1 Chicago School
1.1 Introduction
1.2 The concept of 'school
1.3 Constructions of the School
1.4 A Chicago School?
1.5 Designations of the School
1.6 Brief chronology of the Department
1.7 Myths of the Chicago School

2 Chicagoans as ameliorists
2.1 The myth
2.2 Small and Henderson
2.3 Thomas and pure research
2.4 Park's anti-reformism
2.5 Burgess and action research
2.6 Local Community Research
2.7 Society for Social Research

2.8 Conclusion

3 Chicagoans as ethnographers
3.1 The myth
3.2 Nature of ethnography
3.3 Case study
3.4 Nomothetic orientation
3.5 Participant observation at Chicago
3.6 PO and community studies
3.7 PO and the Chicago approach

4 The quantitative tradition at Chicago
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Case study v statistics
4.3 Park's approach to quantification
4.4 Ogburn and quantification
4.5 Burgess as barometer
4.6 Methodological debate in SSR
4.7 Chicago eclecticism
4.8 Interdisciplinary network
4.9 Conclusion

5 Chicagoans as atheoretical empirical researchers
5.1 The myth
5.2 The empirical approach
5.3 Urban sociology at Chicago
5.4 Conceptual development
5.5 Chicago theorising
5.6 Chicagoans epistemology
5.7 Chicago alternatives
5.8 Conclusion

6 G.H. Mead and the Chicagoans
6.1 The myth
6.2 Mead's involvement in sociology
6.3 Mead's theoretical impact
6.4 Mead and symbolic intractionism
6.5 Mead and Blumer debate
6.6 The debate and the work of the Chicagoans
6.7 Conclusion

7 Chicago dominance
7.1 The myth
7.2 Chicago's role to 1930
7.3 The coup and decline
7.4 Chicago neglect
7.5 Chicago introspection
7.6 Loss of research ethos
7.7 Structural factors
7.8 Extent of the decline
7.9 Conclusion

8 Schools and metascience
8.1 Introduction
8.2 Potential of a unit approach
8.3 Conclusion



About Myths of the Chicago School (1987)



© Lee Harvey 1987, 2019, 2020

Page updated 30 March, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., [1987] 2020, Myths of the Chicago School, available at, last updated 30 March, 2020, originally published in Aldershot by Avebury, Gower Piublishing, all rights revert to author.


Myths of the Chicago School

1. The 'Chicago School'

1.3 Constructions of the 'Chicago School'

The different constructions of the 'Chicago School' cover a wide span of time and focus on different aspects of the institutional context and work undertaken by the Chicagoans. This section examines these constructions and suggests a typology that reflects the concerns of the commentators.

Arguably, constructions of the 'Chicago School', like any other 'school', are guided by some kind of view (even if not very clearly defined) of the nature and role of 'schools' in the generation of social scientific knowledge. These constructions are, however, also effected by the general academic enterprise in which the construer is engaged. The extent to which 'school' is defined, rather than is used in a casual fashion, is dependent upon the academic enterprise being undertaken. There are, perhaps, four academic activities of sociologists that lead to constructions of a 'Chicago School'.

First, a construction of the 'Chicago School' is offered in a general way in the presentation of sociology as an academic enterprise, notably in introductory texts. Most construals of this kind are fleeting and cursory references that seem to pass on accepted 'wisdom' without really investigating the nature of the sociological work undertaken by the Chicagoans. Perhaps one should simply discount these throwaway references but, given that they persist and are part of students' initial orientation to the subject matter, they serve to perpetuate myths about the ‘Chicago School'. This type of introductory level or passing comment almost always uses a casual notion of 'school' Such references tend to re-present a rather one dimensional view of the work of the Chicagoans, often selecting out members in a fairly random way as indicative of some early attempt to explain social behaviour. Depending on the orientation of the author, Chicago is invoked as an exemplar of participant observation, of empiricism, of deviancy study, of urban sociology and so on. Usually, the connotation is that the work was descriptive, or reformist, or unsystematic and lacking in rigour. The studies produced by the Chicagoans are not infrequently portrayed as rather quaint, unscientific curios. In this kind of construal the 'Chicago School' is represented as either a group of people, or as a set of tenets guiding practice.

A second set of construals are those developed by historians of sociology. These are usually much better researched, although a surprising number are reliant upon a few secondary sources. Of course, history is an interpretive process and there can be no definitive statement about the nature of the 'Chicago School'. Thus, researched historical accounts do not stand in isolation but are related to other concerns. Such concerns are, for example, an overview of the historical development of sociology in the United States (Martindale, 1976; Coser, 1971); or a thesis on the development of sociological methodology (Easthope, 1974); or a biographical account to which the ‘Chicago School' was germane (Matthews, 1977; Raushenbush, 1979) or a specific history of the 'Chicago School' (Faris, 1967; Bulmer, 1984). The use of the term 'school' here is again usually a casual reference, a developed metascientific concept of 'school' is rare (e.g. Bulmer, 1984). The casual use of 'school' in this context tends to reflect preconceived ideas about the nature of the development of either the theory or practice of American sociology. It tends to rely heavily on the 'presentist' idea that sociology has developed relatively smoothly over time through a succession of 'great men' passing on 'great ideas' up to the present.

A third set of construals come from those proclaiming some sort of Chicago heritage. These have, in the main, been of three types. First, those who have constructed a 'Chicago School' of Urban Sociology (Hunter, 1980); second, those who have created a 'Chicago style' ethnography (Madge, 1963; Dreitzel, 1970; Bogdan and Taylor, 1975); third, those who have created a 'Chicago School' of symbolic interactionism (Meltzer et al., 1975). We shall look at these in more detail, below, when considering specific constructions of the 'Chicago School'.

Fourth, construals of the 'Chicago School' occur as a result of metascientific analyses about the nature of the development of sociological knowledge in the United States (Mullins, 1973; Tiryakian, 1979a). This approach adopts an explicit notion of 'school' or research unit as central to a thesis about the growth and development of scientific knowledge. The metascientific analysis engages the research environment in an attempt to construct a history that does not take-for-granted a cumulative 'great man' approach to the history of science. The 'Chicago School' is often used as a case study in such metascientific analyses. This kind of work is particularly concerned with the institutional context, the roles and the activities of the research group at Chicago. It has been effective in casting doubts on the validity of the taken-for-granted views of the 'Chicago School'. However, far too often, these metascientific analyses, too, seem to have been undertaken with a limited amount of first-hand research.

Next 1.4 A 'Chicago School'