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

2.8 Conclusion

As the nature of the concept of 'objectivity' changed, and as a more 'scientistic' approach to sociology emerged, so American sociology became more remote from social reformism. This is reflected in changes of attitude towards amelioration and reform. These two concepts took on divergent connotations during the first fifty years of the twentieth century as applied to social science. While the earlier concerns of sociology were highly influenced by Christian ethics and the desire to improve the lot of humanity, this ethical utopianism lost its momentum when confronted by the radical disavowal of religious concerns in Spencer's so-called 'Social Darwinism'.  

While meliorists still probably formed the majority of American sociologists by 1910 (Matthews 1977), there was a gradual shift towards a more 'disinterested' approach that reflected the concerns of laissez-faire capitalism. The movement towards an 'objective' social science increasingly displaced ethical considerations in the wake of the First World War and the distinction between amelioration and social reform became clearer (Rucker, 1969; Dibble, 1972; Carey, 1975; Furner, 1975). Charitable works, the essence of amelioration in the nineteenth century, were seen as incidental to the sociological endeavour and, while amelioration, as practiced by various organisations and analysed by academic departments, attempted to move beyond the administration of charity, there was still a strong sense in which amelioration was seen as 'doing good', as alleviating hardship. It was still integrally linked with voluntary organisations and unable to overcome the taint of amateurism, of partisanship, of interference. The 'revelatory' nature of the presentation of ameliorative enquiry, usually through the assemblage of 'facts' derived from statistical surveys designed to illustrate the extent of deprivation, and the ad hoc approach to social problems, detached ameliorative work from either theoretical concerns or an integrated social policy.

Sociology began its detachment from this charitable orientation by becoming more involved in social surveys (Burgess, 1916). Sociology provided a wider theoretical focus for amelioratively motivated enquiry towards social policy; the 'revelatory facts' were put into a wider context. This reform-oriented work differed from the amelioration studies in that it attempted to seek generalisable social causes rather than the cause of particular situations. Reform was thus linked to sociological theory. Ethical judgements, partisanship and personal advocacy drifted more into the background. Analysis was aimed at a societal level, with a view to suggesting action. Sociology in the United States moved towards an 'objective pure science approach' in the 1920s. This was made easier by the adoption of the 'disinterested' laissez-faire attitude in the stead of religiously based morals (Farberman, 1979). Over time, then, the Chicago sociologists revised their research practice, their methodological presuppositions and theoretical orientations to accommodate these changes [7]. The concern with social control was the focus through which the transition from social reform to social science was made at Chicago.

So, then, whatever reform orientation, motivation or consideration the Chicago sociologists espoused was mediated by an overriding concern to develop an 'objective science' of sociology. This dated back to Small, was carried through by Thomas and developed by Park and Burgess and their students. Whatever reform intent these students may have had was, for the most part, subverted to broader sociological concerns. This is especially noticeable in the potentially partisan studies that Park encouraged his students to undertake. He considered that developing a detached attitude to an area in which the researcher had some familiarity would provide insights that went beyond the mask of surface appearance. The work of Horak (1920), Hayner (1923), Young (1924), Thrasher (1926), Wirth (1926) and Frazier (1931) [8] are testimonies to the effectiveness of the approach and the adherence to objectivist demands. The Chicagoans were not primarily proponents of social reform. Rather, they were first and foremost detached enquirers into the social world, reflecting the growing 'scientific' concerns of the profession. They were not simply reformers dressed in scientists' clothing.



[ 7] There are those who argue that Chicago was reformist despite itself. Kuklick (1980) maintained that the 'Chicago School' developed a form of 'reform Darwinism'. Irrespective of any ostensive reform concerns, the approach had direct policy effects. For example, following their research into 'natural areas' of Chicago, property valuation became addressed on the basis of the race and character of the mortgagee thus encouraging the institutionalisation of racial discrimination. Similarly, the movement of population through housing areas has become a self-fulfilling prophecy with further discriminatory results, including the subsidising of the middle classes. Greeley (1977), points to the 'Chicago School's' disorganisation thesis as responsible for augmenting nativists' reactions to immigrants. While the racial inferiority of non-Anglo Saxons was being promoted by, for example, the Dillingham Commission, the disorganisation thesis indicated that such immigrants were also culturally inferior. This provided a rationalisation for the Americanization movements of the early decades of the century, to which the race relations cycle theory addressed itself. Philpott (1978) reflected these sentiments too in addressing the way in which vested interests conspired to keep Chicago's slum dwellers in their run down neighbourhoods. Chicago sociologists, he intimated, naively contributed to this conspiracy through the provision of legitimating criteria. Prominent amongst these was the idea that ethnic groups all passed through a ghetto stage before the ethnic groups naturally disintegrated. Ghettos, Philpott argued, only ever really existed for the black population. For the rest the ghetto was a 'state of mind' rather than a geographic concentration. Ethnic identity could be maintained without the burden of becoming ghetto inmates with its associated economic oppression. The Chicagoans, through their 'middle class oriented studies' of the colourful areas of the city, inadvertently provided grist to the segregation mill. Carabana and Espinosa (1978) had also developed a similar line of critique in respect of symbolic interactionism arguing that it does not provide for a critical consciousness that can perceive of contradictory expectations. It represents, they claim, classic individualist contractualism, reducing personality to instincts. It is essentially 'reformist American individualism' providing a rationale for commercialisation. These criticisms, which have the benefit of hindsight, do suggest that the Chicagoans' apoliticism (Carey, 1975) probably unwittingly served conservative reformist ends. The Chicagoans, along with the majority of sociologists at the time, imagined that empirically based, disinterested research was fundamental to scientific sociological enquiry and the Chicagoans did not develop a critical methodology (Thomas, 1983b). Return

[ 8] Madge (1963, p. 110) noted of Thrasher that he 'was committed to a certain point of view in relation to gangs, which he found morally odious and difficult to view objectively.' Yet Thrasher restricted himself to footnote comments about the 'intolerable' impact of racketeering and crime on the United States. Such comments were also 'objectified' by referring to the cost of crime, which, for example, in 1931 was estimated by the National Commission on Law Enforcement and Observance in excess of one thousand two hundred million dollars. Return

Next 3.1 The myth