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

5. Chicagoans as atheoretical empirical researchers

5.1 The myth

It is ironic that, although Chicago sociology is seen to dominate the development of the discipline in the United States for several decades (Martindale, 1976), it is commonly held that the Chicagoans produced little of theoretical import, at least for contemporary sociology. Chicago's oral tradition (Huber 1973a; Fisher and Strauss, 1978; Rock, 1979) may have given the impression of a lack of theoretical development and accounts of Chicago sociology tend to propound a myth that emphasises the empirical nature of the work done at Chicago. The Chicagoans are portrayed as concerned only with describing the world, particularly Chicago, irrespective of, or even in reaction to, theoretical concerns.

The Chicago School of Sociology, motivated by the journalist's campaigning and documentary concerns was the example par excellence of determined and detailed empirical social research. (Taylor, Walton and Young, 1973, p.110)

In the period prior to the Second World War, the Chicagoans' theoretical contributions are usually seen as restricted to the field of urban sociology. While being characterised as pioneers in this realm, the output of the 'Chicago School' is seen as rather limited and restricted to models of the growth of cities (Easthope, 1974; Giner, 1972; Rock, 1979). It is this role as urban sociologists that is among the more enduring aspects of the myth of the Chicagoans' atheoreticism. There are still commentators who see the Chicagoans as engaged principally in the pursuit of urban sociology and who refer to the 'Chicago School of Urban Sociology', (Oliven, 1978; Philpott, 1978; Agocs, 1979; Caldarovic 1979; Choldin, 1980; Haussermann and Kramer-Badoni, 1980).

In the period following the war, the empirical activity of the Chicagoans is again highlighted and theory is seen as a secondary consequence. This post-war period usually highlights the development of deviance studies, with 'labelling theory' as the major theoretical contribution.

The term 'Chicago School' has been used to designate a whole group of sociologists working at Chicago during this period [1920s and early 1930s]. Their major interest was in the city, and in the work of men like Robert Park and Louis Wirth they laid the foundations of what was to become the special field of urban sociology. They emphasised field work, that is, going out and collecting data rather than sitting in a study and spinning out theories. As Park kept advising his students: 'Get your hands dirty with research!' The Chicago sociologists also had a special affinity for social phenomena that were deviant or far-out in some way. Thus they produced a string of monographs in various colourful corners of urban life, such as the world of skid row or of crime. The Chicago School was also the beginning of what was later to be called the sociology of disorganization or of deviance. (Berger, P.L. and Berger, B., 1976, p. 48)

In consequence the Chicagoans tend to be viewed as peripheral to the development of theoretical sociology in the United States. The Chicagoans are seen as more and more anachronistic in their concern for empirical detail at the expense of developing rigorous theoretical propositions (Madge, 1963, p. 110; Brake, 1980, p. 30). In the event, they are seen as more-or-less taken by surprise, and therefore excluded from, the 'grand theoretical' or 'middle-range theoretical' developments embodied in structural functionalism. In short, the Chicagoans are portrayed as having a desire to collect 'facts' irrespective of theoretical concerns, (Rex, 1973).

This chapter examines the work of the Chicagoans to assess their contribution to theoretical development. First, an assessment is made of the extent to which the empirical work at Chicago was developed at the expense of theory. This is followed by an assessment of the degree to which the Chicagoans were urban sociologists. The theoretical work of the Chicagoans as a whole is considered both for its conceptual development and the contribution the Chicagoans made to substantive sub-disciplines within sociology. The final section considers the theoretical work of the Chicagoans in the general context of the development of sociological theory in the United States.

Next 5.2 The empirical concerns of the Chicagoans