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

6. G.H. Mead and the Chicagoans

6.1 The myth

Chicago sociology is frequently seen as owing much to the influence of George Herbert Mead. Indeed, along with the view that Chicago sociology is 'qualitative', the importance of Mead is the most enduring myth about the 'Chicago School'.

At its extreme, this myth places Mead as central to all the work done in the 'Chicago School'. Thus, for example, Ciacci (1972) argued that German idealism, pragmatism and evolutionism were combined in Mead's work and became part of the 'Chicago School'. Mead's ideas showed up in the work of Thomas, Park, Burgess, Wirth and R.E.L. Faris and later in the work of Blumer and Hughes, and can also be seen in the preoccupations of Peter Berger and Alfred Schutz.

A less all embracing and more widespread view is that despite the diverse origins of interactionism, Mead was the 'founding father' of symbolic interactionism. This can be found in statements of two central figures within the tradition, Herbert Blumer and Manford Kuhn.  

A view of human society as symbolic interaction has been followed more than it has been formulated. Partial, usually fragmentary, statements of it are to be found in the writ­ings of a number of eminent scholars ... Charles Horton Cooley, W.I. Thomas, Robert E. Park, E.W. Burgess, Florian Znaniecki, Ellsworth Faris, James Mickel Williams ... Wil­liam James, John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. None of these scholars, in my judgement, has presented a systematic statement of the nature of human group life from the stand­point of symbolic interaction. Mead stands out among all of them in laying bare the fundamental premises of the ap­proach, yet he did little to develop its methodological implications for sociological study. (Blumer, 1962, p. 179)

The year 1937 lies virtually in the middle of a four-year period which saw the publication of Mind, Self and Society, Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century, and The Philosophy of the Act. It would represent the greatest naivete to suggest that thus the year 1937 represented the introduction of symbolic interactionism. We are all aware of the long development: from James, Baldwin and Cooley to Thomas, Faris, Dewey, Blumer and Young.... Nor is it the fact that Mead represents the fullest development of the orientation that makes so significant the posthumous publi­cation of his works. Mead's ideas had been known for a very long time. He had taught University of Chicago students from 1893 to 1931. His notions were bruited about in clas­ses and seminars wherever there were professors conducting them who had studied at the University of Chicago.... No the significance of the publication of Mead's books is that it ended what must be termed the long era of the "oral tradition", the era in which most of the germinating ideas had been passed about by word of mouth. (Kuhn, 1964, p. 61)

Mead has thus been acknowledged by most commentators on interactionism and symbolic interactionism as the main 'founding father' of that intellectual orientation (Deutscher, 1973, p.325; Mullins, 1973; Fisher and Strauss, 1978, p. 483). He is assumed to be provider of the general theoretic orientation that later became encapsulated in the symbolic interactionist approach propounded by Blumer. (Faris, 1945; Young and Freeman, 1966; Petras, 1966; Meltzer and Petras, 1970; Warshay, 1971; Ritzer, 1975a; Kando, 1977; Littlejohn, 1977; Lauer and Handel, 1977; Lindesmith, Strauss and Denzin, 1977).

The identification of Mead with the roots of symbolic interactionism (Huber 1973a, 1974; Schmitt, 1974; Stone et al., 1974) has led to him being given considerable prominence within the 'Chicago School'. His relationship with the Chicagoans and the assumption about his central role in the genesis of a symbolic interactionist perspective are analysed below.

Next 6.2 Mead's direct involvement with the Department of Sociology at Chicago