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'

1.7 The myths of the 'Chicago School'

The varied designations of the 'Chicago School' constructed as a result of different academic endeavours have led to the emergence of a number of taken-for-granted conceptions of the school. These conceptions have taken on the character of myths [14] and are seen as emblems of a distinctive sociological approach. The prevalent taken-for-granted views of a 'Chicago School' raise metascientific questions. The designation of a 'Chicago School' is not independent of a view of the activities, approach and impact of the school. In effect, certain preconceptions are amplified by the designation of the work of the Chicagoans as reflecting a school. So, the designation of the 'Chicago School' and the myths of the 'School' are interdependent. What is taken to constitute the 'School' is influenced by what commentators take as characteristic of its work, while the myths about the school are amplified by specific widespread designations (Harvey, 1981, 1983; Lofland, 1983).

In assessing the sociological practice at Chicago, I have taken recourse to primary sources in order to assess secondary accounts. I have grouped various conceptions about Chicago together, to suggest five principle myths that underpin many of the constructions of the 'Chicago School'. These myths overlap and are, to some extent, contradictory. This is because they are not all directed to the same ends, nor arise as a result of the same endeavours.

These five myths are:

(1) that Chicago sociologists were primarily social ameliorists, sympathising with Progressive or liberal ideas and concerned to resolve social problems.

(2) that Chicago sociology was dogmatically qualitative and had no interest in quantitative techniques of social research and, indeed, were openly hostile toward them.

(3) that Chicago sociology had no strong theoretical orientation and its work, in the main, constituted a descriptive exercise. Such theories as it did produce were little more than ideal type models (notably the 'concentric zone' thesis) with little explanatory power.

(4) that Chicago sociology is closely associated with symbolic interactionism and dominated by the epistemological perspective of G. H. Mead.

(5) that the 'Chicago School' dominated American sociology until the mid-1930s and then went into decline and became isolated mainly because it retained an old fashioned, unscientific, approach to sociology.

The following chapters examine each of these myths in detail and the last chapter assesses the role that 'school' has played in helping generate such myths and casts doubt on the concept of school as currently utilised in the sociology of knowledge.



[14] Myth does not refer here to the original anthropological sense of 'fabulous narration' a sense in which it is still commonly widely used. Nor does it refer to a 'distorted' thesis about the origins of humanity. In short, myth does not mean either fable or legend. Nor is myth used simply to mean a deliberately false account or belief. It is used in the sociological sense of a pervasive taken-for-granted account. This reflects, for example, the work done in analysing the mythical element of media messages. Thus myth is used in the sense of generalised connotation (Barthes 1967, 1974; Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, 1978; Larrain, 1979). This raises questions about the relationship between myth and ideology, the nature of ideology and the relationship between ideology and knowledge. These important questions, however, go beyond the scope of this analysis of the role of 'school' in the production of scientific knowledge and the particular account of the 'Chicago School'.

I have identified five myths, although I do not claim that they are exhaustive. Similarly, I take the point that one must be careful not to construct 'straw-man' images. However, I cannot agree at all with Denzin (1984, p. 1431) who, in a review of Lewis and Smith (1981), argues against any myths surrounding the 'Chicago School'. Whether Denzin is simply referring to the myth Lewis and Smith project around the role of Mead or whether he is suggesting that the 'Chicago School' is not characterised by myth at all, is not clear. However, the substantive point is that in analysing myths the historian must avoid the construction of the myth. Return


Next 2.1 The myth