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

5.7 Chicagoans alternatives to the prevailing model

5.7.1 Blumer and symbolic interactionism

5.7.2 Wirth and the German Sociological Tradition


The Chicago sociologists, notably Blumer and Wirth, had, as part of their theoretical repertoire, the basis for an alternative to the prevailing model. Indeed, Blumer is often seen as fundamentally opposed to the tendency towards a 'scientific sociology', while Wirth is seen as providing a radical alternative based on a German sociology of knowledge tradition (Burgess, 1944a). The debate on the Polish Peasant(Social Science Research Council, 1939) had clearly indicated the root of this opposition. However, as has been suggested above, while Wirth and Blumer provided the grounding for a non-falsificationist position during the debate, they subsumed these concerns under the standard approach.


5.7.1 Blumer and symbolic interactionism

Blumer was openly sceptical of the possibility of causal laws. The value of the Polish Peasant for him, then, was its focus on understanding. The fact that it appears in his critique not to be capable (methodologically) of achieving the control over society that it wanted does not bother Blumer. He suggested that understanding may provide a better resource for control than a nomothetic sociology. Blumer accepted that his position located social research between 'scientific laws' and 'literary insight' and saw no short-term resolution of that situation.

Blumer was not alone in advancing the scepticism about the possible 'objectivity' of the social sciences as they stand. He was supported in the debate by Lerner who questioned

the whole comparison that I have found so often being made between the natural sciences and the social sciences. I think one of the things we have suffered from has been that sense of inferiority that comes from our not being able to turn ourselves into natural scientists. I think we ought to recognize that and also recognize that there are attainable social generalizations that are worth making, and then to talk about research in terms of getting at those relatively attainable generalizations. (Social Science Research Council, 1939, p. 144).

Although there is little evidence of it in the Polish Peasant conference, Blumer is often regarded as a major figure in the development of a 'qualitative' or 'interpretive' sociology (Filstead, 1970; Denzin, 1970; Butters, 1973). The development of symbolic interactionism formalised his position and its adoption by some of the Chicagoans is seen as indicative of the 'Chicago School's' continued exclusion from mainstream development of sociological theory. Indeed, while symbolic interactionism provided a basis for an alternative to the prevailing falsificationist orientation that pervaded American sociology, no such fully articulated alternative emerged from the 'Chicago School'. Chicago was not the home of a critical ethnography, indeed, it was more the centre of a synthetic sociology, utilising eclectic approaches and a non-critical methodology, and reflecting mainstream American sociology (Thomas, 1983b).

So, although, the emergence of a strong symbolic interactionist approach at Chicago orchestrated by Blumer is sometimes seen as indicative of a radical shift in the Chicago tradition away from the nomothetic-falsificationist concerns of the earlier interactionists and of the enduring approach advocated by Burgess, towards an ethnographically based phenomenological perspective, this overstates the division in American sociology prior to 1960. An analysis of the symbolic interactionists at Chicago from 1930s onwards shows that they did not form a separate approach from the general developments at Chicago, nor were they phenomenologists. Further, there was no clear attempt at methodic prescriptions until at least the late 1950s, and then as much for pragmatic reasons (the nature of the researched groups) as out of methodological preference. The methodological debate (even as late as the 1960s) did not detach participant observation from the general methodological concerns of middle-range theorising. In fact, Blumer never laid the groundwork for a 'truly' phenomenological critique of positivism, always resisting any charges of radical subjectivism. It was Goffman, if anyone, who provided the route to an alternative conceptualisation of the sociological enterprise, which was developed at Berkeley as 'late symbolic interactionism' and emerged (eventually) in ethnomethodology (Scott, 1968).

The approach and orientation of those sociologists at Chicago who adopted the label of symbolic interactionist, or to whom such a label has retrospectively been applied, did not divorce themselves from the mainstream of interactionism at Chicago. There is, at no point, a shift indicative of a large movement towards a peculiarly symbolic interactionist perspective. Symbolic interactionism grew out of the general perspective and orientation at Chicago in line with similar debates in American sociology. The Polish Peasant conference is illustrative of the essential tension in the discipline but also reveals that no fully articulated and programmatic alternative was in evidence. Sociology as science and the nature of both science and sociology was under, and has remained under, scrutiny. Blumer's reservations were but a single articulation of what may be seen to be a post-war 'qualitative style', however, he did not represent a 'Chicago School' position, nor was he leader of a set of sociologists who developed anything like a phenomenological critique or research practice.

In many respects, Blumer was out on a limb at Chicago. Janowitz (1980) argued that Blumer's theoretical position was distinct from the general perspective at Chicago and this is reflected in the social distance he tended to maintain from other faculty and graduates. 'I was fairly close with Herb Blumer although he was quite remote and distant, not too friendly with anybody' (Cottrell, 1972).

However, Blumer did not develop a position that detached him entirely from the prevailing sociological approach. This is evident in his own research at Chicago. An example of the approach is provided in a letter of application for funding to continue his study (with H.W. Dunham) on catatonic dementia praecox, written to Wirth as chairman of the Social Science Research Committee at Chicago, 13 June 1936. He outlined work to date, which very much reflects the general concerns of the Chicagoans. These concerns related to the environmental factors affecting action, social interaction, personality traits, attitudes and values. Blumer (1936a) noted that the catatonic dementia praecox boys in the study were excluded from childhood associations with delinquent boys at that point when delinquent acts are planned and that there was 'definite proof' that the catatonic boys were not delinquent despite being open to the same environmental stimuli as the delinquent boys. The result was a negative value placed on delinquency by the catatonic boys. Such boys tended to be conformist, timid, self conscious, attached to home and anxious. Such anxiety occasionally erupted into psychotic behaviour.

Blumer intended to develop the research along two lines, the first a deeper investigation of personal experiences of the catatonic boys, and compare these with similar boys in other areas of the city. Second, to

construct a testing device in the form of a questionnaire built around the differences in traits of behavior existing between the catatonic boys and the delinquent boys. I hope to make this device into such a form that it will be possible to isolate out the two types from one another with ease.... (Blumer, 1936a)

Blumer wanted to check his feeling that it is the discrepancy between the 'psychological tempo of the community' and the 'personality disposition of the catatonic' which leads to psychotic outbreaks.

In much the same way, later symbolic interactionists, for example Becker, Geer, and Stauss, did not adopt a position opposed to the prevailing nomothetic-falsificationist model. Even into the 1960s, the work of these noted symbolic inter-actionists, who are generally assumed to have taken their cue from Blumer, failed to adopt an approach at variance with the mainstream. Indeed, the contribution to the methodological debate in the 1960s by Becker and others was less inclined towards an anti-nomothetic position than Blumer. Becker (1958), Geer (1964), Becker and Geer (1957, 1957a, 1960) and Glaser and Strauss (1967) may have preferred and attempted to legitimate a 'qualitative' approach, yet they offered no fully developed 'phenomenologically' based alternative.

Becker (1958) and Geer (1964) provide a clear illustration of the methodological and general theoretical orientation of the 'later Chicagoans' and indicate the essentially nomological nature of their endeavour. The 'qualitative style' was the 'loyal opposition' (Mullins, 1973) in the 1950s and 1960s to variable analysis techniques in as much as it offered no critique of the cumulative-falsificationist epistemology of structural functionalism. Indeed, Becker and Geer (1957), were concerned to legitimate participant observation as a 'valid' data collection process and to show that participant observation could and should be a systematic technique. Becker and Geer argued that participant observation is not simply an exploratory tool of social research, and that it can generate and test theory and thereby conform to the taken-for-granted standards of middle-range theorising.

For Becker, participant observation was typically concerned both to discover hypotheses and to test them. The problem for Becker was that given the vast amount of 'rich' but varied data, how does one analyse it systematically and present conclusions convincingly?

Becker reasserted the cumulative model view of the development of sociological knowledge by suggesting that participant observation research was sequential and analytically inductive. He pointed to three distinct stages of the fieldwork and a final analytic stage once the fieldwork was completed. The stages were, first, the selection and definition of problems, concepts and indices; second, the checking of the frequency and distribution of phenomena; third, the construction of social system models; and fourth, the post-fieldwork stage of final analysis and presentation of results.

This four-stage process rested upon a falsificationist model of knowledge production. Becker suggested that, after constructing a model specifying the relationships among various elements the model is successively refined by searching for negative cases, thus accommodating the 'Popperian principles' of conjecture and refutation at the level of individual testable statements. Becker suggested that

While a processural model may be shown to be defective by a negative instance which crops up unexpectedly in the course of the fieldwork, the observer may infer what kinds of evidence would be likely to support or to refute his model and may make an intensive search for such evidence. (Becker 1958, p. 408)

The final post-fieldwork stage is systematic and involves checking and rebuilding models with as many safeguards as the data will allow, notably by cross-classifying all items so that checks can be made as complete as possible. This approach can, Becker suggested,

profit from the observation of Lazarsfeld and Barton that the "analysis of 'quasi-statistical data' can probably be made more systematic than it has been in the past, if the logical structure of quantitative research at least is kept in mind to give general warnings and directions to the qualitative observer." (Becker, 1958, p. 409)

There is little in Becker (1958) to challenge the prevailing model. The identification of necessary and sufficient conditions reflected the nomothetic approach. The reductionism inherent in isolating basic phenomena and the attempts to build up and elaborate existing sociological theory with its taken-for-granted social system framework also reflected the concerns of middle-range theorising. Becker made no attempt to critique the epistemological underpinnings of prevailing scientific sociology nor took into account Blumer's (1956) reservation.

In an account of ongoing fieldwork practice (published in Hammond (1964), but written around 1960) Geer reaffirmed Becker (1958). She reframed Becker's sequential model as the generation and testing of working hypotheses and their combination into compound propositions. Reflecting Becker, she saw the first operation as consisting of the testing of 'crude yes-or-no propositions', the second stage as 'seeking negative cases' or setting out 'deliberately to accumulate positive ones'. One disconfirming instance, she argued, forces modification. A simplistic falsificationist model is reaffirmed, such that confirmation of 'what is' is accomplished by eliminating 'what is not'. The third stage is elaborated, by Geer, into a proto-path analytic model, following the suggestions of George Polya (1954).

Despite concluding that the first days in the field may transform a study out of recognition, Geer (1964) merely reflected Becker's earlier comments, and did not propose an interpretive ethnography with distinct epistemological possibilities. She persisted with the advocacy of a value-free or neutral observational research. The researcher should not contaminate the research environment by appearing to take sides. Yet Geer considered problems of interpretive methodology, when, for example, she referred to the problem of empathy. However, the critical potential was not developed and the discussion framed as about confronting prejudices.

Mullins' (1973) reference to symbolic interactionism in the post-war period as 'loyal opposition' is most apposite, given the gradual ascendency of the functionalist element of the functionalist-interactionist heritage in the 1950s through structural functionalism. That Mullin's 'loyal opposition' did not develop the radical anti-nomothetic critique it might have is probably due to the retention of a pragmatic base rooted in 'Kantian idealism' (Rock, 1979). Even later interactionist developments (Goffmann, 1959; Scott, 1968), and the emergence of ethnomethodology, were unconcerned to either develop a phenomenological orientation or engage the idealist base that informed American sociology. Ethnomethodology, in fact, attempted to synthesise Schutz and Parsons in its radical reformulation of participant informed symbolic interactionism (Filmer et al., 1972).


5.7.2 Wirth and the German Sociological Tradition

Wirth, like Blumer, advanced a potentially divisive view of sociological research. He drew on two elements of a German sociological tradition and used them to raise fundamental questions about the prevailing nomothetic cumulative-falsificationist model. Essentially, he called into question the possibility of sociological explanation and the possibility of non-ideological social science.

He adopted Weber's concept of 'Verstehen' as a framework for reconsidering the complex interrelationship between 'value' and 'attitude'. During the Polish Peasant debate Wirth introduced Weber's distinction between meaning and causal adequacy, by actually reading a lengthy section from Weber (1947). However, rather than confront the epistemological problems of a hermeneutic nature that underpin the understanding-explanation controversy the idea of meaning adequacy was corrupted, by Wirth, and he relabelled 'adequacy' as 'validity'.

For Wirth the importance of the 'Verstehen' approach was that it helped to differentiate between 'insight which reveals meaning' and 'causal explanation'. Referring to the Polish Peasant debate, Wirth argued that Thomas's scheme could not be derived from the material itself because that would imply that facts speak for themselves, whereas 'We know facts do not speak for themselves'. (Social Science Research Council, 1939, p. 122). However, if attitudes and values were clearly defined we could verify whether a particular attitude or value was to be found in a document. But no simple definition exists, and this Wirth suggested was because there is a mistaken assumption that values are objective. The mistake, he claimed, is not that values are subjective but that one can ascribe 'objectivity' to sociological data at all.

Wirth, in developing a critique based on Weber, appeared to be on the verge of questioning the fundamental taken-for-granted view of falsificationist science. However, this was not the case.

I think we all agree that science is invariant relationship, but this cannot be determined from the observation of a single case. The continuous corroboration by inspection of single cases after single cases adds to the security of the generalizations by proving that the relationship as first observed was not the result of factors other than those specified. That is what I think we mean by proof. Single cases can be used (a) to illustrate the plausibility of a hypothesis before it has been tested by a series of observations in a number of cases. They also can be used (b) to illustrate the operation of a relationship already incorporated in a proved generalization. Regarding the security of judgement of documents, I see no insuperable difficulties if definitions are always unambiguous and exhaustive. (Social Science Research Council, 1939, p 123)

In effect, then, the adoption of a Verstehen informed approach was essentially a means towards explanation.

Burgess (1944a), similarly, discussed the distinction between nomothetic and idiographic research, but addressed it on the basis of its explanatory potential. Thus methods were assessed as to whether they were explanatory or merely exploratory.

Applicable to personal documents are two methods of interpretation (1) nomothetic or the comparative study of documents in order to arrive at generalizations and (2) idiographic, or the appreciation of the individual case in all its individuality and completeness. Allport asserts that prediction can be made upon the basis of the ideiographic [sic] study of a single case, a claim that has been challenged by others. (Burgess, 1944a, pp. 14–15)

 This is an effective denial of the concept of idiographic understanding in the sense of rejecting causal/explanatory laws. In Burgess's paper, idiographic becomes restricted to the Weberian sense of meaning and causal adequacy. For him, the problem became one of methodic problems of control of the researcher (i.e. reliability) when using life histories and attempting 'sympathy, empathy, recipathy, insight and intuition', (Burgess, 1944a, p. 15). This perspective lay at the heart of the adoption of a Weberian approach by American sociologists.

Nonetheless, in his work in the sociology of knowledge, Wirth, along with Shils, were, potentially, developing another route towards a critique of nomothetic sociology. The work in the sociology of knowledge, heavily influenced by German theorising, was seen as radically different. Burgess (1944a, p. 10) divided conceptualisation into two camps, a traditional approach from Comte to the present which, he suggested, devises conceptual schemes for analysis of social change, social structure or social function and a sociology of knowledge approach, based primarily in Germany and centring on the theories of Max Scheler and Karl Mannheim, which 'stresses the importance of studying society through an understanding of past, current and emerging ideologies…the relativity of conceptual systems'.

Wirth was a notable scholar of German sociology (Ogburn 1936), enhanced by his year in that country on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930. Along with Shils, who was well acquainted with the work of Mannheim, (Minutes of the Society for Social Research, 5.3.1934), he translated 'Ideology and Utopia' and 'The Sociology of Knowledge' into English, providing an introduction to locate the texts in an Anglo-Saxon context.

For Burgess,

the outstanding value of the sociology of knowledge for social research inheres in its function of manifesting the intimate interaction and interdependence of social life and social science. The understanding of this relation is essential to the investigator in grasping the nature and limitations of research and in appreciating the conditions which permit and handicap activity. (Burgess, 1944a, p. 11–12)

Wirth's development of a sociology of knowledge approach revolved around the notion of ideal type and reflected the concerns developed by Parsons (1937, 1951). Functionalism adapted ideal typification in a non-hermeneutic way and reflected the long-term concerns of American sociology with German social philosophy which had underpinned much social theorising at Chicago as well as elsewhere (Dibble, 1972; Rock, 1979). Wirth and Parsons more explicitly developed this continental influence. Wirth was more radical in the sense of pursuing the 'relativistic nature of knowledge' and of 'ideology' (which Burgess acknowledged), while Parsons was more concerned with a synthesis (including Durkheim) and dissipated some of Mannheim's central concerns by utilising the more familiar concepts of value and norm (and hence central value system) instead of ideology. Parsons, in adapting to an American setting, thus watered down the critique implicit in the concerns of the German sociology of knowledge approach.

Wirth's development of the approach, as evident in his contributions to the Polish Peasant conference, made no attempt to engage the dissipation of the critical element of the German sociology of knowledge approach apparent in Parson's development of functionalism. The result was limited and uncritical, essentially pointing only to the interrelationship of research and milieu and questioning the possibility of an absolute objectivity.

Any potential for an alternative critical approach encapsulated in the sociology of knowledge orientation was defused by events. The rise of McCarthyism created a context in which any radical sociology was difficult to sustain. More specifically, the premature death of Wirth in 1951 effectively saw the end of any chance of a radical alternative, based on a 'German philosophy of knowledge' approach, being developed at Chicago [10].

The critique of the prevailing cumulative-falsificationist model that can be identified in the work of Blumer and Wirth did not materialise into a fully articulated alternative practised by the Chicagoans. Rather, elements of symbolic interactionism and the sociology of knowledge approach tended to be absorbed in the prevailing model. There was no alternative 'Chicago' approach, Chicago remained mainstream, epistemologically and methodologically, very much a part of the emerging cumulative-falsificationist theorising that came to dominate standard American sociology.

Arguably, only a few small-scale alternatives to the prevailing nomothetic approach existed in the United States. These included the development of phenomenology at Buffalo and at the New School of Social Research (Spiegelberg, 1976), besides the work of individuals critical of the prevailing tendency such as Mills and those early social critics who fell under the umbrella of the 'New Sociology' (Horowitz, 1964). Added to these, could be those sociologists who adopted a policy of retrenchment to social problems, encapsulated in the publication of the journal of the same name.



[10] In addition, Shils was not an official member of the sociology department staff from 1948 to 1957. He taught part of the year during this period but was attached to the Committee on Social Thought. However, the extent to which Wirth may have developed a critical (neo-Marxist) alternative despite the prevailing tendency is difficult to judge. Parsons, with whom Shils was to work, killed off the critical potential by anaesthetising ideology; instead using 'values', 'central value system' etc., (Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, 1978). Return


Next 5.8 Conclusion