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

2.4 Park's anti-reformism

Park endorsed Thomas' perspective (Blumer, 1980b) and reflected the development of American sociology in general. Park's approach to social analysis had evolved from his news-reporting concern to expose social ills, to doing something about them in his work at Tuskegee, to beginning to understand the processes that bring about social problems. He had reached the threshold of the last stage when he moved to Chicago, to a department that he saw as clearly espousing a theoretical rather than an ameliorative perspective. Looking back, Park (1939, p. 2) noted that he had always been of the opinion that sociology as a mere 'science of social welfare' would be ineffective as a contributor to social welfare because it would be limited to practical affairs and lacking a fundamental theoretical base.

The conception of sociology which made it a science of welfare would have limited research to practical problems, as they were conceived by various social agencies. In so doing it tended to discourage that intellectual interest and natural curiosity which had been so largely responsible for the growth of science in other fields (social anthropology for instance) which have not been dominated by practical and ethnocentric interests to the same extent that is true of sociology in the United States. It was in his Social Origins that Thomas seems definitely to have broken with the American tradition that identified sociology with social politics and limited social research to so-called 'social problems'. (Park, 1939, p. 2)

Park indicated that Social Origins (Thomas, 1909) served to shift the focus of attention of sociology and to revive a scientific interest in social processes and turn sociology away from social reform and 'social welfare'. Park's analysis denies the assumption sometimes made that empiricism at Chicago was a function of reform initiatives. For him, empirically grounded study served to reveal the 'real world' of social relations and illustrate the essentially limited and misconceived worldview of 'do-gooder' reformers.

Park identified with Thomas' view of sociology; he was a vociferous supporter of the dictum of non-alignment and is reported (Faris, 1967; Coser, 1971) to have been displeased by students who espoused reformist sentiments.

Park was just vicious in his attack on social workers and reformers and do-gooders. They were lower than dirt. The thing to do was get out and know what life was like. His students got this attitude quite readily from Park and Thomas also. (Cottrell, 1972)

Apparently, Park commented that Chicago had suffered more at the hands of 'lady reformers' than from gangsterism; and Blumer (1972) recalled that there was hostility between Park and Breckinridge (Head of the School of Social Science Administration). Sociology students, while able to take courses in other departments, were discouraged from taking social work courses. This antagonism towards social work was about 'science'.

Park was decisive in his view that in order for reforms to have reasonable chances of being successful... they should be grounded upon a scientific knowledge of human society and settings in which the reform efforts were to be undertaken. (Blumer, 1972, p. 8)

In the wake of the race riots of 1919 [3] Park advised Johnson, the associate executive secretary and black co-director of the commission of investigation, to study race relations with the same detachment that a biologist might adopt in dissecting a potato bug (Turner, 1967, p. xvi). Johnson apparently adopted a dispassionate 'cold-blooded' approach (Faris, 1967, p. 131) and was attacked for being a 'calm student' rather than an 'active reformer' (Bracey et al., 1973, p. 15). Park, while interested in Johnson's work, actually maintained a distance from the commission investigating the Chicago race riots, although asked for advice on the nomination of the executive secretary. As he was the foremost authority in Chicago on race relations, this distancing seems peculiar. However, the commission was 'clearly the idea of reform minded civic leaders' (Bulmer, 1981) and Park was more interested in illuminating public opinion than direct social improvement.

Park fought vehemently against reformist crusades and endorsed Thomas' pioneering approach to the science of society. Park was, at times, somewhat aggressive in making this view quite clear to his students, especially those who espoused reformist sentiments. Park's research tended to be informed by policy problems, underpinned by a concern with social control, but conducted with varying degrees of detachment from policy implications. At root, all problems of society were, for Park, problems of social control (Park, 1967). He did not equate social control with conformity; rather, social control was about collective problem solving (Janowitz, 1975). For Park, the usefulness of social science lay not in its immediate ameliorative or reformist application but in its ability to cast light on public opinion. For example, in his survey of 'Chinese, Japanese and British Indian' residents on the Pacific Coast, (Park, 1926) sponsored by the Institute for Social and Religious Research, Park insisted on a disinterested survey while the sponsors wanted to use it as a means of educating the public. Park argued for a study that took popular views about ethnic minorities at face value and then attempted to understand why and how such opinions emerged (Matthews, 1977, p. 114).

Thus, Park's own work, as well as that of his students, was directed at the sociological analysis of social problems. He insisted that any commentary on 'social ills' be pitched at a holistic level and related to the idea of social control.

Though the outsider would never have suspected it, he embarked upon his career with a passion for social reform and ended it with the same goal to improve the human lot. But he was never a 'for God-saker', as he used to refer to the crusaders who ignored reality. His interest in the solution of problems of human interrelationships was chastened by the recognition of the facts of life and the nature of social change. He was a disciplined humanitarian. (Wirth, 1944, p. 3) [4]

While Small had increasingly argued for the development of sociology independent of ameliorative concerns, he had been constrained by ethical considerations. Thomas had pushed Small's scientific concern away from its ethical constraints by arguing for 'pure' research as fundamental for the understanding of social problems and as a basis for sound policy decisions. This suited Park who increasingly advocated the practice of a disinterested sociology.

I think, like all young newspapermen, he thought that the power of the press was something and he could really get things done in the world by exposing it, and so on. I think that he just sort of found out that that wasn't the case and retired into a scientific attitude. The thing to do is to understand these processes and when we understand them then we will be able to control intelligently and rationally. That was the general mind set I got from him. So reformism was in ill-repute. (Cottrell, 1972)

Park, then, was opposed to piecemeal and theoretically uninformed social action. Park advocated a 'big picture' perspective. For him, social action needed to be rooted in a sound understanding of social processes. Park, like Thomas, saw the pure dimension as preceding the policy dimension of research. 'Even Park would say that once we know what is going on you can use this knowledge to support some kind of rational social order' (Cottrell, 1972).

Park wanted a clear distinction between social science and reformism, not out of any notion that sociologists had no role to play in reform, but because reform would be served better if social science developed independently of reformist constraints and perspectives. By the late 1920s, the issue of the reform element of sociological enquiry was of secondary importance at Chicago.

We were committed sociologists, we didn't think of it being opposed to social reform or even really consider social reform as such. (Faris, 1972)

By the time I got to Chicago I pretty well made the kind of transition that I think a lot of people made from a kind of religious motivated interest to do something about the ills of society to a scientific orientation. What is it that makes the thing tick? (Cottrell, 1972)

The idea as I saw it was that sociology was not an applied science, its function was not to bring about changes in society but describe society accurately and presumably, then, if you wanted to become a society changer you could do so by stepping out of the description role and going into the action role. (Dollard, 1972)



[3] The Race Riot in Chicago in 1919 lasted from 27th July to 8th August. It resulted in thirty-eight deaths, (twenty three blacks, fifteen whites) injury to 537 people (342 black) and made around one thousand people homeless. This was the first serious large-scale race violence in Chicago. Although the loss of life and destruction had been extensive, martial law was not introduced. The riots were investigated by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, which produced a report of nearly seven hundred pages entitled 'The Negro in Chicago' (1922). The Commission was set up three weeks after the riots by the governor of Illinois following pressure from the Union League Club. A white lawyer chaired the Commission, which consisted of six black and six white commissioners. Graham R. Taylor was appointed as executive secretary. He was a journalist and his responsibility was to write the report. Charles S. Johnson was associate executive secretary. Johnson was a graduate in sociology from the University of Chicago and he was the architect of the research programme, assisted by advice from Robert Park. (For more detail on the race riots see Waskow (1967), Tuttle (1970) and Bulmer (1981)). Return

[4] As a journalist Park had been a 'muckraker', particularly towards the Congo, with the avowed aim of exposing the appalling situation in that country. He wrote a serious of articles advertising the atrocities in the Belgian Congo that were designed to 'prepare the way for political reform action' (Faris, 1967, p. 28). Even at this stage, however, Park located the atrocities in a bigger picture, noting that the Belgian Congo was not unique but that it was the inevitable result of 'more sophisticated peoples' invading the territories of 'more primitive peoples' in order to exploit their lands and, incidentally, to 'uplift and civilize them' (quoted in Faris, 1967, p. 29). His work at the Tuskegee Institute, although 'detached', was also geared to getting a better deal for blacks (notably through promoting self-help). Throughout his race relations work, however, Park attempted to retain a 'big picture' perspective and was opposed to piecemeal reform. Park saw racial equality as synonymous with democracy and, despite casual observations and perspectives that may now seem to be somewhat racist, his endeavour was directed towards the ending of prejudice. This is reflected in the obituary article written by Horace Cayton, in which he noted that while Park was economically conservative, or even reactionary, he had an altogether different view of race relations. Cayton quoted from a letter written by Park.

Democracy is not something that some people in the country have and others not have, not something to be shared and divided like a pie—some getting a small piece and some getting a large piece. Democracy is an integral thing.... The Negro, therefore, in fighting for democracy for himself, is simply fighting the battle for our democracy... If conflicts arise as a result of efforts to get their place it will be because the white people started them. These conflicts will probably occur and are more or less inevitable but conditions will be better after they are over. In any case, this is my conviction. (Park, 1944) Return


Next 2.5 Burgess and action research