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

7. Chicago dominance

7.2 Chicago's role in American sociology until 1930

The Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Chicago, established in 1892, was the first such department in the United States. It was closely followed by the Department of Sociology at Columbia. Other departments appeared before the First World War, but these tended to be 'one man departments' and the 'one real center of sociology in the United States' was Chicago (Lapiere, 1964).
In many ways the 'undoubted preeminence of Chicago' (Bulmer, 1984, p. 208) was as much a matter of dominance by default as it was a deliberate policy to establish a leading sociology department. Chicago had relatively little competition as a graduate sociology school; most other sociology departments that existed were undergraduate colleges that offered little encouragement for research. Yale had very little postgraduate work in sociology; and there was no sociology department at Harvard until 1930. By the early 1920s, Columbia was the only serious rival to Chicago but was about to start its own slide into a period of ineffectiveness that was to last into the 1930s. During that time Ogburn, disenchanted with research opportunities at Columbia, had moved to Chicago. McIver (1968) recalled that in 1929, the department was in a 'parlous state' and the 'reputation of the department had fallen', it did 'not attract able students' and leadership in the discipline 'had passed to other institutions, notably the flourishing sociology department at the University of Chicago'.
The University of Chicago's influence on the discipline, then, was very much a function of its having established and sustained a small but well organised and dynamic department. Small, Vincent, Thomas, Burgess, Park and Faris, although contributing to the academic environment at Chicago in different ways, were all committed to empirical sociological enquiry. This involvement in, and promotion of, first-hand engagement with the social world led to a recognition that Chicago University was 'the place to study sociology. We had no doubt about the superiority of the department.... This feeling was shared by the faculty' (Cavan, 1983, p. 408). The 'students of the 1920s knew that their approach was "something special" and that they were perceived to be leaders in social analysis' (Thomas, 1983a, p. 389). There was something novel in the sociological approach at Chicago in the period around 1910-15, 'it was sociological and opposed to the moralistic, social problem orientation of the past' (Park, 1939). A reputation had, then, been established by 1915 that identified Chicago as one of the most innovative and prestigious places for sociological research (Bartlett, 1972; Blumer, 1972). Chicago was at the forefront of 'the beginning of a new epoch in sociology', which justified 'the designation of the year 1915 as symbolic of the debut of sociology as an empirical science' (Wirth, 1947, p. 274).
This feeling was backed up by the expanding output of publications from the department, headed by the monumental and enduring Polish Peasant, (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1918) and the widely read compendium of articles on research in the urban environment entitled The City (Park & Burgess, 1925). Chicago sociologists produced some influential textbooks in those early years, notably Small and Vincent (1894), Thomas (1909), and Park and Burgess (1921). The development of the University of Chicago Press (supported by generous grants to aid publication) allowed much of the work done by staff and students in the department to be published and thus to become widely available (Tiryakian, 1979a). The growth of the city of Chicago, which the Chicagoans used as a 'natural laboratory', gave the 'Chicago School' an impetus that led to its considerable impact (Goddijn, 1972b; Bulmer, 1984).
The impact of Chicago was felt in other respects, too. These owed much to Small's organisational skills (Faris, 1967). Small helped to found the American Sociological Society in 1905 and was president in 1912 and 1913. Other faculty members were prominent in the Society; indeed, Henderson was the 'only member of the early faculty of the department never to be elected president' (Faris, 1967, pp. 12-13). Chicago, along with Michigan, also tended to dominate the Midwest regional association.
Small also founded the American Journal of Sociology in 1895, and edited it until 1925. It was the only sociology journal in the United States until the 1920s and was the official organ of the American Sociological Society for forty years. However, the journal, despite having a Chicago-based editorial board, published a wide variety of contributions, and was not simply the mouthpiece of the Chicagoans.
As more and more undergraduate departments started teaching sociology in the first decade of the twentieth century, so there was increasing pressure for a clear indication of what should be included in an introductory sociology course. The American Sociological Society undertook a survey of introductory teaching and, in 1911, appointed a committee of ten university professors to suggest appropriate subject matter for a fundamental course in sociology. The members of this committee were Jerome Dowd of Oklahoma who was chairman, Charles Cooley (Michigan), James Dealey (Brown), Charles Ellwood (Missouri), H. P. Fairchild (Yale), Franklin Giddings, (Columbia), Edward Hayes (Illinois), Edward Ross (Wisconsin), Albion Small (Chicago) and Ulysses Weatherly (Indiana). The committee drew on the responses from the three hundred and ninety six institutions that had been surveyed. There was general agreement amongst the committee as to content. Broadly it consisted of three areas, first 'the socius', (the nature of 'man', hereditary and environmental factors in the constitution of the social self); second, 'social organization' (group formation, class and caste, institutional development and democracy); third, 'social process' (evolution, competition, the development of the family and the state). Although different emphases were placed on these three broad areas, none of the committee deviated greatly from the essential nature of the content. However, Giddings and Small argued strongly for a practical rather than simply theoretical orientation to sociology.

Perhaps I do not attach quite so much importance to the selection and arrangement of topics for a fundamental course in sociology as some of my fellow-teachers do. I have come to think that the essential thing is to develop painstaking habits of sociological study. Many topics are available, but whatever ones be chosen the pupil must be required to attempt certain simple exercises and complete them in a workmanlike manner. (Giddings, 1911, pp. 628-629)

Small (1911, p. 635) endorsed this view and, along with Columbia, Chicago paved the way for a more practical and empirical approach to sociology in undergraduate courses. This was reflected in the teaching of ex-Chicago graduates who moved into the profession. The Department at Chicago produced many more qualified graduate students in the period up to 1935 than any other university [1]. These graduates became widely appointed to posts in sociology departments, and an informal network was created with the influential Society for Social Research at Chicago as its focus. Barnhardt (1972), for example, recalled that Small encouraged him to go into teaching and had recommended him to three different institutions that had contacted Small for advice on appointments. These graduates served to promote, not only empirical enquiry, but also the reputation of the University of Chicago Department of Sociology (Anderson, 1983). 'I went to Vanderbilt and took courses in sociology under Walter Reckless and Ernest Kreuger. They were ardent Chicago, in fact they were called by the faculty at Vanderbilt, "missionaries from Chicago"' (Cottrell, 1972). This 'missionary' zeal has passed into folklore.

It is my impression, one that I cannot document, that most of the men who came out of the Chicago department during this time were fairly passive disciples of the 'Chicago School'—mostly trained in the ideas of Park, if not by him, and that they went out to spread the good word with a strong sense of mission. (Lapiere, 1964)

There appears to have been a strong feeling for Chicago amongst its graduates, although this should not be overstated. Cavan (1983) for example, says that she felt no obligation to Chicago, that she was neither aware of, nor engaged in, any 'missionary zeal' to promote Chicago sociology wherever she went. After the 1920s her contacts with Chicago were sporadic and she did not feel obliged to return to renew her 'Chicago spirit'. While I think it would be unwise to suggest that the University of Chicago controlled American sociology up to the 1930s, it was certainly an extremely influential force. Other universities had the opportunities that Chicago had for research, developing teaching and producing graduate students, involvement in the organisation of sociology, and so on. However, it was the University of Chicago alone who, at least during the 1920s and early 1930s, was a major force in all these fields. Chicago stood out amongst the group of leading universities and had a disproportionate influence upon the development of the social sciences in the United States and, indeed, probably ranked as the leading centre of sociology in the world up to 1930. This, arguably, was due to the research environment and 'collective intellectual endeavour' that was matched nowhere else (Bulmer, 1984).
The question, then, is what happened to this dominance? Did Chicago fade out because it lost its organisational pre-eminence? Or, did it sit back on its laurels and allow sociology to develop a more scientific bent without it? Did it ignore developments in theory and methodology? Did it fail to engage the substantive issues of the Depression Era? Or, did its research environment dissipate?



[1] For example, Chicago produced 113 PhDs up to 1935 while Columbia, the second largest, produced only 50 in sociology. Between 1954 and 1968 the situation had changed with Chicago producing 163, Columbia 172, and Harvard 120 and Berkeley 84. Return


Next 7.3 The 'coup' and the organisational decline of Chicago