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

6. G.H. Mead and the Chicagoans

6.4 Mead as 'founding father' of symbolic interactionism

While Mead may be seen as somewhat peripheral to the activities of the 'Chicago School' of his day, he is nonetheless usually seen as the central founding father for the symbolic interactionism that emerged in the later developments at Chicago and spread, or were developed elsewhere, such as at Iowa (Petras and Meltzer, 1973; Carabana and Espinosa, 1978). If this is the case then it suggests that there is a dual tradition at Chicago, an early Thomas-Park tradition and a later Mead-Blumer tradition. Fisher and Strauss (1979) have attempted to put the position of Mead into perspective [2] by suggesting that there was a dichotomous tradition at Chicago. On the one hand is the interactionism of Thomas and Park and, on the other, symbolic interactionism developed by Blumer and based on Mead.

There would, then, seem to be at least two interactionist traditions, each grounded in a different intellectual history…. While some interactionists owe little or nothing to a Meadian perspective, the work of others is rooted in both Mead and what is nowadays called the Chicago-style perspective, which derives in fact, mainly from Thomas and Park. A younger generation, coming more lately to interactionism and in a period after the Chicago Department of Sociology had radically changed in character, seem to divide—some moving toward Meadian interactionism, others doing work in accordance with the spirit of Chicago-style sociology. Still others draw on both sources of interactionism. (Fisher and Strauss, 1978, p. 458)

Whether there was two traditions, as Fisher and Strauss contend, with some overlap so that the role of Mead has been taken to be intrinsic to both, while really only germane to the later development, needs to be examined. Crucial to any divergence in the sociological tradition at Chicago would be the role of Elsworth Faris. Strauss (1964), Kuklick (1984) and Faris, R.E.L. (1967), emphasised the importance of Ellsworth Faris on the emergence of Mead and suggest that during the 1940s Mead entered the mainstream of sociological thought at Chicago and elsewhere and became the social psychologist for sociologists.

There is some evidence that Faris offered an alternative to the pragmatic view of social psychology central to the department. For example the Society for Social Research devoted three sessions (25th February, 10th March and 27th April, 1927) to 'Problems in social psychology' at which Park and Faris presented their views. Park saw social psychology as a subject concerning the individual and the community. He asked what is the role in communication of 'the sympathetic participation of one person in the feeling of another?' An individual admits that another has claims on him or her when one places him or herself in the position of the other and finds it appeals to his or her feelings. Social psychologists are also interested in the natural history of the conventionalisation of appetites. Material relating to this may most profitably be gleaned from ethnology with a view to answering the main question of the relation of community to human nature.

Faris, on the other hand, argued that community needs to be considered from four standpoints: spatial grouping, associations, social movements and the Zeitgeist. On one side there are elements of the community, on the other the impulsive individual. Personality develops out of this interaction and communication is a process of this interaction. Personalities are classifiable into two broad classes, the modal and the extremes.

In his 'Of Psychological Elements' (1936), Faris demolished the lingering remnants of the instinct theory of social psychology, which L.L. Bernard (1924) had substantially weakened. Faris attacked notions such as 'interests' (Small) and 'wishes' (Thomas) as being vestiges of old and unsound motivational doctrines. The long-running disagreement over these notions, he maintained, arose because it was impossible to agree on something that did not exist. He turned round the idea that society is the construct of individuals and argued that society produces personalities and these 'will be found, not in the individual self at all, but in the collective life of the people' (Faris, 1936, p. 167).

However, this did not constitute a break with the Thomas inspired tradition at Chicago. All it served to do was to clear away the archaic clutter of residual motivations from a theoretical orientation already well grounded in the development of the social self, which was already prominent at Chicago through Cooley's work and particularly in evidence amongst the sociologists. Park had been instrumental in popularising Cooley's concept of 'looking glass self'. In reviewing the posthumous publication of Mind, Self and Society, Faris (1936a) confirmed the primacy of the social at Chicago by suggesting that the title belied the author's intention and argument and suggested that 'Society, Self and Mind' would have been more fitting.

It would seem unlikely, then, that two separate traditions with distinct roots and adopting different theoretical perspectives and methodologies developed at Chicago in the 1930s. There was, though, no uniformity of approach in the sense of a single practice devoted to a narrow theoretical base. The discussion in the previous chapter, however, indicates that Chicago developed a sociology in accord with the predominant view of the discipline in America. This sociology was at root nomothetic, falsificationist and directed to a cumulative growth of knowledge model. Interactionism was not at variance with this perspective but embedded in it.

The role of Mead in this development is paradoxical. He, and those sociologists like Faris and Blumer who regarded Mead as their theoretical mentor, were to some extent peripheral to the central sociological enterprise; yet Mead served as a focus for a sharpening up of the rather loose general theoretical perspective that pervaded (and indeed continued to pervade) Chicago sociology. Taking on board Mead more systematically, if not adopting his perspective entirely, engendered a more cutting analysis of certain aspects that had been inadequately analysed in the development of a sociological perspective. Examples of this are: Faris' critique of residual instincts; Wirth's and Blumer's analysis of the construction of meaning and the nature of the self; their combined critique of the 'naive' notion of scientific method expounded in the conference on the Polish Peasant.

So, I would suggest that Blumer's development of Mead was somewhat peripheral to the mainstream of Chicago sociology. It did not either constitute an alternative tradition distinct from the Thomas-Park heritage, nor did it engage, as has been shown in chapter five, with the prevailing approach to American sociology of which Chicago sociology was an integral part. Arguably, then, Mead did not have a major impact on Park and Thomas, and Faris used his ideas selectively in order to sharpen up some areas of sociological theorising at Chicago. Nonetheless, Blumer has extensively argued that Mead provided the underpinnings of what Blumer came to call symbolic interactionism. Although this was not a distinct theoretical strand at Chicago, it clearly became an important rallying position for some sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s. Thus Mead could be seen as having a direct theoretical impact on a branch of sociology that has its roots at Chicago. However, the assumed role of Mead in this Blumerian endeavour has also been questioned by critics who argue that the links made between Blumerian Chicago sociology and Meadian social psychology are extremely tenuous and constitute a complete misreading of Mead. Blumer is singled out as responsible for creating a myth that legitimates his own approach to symbolic interactionism by asserting the correctness of his own interpretation of Meadian constructs. In short, it has been argued that there are epistemological, theoretical and methodological divergences between Blumer and Mead and that the assumed role of Mead in the development of 'Chicago symbolic interactionism' is also misleading.



[2] This follows an earlier comment by Strauss who noted that there were several streams of faculty influence in the Department, some of whom gave more prominence to Mead. For illustration Strauss offered an autobiographical note.

Before I went to Chicago as a graduate student in 1939, I had been directed to the writings of Dewey, Thomas and Park by Floyd House, who had been a student of Park in the early twenties. House never mentioned Mead, that I can recollect. But within a week of my arrival at Chicago, I was studying Mead's Mind, Self and Society, directed to it by Herbert Blumer. (Strauss, 1964, p. xi) Return


Next 6.5 Differences between Mead and Blumer: the recent [1970s] debate