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

2. Chicagoans as ameliorists

2.3 Thomas and the demand for pure research

With the death of Henderson and the waning of Small's influence, Thomas became prominent at Chicago during the first decade of the twentieth century. His was an important role in the transformation of sociology into an 'objective empirical' discipline.

He was dedicated to the belief that sociology had to have a subject matter and a body of empirical findings.... But his position was not that of a narrow empiricism such as later characterized much of American sociology. He was a man genuinely interested in broad explanations, but prepared to confront social reality at each point in the research process. (Janowitz, 1966, pp. ix and xxix)

He reasserted Small's contention that understanding of the social world must precede social action and that objective research was the goal of sociologists. He extended this to the point of shelving Small's ethical concerns and, in this, reflected the prevailing attitude towards social science. Objectivity, in the sense of impartiality, had become a major concern and directive for social research (Bernard and Bernard, 1943; Schwendinger and Schwendinger, 1974; Furner, 1975). Thomas replaced particular ethical considerations with a more general concern with social control. For the Chicagoans who followed him, sociology was inexorably linked to social control rather than amelioration or reform.

'When sociology emerged as an intellectual discipline, the idea of social control was a central concept for analyzing social organization and the development of industrial society' (Janowitz, 1978, p. 27). Social control, in its classical sense referred to the self-regulation of a society, in accord with 'desired principles and values' (Vincent, 1896; Ross, 1901). [2] Although by no means a radical sociological perspective, social control does not imply a reactionary position. Rather social control involves the constituent groups of a society acting in a manner commensurate with acknowledged collective goals. Social control can be conceived as resting on a value commitment to reduce coercion, while accepting a legitimate system of authority, and to eliminate human misery, while recognising the persistence of some degree of inequality (Janowitz, 1978, p. 30).

Ross (1901) moved the concept of social control into the centre of sociological analysis but it was Cooley and Thomas who developed the concept. For Cooley, social control and the notion of self were interrelated. The self grew through interaction and social control was essential in this process. Conversely, self-control was fundamental for social control (Cooley, 1920). Thomas argued that sociologists as well as public servants of various sorts should aim to develop effective rational control in social life (Janowitz, 1975, p. 37). For Thomas, social control depended on the effective linkage of ecological, economic and technological factors. Social disorganisation resulted when these factors did not mesh together.

In his review of the origins of the Society for Social Research at the University of Chicago, Park (1939) suggested that Thomas provided the basis for work done at Chicago. This involved not only the role of sociology in the process of social control but also the distancing of sociology from reformist concerns.

It is in the work of W.I. Thomas, I believe, that the present tradition in research at Chicago was established. .... His Source Book for Social Origins (1909) ... introduced a point of view from which society, with its codes, conventions, and social programs, was regarded as a natural phenomenon, the result of purely natural processes. From this point of view society ceased to be a body of legal conventions or moral ideas which sociologists were seeking to criticize...
He wanted to see, to know, and to report, disinterestedly and without respect to anyone's politics or program, the world of men and things as he experienced it. (Park, 1939, pp. 1—2)

Thomas was, then, instrumental in the advocacy of direct, detached, first-hand experience of the social world (Park, 1939; Hayner, 1972). Thomas advocated empirically informed theorising and saw himself as a scientist of society. He hoped his work would provide a sound basis for social policy (Janowitz, 1966) and he saw sociology as providing the laws by which change could take place. These laws were not seen by Thomas as completely deterministic but merely as providing the frame within which action would be constrained. These laws would provide the basis for social control, the principal objective of sociological enquiry. Empirical analysis of concrete historical situations in the manner of the objective sciences would permit the discovery of these laws.

By following the example of the physical sciences and accumulating the largest possible amount of secure and varied information and establishing general and particular laws which we can draw on to meet any crisis as it arises, shall we be able to secure a control in the social world comparable to that obtained in the natural world, and to determine eventually the kind of world we want to live in. (Thomas, 1917, p. 188)

 To achieve this, Thomas argued that sociology should concern itself with 'pure' research and should not worry about direct social utility. Drawing parallels with the physical sciences he argued that research in the social sciences should proceed irrespective of practical applicability. Sociologists should not be dependent on practice, particularistic reform should not inform sociological endeavours. He argued that

if we recognise that social reform is to be reached through the study of behavior, and that its technique is to consist in the creation of attitudes appropriate to desired values, then I suggest that the most essential attitude at the present moment is a public attitude of hospitality toward all forms of research in the social world. (Thomas, 1917, p. 188)

Thomas's own major empirical work (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1918; Thomas, 1924) reflects his concern with producing theoretically informed analyses of social phenomena (Bulmer, 1984; Kurtz, 1984).

This concern with social research rather than with instrumental studies, while not the only consideration underpinning research in the department, became established among the Chicago sociologists and, indeed, within the social sciences at Chicago in general. Bedford's resignation, for example, after twenty years in the department, following Small's retirement, was possibly as much to do with his lack of interest in 'pure sociology' and too great a social work orientation (Barnhardt, 1972), as it was a result of moral improprieties (Bulmer, 1984).

In the 1920s there was considerable competition amongst leading graduate departments, vying for theoretical leadership in their field. The University of Chicago as a whole was keen to stake a reputation. The faculty committee report of the Commission on the Graduate Schools of the University of Chicago, (26th October 1925) stressed knowledge for its own sake, rather than applied knowledge with practical applications, and recommended that graduate courses be organised to foster such research. Indeed, in the Ogg Report (1928) on the extent and nature of research in the humanities undertaken at American Universities, Chicago and Columbia were identified as in the forefront of the development of 'pure learning'.



[2]  The opposite of social control is social coercion (Janowitz, 1978, p. 28). It is not social chaos. Indeed, social disorganisation is an inevitable aspect of control; societies will not always be in equilibrium. Return


Next 2.4 Park's anti-reformism