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

7. Chicago dominance

7.1 The myth

It is commonly assumed that the Department of Sociology at Chicago was the foremost sociology department in the United States until well into the 1930s. Chicago, it is argued, dominated American sociology for about forty years.

Established in 1892, the University of Chicago department of sociology dominated general sociology and sociological theory until the 1930s... Other departments, such as that of Columbia, initially chaired by Franklin Giddens [sic], were not able seriously to challenge Chicago's preeminence during this period. (Coser, 1976, p. 146)

It does seem that Chicago was a major force during the first quarter of the twentieth century, as will be outlined below. However, this central position inevitably came to an end as the discipline of sociology became ever more popular and ever more fragmented. The myth that surrounds Chicago in respect of its dominant position is about its loss of prestige. After the mid-1930s, the 'Chicago School' is presumed to have declined rapidly (Goddijn, 1972b; Mullins, 1973; Martindale, 1976; Coser, 1978; Tiryakian, 1979a). Several views emerged about the 'decline' of Chicago, which is usually dated at around 1935, the time of the 'coup' in the American Sociological Society that 'excluded' Chicago candidates from executive posts.
One view is that Chicago had become autocratic and domineering and had developed an unjustified and unacceptable stranglehold on the discipline. This grip was epitomised in its control of the American Sociological Society and the American Journal of Sociology,which was the Society's official organ. A corollary of this, and to some extent the first two views, was that Chicago was holding back the development of sociology in the United States.
A second view is that Chicago represented an 'old fashioned' approach to sociology that is evidenced in its failure to keep in touch with developments. Such developments are linked to the 'scientizing' of sociology. Chicago is seen as representing a 'soft' ethnographic approach to sociology that was unable to fend off the sustained attacks of more rigorous scientific methods. Its indifference to quantitative methods is indicative of this anti-scientism. The state of sociological enquiry had moved on from exploratory study to scientific explanation, and Chicago, it is assumed, while having provided some interesting accounts of social situations, was unable to make the jump to scientific analysis.
A third, and similar view, suggests that Chicago failed to grasp the significance of, or was indifferent to, the development of new theoretical developments, particularly those that crystallised as structural functionalism.
A fourth, and related, view was that Chicago was parochial and continued to be preoccupied with local concerns at a time when sociology was moving on to national issues, and through this parochialism adopted an insular approach to the discipline.
A fifth view was that, by the mid-1930s, the research impetus at Chicago had gone. This is accounted for primarily by the loss of Park. His retirement in the mid-1930s saw the end of the dynamic era of empirical research at Chicago, for it had been heavily dependent on Park's own charisma and drive (Matthews, 1977; Bulmer 1984).

Next 7.2 Chicago's role in American sociology until 1930