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'

1.4 A 'Chicago School'?

There is a widespread view amongst sociologists that there was a 'Chicago School' of sociology in a sense that implied more than a number of scholars in a university department. However, doubt has been cast on this presumption, not least by people closely linked to the so-called 'Chicago School'.

In the introductory note to his book that sets out to evaluate Chicago sociology, Kurtz (1984, p. 99) wrote:

I use the term "Chicago School” throughout this volume with some hesitation. Although it is a convenient, frequently employed term, the reader should not assume that it indicates a monolithic, homogeneous tradition. Like all "schools” of thought, the Chicago school evaporates under close inspection

Throughout the history of the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago there have been disclaimers of the idea that the Chicagoans represented a homogenous body of sociologists. As early as 1911, Small (1911, p. 634) noted that:

There is quite as much difference of opinion in matters of detail between members of our sociological staff as will be found between representatives of different institutions.

The notion of a 'Chicago School of Sociology' was not an issue in 1911 and, indeed, even in the 1920s during the 'Golden Era' of the 'School' Cavan (1983) noted that she could not ever recall hearing the term 'Chicago School'. Wirth and Hughes, both students in the twenties and later tenured members of the Chicago faculty were also apparently sceptical of the idea of a 'Chicago School'.

When I was a graduate student at Chicago, one of the people who was really considered to be a leader in a 'Chicago School of Sociology' was Louis Wirth. And Louis Wirth used to say that he was constantly amazed at being told that he was part of the Chicago School of Sociology, because he couldn't imagine what he had in common with all those other people. (Becker, 1979, p. 3)

I don't remember where or when I first heard of the Chicago School. That phrase was invented by others, not the Chicago people. I suppose there was some sense in the term, but it implies more consensus than existed. (Hughes quoted by Cavan, 1983, p. 408).

Hughes confirmed this view in 1969 when he indicated that he still disliked talking of a 'Chicago School' or 'any other kind of school' (Hughes, 1980, p. 276).

Janowitz (1966) also raised doubts about the extent to which the Chicagoans could be seen as a school.

…it is a disputable question whether there was a distinct or unified Chicago approach to sociology …the Chicago school contained theoretical viewpoints and substantive interests which were extremely variegated.

Furthermore, the official brochure of the Department of Sociology at Chicago for 1981–82 also noted that 'the department has never been dominated by a single individual or by a single school of thought.'

Perhaps more important than the recollections and reassessments of the people at Chicago is the documentary record. In the light of his reported view, it is not surprising that Wirth (1947), in his review of the history of sociology (1915–1947), makes no reference to a 'Chicago School' or a particularly unique practice located at the University of Chicago. Nor indeed, did ex-graduates who produced sociology texts refer to a 'Chicago School' or a 'Chicago Approach'. For example, Hiller's (1933) Principles of Sociology and Young's (1949) Sociology discuss the work of the Chicagoans in some detail but never constructs them as being a 'school'. In Hiller's book Park, Burgess, Thomas and Cooley get far more references than any one else (except Sumner) and Young has an extensive discussion of urban sociology that includes the works of the Chicagoans among others. Neither, however, separate the 'Chicago School' from other American sociologists. Similarly, McKenzie's contribution to the President's Research Committee on Social Trends (1933) about developments in metropolitan communities makes no reference to a 'Chicago School' although it discusses in some detail the various analyses of the city of Chicago undertaken through the University of Chicago.

Even more surprising than the lack of reference to a 'Chicago School' in the published literature is the almost total lack of any such reference in the Chicago archives. The Special Collections Department of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago [5] contains an extensive collection of the papers of the Chicago faculty since the University's inception. In my examination of a large number of documents in the Collection I found no references at all to a 'Chicago School' (or any similar construct) prior to 1939; and on material up to 1955 references to anything like a 'Chicago School' were very rare indeed. It is interesting that the isolated reference I found to a ‘Chicago School' on a document written by Park (1939) refers in fact to the Society for Social Research at the University and was written by Park, at Wirth's request, as an overview of the history of that Society. It seems that Park (five years after leaving Chicago) saw the Society as embodying 'The Chicago School', a term that he had probably heard elsewhere. The document only refers to the notion of a school once, in passing, and makes no attempt to elaborate a thesis about such a 'School'. As Park (1939, p. 1) recalled, the Society for Social Research was organised in the Fall of 1921, and its aim was to bring together interested and competent researchers (students and staff).

Research in the social sciences at Chicago began before the organization of the Society for Social Research. However, the particular type of research that has been identified with the "Chicago School” has found in this Society, in its Institute, and its publications an effective organ of expression. The Society was originally organized to stimulate a wider interest and a more intelligent co-operation among faculty and students in a program of studies that focused investigation on the local community. [6]

The Society saw itself as an open discussion forum and as a 'clearing house of ideas' (Bulletin of the Society for Social Research June, 1929) and this is most indicative of the nature of the 'Chicago School' (see Appendix 3). Indeed, The Bulletin of the Society for Social Research [7], makes no reference at all in any issue to a 'Chicago School', or a 'Chicago Approach', or to a specifically 'Chicago Sociology'. The openness of the Society, reflecting the Chicagoans approach to sociological enquiry, explains why there are virtually no references to a 'school' in the archive material of the Chicagoans. The Chicagoans did not detach themselves from prevailing approaches to sociology but, as we shall see in chapter seven, openly engaged in the development of mainstream sociology. The Chicagoans did not see themselves as sect-like. It seems that if there was any 'school' of sociology associated with Chicago, it was not a deliberate construction of the Chicagoans nor did it reside in an insular group. Rather than a sect like insularity, the Chicagoans favoured an open and critical approach to sociology.

Arguably, the diverse activities and interests of the Chicagoans belie the idea of a 'school' and it is clear that the term was one rarely used by the Chicagoans themselves. Such usage, by them, tends to have been retrospective and casual and perhaps no more than an indicator of institutional affiliation.

Some outsiders, on the other hand, it seems, did regard sociology at Chicago as representing some sort of caucus or distinct school. The first published reference to a 'Chicago School' appears to have been in 1930. According to Cavan (1983) it occurred in Bernard's (1930) article on 'Schools of Sociology'. This appears to have been a fairly isolated reference in the literature.

Nonetheless, there does appear to have been a notion in the 1930s of a Chicago group of sociologists of some sort and, even if the Chicagoans did not see themselves as a school, they were seen in that light by outsiders. The extent to which this recognition represented academic or political concerns, however, is less clear [8].

There was, at least until the 1950s, no real consensus by outsiders as to the nature of the 'Chicago School', nor was it a generally used term. For example, even by 1940, Wilson of Harvard in writing to Burgess to recommend William F. Whyte to Chicago made no mention of a 'Chicago School' nor an exclusive style of sociology at Chicago. Indeed, Wilson (1940) saw Columbia and Chicago as offering the same opportunities for Whyte and not as antithetical institutions. It seems, then, unlikely that there was any recognition of a 'Chicago School' much before 1935 and that any references to it up to the 1960s were unsystematic, vague and devoid of the implications that have become associated with it over the last quarter of a century.



[5]  The University of Chicago, Joseph Regenstein Memorial Library, Special Collections Department houses an enormous amount of archive material covering the span of this study. I am grateful for the assistance afforded by the staff of this department in accessing source material. Return

[6]  The Department of Sociology and Anthropology inaugurated a Society for Social Research in 1921. Membership was open to all social researchers (graduates and staff), election to the society was fairly straightforward and new members were constantly being added. Graduates and staff remained members after they moved away from Chicago. By 1926 there were around one hundred and fifty members. Subscription, payable annually, was a nominal $1. Each year, from 1923, Summer Institutes were held that lasted about three days and included a substantial proportion of invited visiting speakers, some of whom were members. The format of the regular weekly meetings changed over the years but, generally, they were addressed by graduates, staff, or outside speakers on matters of research practice, findings or philosophy. The society served to keep members informed of current research ideas and work in progress and also functioned as an informal network with contacts around the country. Hughes (1980) noted that while he was away in Canada he kept in constant touch with the University through the Society for Social Research. The society also performed one other major function, that of arranging discounts on textbooks and research monographs. Appendix 3 contains details of the Society for Social Research including the Constitution and a membership list. Return

[7]  The Society for Social Research produced a Bulletin in 1926 and continued to do so two or three times a year throughout the period of this study. The circulation list included current and past Chicago graduates. Return

[8]  The political nature of outsider designations of the 'Chicago School' is considered in more detail in chapter seven, which looks at the so-called 'coup' in the American Sociological Society. It is notable that Bernard does not refer to a 'Chicago School' of sociology during his engagement with the Chicagoans at the time of the 'coup' in 1935 (Lengermann, 1979) although he does refer to our 'Chicago friends'. Return


Next 1.5 Designations of the 'Chicago School'