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

2.5 Burgess and action research

Of the sociologists at Chicago through the 1920s, Burgess was perhaps more concerned with the policy implications of research than other faculty members. He tended more towards evaluative or 'action research' (Hayner, 1972).

Burgess was much more explicit. In fact Burgess was always somewhat suspect among his more 'objective scientific colleagues' as being a little bit too much motivated by wanting to save the family, or cure delinquency, or help social workers do their jobs better because he always had a very practical flair, everything he did he was really very atheoretical and eclectic. (Cottrell, 1972)

Burgess had close ties with a number of city-based social and ameliorative organisations; had contacts with local and national social work agencies; and, up to the 1930s, had reasonably friendly relations with the social workers in the university. He encouraged Hayner and Johnson, for example, to take courses in case work in the School of Social Science Administration in the early 1920s despite a certain distancing of the sociologists and social workers (Hayner 1972; Johnson, 1972).

There wasn't much friendly contact between the social work school and the department of sociology. Park was always very nasty in his comments about the social work profession. Burgess, they got along better with Burgess because Burgess did work with social agencies and was sympathetic to their problems and did think that investigation should throw light on what you could do about immediate practical problems in the family and delinquency and that sort of thing... Only Burgess had a real interest in the Chicago Area Project. (Cottrell, 1972)

Nonetheless, despite Burgess's apparent leanings towards 'reformism' this was not reflected in the work of the students at Chicago in general. There is little evidence to suggest that either ameliorative or reformist concerns were an important factor in graduate research at Chicago after 1915. Of the forty-two Ph.D. theses examined in detail, only three (7%) directed some attention towards reform, while twelve explicitly disassociated themselves from reformist concerns and the remaining twenty seven had nothing to say on the subject.

Burgess may have been more concerned with the application of sociology than most of his associates. Nonetheless he had varied research interests of both a theoretical and a practical nature, which included work on crime and delinquency, the family and the community. His work tended to have fairly direct policy implications but was also concerned with social control (in the mould of Thomas and Park) and was underpinned by theoretical concerns. For example, he addressed the possibility of developing a more effective and rational basis for communal life in the increasingly fragmented urban metropolis, arguing for a coincidence of administrative areas and 'natural' communities (Burgess, 1926a), while at the same time developing an 'ideal type' model of city growth (Park and Burgess, 1925). This zonal model he was to continue to develop for more than a quarter of a century (Hunter and Goldman, 1973).

In the 1930s, Burgess shifted more towards study of specific social problems, notably delinquency research. His approach was both policy influenced and theoretically grounded. On the one hand he was involved in an experimental programme of delinquency control (The Chicago Area Project) and instrumental in developing predictors of success in parole for prisoners (Burgess and Tibbits, 1928), which the Illinois Board of Pardons and Parole adopted in 1933 and 'has used ever since' (Burgess, 1941). On the other, his theoretical interests in the 'deviant person' and the ecological analysis of deviancy were developed by the Illinois Institute for Juvenile Research (Shaw, 1930, 1931, 1938; Shaw et al., 1929; Shaw and McKay, 1942), with which he had close links, and by his students, notably Landesco (1929).

In his research on the family, Burgess again adopted this dual approach. He prepared the ground for studies of the family, which persisted well into the 1960s. Burgess saw the family as an interacting unit and was principally concerned with the dynamics of the modern family as it confronted changing socio-economic and cultural conditions (Cottrell, 1972). Burgess hypothesised that each type of natural area had a distinctive pattern of family life; and Mowrer (1927), one of his students, tested this out in Chicago. Burgess was concerned with the nature and functioning of the family and thus emphasised the need for analysis of the internal dynamics of the family unit (Burgess, 1926b; Dollard, 1931). In view of the widespread prediction by social scientists in the mid-1920s that the end of the family was imminent, Burgess (1926c) analysed the breakdown of marriage, looking for indicators of success (Burgess and Cottrell, 1936, 1939), in a similar fashion to his earlier prediction studies of parole success (Burgess and Tibbits, 1928).

The practical value of the parole probation procedure induced a similar practical slant in the approach to the marriage study. The emphasis, therefore, was not on testing theoretically derived hypotheses so much as on identifying efficient predictors. (Cottrell et al., 1973, p. 75)

Many of the social problems that prompted study by graduate students in Chicago from 1915 to 1930 under the guidance of Burgess (see Short, 1971; Cottrell et al., 1973) were indeed a response to reformist concerns, for example, Cressey's study of 'Taxi Dance Halls' (Cressey, 1929) and the work of Shaw (1930). Much of the funding of such research, especially in the period up to 1924, came from private or ameliorative sources. Anderson (1983) recalled that the money for his study of Hobohemia (1923) came privately from Dr. W.A. Evans and Shaw's studies were initially prompted by the interest of the Chicago Women's Club (Burgess, 1925). This was later incorporated under the auspices of the Chicago Juvenile Protective Agency with which Burgess had close ties and that also supported the work of Cressey.

Nonetheless, despite undertaking research linked to such agencies to a greater degree than did his colleagues, Burgess remained a social scientist first and social reformer second; and insisted that his students adopt a similar distancing from reform. This is evident, for example, in the research on taxi-dance halls undertaken by Cressey (1932). The conclusion to Cressey's study sums up the approach to applied social research in the 'Chicago School'. Cressey noted that the taxi-dance hall developed naturally in the urban environment and should be considered as a problem of the modern city just like

the problem of crime, of vice, and of family disorganization, we find in the taxi-dance hall the same forces which operate in all city life.... Toward misconduct such as is associated with the taxi-dance hall it would be easy to advocate some form of repression. But a policy involving repression alone would never be wholly successful. It does not get at the heart of the problem, for the problem is as big as the city itself. (Cressey, 1932, p. 287)

However, despite this liberal scientism, Cressey finished by suggesting that the needs of the taxi-dance hall patron should be met more 'wholesomely', following a thorough investigation, but that in the interim they should be condoned conditionally as they 'serve the legitimate interests of men whose needs are not met elsewhere' (Cressey, 1932, p. 291).

The taxi dance hall study reflects the concerns of many of the sociologists at Chicago in the 1920s. A spirit of scientific enquiry was dominant but a sense of social responsibility still informed the interests of the graduates.

A lot of my friends all seemed to have been challenged by having rejected a former kind of religio-moral orientation ... and we all still, underneath, we wanted to do some good, we wanted to make the city better, solve the problems of the family, do something about crime and so on.... If you could get at these problems by a scientific objective rational approach analysing and working out... you could avoid seeing the possibility that you might be a communist ... We were rebelling [through] this detached objective rational scientific way.... (Cottrell, 1972)

While Burgess had social work contacts and was interested in the 'amelioration of social ills' (Short, 1973) it is questionable whether even he adopted a wholly applied perspective. Throughout his career he was also concerned with the development of sociology as a science and this appeared to take on more importance over time. During the thirties Burgess shifted to more 'rigorous scientific' methods and gradually loosened his connections with the social workers.

Social workers weren't on good terms with sociology, they disliked Burgess very strongly.... I don't know what Burgess had done to offend them. Maybe Shaw did, Shaw was Burgess's protege... I think it was Breckinridge showing a fairly good statistical relationship between broken homes and delinquency. Shaw made a study where he just showed how defective that was. I think that infuriated her.... There was no real conflict between social work and sociology, I think we just ignored each other. (Faris, 1972)

Certainly, by the 1940s, the emphasis in the department as a whole had shifted irrevocably away from reformism and any such concerns were expunged from Burgess's proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation in 1941. In it he argued for the necessity of basic research rather than policy research on 'transitory matters'. By this time, if not earlier, Burgess' primary concern as a sociologist was to extend the frontiers of scientific knowledge (Burgess, 1941). [5]

Burgess' early links to ameliorative and social work agencies were related to his involvement in the Local Community Research Committee the work of which was, to a large extent, tied up with the concerns of city based social agencies.



[5] Burgess was an experienced proposal writer by 1940 and one must read the proposal as that of someone who has a good idea of what kind of application is likely to attract funds. Return


Next 2.6 The Local Community Research Committee and reformism at Chicago