The regular meetings of the Society for Social Research were very much concerned with methodology. They were forums that engaged different research ideas, techniques and procedures. As the Bulletin announced on several occasions, there was a diversity of opinion on methodological issues that ensured healthy, and lengthy debate.
During the Autumn Quarter (1931) from 30 to 60 people attended each meeting an increase of from three to five fold over the meetings of five years ago. Never during this quarter did the discussion cease before the time of adjournment. (Bulletin of the Society for Social Research, January 1932)
The talks given during 1929 provide an example of the engagement with the developing statistical approach. These meetings were reported in the Bulletin (1930) as excellently attended and with 'enough conflict of ideas to insure lively and critical discussions'. The talks included F.N. Freeman from the School of Education on a statistical study of foster children; L.L. Thurstone from the Psychology Department on a statistical technique for comparing I.Q. of younger and older children; a debate between Blumer and T.C. McCormick on the logic and scope of statistical methods; and E. Faris critically examining the value of life history documents as data in social psychology. Nearly all the talks that year were concerned with methodological considerations. The year was rounded off by a farewell dinner for Park prior to his trip to Asia and Park summed up the tendency in the Department by urging 'sociologists not to lose their human interests while amidst their abstractions and their measurements' (Bulletin of the Society for Social Research, 1930, p. 3).
Rather than advocate impressionistic research, the Chicagoans, as the meetings of the Society for Social Research show, were very concerned with methodological aspects of research. Indeed, in the person of Ogburn, the Chicagoans were represented by a severe critic of impressionistic research. As is clear from the minutes of his address to the Society for Social Research (6th March 1933) about his involvement in the President's Social Trends research, Ogburn was far from happy with the contributions of many of the researchers to the Social Trends study. As chairman of the committee on research he was in the position of having to sharpen up the research, which he said he did by posing the question 'How do you know it?'. He noted, scornfully, that only approximately twenty per cent of researchers could forecast on the basis of their study, and that much of the reporting provided a false impression. The extent of the methodological debate is evident in the number of meetings in which methodological discussion was the prime focus. Forty-five (33%) of the addresses were mainly concerned with methodology. In the period up to 1930 nearly half (48%) of all meetings had an address in which methodology was a major concern. After 1930 the proportion dropped to a third (32%). While the addresses directed to methodology were mainly from sociology staff and students (48%), other Chicago faculty contributed considerably (31%). While about one in three of all academic addresses (faculty and students) were directed to methodology, the ratio dropped to one in five for external, non-academic speakers. Members of the Society were more than twice as likely to address the meetings on methodological issues (65%) than non-members (35%) (see Appendix 3).
In all, thirty-five (26%) of the talks given to the society were entirely devoted to methodological issues, these included two searching addresses by Blumer. The first (23rd November 1931) was in relation to his research into the effects of motion pictures on attitudes, in which he collaborated with Hauser. They used a combination of life histories and questionnaires. Blumer criticised existing methods of examining mass data. The case method
does produce a comprehensive record of individual experience, but attempts to classify such data into types have been disappointing. The statistical method is too abstract, limited to one or two points, and provides a formula which is interpreted in the light of individual experience.
Alternatively, Dr. Blumer suggested the collection of a large number of anonymous personal narratives related to the particular experience under investigation. If in these records an extreme form of experience appears in a few cases this may be indicative of a tendency toward the particular type of experience. (Bulletin of the Society for Social Research, Jan 1932)
The second (4th March 1935) was on
"The Search for Method in Sociology". Preoccupation with method is not due to dissatisfaction with results obtained within the field of sociology. Rather it is born out of a desire to be accepted as "scientific" by other sciences. Such courting of favor has had disadvantageous consequences. Sociologists tend to become constantly dependent upon other sciences for the framework inside which their work shall go on. They become exceedingly self-conscious regarding method and thus are led to restrict the area of their investigation to such problems as will easily lend themselves to methods and techniques accepted without question by other sciences. They have come to place an exaggerated importance, for instance, upon quantitative procedure, as witness the pre-sent extensive volume of statistical work. Its extent cannot be explained by its success inside the field of sociology, but by reference to the prestige of the physical sciences .... The discussion which followed Professor Blumer's talk revealed ... interesting differences of opinion. (Bulletin of the Society for Social Research, March 1935, p. 4)
It is notable, in this, that Blumer made a comment on method-lead enquiry that C. Wright Mills (1959) found it necessary to restate a quarter of a century later. In addition, Blumer's (1931) celebrated paper 'Science Without Concepts' was first presented at the Ninth Annual Institute of the Society for Social Research (1930).
The concern with methodology in the Society reflects the discussion of methods and methodology in the doctoral dissertations at Chicago. The sample of theses shows that thirty-two (76%) discussed methods and twenty-one (50%) included methodological or epistemological discussions. Methodic discussion increased from sixty five per cent up to 1940 to ninety per cent of theses after 1940, there was a less dramatic and statistically insignificant rise in methodological discussion from forty eight to fifty five per cent over the same period, (see Appendix 6).
Next 4.7 Chicago eclecticism