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

5.6 The Chicagoans general theoretical and epistemological orientation

The codification of the nature of sociological theory encapsulated in Merton's call for middle-range theorising had been an ongoing practice in American sociology since the 1920s. Merton's work merely served to formalise and clarify elements of confusion in the prevailing cumulative theoretical tendency. Chicago sociology was not at variance with prevailing tendencies, as was illustrated in the analysis of the Polish Peasant conference. While Stouffer was more inclined towards a view sympathetic to attributing causes in the social world, Blumer and Wirth were more sceptical although, like the other speakers at the conference, they endorsed a cumulative-falsificationist approach.

Chicago sociologists had, since Thomas, adopted a variant of the cumulative-falsificationist approach. The Chicagoans, in practice, reflected Merton's concerns. Thus, methodological debate was not set apart from theoretical development. The Chicagoans were eclectic in their methods (see Chapters three and four) and for them methodology was an integral part of theory.

Similarly, while concerned to clarify concepts, notably disorganisation, prejudice, marginality, and interaction, the Chicagoans did not consider these clarifications an end in themselves, but merely an adjunct to the development of theory. Such theory, as has already been discussed, was developed through empirical observation, rather than 'armchair speculation'. However, it was not 'post-factum' theorising (Merton, 1948), as studies were both underpinned by a general theoretical orientation (social disorganisation with its associated demand for a consideration of attitudes and values) and located within particular theoretical discussions. The mere collection of facts did not constitute sociology for the Chicagoans (Burgess, 1944a).

The adoption of a cumulative-falsificationist model for sociology effectively undermined the long-term division between nonimalists and realists (Lewis and Smith, 1981). In the wake of the Polish Peasant debate, Burgess readdressed this division and enquired as to the suitability of physical and biological scientific models for the study of the social world. The realist position, for Burgess, implied that society is a reality to be studied through social processes such as communication, collective representation or social control; in short society is seen as organic and existing in the 'interaction and inter-communication of its members' as in Comte's social consensus, Durkheim's collective representation, Simmel's social forms of interaction, Weber's ideal types, Sumner's folkways and mores, Small's group, Cooley's sympathetic introspection and Park's collective behaviour. Nominalists, on the other hand, Burgess argued, concentrated on individual physiological and mental processes, such as Tarde's imitation, Giddings' consciousness of kind and Allport's denial of 'group' and 'institution' as analytic concepts.

In reviewing the nominalist-realist debate, Burgess noted that while realism emerged victorious, the nominalist position retained some credibility. Burgess' position was that while, in the past, the nominalist-realist issue had been contentious the debate had moved onto a new plane in which a synthesis (dominated by the realist position) engaged in a more subtle debate. The synthesis suggested that while study of society required that

the distinctly social aspects of human behavior cannot be studied adequately by the analysis of mental processes within individuals but requires examination of the social processes involved in their interaction.... there actually are aspects of human behavior which may be studied under a conception of society as an aggregate of independent individuals, and other aspects which can only be adequately defined and examined by the opposing conception of society as a reality of which its members are products. (Burgess, 1944a, p. 2)

He argued that, in view of this, there was a convergence between the nominalist and realist positions in practice that belied their epistemological distance. In effect, he argued that the nature of the attempted scientific study was characterised by the two essential guiding criteria of falsificationist 'scientific method', namely, the formulation of working hypotheses, and the 'objective use of an objective method of verification or disproof of the hypotheses that can be repeated by other[s]' (Burgess, 1944a, p. 8) [9].

Burgess's review of the realist-nominalist debate dispensed with the stale dichotomisation and effectively illustrated the synthesis achieved by the concern to establish a sound objective science grounded in a cumulative-falsificationist pragmatic model which tended to be adopted at Chicago as elsewhere. This is evident in the research work of the Chicagoans and emerged from the Polish Peasant conference where (publicly at least) there was, in principal, a nomological consensus amongst the participants at the conference.



[9] Methodologically, this 'standard' view required the invention of an instrument for the study of particular phenomena and the question arose as to whether such an instrument existed. Given the role of the reflective consciousness 'an instrument is needed which provides the investigator access to the inner life of the person and to the web of intercommunications between persons' (Burgess, 1944a, p.9). Burgess argued that the life history, like the microscope in biology, was an important element in study of the particular as it gets 'beneath the surface of the externally observable' (Burgess, 1944a, p. 9). Nonetheless, for sociology to develop objective theory an objective record of behaviour is needed, according to Burgess, therefore 'the perfection of the interview and its recording are of signal importance for sociological research' (Burgess, 1944a, p.10). Return


Next 5.7 Chicagoans alternatives to the prevailing model