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

5. Chicagoans as atheoretical empirical researchers

5.2 The empirical approach of the Chicagoans

5.2.1 The concern with the city of Chicago

5.2.2 The 'golden era' studies

From its beginnings, the department of sociology at Chicago was in the vanguard of attempts to develop empirical research in sociology. Opposed to the general theoretical conjecture that had informed nineteenth century sociology, the turn of the century saw the beginnings of an attempt to merge social surveying with sociological theory. While not alone in this endeavour, the Chicago sociologists were very much involved in the call for empirical investigation as a basis for theoretical development.

5.2.1 The concern with the city of Chicago

The city of Chicago was rapidly expanding during the period from 1890 to 1920 and became a focal point for a considerable number of exploratory studies. This has led to a view that the Chicagoans, notably Park with his journalistic background, were concerned primarily with describing facets of the city of Chicago rather than developing a theoretical sociology. The implication is that the Chicagoans more closely resembled demographers than theoretical sociologists.

Thus Rock wrote,

Park exhorted his students to chronicle the myriad phenomena that were developing in the Chicago of the 1920's and 1930's. For a time at least, Chicago sociology was virtually identical with the sociology of Chicago. It was nursed as a cartographic exercise, studying Little Sicily, the Jewish ghetto, Polonia, the Gold Coast, the slums, Hobohemia, rooming house districts and the gangs of the city. (Rock, 1979, p. 92)

The concern with the city of Chicago as a subject for empirical investigation pre-dated Park. Small argued that the Chicagoans should make the most of their surroundings for research purposes and insisted that sociology could and should be greatly developed through empirical study. Henderson and Talbot were involved in, and encouraged, empirical enquiry as part of their concern with social issues.

The empirical approach at Chicago began as early as the last few years of the nineteenth century (Dunn, 1895; Clark, 1897; Bushnell, 1901; Gillette, 1901; Riley, 1904; Fleming, 1905; Rhoades, 1906) but became more systematic after the Polish Peasant study, researched in the earlier part of the decade, was published in 1918 (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1918). Although not an active empirical researcher himself, Small came more and more to advocate direct observational study (Dibble 1972).

Two early graduate students tenured by the department, Vincent and Thomas, were schooled in this 'empirical' environment. Thomas did considerable 'legwork' for Henderson while Vincent provided an impetus to empirical study and also co-authored the 'laboratory manual' with Small which was probably the earliest text to outline an approach to empirical sociology (Small and Vincent, 1894). Following Vincent's departure in 1908 to take the post of President of the University of Minnesota, and with Thomas becoming more and more involved in the Polish Peasant study and the start of a shift away from applied to pure research, there was a lull in the output of theses on aspects of Chicago. Nonetheless, Small, influenced by German sociology, continued to advocate direct empirical work and encouraged Thomas and later, through Thomas, Park to set about a more detailed and systematic analysis of the city of Chicago, which was substantially influenced by the emergent German urban sociology of the early part of the century (Smith, 1979).

On his arrival at the university, Park took up the cue and for fifteen years actively encouraged students to undertake empirical research, much of it in the city of Chicago. In 1915, he wrote an article entitled 'The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the City Environment' (Park, 1915) which outlined areas for investigation and suggested procedures for action. This article, (reprinted twice in different compendiums with some revisions) is seen by many commentators as the start of the intense period of empirical activity at Chicago during the 'golden era'.

5.2.2 The 'golden era' studies

The famous studies of the 'golden era', such as  Anderson (1923), Shonle (1926), Thrasher (1926), Cressey (1929), Landesco (1929), Shaw et al. (1929) and Zorbaugh (1929), are noted for their lack of overt concern with theoretical issues. These studies, which have tended to attract most attention, have been the ones that provide documentary descriptions of little known or researched social phenomena and serve as social historical texts. For that reason they have been more durable while not necessarily representing the theoretical concerns of the Chicagoans. Neither Cressey's, Zorbaugh's, Shaw's nor Anderson's work were doctoral dissertations.
 It has been suggested that an interest in an area was all that was required in the 1920s, that no formal hypotheses, representative samples, control groups or rigid data collection methods were necessary in planning research. Tentative generalisations were made but these were purely 'concept identification' and the location of social processes in an exploratory way was all that was involved. The process was a 'gaining of insights', it was not theoretical, rather it constituted the preliminary stages of science. The period was

not a time of theorising. Rather it concentrated on collecting facts, grouping them under concepts, and/or identifying relationships among them. These facts, concepts and relationships might be compared to building blocks; the construction of theories was to come later.... Thomas recognized the need for developing theories ... Wirth seemed opposed to theory construction. The time had come to theorize, but Chicago sociologists seemed reluctant to take this step. (Cavan, 1983, p. 416) [1]

This reflects a general view of the 'golden era' as lacking theoretical orientation. Bierstedt (1981, p. xi), for example, regarded Park as having had a great influence over his students but that he 'exhibited little interest in sociological theory'. An often-cited quote from Park is used to support this view.

You have been told to go grubbing in the library, thereby accumulating a mass of notes and a liberal coating of grime. You have been told to choose problems wherever you can find musty stacks of routine records based on trivial schedules prepared by tired bureaucrats and filled out by reluctant applicants for aid or fussy do-gooders or indifferent clerks. This is called "getting your hands dirty with real research". Those who counsel you are wise and honorable; the reasons they offer are of great value. But one more thing is needful: first hand observation. Go and sit in the lounges of the luxury hotels and on the door-steps of the flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and on the slum shakedowns; sit in the Orchestra Hall and in the Star and Garter Burlesk. In short, gentlemen, go get the seat of your pants dirty in real research. (Park, 1920).

This quote is usually annotated to Park telling his students to 'get their hands dirty with research', (e.g. Berger and Berger, 1976). The implication is that Park extolled the virtues of empirical data collection at the expense of theoretical endeavours. This actually misrepresents what Park said. Park was not simply calling for empirical data instead of theoretical conjecture but was demanding a combination of direct empirical and theoretical work, and suggesting that documentary sources are of themselves insufficient without some first-hand experience of the social world.

The retrospective views and the research work of other Chicagoans in fact confirm the importance of theorising during the 'golden era'. Ogburn, for example, endorsed Bierstedt's view that Park had a great influence over his students but offered a very different view of Park's theoretical contribution.

I saw little of [Park] and almost never was in a conversation or discussion with him; and yet I admired his contributions to sociology, which were ... a contribution of concepts, well thought out, and well selected as to importance. I cannot recall any research he ever did, yet his concepts were a real contribution and have been adopted widely by sociologists.(Ogburn journal, 4th April 1955)

Cottrell (1972) remarked that there was a lot of German sociological theory, for example, infused into Chicago, which is reflected in the content of the Park and Burgess text (1921). Dollard (1972) went further and inverted Cavan's recollections altogether. 'My notion about sociology was that it was wildly theoretical and verbal and philosophical but through Ogburn I saw that something could be gathered which was very tangible'. Hayner (1972) pointed to the mix of theory and empirical data that Park offered. 'At the time we thought we were getting too much philosophy from Park, but in retrospect that is what we needed. We needed his ability to have concrete experiences and then generalize significantly from that experience.'

These recollections indicate a concern at Chicago for both empirical enquiry and theoretical development. The promotion of 'inductive theorising' through the attempts to generalise empirical observation certainly involved elements of what Cavan called 'concept identification' but also amounted to more than the construction of building blocks [2].

The recollections of the Chicagoans are borne out by an inspection of their work. While the empirical study may have been prompted by an interest in an area, the students were expected, and helped, to locate their data in a general theoretical framework, and indeed, even the famous studies of the period were far less bereft of theory than some commentators suggested (Madge, 1963). Indeed, the survey of Ph.D. theses (see Appendix 6) shows that eighty six per cent were directly concerned with specific theoretical issues. Some of these, particularly the work of Young (1924), Simpson (1926), Blumer (1928), Neumeyer (1929), Brown (1930) and Stonequist (1930), were directed entirely to an analysis of theoretical constructs.

Why the view that such research was atheoretical should have grown up is not easy to pin down, other than to suggest that a selective reading of research work may have been responsible. The myth, then, becomes self-perpetuating. Theoretical concerns are not seen as central to Chicago sociology and thus the theoretical contribution is ignored. The style in which most of the work published in the University of Chicago Press Sociological Series is written may also have contributed to the view that theory was of little importance to the Chicagoans. The tendency was for them to present their sociological enquiry in 'ordinary language', which possibly led to an underestimation of their theoretical content. The utilisation of a simple documentary style and the extensive incorporation of subject's verbal and written comments, possibly serves to deflect the reader from the social theoretical content.

Further, it may be that, in a period of rapid development of sociological conceptualisation, some of the pioneering empirical studies of the 'golden era' which were researched in the 1920s were not as 'polished' theoretically as they might have been when finally published in the Sociological Series of the University of Chicago Press in the 1930s.

Whilst attempting to infuse empirical observation into sociological research, the Chicagoans were not, however, unconcerned with sociological theory. The nature of the theoretical contribution of the Chicagoans is examined in the next sections.



[ 1] Cavan's choice of Thomas and Wirth as indicative of the staff at Chicago is strange. Thomas had left in 1918 and Wirth was a graduate student himself until 1926, the year Cavan received her doctorate, and merely an instructor from 1926 to 1929 (before moving to Tulane University).
 Further, Cavan's suggestion that Wirth was opposed to theory construction is surprising. Wirth was particularly interested in theoretical developments in sociology and was himself concerned with the sociology of knowledge. As part of this endeavour he circulated the department with a memorandum, part of which pointed to the traditional theoretical concerns of sociology.

As a general discipline sociology seeks to understand what is true of human behaviour by virtue of the fact that man everywhere leads a group life.... The anlysis of personality and collective behavior falls into a branch of sociology known as social psychology. The analysis of social institutions and of social structures and the processes of social interaction through which these structures come into being and change constitutes the field of social organisation. The environmental factors, resources and the technology conditioning populations, communities and social life generally, and the extent to which their relationships between man and man are, among other factors, influenced by the habitat, constitute human ecology. (Wirth, 1938)

This hardly seems to indicate a lack of concern with theoretical enterprises, even if it was written, in all probability, some time after Cavan was acquainted with Wirth. Nonetheless, Cavan would presumably have been aquainted with Wirth's own thesis, which, although providing an extensive historical analysis of the development of the ghetto, further developed and refined Park's race relations cycle.
 Wirth (1948) reflecting on his involvement in sociology at Chicago summed up the approach to theory and practice adopted at Chicago.

Insofar as we wish to be a science we must seek to establish valid generalizations. Hence, we are concerned with a description of unique instances only insofar as they can be used for the establishment of generalized descriptions and more abstract general propositions. We should try to carry our findings to as precise a point of measuration as the data and our techniques allow. I do not, however, agree with those who believe that measurement is the only criterion of science. The propositions at which we arrive should have predictive value, but here again quantification is not a necessary element in prediction....
In my work in theory, especially through my years of teaching it to graduate students, I have tried to emphasize that theory is an aspect of everything that they do and not a body of knowledge separate from research and practice. Return

[ 2] Some disatisfaction on the part of students may have arisen as a result of Park's rather forceful promotion of research topics. Robert Faris (1972) noted that he wanted to 'do my own thesis and not have one handed to me by Park' while Hayner admitted to the influence of Park when deciding on research projects.

The 'hotel life' thesis came really from Park, he was pushing studies down in the Loop district and that appealed to me... Park had wanted me to study the slum but I didn't want to study the slums. There was another girl who was more interested in slums. So I said, 'you can have it'. (Hayner, 1972) . Return


Next 5.3 Urban sociology at Chicago