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

5.3 Urban sociology at Chicago

The 'Chicago School' is seen as providing the major traditional approach to urban sociology (Evers, 1975; McGrath and Geruson, 1977; Dotter, 1980) and its evident concern with empirical study of the city of Chicago has meant that, in assessing the theoretical impact of the 'Chicago School', many commentators refer only to those theoretical contributions that relate to urban sociology. Of these, the zonal model (Burgess, 1925) has achieved notoriety. This 'ideal typical' model is usually regarded as an interesting but essentially limited or naive model of city growth (Rex, 1973; Slattery, 1985). The implication is that Chicago sociologists did lots of empirical work on the city but were unable to combine it into any systematic theory (Madge, 1963).

Two issues arise here, the first concerns the extent to which the Chicagoans were urban sociologists, the second, the extent to which their research in the area developed theory.

It is usually assumed that the 'Chicago School' was heavily involved in urban sociology and essentially founded the sub-discipline in the United States. Lofland, however, has investigated the supposition that Chicago sociologists concentrated on urban sociology, and concludes to the contrary that 'the heritage of Chicago, then, is the virtual absence of a specifically urban sociology' (Lofland, 1983, p. 505). Her analysis intended to show that Chicago sociology was concerned with the private rather than the public realm. She illustrated this contention by grouping the two hundred and twenty one Ph.D. and M.A. theses awarded degrees at Chicago between 1915 and 1935 on the basis of their focus of attention. Only five, she asserted, could be said to do with the public realm 'by any stretch of the imagination'. These she listed as Hayner (1923), Russell (1931), Cressey (1929), Anderson (1925) and Weinberg (1935). The latter three, she suggested, could just as easily be regarded as social problem theses. Lofland's classification is contentious. She relies totally on titles not content and provides a classification system that is not mutually exclusive, and asserts that only 'public' studies (as she defines them) should be taken to be indicative of urban sociology. Her analysis, however, does point a questioning finger at those who would circumscribe Chicago activities as urban sociology.

The sample survey of theses reveals that ten (24%) were specifically investigations of some aspect of the city of Chicago or its immediate environs (see Appendix 6). Similarly, only one fifth (18%) of the regular presentations to the Society for Social Research were about Chicago. Up to 1930 a quarter of talks (27%) were on Chicago, after 1930 this dropped to ten per cent. Furthermore, discussions of Chicago were usually from visiting speakers. Only six per cent of the addresses given by the sociology faculty focussed on Chicago while forty one per cent of addresses from non-academic speakers were directed to Chicago (see Appendix 3).

The two elements of Chicago research work that are usually referred to as representing their theoretical contribution to urban sociology are Park's ecological perspective with its contingent concept of natural areas bounded by transportation and other barriers within which distinct actions developed (Turner, 1967; Tiryakian, 1979a; Dotter, 1980; Komorowski, 1978) and Burgess' concentric zone thesis. The clearest manifestation of the theories of human ecology is still often taken to be the concentric zone theory. Thus, for example, Easthope (1974, p. 66) suggested that the main work done at Chicago was in the field of human ecology and that it was codified in the concentric zone thesis.

Three research workers developed this concept [of concentric zone]: Thrasher, Zorbaugh and Shaw. Each of these may be said to have brought out in greater detail and given empirical evidence for, theoretical concepts developed by Park and Burgess.

Burgess 'systematised ecological communities into concentric zones, each with its unique culture' (Cavan, 1983, p. 412) and these zones provided the means to social mobility, (Cottrell, et al., 1973). Mowrer (1927) identified family types for the zones, Frazier (1931) studied the zonal differences for black family life in Chicago and Shaw and McKay (1931) showed decline in juvenile crime through the zonal belt.

While acknowledged as early contributions to urban sociology both the ecological approach and the zone thesis have subsequently tended to be viewed as simplistic models of the internal structure and growth of the city. Neither are seen as having any substantial impact on the development of urban sociological theory (Firey, 1945; Madge, 1963; Rex, 1973; Easthope, 1974; Slattery, 1985). Some commentators go further and imply that the Chicagoans did a disservice to the development of urban sociology. For example, Haussermann and Kramer-Badoni (1980) argued that the central 'urban ecological model' of the Chicagoans dissects reality into a multitude of variables, yet despite them, is analytically weak, as is evidenced by its concepts of urbanism and urban density. In short, they saw the urban sociology of the 'Chicago School' as 'positivistic' and indifferent to history and meaning.

Conversely, Chicago urban sociology is seen as involving a pioneering approach that, for the first time, saw the city as an independent variable (Oliven, 1978; Dotter, 1980). Wirth's role is sometimes singled out because he was the first to formulate a sociological and socio-psychological theory of urbanism, in which the city was an explanatory variable, and thus overcame the biological perspective present in the ecological approach (Vergati, 1976; Oliven, 1978). This work paralleled Redfield's anthropological thesis of the folk-urban continuum. Others, however, have suggested that this concept of urbanism fails to adequately relate the urban way of life to capitalist industrialisation (Gans, 1968; Williams, 1973; Castells, 1977).

Next 5.4 Concetual development