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

5.4 Concetual development

5.4.1 Social disorganisation

5.4.2 Race relations cycle

5.4.3 Social change and cultural lag

5.4.4 Deviance and labelling theory

5.4.5 Other areas of theoretical and empirical study

5.4.6 Summary of the theoretical contribution of the Chicagoans


Besides developing concepts intrinsic to the development of the field of urban sociology, the Chicagoans also developed other significant and enduring concepts in fields as diverse as the sociology of race, deviance, the family and technology and culture. Central to most of these developments was the concept of disorganisation.


5.4.1 Social disorganisation

It has been suggested (Carey, 1975) that the work of the Chicagoans was underpinned by a 'social disorganisation paradigm', particularly evident in the period from around 1910 until 1930. Whether this really represents a 'Kuhnian paradigm' is debatable (Harvey, 1982; Martins, 1972; Eckburg and Hill, 1979) but it was a substantive underlying organising principle resembling a paradigm; although it was itself subsumed within a more general functionalist-interactionist orientation.

Social disorganisation was central to the sociological endeavour at Chicago and had been ever since its development in the Polish Peasant, which was the first attempt to elaborate the Chicagoans general theoretical perspective. Thomas was the focus through which the diverse elements of the perspective came together, and, in collaboration with Znaniecki, the empirically based analysis of the adjustment of Polish rural émigrés to American urban life was produced.

The thesis of social disorganisation was important as an orientation for early interactionist work. Social disorganisation explains stability by invoking consistent attitudes and values, inculcated by individuals, that will both satisfy personal desires and provide outlets for action. However, there was nothing immutable about this stability. Indeed, on one level, as societies constantly changed, they were always disorganised to a certain extent. On another level, individuals, although constrained by social norms that shape the personality, were able to transcend the prevalent norms as and when they obstructed progress to a more comprehensive state of organisation. Temperament, therefore, played a part in the accommodation of the individual to the social milieu. This 'temperament' was embodied in Thomas's 'wishes'. These wishes (initially response, recognition, security and new experience) were identified by Thomas as the motive force behind human action and moulded attitudes of individuals [3].

This approach thus made social psychology an integral part of sociology. The legacy of Thomas's social psychological component is far-reaching. Thomas had dispensed with the organic view of individuals as products of a given environment who merely reacted to stimuli. He had provided a place in social action for conscious reflection. He had provided a breakthrough that transcended the assumptions of nineteenth century American sociology. Thomas had severely challenged the idea of basic or immutable forces as determinants of social action. He had not entirely dispensed with the idea, his 'wishes' hark back, but their very name implies something indeterminable. Thomas stood at the crossroads of the challenge to immutable forces, the incorporation of conscious reflection shook the very foundation of the old preconception of original forces. He had, in effect, reasserted the 'ability of man to affect his own destiny'.

Although Thomas was forced to resign from the Chicago faculty in 1918, he remained a member of the Society for Social Research and his activities were reported in the Bulletin. His theoretical influence persisted and perhaps grew stronger during the 1920s. Carey's interviewees reflect the importance of Thomas:

His [Thomas's] spirit was quite pervasive around the place. The way to get at life and the problems and the knowledge you need to analyse what people were doing and how they behaved and so on, was to do what Thomas did. (Cottrell, 1972)

The four wishes were being taught but that was felt to be too instinctual by most sociologists at the time although Thomas's legacy was still around, and of course, his Polish Peasant, we all had to read it.... Going over to empiricism and that was partly due to Thomas too. (Dollard, 1972)

Thomas' social psychology was alive in my father's social psychology courses [1928], he took that course over from Thomas and carried on that tradition with much the same method and frequent reference to Thomas. In the seminar Blumer had, we had to read a number of theoretical statements from the Polish Peasant. Yes we were quite aware of Thomas and we picked up his favourite expressions. One of them is 'a thing is real if it is real in its consequences'... The 'definition of the situation', we couldn't have gotten along without that. Thomas's contribution was there in the spirit of the investigation, concepts that he contributed and his whole outlook in social psychology. (Faris, 1972)

Park certainly made no attempt to undermine the Thomasian perspective. The sample survey of theses shows that Thomas was cited in the bibliography of 50 per cent of theses. This tended to be concentrated in the period up to 1939, Thomas being cited in fourteen (64%) of the twenty two theses up to that date and only seven (35%) of the twenty theses in the sample submitted from 1940.

Social disorganisation was an integral and explicit part of the theoretical development of the vast majority of those theses that could be described as having produced a developed theoretical perspective. For example, Anderson (1923) utilised the general theoretical perspective of social disorganisation in his study of hobohemia, Thrasher (1926) adopted it as the basis for explaining the zonal variations in gangs, Zorbaugh (1929) investigated social disorganisation as it related to the 'interstitial areas' of cities', and Cressey (1929) used the thesis in his study of taxi-dance halls. Indeed, the famous studies of the 1920s can all be seen as empirical analyses of the theoretical orientation grounded in the thesis of social disorganisation. Cavan's Suicide (1926), Mowrer's Family Disorganisation (1924), Wirth's Ghetto (1926), Hiller's Strike (1924), and Reckless' Vice in Chicago (1925) all explicitly refer to the concept of social disorganisation, taking the essential nature of the concept for granted. In fact, rather than being an empirical validation of the zonal model, the mapping method so widely used at Chicago in the 1920s was central to the assessment of indicators of social disorganisation. The concentric zone thesis itself depended upon the concept of social disorganisation.

The theoretical ideas developed by Thomas were widely known and used throughout the discipline. The social disorganisation thesis and its associated concepts of 'definition of the situation' and 'social becoming' were among the few established and long-lived concepts to emerge from the early part of the century. There are references to the 'definition of the situation' in the papers of the Society for Social Research in the 1930s that indicate a widespread familiarity with the concept and the Social Science Research Council sponsored conference on the Polish Peasant, 1939, took the concept for granted, it required no explanation.  

Indicative of the centrality of the concept of disorganisation is its inclusion in a list of major sociological concepts suggested by Nisbett (1962, p. 67).

My interest in sociology as an art form was stimulated recently by some reflections on ideas that are by common assent the most distinctive that sociology has contributed to modern thought. Let me mention these: mass society, alienation, anomie, rationalization, community, disorganization ... all of them have had lasting effect upon both the theoretical and empirical character of sociology.

Within the framework of social disorganisation, the Chicagoans were instrumental in several major conceptual and theoretical developments.


5.4.2 Race relations cycle

Probably the most significant and enduring impact of theorising at Chicago was in the field of the sociology of race. Concepts such as marginality and acculturation became developed into one of the major theories to emerge from the sociological work of the department, namely the assimilation theory that became popularised as the race relations cycle.

Park advanced the idea of a four-stage process of interaction, drawn largely from his research into, and experience of, immigrants and of black-white relationships. The stages identified by Park were competition, conflict, accommodation and assimilation. This four-stage process was originally labelled the 'race relations cycle' because it grew out of the work Park had done in that field at Tuskegee. This cycle was outlined in his Introduction to Steiner (1917) and was to become increasingly refined through the work of students, notably, Young (1924), Wirth (1926) and Brown (1930). Park's students increasingly concentrated on race and collective behaviour. Apart from anything else, the development of race studies at Chicago under Park's guidance clearly belies the impression that the Chicagoans were mere urban ecologists. Park, arguably, had far more impact on race studies than on any other area of sociology (Matthews, 1977, p. 157).

The Chicagoans developed the area of race continuously from 1915 to 1950 under the guidance of Park and then Wirth, examining the sociology of race in relation to various ethnic minorities and through various orientations from sociological through social psychological to psychoanalytic (Reuter, 1919; Detweiler, 1922; Young, 1924; Brown, 1930; Stonequist, 1930; Frazier, 1931; Doyle, 1934; Cox, 1938; Daniel, 1940; Strong, 1940; Alexander, 1942; Parrish, 1944; Walker, 1945; Hill, 1946; Faw, 1948; Janowitz, 1948; Turner, 1948; Cothram, 1949; Hale, 1949; Marcson, 1950; Star, 1950; Reitzes, 1950; Quinn, 1950; Lewis, 1951; Haimowitz, 1951; Edwards, 1952). Wirth (1948) noted that of his three areas of substantive interest

my main love is the field of race relations and minority problems. I have published a number of things in this field including a number of articles in the Journal, a little monograph for the Social Science Research Council on "Problems of Minorities in War Time," a chapter in Linton's book on "The Science of Man in the World Crisis" entitled "The Problem of Minority Groups", which some of my friends think is one of the best things in the field, probably because it attempts to establish a typology of minorities. In this connection I co-operated with the Myrdal projects and published with Herbert Goldhamer a monograph in that series on miscegenation. I am, as you may know, the President of the American Council on Race Relations and the Chairman of our University Committee on Education, Training and Research in Race Relations. [4]

By 1930 the race relations cycle had become firmly entrenched in Chicago sociology and beyond, and was a taken-for-granted theory in the analysis of the interaction of diverse cultures. By the 1950s it had become extended into a general theory of interaction of groups. Wirth noted that

Correlative to social organization is the study of social interaction in all of its phases which deals with such processes as contact and isolation; competition; conflict; accommodation, and assimilation. (Wirth, 1948)

In their textbook on sociology, Ogburn and Nimkoff (1960, p. 111) made this generalised race relations cycle compatible with the structural functionalist approach. The theory persisted in American sociology generally until the 1960s (e.g. Gordon, 1964). Martindale (1960, p. 256) noted

To this day there are persons who do not feel they have covered the basic subject matter of sociology until they have discussed competition, conflict, accommodation and assimilation.

Arguably, the assimilation perspective of the 'Chicago School' has dominated North American studies of urban ethnic settlement (Agocs, 1979). The notions of 'marginal man' and social distance (Bogardus), became taken-for-granted in sociology in the United States and were used into the 1970s (Martin and Franklin, 1973, p. 48; Ferrarotti, 1977).

5.4.3 Social change and cultural lag

Ogburn was interested in social change and the influence of technology on social change. Central to his approach was the notion of culture. For Ogburn (1937) 'culture cut the chains that tied sociology to biology'. Culture was a holistic notion, being the whole product of social interaction, manifested in the society's controlling mechanism. Sociological enquiry, for Ogburn, was directed to the effect culture had on individuals. He advocated the study of culture as a whole, that is, an analysis of 'western civilizations' as cultural wholes as ethnologists had done for 'primitive' cultures. Of the study of particular facets of modern civilization, Ogburn saw the study of the city as most closely approximating a cultural approach. Ogburn and other culturologists (D. Thomas, White) extended this in an attempt to interrelate different aspects of modern society into an analysis of the cultural whole. A cultural emphasis led to the analysis of the effect of different factors on social change. Such factors were the impact of inventions, diffusion of cultural traits, the nature of culture contacts, social attitudes and resistance towards change, and the stock of knowledge.

Ogburn considerably developed the sociological analysis of technology. He saw the immutable forces of technology subsuming the individual in the sense that social evolution would take place irrespective of any individual historical figure, although accepting that the nuances of evolution are mediated by human activity. Ogburn thus tended to look for explanations of social disorganisation at a less individual and a more cultural level. He thus resolved the Thomasian context into the four-stage process of invention, accommodation, diffusion and adjustment. Ogburn's general theory of change had its particular referent, the cultural lag hypothesis, (Ogburn, 1922). The interrelatedness of culture, the primary effects of inventions in producing change and the adaptive character of non-material culture 'led directly to Ogburn's famous concept of cultural lag' (Gough, 1942). Ogburn argued that social change lead to strain because there was a delay or lag in the assimilation of mechanical invention and scientific discovery by social organisations, philosophies and popular habits. Culture is forced to adjust to technological change, but there is a period of disorganisation.

Ogburn's work on culture and social change, although begun before moving to Chicago, became widely known in the interwar years and 'Ogburn's ideas were familiar to sociologists who had never read any of his books' (Gough, 1942, p. 1). The American Journal of Sociology devoted one issue to the analysis of social change for several years and Ogburn wrote or edited books on social change throughout the twenties and thirties (Ogburn, 1922, 1927, 1934). His emphasis shifted to a closer study of the impact of technology (Ogburn, 1933, 1934b, 1937, Ogburn and Nimkoff, 1955) and in conjunction with Dorothy Thomas (Ogburn and Thomas, 1922) raised issues about the nature of scientific change and discovery, which were developed by Merton (1973) and White (1969) and are still an issue in current discussions of sociology of science (Brannigan, 1981).

5.4.4 Deviance and labelling theory

The Chicago ecological tradition was a major source of theoretical schema for the development of deviance studies (Taylor, Walton and Young, 1973, p. 111). Park (1929, p. 36) noted that 'it is assumed that people living in natural areas of the same general type and subject to the same social conditions will display, on the whole, the same characteristics'.

This ecological approach to deviance was developed at Chicago during the 1920s, and Sutherland went on to develop deviancy theory to include elements of social processes as well as structure, thus including differential association along with differential social organisation (Dotter, 1978). Sutherland's association theory suggested that criminal activity is produced primarily through exposure to others having criminal attitudes and engaged in criminal activities. That is, deviant acts are learned and individuals are liable to engage in deviant activity if they are exposed to an overabundance of criminal activities as compared to non-criminal associations. The soundness of this thesis was debated into the 1970s (Vold, 1958; Cressey, 1962; Sutherland and Cressey, 1966; Box, 1971)

The predominant emphasis, then, amongst the early Chicago informed social disorganisation theorists of deviancy was on the 'normlessness' of delinquent areas. Later subcultural theorists (Cohen, 1955; Cloward and Ohlin 1960) influenced by Merton, used the concept of disorganisation in a different way. They posited an anomie thesis, which suggested that while cultural goals were widely diffused and internalised there was no corresponding achievement frame.

The more recent and well known work in the field of deviancy by researchers associated with the 'Chicago School', notably Becker, Lemert, Matza, and Polsky has its roots in the social disorganisation theories of the early Chicagoans. They attempted a fairly radical development of a social, rather than biological, theory of deviance by proposing the relative nature of deviant activity. This was expressed through the articulation of the deviant's viewpoint within a functionalist perspective (Celinski, 1974). Labelling theory grew out of Sutherland's work, in part as a critique of its limitations in respect of taking the view of the other. The role of the 'Chicago School' in the field of deviancy studies is widely accepted, and represents the 'classical environmental analysis of deviant behavior' (Caldarovic, 1979).

5.4.5 Other areas of theoretical and empirical study

As has also already been indicated, Burgess's personality research was of more note to him than his concentric zone thesis; but his real and enduring interest was with the sociology of the family. Burgess' family studies changed the face of American sociology of the family to the view that the family was 'a closely interacting group of people playing different roles' (Cavan, 1983, p. 412-413). Cottrell (1933) further developed the study of the family, working closely with Burgess.

Following his own work on the Chicago Real Estate Board, Hughes (1928), engaged in and encouraged a further generation of sociologists to investigate the sociology of work (Hughes, 1958), of organisations (Hall, 1944; Smith, 1949) and of professions (Hughes, 1970). Very little research had been attempted in this field, especially in the United States, until Hughes sparked off interest at Chicago on his return to the University in 1938. Of three identifiable 'paradigms' in the sociological study of professions (Ritzer, 1978) the 'process paradigm' flows out of Hughes' work in the 'Chicago School'. Only very recently has the process paradigm begun to wane in importance as the study of professions has moved more towards the analysis of power relationships.

The Chicagoans' ecological perspective on organisational change, arguably, represents the most significant development in contemporary organisational research (Burns, 1980). The Chicago model of ecological, economic and cultural organisation provides a novel examination of the relationship between organisations and environment through its concentration on natural history within a social disorganisation framework. While these innovations in organisational study were, possibly, inadequately formalised they have continued in the work of contemporary theorists.

Park also prompted the development of a substantial research tradition in the field of collective behaviour and mass society, which was developed in the work of Edwards (1927) and more recently by Shibutani (Witzgall, 1978). Park's own doctoral thesis was 'The Crowd and the Public', (Park, 1972) an interest he retained throughout his life. Park provided one of the classic definitions of collective behaviour (Blake, 1978) and, by conceptualising the crowd as an object rather than a set of collective processes generated a perspective that has persisted through the work of succeeding writers.

One final area developed at Chicago was the sociology of knowledge. This was largely contained in the work of Wirth and Shils, and the doctoral candidates they supervised (Whitridge, 1946; Duncan, 1948). This is explored in more detail below as it raises issues of an alternative theoretical approach to the prevailing perspective on sociology in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s.

5.4.6 Summary of the theoretical contribution of the Chicagoans

Thomas provided the basis for a general theoretical orientation that underpinned much of Chicago sociological work. The Chicagoans developed the social disorganisation thesis in various ways, gradually discarding the psychologistic elements such as the 'wishes' and developing a more rigorous, although not entirely homogeneous, interactionist theory in particular areas. Park and many of his students developed the area of race relations, Burgess's students concentrated on the family and Ogburn's on social change and psychoanalysis. Wirth, Hughes and Stouffer encouraged a further generation to develop these areas and a more focussed empirical testing of specific theories evolved. These later generations developed the sociology of work, of organisations, of deviance, of mass society and the sociology of knowledge.

On a more general level, the Chicagoans avidly engaged in the debate that revolved around Freudianism. Indeed, there was probably a greater, and to some extent more clear cut division in the department over the efficacy of Freud's theories for sociology than there was about the value of quantitative techniques.

I know my father thought some of Burgess' interests were shallow and ridiculous, he thought some of the others were quite good though.... My father did not care at all for psychoanalysis or Freud and Burgess did. My father would make quite critical comments about Freudian concepts in his class but would not mention Burgess or attribute them to him.... Ogburn had been analysed and was a fairly convinced Freudian.... (Faris, 1972)

Ogburn's students became less and less the journalistic Parkian oriented students and more and more the quantitative orientation. But Burgess sort of straddled that... He studied statistics and attended meetings of the psychoanalytic institute uptown to get hold of the Freud business.... I got quite interested in psychiatric theories and started quite an intensive bit of reading in the writings of Freud. In fact I read all of them, all his published works... The only thing we had on Freud was an attack, a target of antagonism. Louis Wirth who was a little more my senior, but still one of the younger members of the faculty, actually I got to be quite a Freudian, I had quite a Freudian phase, he really viciously attacked me as a person who was not properly orientated to the sociological problems. (Cottrell, 1972)

Blumer, Park and Faris were opposed to it [Freudianism]. Burgess was a very diplomatic sort of chap. He didn't confront any of his colleagues. But if he found a student with an interest he would encourage it.... (Dollard, 1972)

However, this disagreement did not lead to the fragmentation of the department, as the sociology developed at Chicago had an interactionist base that, in practice, cut across psychoanalytic concerns. The tendency to view Chicago sociology as essentially empirical and therefore as atheoretical reflects a confusion of first hand empiricism with 'abstracted empiricism'. On the contrary, Chicago sociology was involved in the development of a plethora of sociological theories in numerous areas and reflected the cumulative theoretical style that came to be known as middle-range theorising (Merton, 1948).



[3] Commentators have suggested that this drew upon, or was consistent with, Durkheim's anomie thesis. There is a line of argument (Farberman, 1979; Tiryakian, 1979a) that suggest a kind of continuum from the 'Durkheimian School' to the Park-Burgess 'Chicago School'. Farberman (1979) contended that

What Park wanted to discover were the physical, social and psychological mechanisms through which society tamed its members. In attempting to delineate the social mechanisms of control, [Park] leaned heavily on Durkheim's conception of collective representation and Cooley's notion of the primary group; for the physical mechanism, he drew on the perspective of ecology: for the psychological mechanism, on Thomas and Znaniecki's view of personal evolution as well as Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler's notion of sublimation and compensation (Farberman, 1979, p. 12)

Park and Burgess adopted the idea of the 'corporate existence of the social group', as something more than 'the sum of the parts' as 'the fundamental fact of social control' from Durkheim. The group is 'fundamental in forming the social nature and ideals of the individual'. Farbermann implied this to mean that Park saw the individual as 'largely determined by forces and processes over which he had but faint awareness and little control'. Thus, Park saw manipulation for control purposes as possible because the individual has to fit into a pre-existing world. Drawing on Thomas and Znaniecki, Park cited personal disorganisation as pointing to an inevitable and constant struggle for personal self-expression. This struggle arises out of the basic motivational forces of the psyche, as summarised in Thomas' four wishes. Return

[4] In 1935 a Divisional Seminar in Race and Culture Contacts had been established at Chicago, meeting weekly under the direction of Blumer, Park, Redfield and Wirth and 'had the co-operation of about thirty graduate students from various parts of the University' (Wirth 1935). The following reported to the Seminar in 1935: Wirth, Redfield, Blumer, Lohman, Pierson, V. E. Daniel, M. Sprengling, A. Baker and Warner of Chicago, plus J. H. Johnson (Virginia), Park (Fisk), Tomasic (Rockefeller Foundation), Mitchell (Washington D.C), Hansen (Miami), Malinowski (London School of Economics), Reuter (Iowa), J. Merlant of the United States Military Academy and P. Nash of the Klamath Reservation, Oregon. Return


Next 5.5 Chicago theorising and sociology in the United States