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

3. Chicagoans as ethnographers

3.4 The nomothetic orientation of 'Chicago Ethnography'

The interactionist sociology undertaken by the Chicagoans, although 'qualitative', reflected nomothetic concerns. The principles of an interactionist sociology that underpinned Chicago sociology, as Park (1939) has suggested, derived from Thomas and are set out in the 'Methodological Note' (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1918). Thomas' perspective involved three central features. First, that sociology take account of subjective aspects of human interaction as well as objective ones, incorporating attitudes as well as values. Thomas thus explicitly 'codified' the prevailing sentiment among sociological researchers by objectifying and locking the 'moralistic' concerns of reformers into humanistic empirical enquiry. Second, that social control, the principal aim of sociological enquiry, could only be approached through the discovery of social laws and that subjective perceptions must be incorporated into these laws. Third, social laws must relate to the social rather than personal milieu.

The chief problems of modern science are problems of causal explanation. The determination and systematisation of data is only the first step in a scientific investigation. If a science wishes to lay the foundation of a technique, it must attempt to understand and to control the process of becoming. Social theory cannot avoid this task, and there is only one way of fulfilling it. Social becoming, like natural becoming must be analysed into a plurality of facts, each of which represents a succession of cause and effect. The idea of social theory is the analysis of the totality of social becoming into such causal processes and systematisation permitting us to understand the connections between these processes. (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1918, p. 36)

This central concern, however, was mediated by the need to account for the subjective nature of social interaction. So, while the physical sciences provided the model for scientific enquiry into the social world, their example, Thomas argued, should not be adopted uncritically. In what amounted to an attack on those who would adopt an objectivist 'Scientific Method' that aims to find 'the one determined phenomenon which is the necessary and sufficient condition of another phenomenon', Thomas pointed to the fundamental difference between physical and social science, which is that,

while the effect of a physical phenomenon depends exclusively on the objective nature of this phenomenon and can be calculated on the ground of the latter's empirical content, the effect of a social phenomenon depends in addition on the subjective standpoint taken by the individual or the group toward this phenomenon and can be calculated only if we know, not only the objective content of the assumed cause, but also the meaning which it has for the given conscious beings ... A social cause is a compound and must include both an objective and a subjective element, a value and an attitude. (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1918, p. 38)

Attitudes involve a process of individual consciousness that 'determines real or possible activity of the individual in the social world'. Values are data 'having an empirical content accessible to members of some social group and a meaning with regard to which it is or may be an object of activity'. Social values are different from objects in as much as the latter have no meaning for human activity. The incorporation of meaning into the causal process was fundamental for Thomas and those who followed him at Chicago. The analysis of social activity based on values and attitudes implied, for Thomas, a holistic approach. Prefacing a position that C. Wright Mills (1959) was to restate and expand, Thomas argued that, in studying society, 'we go from the whole social context to the problem, and in studying the problem we go from the problem to the whole social context' (Thomas and Znaniecki 1918, p. 19). And, in such a procedure, Thomas claimed, one should proceed as if one knew nothing of the area, for the most usual illusion of science is that the scientist simply takes the facts as they are, without any methodological presuppositions and 'gets his explanation entirely a posteriori from pure experience' (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1918, p. 37). On the contrary, Thomas asserted that a fact is already an abstraction and what one must attempt is to develop this abstraction methodically rather than presume that the uncritical abstractions of common sense are adequate. This systematic process of abstraction must be done because 'the whole theoretical concreteness cannot be introduced into science'.
Central to this endeavour, then, is the need to ensure that 'our facts must be determined in such a way as to permit of their subordination to general laws' for a fact that cannot be treated as a manifestation of a law (or several laws) cannot be explained by causal processes. Following upon this proposition, Thomas, predating Popper, further asserted a 'falsificationist' principle. In noting the problem of generalising laws that are initially manifest in particular spheres, Thomas suggested that the social scientist assess the core concepts of the proposition embodied by the particular law and, should such concepts relate to other circumstances, present the law in general terms. The social scientist is therefore essentially in a position to make bold conjectures, although such conjectures must be refutable: and further, because of the ethical and moral consequences of the application of generalisable social laws by social practitioners it is necessary that

besides using only such generalisations as can be contradicted by new experience [the scientist] must not wait until new experiences impose themselves on him by accident, but must search for them, must instigate a systematic method of observation. And, while it is only natural that a scientist in order to form an hypothesis and to give it some amount of probability has to search first of all for such experiences as may corroborate it, his hypothesis cannot be considered fully tested until he has made subsequently a systematic search for such experiences as may contradict it, and proved these contradictions to be only seeming, explicable by the interference of definite factors. (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1918, p. 65)

Early interactionism, via the work of Thomas, involved a nomothetic view of sociology based on empiricism but one mediated by a concern that mental capacities be incorporated. Individuals through reflection can transcend social values and indeed transform attitudes. Causal relations need to take account of this.
In order to understand social phenomena, Thomas argued that one needs to be able to explore the structural determination of action and its social psychological aspects. This may best be done by concentrating on the individual case and relating the biography to its social constraints as manifest in social values. This reflects the much later view by Mills (1959), (although without developing any critique of social structure or seriously questioning the adequacy of nomological perspectives in science).
Thomas's methodological presuppositions were not, then, a refutation of nomological principles per se but, rather, an attempt to develop them. Nonetheless, Thomas and the later Chicagoans are often portrayed as being overly concerned with the subjective at the expense of the objective aspects of the social world.
Other interactionists reflected Thomas' concerns, notably Park and his students. Similar to Thomas, they, too, adopted a nomothetic approach. Park was not a 'Verstehen' or phenomenological sociologist, although his period of study under Simmel had informed his sociological perspective. Park never developed an epistemology that detached explanation from understanding; and while sceptical of the possibility of quantifying social phenomena and their interrelationships and thus of elaborating causal relationships, he never forsook the nomological premise of social science.
Park's approach was the elaboration of observable phenomena within a 'big picture', relying heavily on an underlying social disorganisation thesis. Contextualisation, with an emphasis on history, was central to this endeavour. Life history, recorded interview and case study, in one form or another, were important to this contextualising process.
The distinction between the case-study approach and participant observation is examined in more detail below with reference to particular work at Chicago.

Next 3.5 Participant observation at Chicago