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

6.6 An examination of the recent debate in relation to the work of the Chicagoans

6.6.1 The theoretical divergence between Mead and the Chicagoans

6.6.2 The methodic difference between Median prescriptions and Chicago practice

The debate outlined above clearly raises severe doubts about the way Blumer interpreted Mead. The overall view of Blumer's critics is to suggest that Mead is not the intellectual progenitor of (Blumerian) symbolic interactionism. Blumer, of course, vehemently denies the divergence between his perspective and Mead's. Part of the problem may lie in the type of comparison made, any critique of the 'purity' of a line of thought is bound to show discrepancies as the tenets are developed or utilised in diverse fields. This also, of course, applies in reverse as the disciple may adopt an attitude of unassailable insight. Part of the problem in this kind of debate is the 'presentist' reconstruction of a philosophical tradition on the basis of particular and selective views about current manifestations.

Rather than reconsider this exegetical debate by examining the adequacy of Blumer's interpretation, the core features will be examined by seeing how they relate to the work of the Chicagoans as a whole. Whatever the accuracy of Blumer's interpretation, it was the basis for a development of the general symbolic interactionist approach initially developed at Chicago. Even if some of Blumer's ideas were peripheral to the general thrust of Chicago sociology (Janowitz, 1980), he was still an integral part of the 'Chicago School' and developed his ideas within that general framework of research. It is all very well to retrospectively accuse Blumer of misrepresenting Mead, what is at issue, however, is, given a non-dichotomous view of the development of Chicago sociology, just how important was Mead's theoretical influence?

The debate has generated three areas in which Mead is seen as being at variance with the 'Chicago approach'. Mead is regarded as having a fundamentally different epistemological basis. The Chicagoans are seen as ignoring or subverting Mead's central theories. The research practice of the Chicagoans is seen as substantially different from that which Mead advocated.

The epistemological difference between Mead and the Chicagoans

General philosophical labels that pertain to epistemological or ontological perspectives, such as realist, nominalist, behaviourist, and pragmatist are, if applied loosely, liable to obscure rather than reveal differences and may serve to provide an artificial way of distinguishing perspectives. Bales and McPhail and Rexroat claim that Blumer is not a true pragmatist as was Mead, certainly not in any consistent manner. Bales referred to Blumer as an idealist and McPhail and Rexroat accused Blumer of vacillating between realism and idealism. Similarly, Mead is regarded as a social behaviourist while Blumer is not. These ill-defined categories, however, do not aid an analysis of substantive differences. Lewis and Smith clearly define and utilise what they regard as the central dichotomy of the historical period under study, namely nominalism versus realism, to illustrate the divergence between Blumer and Mead. Heritage (1981) has suggested that to evaluate Mead's contribution on the basis of an ancient dichotomy that has been philosophically discredited is to ignore the relationships that cut across this arbitrary and ultimately illusory divide. Similarly, Denzin (1984) and Kuklick (1984) accuse Lewis and Smith of 'presentism'. Coser (1971), more pragmatically, maintained that there is no need to draw too sharp a distinction between the inputs of Mead and nominalist pragmatists, such as Cooley, to symbolic interactionism. Such differences that existed were of style not content.

Farberman, in his analysis of the 'complex paradigm' of the Chicago School of urban ecology, redrew the battle lines, suggesting that the Chicagoans were

partially at odds with the newly emergent brand of American social psychology propounded by Mead and Cooley.... [who] insisted that the initial building blocks of self-identities were warm, intimate face-to-face relationships and with this contention, laid down an axiomatic challenge to the urban sociologists. (Farberman, 1979, p. 16)

The nominalist-realist dichotomy suggested by Lewis and Smith also founders on the presumption that the Chicagoans could be distinguished by their allegiance to one perspective or the other, and the generalisation that they were inclined towards nominalism. Burgess (1944a) quite clearly espoused a realist approach, which on general epistemological grounds would not have divorced him from Mead. Yet the picture is complicated because Burgess did not directly reflect Meadian concerns, his work rarely referred to Mead or to Mead's widely known (at least post-1935) theoretical terms (such as significant other). Similarly, to simply suggest that Park was a nominalist and therefore epistemologically at variance with Mead is inadequate as a basis for denying Mead's impact. While the Chicagoans were aware of the nominalist-realist distinction they did not consider themselves bound to one or other perspective. For the Chicagoans, pragmatism in general provided the categories for an analysis of the social world and they did not tend to distinguish clearly the genesis of such categories, as Park noted in referring to the style of work adopted at Chicago in the 1920s.

This approach became a logical scheme for a disinterested investigation of the origin and function of social institutions as they everywhere existed, and was in substance an application to society and social life of the pragmatic point of view which Dewey and Mead had already popularized in the department of philosophy. Implicit in this point of view…is the conception of the relativity of the moral order and the functional character of social institutions generally. (Park, 1939, p.1)

Park, in discussing the nature of social psychology, referred to the notion of adopting the role of the other, which he saw as a pragmatic notion derived from Cooley and Mead (Bulletin for Society for Social Research, December, 1927). To regard Park and the Chicagoans as nominalists and essentially non-Meadian necessitates dismissing Park's own assessment of the development of his and his contemporaries' work.

In his extensive analysis of interactionism, Rock (1979) did not distinguish various strands of pragmatic influence on symbolic interactionism. Rather he argued that symbolic interactionism has its epistemological roots in the German philosophical tradition, from Kant through to Simmel. American pragmatism assimilated much of this tradition and symbolic interactionism grew out of a fusion of the early interactionists (Park and Thomas) and the psychology of Dewey, Cooley and Mead.

The tendency in the debate on the role of Mead as progenitor of symbolic interaction to retrospectively reconstruct an epistemological divide between the Chicagoans and Mead can, it seems, be quite reasonably disputed as 'presentism' given the eclectic way that the Chicagoans absorbed and developed pragmatic categories. It is inadequate to deny Mead's importance on the basis of these retrospective divisions.

6.6.1 The theoretical divergence between Mead and the Chicagoans

It would seem, then, that Mead was a general influence on the Chicagoans, but merely one of several different and relatively undifferentiated influences. As a pragmatist he was part of the general fund of ideas the Chicagoans drew on. His particular theories were, however, selectively appropriated by the Chicagoans. Above, it was suggested that there is little evidence that Mead's theories were adopted or developed extensively by Chicago sociologists during his lifetime. Subsequent development of his social psychological theories by Blumer and other symbolic interactionists of the 'Chicago School' have been criticised for their misrepresentation. What is important in assessing Mead's theoretical impact is to assess the way the Chicagoans used ideas that were central to Mead's theories.

The development, by the Chicagoans, of the important concept of 'self', for example, does not rely entirely on Mead's view. The self was an important concept for pragmatists (and formalists) in general.

Pragmatism and formalism have both raised the self of the observer to a position of special prominence. Not only was the self a source and synthesis of all viable knowledge, it constituted the elemental unit of sociological analysis. It was thus simultaneously an intellectual subject and an intellectual object. The self is taken to be a social construct, emerging from language, which lends order to all interaction. It is man made conscious of himself as a social process, and its basis is a reflexive turning-back of mind on itself. Reflexivity is made possible by the social forms and it advances the evolution of those forms. It is in the self that a fundamental grammar or logic of the forms is allowed to unfold. All social phenomena stem from that logic so that a socially formed mind and the processes of society display a unity. (Rock, 1979, p. 102)

Rock (1979, p. 166), however, suggested that the central concept of 'self' as developed by Mead expressly excluded much of the complex, unobservable phenomena and processes that later symbolic interactionists included.

In its original formulation, the interactionist model of the self offered a limited but useful description of the relations between mind, body and society. It was useful because it referred to observable and communal processes which shaped mind. It permitted a synthesis of the different phases of social and individual processes into one master scheme. The model was limited because it did not pretend to embrace private, subjective experience. It was not comprehensive or phenomenological. Rather it adhered to the behaviourist principles which Mead had advanced... In its phenomenologically revised form, the self has also lost much of the practical utility which it once enjoyed. It has become a somewhat mysterious process whose problematic qualities are little appreciated by the revisionist interactionists. (Rock, 1979, p. 147)

This does not mean to say, however, that later symbolic interactionists have disassociated themselves from the pragmatic, and notably Meadian, heritage in any definitive way. The core of the symbolic interactionist perspective, Rock argued, is as it was developed by Cooley, refined by Mead, expounded in sociological terms by Faris, and developed by Blumer.

Essentially, symbolic interactionism

conceives the self to be the lens through which the world is refracted. It is the medium which realises the logic of social forms. Fundamentally, however, the self emerges from the forms. It is made possible only by the activities and responses of others acting in an organised manner. A self without others is inconceivable. Its doings and shapes must be understood as a special mirroring and incorporation of the social process in which it is embedded. Because language and society are taken to be historically and analytically prior to mind, interactionism does not proceed by deducing social phenomena from consciousness. Neither does it assume that individuals are 'given' and therefore unproblematic. It is the self which arises in sociation, not sociation from the self. (Rock, 1979, p. 146)

From this point of view, then, other areas of theoretical difference between Mead and Blumer may be recast. There is, for example, no problem of theoretical disjunction in relation to the nature of objects, of the relation between structure and process or of the construction of universals. The dispute about the structural nature of the 'me' and its relation to the 'I', Rock obfuscates through his analysis of Mead's constructs, which he sees as complex and deliberately problematic. However, the mystification accorded the concept by later symbolic interactionists has not negated the essential Meadian interactive process between the 'I' the 'Me'.

What this suggests is, again, that the exegetical analysis misses the point. Rather than deny Mead's importance on such grounds, which entirely ignores the Chicagoans own view of the extent to which they (individually) appropriated Mead's theories, a more salient critique of Mead's theoretical importance can be offered by considering the centrality of his theories generally. Ideas subsequently attributed to Mead such as the 'self' were part of a general fund of pragmatic ideas upon which the Chicagoans drew. Mead offered a particular development of the theory of the self, which was part of the adaptive process undertaken by the Chicago sociologists in recasting philosophical constructs for purposes of sociological research. This adaptation permits a relatively easy dismissal of the concurrence of Mead and, say, Blumer on purely exegetical grounds. What such a critique ignores, however, is the spirit of the adoption of Meadian constructs. They were, then, part of general development of pragmatic ideas and the real confusion has come about as the result of Blumer, and others, asserting their primacy, and critics pointing out the discrepancies in the interpretation of Mead. Essentially, there is little to suggest that Mead's theories were generic to the development of Chicago sociology. Rather, Mead, like Cooley, Dewey and James provided ideas the Chicagoans selectively drew upon and merged with other non-pragmatic theoretical perspectives.

6.6.2 The methodic difference between Median prescriptions and Chicago practice

The third area of concern is that the sociological and psychological work produced by the Chicagoans, particularly that of the later generation symbolic interactionists, does not match the sort of work that Mead or a Meadian would prefer. Considerable sociological work has been done by symbolic interactionists assuming that their epistemology is rooted in Mead. Whether or not it is what Mead would have preferred seems to be a matter of conjecture; and the discussion is of importance only because it provides a legitimating 'founding father' for a particular methodic orientation. Rock suggested that the fusion of formalism and pragmatism that underpins symbolic interactionism and that sees the self as central, is essentially served by participant observation because it inserts the self of the sociologist into the research setting.

The Chicagoans, as illustrated in chapters three and four, were methodologically eclectic. Up to the 1950s there was no commitment to any particular method. The development of a tendency towards participant observation by some later 'Chicago' symbolic interactionists may be regarded as the result of Mead's influence irrespective of the apparent marginality of Mead (Platt 1982a). On the other hand, the development of participant observation may be seen as either a pragmatic development given that much of the research was in deviant areas, or as the result of a concern to study the social world of the subject group from the inside, irrespective of Mead's thesis about the nature of the self.

Whether Mead demanded 'experimental' type research or not is clearly a contentious point. In practice, the Chicagoans did not abandon the essential tenets of nomothetic research and it was only the later development of symbolic interactionism into a more radical analysis of the scientific method and the nature of social interaction ostensibly based on Mead, which has created confusion about the relationship between Mead's concerns and the work of Chicago sociologists.

Much of the development of this proto-phenomenologically informed perspective was effected away from Chicago, notably by Blumer himself, Goffman and the emergent ethnomethodologists at Berkeley. Indeed, the embryonic anti-positivist relativism evident in Blumer's later perspective, which became mixed with Schutzian phenomenology in the emergence of ethnomethodology, was quite at variance with the Chicago orientation.

Next 6.7 Conclusion