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

6.7 Conclusion

One must ask why Mead is seen as so important, and thus accredited the role of principal theoretician of, at least the later, 'Chicago School', when indeed, most of the Chicagoans exhibited little of his overall theoretical position ?

Those who invoked Mead either used his social psychology as a convenient framework without incorporating the wider presuppositions of his position or simply slotted some of his ideas into a Park-Thomas framework (Fisher and Strauss, 1979). The essential elements of that framework owe little directly to Mead, rather they are the product of the German tradition fused with a general pragmatic critique of early American sociology. Thus, Dewey, Cooley and James had as much impact on the development of the Chicago sociological approach as did Mead. For most of the Chicago interactionists, no single strand of pragmatism caught their attention or led to a factional division within the Department. Indeed, the analysis of doctoral dissertations shows that Mead's theories are referred to and used only rarely (certainly up to 1940) whereas Cooley is often cited as the provider of social psychological theories and categories. This is not at all surprising if Mead's theory of the self was, in many respects, anticipated by other pragmatists such as Wright, Peirce and Royce (Lincourt and Hare, 1973). Mead's emergence as a major figure (and Cooley's relative 'decline') [4] only occurs after 1935 (following the departure of Park) in the wake of the publication of Mind, Self and Society (Mead 1934).

The reason for the widespread view that Mead provided the philosophical underpinnings of the 'Chicago School' are twofold. First, the uncritical acceptance of the symbolic interactionist reconstruction of their intellectual history, which has come to dominate histories of the 'Chicago School' [5]. Second, the tendency for intellectual history to concentrate on the 'great man' approach and therefore need to identify 'founding fathers' (Lewis and Smith, 1981; Harvey, 1983, 1986) [6]. This contention is reflected, for example, in Bogdan and Taylor's (1975, p. 14) introductory text to phenomenological sociology.

Symbolic interactionism stems from the works of John Dewey, Charles Horton Cooley, Robert Park, W.I. Thomas and George Herbert Mead, among others. Although interactionists continue to differ among themselves as to the meaning and importance of various concepts related to symbolic interactionism, Mead's formulation in Mind, Self and Society represents the most comprehensive and least controversial presentation of the perspective to date.

The legitimacy of the Mead-Blumer line of symbolic interactionism is attested to by numerous writers. Yet, the establishment of this tradition appears to owe much to the role of Blumer, himself, in the development of Chicago sociology and the determined advocacy of his own brand of interactionism. In order to legitimate his perspective he argued forcefully that he provided the most faithful development of Meadian constructs and, by degrees, has been taken by historians of symbolic interactionism to imply that Mead encapsulated the core of Chicago sociology. Thus, for example, Meltzer et al. (1975, p. 55) state 'Blumer has elaborated the best-known variety of interactionism—an approach we call the Chicago School. This approach continues the classical, Meadian tradition'.

Through the assertion of a 'pure' heritage derived from Mead, Blumer and subsequent historians (especially those sympathetic to Blumerian symbolic interactionism) have generated a taken-for-granted view of the centrality of Mead. Once established, this myth generates its own momentum and, in the case of the development of symbolic interactionism, a tradition of work evolves that takes this mythical element as 'true'.

In short, the attempt to legitimate symbolic interactionism has given Mead a role in the 'Chicago School' he did not have. This role is not merely the product of Blumer's own accentuation of Mead it is also a result of the other elements of the 'Chicago myths' spelled out above. Blumer cannot, however, be entirely vindicated from responsibility. He has suggested that his is the purest form of interactionism and implied that its progenitor was Mead and that Mead gave a new dimension to pragmatism. It has become assumed that Mead took up and developed 'Chicago pragmatism' and that it is through Mead that sociology incorporated pragmatic epistemological presuppositions (Rucker, 1969). Despite close links between Mead and Dewey, both academically and personally, Blumer has, it seems, attempted to set Mead apart.

Blumer relates that Mead would sometimes point with a bit of sarcasm to the profuseness of Dewey's output and to his attendant tendency to write sloppily and with lack of precision. (Coser, 1971, p. 355)

On the contrary, during their association at Chicago, 'Mead was content to play second fiddle to Dewey's resounding first violin' (Coser, 1971, p. 355). Indeed, there appears to be little support for any view that Mead was cynical of Dewey's philosophy. For example, in an address to the Society for Social Research at Chicago, Mead referred to Dewey in the following glowing terms.

His statement of ends in terms of their means reached American life as no earlier philosophy had. In the profoundest sense John Dewey is the philosopher of America. (Minutes of the Society for Social Research, 7th November 1929)

Besides Blumer's insistence on the significance of Mead, there are other reasons for the prominent position attributed to Mead in the practice of sociology at Chicago. Mead is seen, by some, as the only major theoretician at the time in the social sphere and it became taken-for-granted that symbolic interactionism was rooted in Meadian social psychology. This interpretation gained credibility as structural functionalism became important because 'it is hardly a subject of dispute that modern role theory from Linton and Parsons to Newcomb and Merton has been enriched by freely borrowing from Mead' (Coser, 1975, p. 340).

Functionalists have frequently taken 'bits and pieces from the interactionists' armamentarium' especially constructs like 'the significant other' or 'role taking', which eventually transformed Mead's dynamic development of the self into a static notion fitting the structural functionalist ideas of 'status', 'role' and 'reference groups' (Strauss, 1964, p. xii).

Finally, as the later generations were more affected by a narrowing of methodological focus and developed the sociology of deviance, so too there was a tendency towards adoption of Meadian constructs, particularly adopting the role of the other. As suggested above, there was a shift away from the overt moralising of criminological studies towards an attitude of enquiry that demanded the deviant perspective be engaged sympathetically (Becker 1967).



[4] Arguably Cooley's influence did not decline, but shifted. He had a considerable effect on the quantitative approach developed by Lazarsfeld and Stouffer in the 1940s and 1950s particularly in relation to Cooley's ideas on small groups and reference group behaviour (Goddijn, 1972a). Return

[5] This lack of critique of the reconstructed heritage is confounded by its being heavily dependent on the posthumous publications, especially Mind, Self and Society. As Faris (1936a) pointed out, for various technical reasons, Mead did not teach the fundamentals of his theory of social psychology after the early 1920s. Thus the notes that went to make up the text of Mind, Self and Society were an inadequate basis for an exposition of Mead's theories. For an examination of Mead's contribution that does not rely on the posthumous publications, see Joas (1985). Return

[6] Lewis and Smith (1981) only develop their analysis up to 1935 and make no attempt to account for Mead's posthumous influence and why he has been accepted as founding father of symbolic interactionism given his marginality. They make no attempt to explain how Blumer adapted Mead and thereby influenced an important mid-century tradition within American sociology (Harvey, 1983). This tradition owes a lot to Blumer's work, ideas and institutional role. He developed the core concepts of the symbolic interactionist position from Mead, whether accurately or otherwise. Mead was seen as the progenitor of a tradition. Return


Next 7.1 The myth