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'

1.5 Designations of the 'Chicago School'

1.5.1 The historical group

1.5.2 The bonded group

1.5.3 The 'Chicago School of Symbolic Interactionism'

While the extent to which the Chicagoans saw themselves as a 'school' is unclear, others have claimed to have identified the 'school' and its characteristics. Different people, different historical periods, different substantive and theoretical concerns and different ways of working have been specified under the banner of the 'Chicago School'. These reflect the ways in which the school has been designated and I have grouped these varied designatory processes together into two broad types, the historical group and the bonded group.

1.5.1 The historical group

The simplest kind of construction of a 'Chicago School' merely logs the (significant) figures of the tenured faculty for any given period of time. Thus for Anderson (1983), a student at Chicago in the 1920s, the 'School' consisted of the members of the teaching faculty who appeared to have the most impact on the way sociology was taught and researched while he was there. Anderson designated Small, Park, Burgess and Faris as the 'school'. There is no particular 'Chicago core' evident in the work of the four faculty members he designates either theoretically, empirically or epistemologically.

A more extensive historical group construction is provided by those sociologists who refer to a number of generations of Chicago sociologists (Tiryakian, 1979a; Becker, 1979; Kurtz, 1984). Three, and sometimes four, generations are identified. The first generation consists of the tenured staff and their students up to 1914, principally Small, Henderson, Thomas and Vincent. These are seen as the founders of a 'Chicago Approach' in the sense of promoting empirical enquiry and concentrating attention on the city of Chicago (Dibble, 1972; Diner, 1980). The second generation usually includes Park, Burgess, Ellsworth Faris and, in some accounts, William Ogburn. These four staff members and their students are seen as developing the embryonic concerns of the first generation (Faris, 1967; Carey 1975). Out of these came the third generation, principally graduates who, often after a short absence, returned to Chicago and became tenured. Notable here are Blumer, Wirth, Hughes and Stouffer. The fourth generation again tended to be students of the third generation but often developed much of their sociology away from Chicago. Becker, Strauss, Goffman and Janowitz are among the most clearly identified members of the fourth generation Chicagoans.

This approach divides the personnel into a relatively simple temporal sequence, identifying the dominant characters at each phase of the Department's history. Very different groups of people and ways of doing sociology have, then, been credited with the same label. Nonetheless, this 'historical group' designation tends towards a view that the period from 1915 to 1933, the period of Park's tenure, was the era of the classic 'Chicago School'. This period, known as the 'golden era' (Cavan, 1983), is identified as being the time when the 'School' was most active in its empirical enquiry and, during which time, its more famous studies were produced. Indeed, many discussions of the 'Chicago School' really only construct the school as around the work carried out in the 1920s and early 1930s, particularly that guided by Park and Burgess (Madge, 1963; Hunter, 1983).

1.5.2 The bonded group

Commentators who concentrate on the 'golden era' tend towards a view of the 'Chicago School' as a bonded group rather than simply a historical grouping. The group at Chicago is seen as bonded together in one of three ways.

First, and most popularly, through the specification of a network owing allegiance to a leader figure.

Most of the important people around Chicago had studied, or been closely associated with [Park], and that made an enormous difference. Because with all their differences with respect to methods of research, and one thing and another, they all essentially looked at things the way the old man had looked at it, and he had a very comprehensive view. (Becker, 1979, p. 5)

In their biographical accounts, both Matthews (1977) and Raushenbush (1979) see the 'Chicago School' as a group around Park. Tiryakian and Bulmer, in constructing an explicit metascientific school, identify Park as the leader figure of a bonded group. Faris's (1967) historical account of the period 1920 to 1932 also identifies a core bonded group around Park.
 Second, through specification of set of concepts and values.

The Chicago School may be considered a "school” rather than a solidarity group committed to a particular point of view, in that it represented a vertically bonded network of practitioners located in and identified with a specific institution, all of whom shared near identical beliefs and ideas. (Thomas, 1983a, p. 390)

An example of a rather narrow designation of a 'Chicago School' as a bonded network of this sort is provided by Blumer (1972) [9] who suggested that Park, Burgess and Faris made up the 'Chicago School'. Blumer excluded Ogburn who was a tenured colleague of the others because although the others had different approaches, Ogburn, as a statistician, was more concerned with 'so-called objectivity' than 'dealing with the whole process whereby action came into being’ (Blumer, 1972, p. 13) [10]

This third type of approach to a bonded group is popular amongst those who reconstruct Chicago heritages such as the development of Chicago symbolic interactionism; the reconstruction of an urban studies heritage; and the reconstruction of a 'Chicago style' ethnography.

1.5.3 The 'Chicago School of Symbolic Interactionism'

The development of symbolic interactionism is closely linked to the 'Chicago School' (Manis and Meltzer, 1978; Snodgrass, 1983). Different varieties of symbolic interactionism have been identified of which the Blumerian or 'Chicago School' approach is seen as of major importance and often portrayed as at variance with the 'Iowa School' (Meltzer et al., 1975; Littlejohn, 1977; Carabana and Espinosa, 1978)

Such designations of a 'Chicago School' are constructions linked to a specific form of symbolic interactionism that has roots in practice at Chicago. However, such constructions do more than refer to a given style of interactionism. They do three other things. First, they imply a heritage that links Blumerian and post-Blumerian symbolic interactionism to the development of sociology at Chicago. Second, in so doing, these constructions provide Blumerian symbolic interactionism with legitimacy. A view of Chicago sociology is reconstructed that locates the concerns of the symbolic interactionists as the principal concern of the Chicagoans (for example, Rock, 1979). The third effect of this reconstructed heritage is to award a role to Mead in the history of the development of sociology at Chicago in the 1920s that it seems likely he did not have (Lewis and Smith, 1981; Harvey, 1985). It seems that 'presentist' designations of the Chicagoans, for the purposes of legitimating a particular style of symbolic interactionism, have tended to determine the nature of the history of the school (Bulmer, 1984a). The construction of a symbolic interactionist heritage is considered in more detail in chapter six, which looks at the role of George Herbert Mead in the Chicago School.

'The Chicago School of Urban Studies'. While much of the work of the Chicagoans of the 1920s has been forgotten, their contribution to urban sociology has been kept alive in the sociological imagination.

By the end of the 1950's, it would have appeared to the intellectual historian that the Chicago school of urban sociology had exhausted itself. Even at the University of Chicago, the intensive and humanistically oriented study of the social worlds of the metropolis had come to an end. The older figures had disappeared one by one, and a new generation of sociologists were interested in quantitative methodology and systematic theory. A few disciples of the traditional approach carried on in the shadows of the university or were scattered through the country.
But intellectual traditions are transmitted and transformed as much by the intrinsic vitality of their content as by the institutions of academic life. A mere decade later the themes of a reconstructed urban sociology are once again at the center of social science thinking. (Janowitz, 1968, p. vii)

The view of the Chicagoans as preoccupied with the concerns of urban sociology (the metropolis, the community, urban policy and institutions) is indicative of a view that sees the 'Chicago School' as at the heart of a tradition of sociological enquiry that focuses on the urban environment. In a sense, there is some validity in this view of the attentions of the Chicagoans as Park (1939) pointed out when summing up the development of sociology at Chicago in the 1920s. However, it is not all the story, as we shall see in later chapters, and does tend to give a misleading picture of the work and concerns of the Chicagoans. To identify the 'Chicago School' solely on the basis of 'urban studies' and isolate Park, Burgess and Wirth (Philpott, 1978; Slattery, 1985) is to generate a misleading heritage that may give legitimacy to an urban studies tradition but also serves to generate myths about the 'Chicago School'.

'The Chicago School of Ethnography'. For a number of years, there has been a general view, of American sociology as encompassing a methodological divide. The division into qualitative and quantitative camps is often construed as reflecting institutional affiliation with Chicago as the champion of ethnography and Columbia as the flag-bearer of quantitative approaches. We shall investigate this more fully, from the point of view of Chicago, in chapters three and four. This has, however, led to reconstructions of am ethnographic heritage; and the 'Chicago School' is frequently seen as a central pillar in such a heritage. More specifically, there have been claims recently that a 'New Chicago School' emerged in the 1950s and flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. In the main, this new school was not based at Chicago although it derived from there. Laperriere (1982), for example, argued that the 'New Chicago School' of sociology arose in the United States in the 1950s. It attempted to break the hold of 'quantitative' sociologists on the discipline, which had coincided with the theoretical sterility of sociology. She argued that the 'New Chicago School' aimed to develop a systematic, open and empirical approach to theory construction. This allowed them to take into account the richness of social reality while adopting rigorous sociological method. The 'New Chicago School', she argued, was characterised by a more systematic and wider approach than that exhibited by other qualitative sociologists.

In effect, this designation of a 'New Chicago School' is reflected in the accounts of those commentators who talk of the 'late Chicago School' or of the labelling theory of the 'Chicago School'. This is primarily directed at the work of Becker, Geer, Strauss, the later work of Hughes and his students, as well as the emergence of the 'dramaturgical approach' found in Goffman, Duncan and Burke (Littlejohn, 1977; Dotter, 1980). This idea of a new school tends to disengage the 'fourth generation' Chicagoans from their earlier heritage while at the same time looking to Chicago to provide a heritage for ethnographic work. The disengagement is on two fronts. First, it argues for a distinctly qualitative approach at variance to prevailing sociological enquiry. Second, it raises issues of objectivity and the engagement with the perspective of the subject. In short, the construction of an ethnographic heritage tends to raise participant observation to the ideal method; and seeks to find, in the earlier 'Chicago School', the genesis and patronage of this method. This, as we shall see, is at variance with what the Chicagoans were actually doing. Becker's (1967) explicit demand to make it clear 'Who's Side Are We On?' contravenes the earlier non-aligned search for 'objectivity' at Chicago (Carey, 1975) and participant observation was not the only, or even major, approach of the Chicagoans up to 1940. This notion of a 'New School', then, construes a Chicago tradition of qualitative sociology, which the fourth generation have developed, not as the dominant approach but as a radical alternative in a discipline becoming increasingly sterile as a result of an overcommitment to 'reliability' and 'validity'. [11]

The assumption among historians and sociologists of sociology is that there was a 'Chicago School' of sociology and that it had a considerable bearing on the development of American sociology during the first half of the twentieth century. However, the exact nature of the 'school' and the impact it had are not clearly defined. As we have seen, a number of different sorts of reconstructions of the school have been developed.

In the light of the various partial constructions outlined above, it is perhaps opportune to outline who the Chicagoans were before going on to investigate their work.



[9]  In 1972 James Carey interviewed a number of ex-graduates who had been at Chicago in the 1920s. The transcripts of these tape-recorded interviews are lodged in the Special Collections Department of the Regenstein Library, University of Chicago. Return

[10] Certainly, Park and Ogburn never worked together during the six years they were both at Chicago, as Ogburn recalled.

When I went to the University of Chicago in 1927, September, Professor and Mrs. Park gave a large party in the first part of November to which neither I nor my wife was invited. I was sensitive on this point. Next I was told that repeatedly by various persons that Park spent a good deal of time in his classes belittling statistics and pointing out their limitations. I was invited to the University in part to teach statistics since none had ever been taught in sociology and none was then taught in any other social science. Perhaps I displayed too much missionary zeal for Park, who questioned whether there was any need of teaching statistics, so I was told. Next, one day he came in my office with a hand full of books and asked me to review them for the American Journal of Sociology, and then proceeded to tell me how to do it and what was expected of me. I took the books but never reviewed them. Though Park was twenty years older than I, I had been a full professor at Columbia for ten years, and was quite intellectually mature.... I never forgave Park, which is a trait very marked in me, not to forgive or forget a slight. I wish I were different and had not been so sensitive in regard to Park.... So I never saw Park except at meetings or greeted him as he passed. Oh yes, he did invite me once with all the department to his house and I went. I think Park was a great teacher for the few. (Ogburn journal, 4th and 5th April, 1955) Return

[11] Arguably, the journal Urban Life represents the coming together of the reconstruction of an ethnographic tradition with an urban studies one. The journal supposedly provides an outlet for sociologists who are continuing the 'Chicago Approach' to the investigation of the urban environment. The journal was inaugurated following the short-lived endeavours of a group of 'Chicago Irregulars' in 1969, who aimed at 'reviving an ethnographic tradition' and encouraging works of 'Chicago informed urban ethnography' (Thomas, 1983a, p. 391). According to Lofland (1980, pp. 251-2), The 'Chicago Irregulars' were a group 'born in the living room of Sherri Cavan's San Francisco home on April 11, 1969, when Sherri Cavan, John Irwin, John Lofland, Sheldon Messinger, Chet Winton, Jacqueline Wiseman, and I met and agreed that a "mutually supportive association of sociologists and others interested in the study of natural settings, everyday life, everyday worlds, social worlds, urban lifestyles, scenes, and the like" was in order. It died in late 1969 or early 1970 when the energies required to keep it going simply ran out. In between it turned out three newsletters (mailed to a continually growing list), held several seminars, started an archives (long defunct, and, most memorably, organized the Blumer-Hughes talk [of 1st September 1969].'
 Sheldon Messinger, introducing the Blumer-Hughes talk added that the 'Chicago School Irregulars' had 'had the strong feeling that there is a substantial group of people in sociology for whom the Chicago School is still a very viable institution, notwithstanding the spread of its members away from Chicago to Berkeley and Brandeis, to name two places.... The group is devoted to keeping the Chicago School tradition alive. Many of the people in it do what is nowadays called ethnography - in the old days it was called nosing around. Others, who aren't themselves doing ethnography, are reading about it, talking about it, and trying to keep up the standards established many years ago by people at Chicago' (Messinger, 1980, p. 254).
 During the talk, Hughes was disparaging about attempts to preserve a tradition but told the group 'go ahead and be a Chicago School if you like.' (Hughes, 1980, p. 277)
 By 'recreating' a 'Chicago urban ethnography' these irregulars are constructing a heritage and providing a legitimation for their work. Thus, possibly, Urban Life presents nothing more substantial, by way of an elucidation of the 'Chicago Approach', than a picture of Chicago that fits in with its own requirements as a vehicle for ethnographic urban researchers. Return


Next 1.6 A brief chronology of the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago