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

3.6 Participant observation and community studies

Apart from within the field of community studies, participant observation was not a term widely used, nor a method greatly indulged in, either at Chicago or within American sociology in general, prior to the 1950s. In confronting the labelling of early 'Chicago School' studies as participant observation, I am not simply questioning the appropriateness of an elusive label. What is fundamentally at issue is whether the Chicagoans adopted the style of 'qualitative' methodology that is conventionally attributed to them, and out of which a retrospective heritage of participant observation studies has been constructed.
The nearest the 'Chicago School' got to establishing an ethnographic tradition of participant observation studies was through its endorsement of community studies, with Blumenthal pioneering in his Small Town Stuff (1932a). The first reference to a participant observer study in the Bulletin of the Society for Social Research was to Blumenthal's work. In the June edition of the Bulletin for 1931 Blumenthal was listed as a new member with, as research topic, 'A Participant-Observer Study of a Small Town'. In the next edition, in the list of books available through the Society, was the following entry:

Albert Blumenthal: Small Town Stuff
The result of two and a half years of systematic investigation, this is the first work to apply the participant-observer method of the anthropologist to the study of the small community in our civilization. (Bulletin of the Society for Social Research, Jan. 1932, p. 3)

Besides being only the second reference to participant observation in the Bulletin this announcement also pointed to the fact that Blumenthal's research was as much influenced by anthropology as the ethnographic work of Park's students. There were fairly close links between anthropology and sociology at Chicago. [5] There was a single Department of Sociology and Anthropology until 1929. After the split into two separate departments, Radcliffe-Brown taught in the Department of Anthropology for six years and was followed by Lloyd Warner (in 1935) who was Professor of Anthropology and Sociology. Both Radcliffe-Brown and Warner taught 'a lot of sociologists to be interested in doing field work' (Becker, 1979) and Polsky (Lofland, 1980, p. 278) recalled that rubbing shoulders with the anthropologists was an important element in the development of field research. In the 1930s there was a growth of community-study type field work, notably the anthropological work of Redfield in Mexico and the studies of the South carried out by W.L. Warner and his associates, which was paid for 'by the W.P.A. and other of those kinds of Government funds for relief' (Becker, 1979). This research led on to the work of Dollard and the Lynds outside Chicago. This was not, however, in any sense a dominant tradition at Chicago.

Middletown didn't immensely impress Chicago people, Burgess spoke favourably of it, but it was so much description and so little generalisation, there wasn't much sociology you could hang on to. It was too specifically descriptive of a little town in Indiana. (Faris, 1972)

 These community studies unlike the early Chicago studies (of the 1920s) involved researchers leaving Chicago and living in the community chosen for analysis. While reflecting some of the earlier concerns of the Chicago studies of particular communities, such as Wirth's Ghetto and Horak's The Assimilation of the Czechs in Chicago, the work done by Blumenthal was different in many ways, not least because he, unlike Horak and Wirth, actually went to live in, and become part of, the community. The approach adopted by Blumenthal had been suggested in embryonic form by Zorbaugh in his study of the Gold Coast and the Slum but Blumenthal went much further in his analysis of the structure and organisation of Missoula, Montana.
In a letter to Burgess mailed from Philipsburg, Montana and dated 20th April 1929 Blumenthal discussed methodology. He referred to spot maps of the community, which he took for granted as a methodological device, but asked if photographs may not be used, in particular, the use of an aerial photograph as the basis for such a spot map. Blumenthal reckoned that such a photograph would give a far better idea of the community than the conventional spot map. He thought that the photograph would be particularly illuminating in the kind of intimate study that he was undertaking. Blumenthal was particularly concerned about the secrecy of his work. He noted (Blumenthal, 1929) that he had intended the first chapter, of what became Small Town Stuff, to be on methodology but

further thought has convinced me that the principal part of such a chapter would have to do with the role of the investigator in making the study and should thus be kept relatively secret. For, the DeGraff incident is suggestive of what could happen to me and my family if the true nature of my activities become public. [6]

He even suggested writing two theses, a formal one and a secret one kept at the Department of Sociology, which would be 'replete with life history materials'.
Blumenthal unabashedly asserted that his work was method­ologically innovative in the manner by which he had gathered data; and emphasised the reflexivity of his work but did not, at that time, refer to it as participant observation.

It seems to me that the most promising results of my study is that of breaking the ground for the development of a technique of making intimate studies of small communities. And as I have suggested, the role of the investigator plays a very important part in his final product and should be thoroughly exposed in an adequate study which avoids the common fallacy of sociologists -- that of assuming a too nearly absolute objectivity on the part of the social researcher. To that end, the document which I have entitled 'A Diary of Topics of Conversation and my Reactions upon Them' reveals a method of bringing out the role of the investigator if he faithfully records his attitudes, how he is treated, et cetera. (Blumenthal, 1929)

Blumenthal wanted to include six detailed life histories, a male and female from each of the following age categories; grade school child, young adult and mature adult who had lived in the community a long time. He referred to one document that

illustrates the use of the continued interview and its function of bringing a degree of intimacy which cannot be attained in a single interview. It is the most concrete revelation I have ever encountered and only my peculiar role as confidant could have enabled me to secure it.

Although Blumenthal was unsure what to call his methodology, it does seem to have been an early example of participant observation. Besides actually living in the community and par­ticipating in its day-to-day activities, Blumenthal also argued for a clear contextualisation of the data collection process. Rather than the 'objective observation' of earlier studies, Blumenthal was concerned to engage the perspectives of the subjects and considered his own involvement to be a crucial procedure for achieving this. For him, the novelty of his approach lay in his acceptance of the subjective role of the researcher. This role, he suggested, needed to be adequately documented so that the empirical data could be approached critically by others. In this respect he prefaced the perspective that became popular a quarter of a century later and directed towards all forms of sociological enquiry by Myrdal (1968, 1970).



[ 5] Robert Redfield was Park's son-in-law. Park had apparently encouraged Redfield to take up anthropology and 'Park's sociology became clearly reflected in the series of Mexican community studies by Redfield, whose book Folk Culture of Yucatan is dedicated to Park' (Faris, 1967, p. 101). Redfield, like many of the sociologists, had attempted a classification system of communities, based on his research in Mexico.
    Faris argues that sociology at Chicago was deeply rooted in cultural anthropology. Thomas' (1909) Social Origins and Ellsworth Faris' work reflect this anthropological root. Faris opened up the way for the establishment of a strong Anthropology section by bringing Fay Cooper Cole to Chicago. The Department separated into a Sociology Department and an Anthropology Department in 1929 but many students took courses in both areas and there were close links between the two Departments. A number of members of the Society for Social research were anthropologists. Return

[ 6] DeGraff was a graduate student at Chicago who was awarded his Ph.D. in 1926 (DeGraff, 1926). What exactly the 'DeGraff Incident' amounted to is not clear as no other reference to it could be traced. [Recent further enquiry enabled by the Internet has led me to a reference in the Quarterly Journal of the Missouri Historical Society and Kelly Brown, Acquisitions Librarian, Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center seems to have found the answer. The 'incident' was probably the scandal in 1929 of a survey inquiring about female student’s sexual activity that was developed by students taking a sociology class called "The Family". Harom O. DeGraff was the instructor of the class and gave approval to the project. News of the survey led to a great deal of negative publicity for the University of Missouri from people who thought these were inappropriate questions to be asking female students. The professional reputations of Max F. Meyer, Stratton D. Brooks, and Harom O. DeGraff were deeply affected by the incident.] Return


Next 3.7 Participant observation and the 'Chicago School' approach