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 Conclusion

Chicago sociology, I have argued, was neither atheoretical empiricism nor was it restricted to urban sociology. Certainly the Chicagoans promoted empirical work but always alongside theoretical development [11]. Park's scepticism of statistics (explored in detail in chapter four above) was not evidence of an epistemological disagreement with the nomothetic base of interactionist sociology. Rather, it was a concern that aggregates were unable to adequately incorporate the subjective factor into nomothetic analysis. Wirth, (1944, p.4) noted of Park, that

Objectivity in the realm of the social ... was to be achieved not primarily by collecting facts and ignoring values but by overtly examining values and especially by becoming conscious of those values that we take for granted.

Park saw social science as a natural science up to a point, that is, its methods were a good starting point but that 'one would soon enough encounter the values, morals, and preferences of men before which the methods of natural science would prove inadequate'. He thought that society was not a closed system and that it should not be seen as either an 'artefact' or 'as a system of mechanical forces', rather, society was a set of reciprocal claims and expectations and mutual understandings. This methodological orientation was intrinsic to the theoretical development of sociology at Chicago and in the United States in general.

As has been shown, the Chicagoans worked at various levels of theoretical concern. Over time, there was a tendency to move from general holistic views of the social world to specific testing of theories, thus reflecting the direction being taken by the sociological profession in its attempt to legitimate sociology as science. The Polish Peasant study, and the synthesis embodied in it by Thomas, constituted the initial break with the 'armchair theorising' of the past (as in the work of Sumner, Ross, Tarde). Thomas's theoretical orientation encapsulated in the 'social disorganisation paradigm', became resolved into general theories of change and interaction and much of the work done revolved around those theories and particular developments of them.

Later generations of Chicagoans became more concerned with particular issues and methodological confrontation. However, 'abstracted empiricism' (Mills, 1959) was certainly no part of Chicago sociology up to 1950. That element of the Chicago mythology that suggests that the 'School' was atheoretical is not borne out though the Chicagoans did have strong empirical concerns. They developed theory at various levels through an explicit inductive approach. Chicago sociology of the 1920s and 1930s was self-consciously an attempt to 'objectively develop theory'. It was, as Park would have it, 'big picture' sociology, based upon general theoretical perspectives evolving out of a context for study synthesised and bequeathed to the Chicagoans by Thomas.

Chicago was not operating in isolation in the generation of theoretical concepts, nor was its major theoretical orientation, social disorganisation, a concept restricted to Chicago. Chicagoans provided conceptual frameworks and freely embraced concepts developed elsewhere. Chicago was not characterised by doctrinal debates (Rock, 1979).

What was important, as Burgess (1944a) argued, (pre-dating C.Wright Mills and Robert Merton), was to combine data collection and abstract theorising. He suggested that the work of Thomas, Park and their students were examples of such sociology and that the operationalism of Lundberg was in danger of assuming that the operational definition be equivalent to the conceptual definition, thereby jeopardising theoretical development.

Empiricism was important to the Chicagoans but was not an end in itself. From the first, empirical observation was ordered and categorised and inductive theorising was developed, notably through attempts at typification that gradually became more sophisticated as American sociology adapted Weberian ideal types to its own needs. Indeed if any one aspect of the work done by the Chicagoans can be said to be indicative of their approach it is the penchant for typification that probably has the largest claim. The reports of research presented to the Society for Social Research by both internal and external speakers contain numerous references to various attempts at typifying interactive processes, subject groups and functional objects. Many of the dissertations written by students throughout the period 1915 to 1950 contain a classificatory scheme as an important element of theoretical development.

Burgess, reflecting developing perspectives throughout the discipline, was instrumental in the encouragement of ideal typification at Chicago. By the 1940s Burgess argued that it was the only appropriate methodic development for dealing with personal documents. His view of ideal typification which he says is derived from Simmel, Tonnies and Weber is a process of 'abstracting from concrete cases a characteristic…accentualizing it and defining it clearly unambiguously and uncomplicatedly by other characteristics' (Burgess, 1944a, pp. 15–16).

Burgess admired the role of ideal typification in Weber, Simmel and Sorokin but was concerned that ideal typical constructions may not be actually represented by concrete phenomena. Burgess wanted abstraction to mirror 'reality', His concern was that ideal typification should be more than approximation to reality as this leads to the problem of degree of approximation. Thus, Burgess effectively detached ideal typification from Verstehen and construed it as a procedure for eliciting definitive explanatory concepts. Following the developing practice in the United States, Burgess, suggested that ideal typifications provided the endpoints of scales (which more closely represented the variations of concrete, normally distributed, phenomena). This provided him with a link to statistical analysis. He also noted the ineffectiveness of critiques of ideal typification from 'statistically minded students' who argued that gradation of scales with peaking in the centre undermines ideal typical dichotomisation. Burgess maintained that such a view was fallacious because the endpoints are still clearly conceptually sound. Burgess, like the contributors to the conference on the Polish Peasant, redefined ideal typification to correspond with nomothetic, measurement concerns and 'utilised' it to incorporate personal documents into quantitative work.

The Chicagoans were far from atheoretical empiricists divorced from the development of sociological theory in the United States. It was not until the late fifties that any distinction between the orientation of the Chicagoans of the twenties and prevailing structural functionalist perspectives could be identified. In 1939, for example, Parsons wrote to Wirth thanking him for his review of The Structure of Social Action and noted that the synthesis contained in the book, although directed to Durkheim, Weber and Pareto, also incorporated the theoretical position of Dewey, Mead, the 'cultural anthropologists' and 'I think, your own colleagues' (Parsons, 1939).

Blumer, similarly, suggested that a concern with structure only emerged as a dominant orientation in recent times.

I think the fundamental premise in the case of Park and Thomas and the associates there at Chicago is just that of recognizing that a human group consists of people who are living. Oddly enough this is not the picture which underlies the dominant imagery in the field of sociology today. They think of a society or group as something that is there in the form of a regularized structure in which people are placed. And they act on the basis of the influence of the structure on them. This is a complete inversion of what is involved and I would say the antithesis of the premise that underlay the work of Park and Thomas. (Blumer, 1980b, p. 261)

Nonetheless, this development of a structural, or systems, approach, towards looking at people as if they were products of social factors, did not suddenly occur around the fifties, as is often assumed. Rather, as has been illustrated above, it emerged throughout the preceding quarter of a century and the University of Chicago played its part in this change [12]. Retrospective accounts that focus only on a narrow output of sociological work from the 1920s at Chicago and compare it with sociological practice in the late 1950s and early 1960s are misleading in detaching the Chicagoans from the evolution of sociological theory in the United States.



[11] Wirth (1938), in proposing specialised sociology training in the department suggested four quarterly courses, social psychology, social organisation, population and ecology and methods of investigation. Such a curriculum 'does not contain any reference to what is known as sociological theory; this is deliberate because it should be infused into every course we give and should not be separated out into a special course'. On another occasion Wirth indicated the Department's position on the interrelationship between theory and method when proposing the core elements of a Master's programme that made no provision for a separate methodology course, arguing that methodology should be integral to all components of the course. Return

[12] Blumer noted that the structural approach 'was already beginning to emerge, interestingly enough, in Chicago right at the university there, back in the late '20s. It was well-represented by a very, very able, almost colossal figure in his own right, namely Thurstone—L.L. Thurstone—the psychologist, with his work on attitude studies, that [work] having an enormous influence on the work of Stouffer inside our department' (Blumer, 1980b, p. 265). Return


Next 6.1 The myth