the sampling of a group and the enumeration of a community'. In the 1920s, too, 'field work' referred to all empirical data collecting techniques, unlike its more usual usage today that implies ethnographic study, rather than scheduled interviewing. Return
 Interactionist sociology is the term used for sociological perspectives that were concerned primarily with social interaction. This was grounded in German social philosophy and American pragmatism (Rock, 1979). Interactionist sociology has taken various forms but, in the early period at Chicago, its principles are clearly stated in Thomas and Znaniecki (1918). The work of the Chicagoans can be identified as broadly interactionist. Out of this (as Fisher and Strauss (1979) suggest) emerged a specific approach labelled 'symbolic interactionism', which was developed as much away from Chicago as at it. Return
Next 3.4 The nomothetic orientation of 'Chicago Ethnography'