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

7.3 The 'coup' and the organisational decline of Chicago

7.3.1 The nature of the coup

7.3.2 The significance of the coup

In 1935 the American Sociological Society voted to establish its own independent journal, the American Sociological Review. Prior to 1936, the American Journal of Sociology printed by the University of Chicago Press and with an editorial board consisting of Chicago sociologists, had been the official organ of the society. This decision to establish the American Sociological Review is often seen as a move by sociologists in America to free themselves from the dominance of Chicago.

The hegemony of the University of Chicago over the field stimulated resentment among sociology departments in other centers. This resentment tended to center on the fact that the official journal of the American Sociological Society, the American Journal of Sociology, had always been owned by the University of Chicago and edited by a member of its faculty. (Matthews, 1977, pp. 181–182)

Matthews described the so-called 'coup' as a 'palace revolt' that signalled that other centres, notably Columbia and Harvard, 'were emerging strongly enough to challenge Chicago's long held role of leadership'.
The attack on Chicago's organisational dominance is, however, viewed in a variety of ways. Martindale (1960) reflected the most popular view of the significance of the coup when he described it as a methodological confrontation in which 'positivist' quantifiers confronted the conservative humanism of Chicago. Thus the coup is taken as symbolic of the final victory of 'hard' quantitative sociology over the 'soft' sociology epitomised by the 'Chicago School'. Faris (1967) saw the coup as an activist group challenging the Chicago value neutral approach. Kuklick (1973) saw it as merely the tip of the iceberg that was forming around structural functionalism, from which Chicago supposedly absented itself or was excluded. The coup is therefore seen as indicative of the recognition of the anachronistic nature of Chicago sociology. Martindale (1976, p. 141), for example, taking his cue from Faris (1967), wrote,

Forces were in motion that would transform the character of American sociology. As its unquestioned center of dominance, the Chicago department had to either assume leadership in the transformation or be thrust aside. It did not possess the charismatic leader who could assume the role.... A new epoch was dawning [following the coup] that would see the point of gravity in sociology shift decisively toward quantitative methodology and toward theoretical collectivism. The capitals of sociological culture in America were relocating from the Midwest to the coasts.

Some commentators go further and argue that the period of Chicago dominance hindered the development of a scientific sociology and the coup symbolised the maturing of the discipline in the United States with the emergence of a more scientific approach, embodied in structural functionalism.

The first dominant school of thought, the Chicago School, crystallized around World War I and continued until the early thirties. The second dominating school, the functionalists, succeeded the Chicago School in the forties and fifties after a period of interregnum. (Wiley, 1979)

Reflecting on the period up to 1935 Coser noted

The end of the Chicago dominance may conveniently be dated as 1935, when the American Sociological Society, previously largely, but not wholly dominated by the Chicago department or Chicago-trained scholars, decided in a minor coup d'état to establish its own journal, The American Sociological Review, thus severing the long time formal and informal links of the discipline to the University of Chicago department. Two years later the appearance of Talcott Parsons' The Structure of Social Action heralded the emergence of a theoretical orientation considerably at variance with that developed at the University of Chicago. This new orientation was largely to dominate American sociology for the next quarter of a century. Having gradually become institutionalized and largely professionalized in the years [up to 1935], having passed through a period of incubation during the years of Chicago dominance, sociology could embark on its mature career. (Coser, 1978, p. 318)

Thus, the suggestion is made that Chicago dominated and in so doing somehow hindered the development of American sociology. It is suggested that the empirical concerns of the Chicagoans, combined with their pre-eminence within the discipline up to 1930, inhibited the development of a unifying 'paradigm' for sociology (Tiryakian, 1979a). Such a 'paradigm', it is argued, only became established in the 1940s following the pioneering work of Parsons, and became concretised in the emerging structural functionalist perspective.

While formulating his basic paradigm in the 1930s, [Parsons] was a "voice in the wilderness" at a time when American sociology was predominantly empirical, atheoretical and positivistic; Parsons' central notion of "action", synthesising elements from four major European figures, was, in a sense, not that much of a radical departure from the native American tradition of pragmatism and voluntarism found in Mead, Park, Thomas and Cooley. However, whereas these men had had illuminating insights, Parsons was to insist on a general theory of action. (Tiryakian, 1979a, p. 228)

Such a perspective entirely misconstrues prior sociological endeavours, ignores the inter-disciplinary approaches adopted at many universities and their encouragement through the Social Science Research Council. It gives the impression that sociology only came theoretically of age in the post-Parsonian era, and that structural functionalism alone, and for the first time, conjoined theory and research. 'The collaboration of Parsons the theorist with Sam Stouffer the empirical researcher, and the similar pairing of Merton with Lazarsfeld, seemed ample proof that the new paradigm could integrate sociological analysis and research' (Tiryakian, 1979a, p. 229).
A particularly insidious connotation of the above is that only with the overthrow of the Chicago dominance of sociology as epitomised in the coup within the American Sociological Society, could a theoretical sociology emerge in America.


7.3.1 The nature of the coup

Lengermann (1979), in a re-examination of the coup, argued that the coup was not about method or theory. Opposition to Chicago was 'bound together, not by a theoretical viewpoint, but by an organizational ideology of antielitism' (Lengermann, 1979, p. 194). Indeed, the main contention of the anti-Chicago group at the time was the threat to career chances from the 'patronage' of Chicago in a time of increasing pressure on jobs, due to the depression [2]. Other sociology departments 'began to chafe under the dominance of the Chicago group... and definite steps were taken to increase leadership in the American Sociological Society from non-Chicago sociologists' (Cavan, 1983, p. 418).
At the meeting that established the American Sociological Review, organisational changes in the American Sociological Society were also voted in and all but one Chicago supporter (Dorothy Thomas) failed to be elected to executive or committee posts. However, Lengermann argued that the meeting of itself did not constitute the 'rebellion' against Chicago; rather it was the cumulation of a five-year sustained opposition to the Chicago base that began with Ogburn's election to the presidency of the society in 1928. This election, arguably, brought to a head the concern of the anti-Chicago group that Chicago had a too dominant role. The Bulletin of the Society for Social Research (February 1933) noted that seventy-four members of the Society had been registered at the American Sociological Society's Annual Conference in Cincinnati (December 1932).
The December 1935 issue of the Bulletin for the Society for Social Research announced the following members to give papers at the annual conference of the American Sociological Society that December: Nels Anderson, J.O. Babcock, Read Bain, E.W. Burgess, L.S. Cottrell, C.S. Hughes, C.S. Johnson, E.S. Johnson, H. Mowrer, R.E. Park, F.F. Stephan, W.W. Waller, H. Zorbaugh with E. Eubank, J. Dollard, L. Wirth as well as Park and Bain presiding at sectional meetings. In addition R. Faris, J.H. Kolb, S. Stouffer, C.S. Johnson, E.B. Reuter, F.M. Thrasher, and C.C. Zimmerman were to act as discussants.
The Chicagoans were aware of the undercurrents of dissatisfaction with the national association, but did not ascribe it to their own pre-eminence. For example, in the discussion of the American Sociological Society Conference of 1932,

most of the reporters paid more attention to the undercurrents felt in the national society than to the papers read at the formal meetings. Many seemed to feel that there were more or less serious tensions in the organisation which were giving rise to preliminary millings about which may follow through some sort of social movement which in turn may eventuate in new institutional structures within or without the mother structure. (Minutes of the Society for Social Research, 9th January 1933)

The tension that followed Ogburn's election was not a function of Chicago providing the President of the Society. Chicago had, of course, provided the president of the society before, but the rebels had not been so organised before nor had the Chicago base been so firm. Ogburn was not only a Chicagoan, but was also a quantifier and was supported by other quantifiers. The result was a gradual build up of combatants that had Chicago and the quantifiers on one side and, on the other, a diffuse group with no obvious identifiable theoretical or methodological or institutional links whom Lengermann described as 'association men', supported by a wider (and in the last resort crucial) group whose links were geographic (from the East and Southwest). This group were 'agitated and divided by theoretical issues' and acted spontaneously in their discontent with Chicago's influence. The two sides were acting politically and over five years each side came to the ascendency in turn. It was only when the opponents managed to manoeuvre into a position when they could motivate the large band of general sympathisers that they effected the 'defeat' of the Chicago group.
An examination of the two camps reinforces the political rather than theoretic or methodological nature of the division. On the Chicago side were the Chicago faculty, W.I. Thomas, a group of Chicago graduate students from the 1930s and some earlier graduates and members of the Midwestern and Southern regional associations. In addition Stuart Rice, S. A. Chapin, Dorothy Thomas, Kimball Young and George Lundberg among other quantifiers strongly supported Chicago.
The other side was effectively led by L.L. Bernard, a graduate of Chicago in 1910 who had been a professorial lecturer for two quarters at Chicago in 1927 but failed to get a full-time post at the University. He was supported by J. Davis of Yale, W.P. Meroney of Baylor (M. A. Chicago, 1922), Newell Sims of Oberlin and Harold Phelps of Pittsburgh. These were the collaborating group that organized the opposition in an overt and direct way.
They were in turn supported more-or-less strongly by C. North, (Chicago doctorate, 1908), M.C. Elmer (a Chicago doctorate, 1914), Earle Eubank (Chicago doctorate, 1915), W.C. Smith (Chicago doctorate, 1920), Floyd House (Chicago doctorate, 1924 and assistant professor at Chicago in 1925 and 1926), Howard P. Becker (a Chicago doctorate, 1930), Willard Waller (MA, Chicago, 1925, and author of a reply to Lundberg supporting Blumer's position in the first issue of the American Sociological Review), O.D. Duncan (a quantifier who later obtained a doctorate from Chicago, 1949, and was appointed an assistant professor in 1950), Read Bain, M. Parmelee, F.H. Hankins, J. Bossard, M. Davie, C. Dittmer, S. Kingsbury, J. Lord, H. Miller, J.J. Rhyne, E.A. Ross, M.M. Willey, and J.M. Williams. In addition the membership of the Eastern, Southwestern and Ohio regional societies supported the anti-Chicago group.
This oppositional group, then, included ex-Chicagoans as well as current members of the Society for Social Research (see Appendix 3). xxxxxxxxxxx The division was not, therefore, simply the Chicago network versus the non-Chicagoans. It seems likely that the members of the anti-Chicago group were motivated by several different things, chief amongst them being the 'geographic factor' and the 'quantitative factor'.
In the event each side legitimated their position, in one way or another, by suggesting that they, rather than the opposition, adopted a scientific attitude. Those who supported the Chicagoans adopted two different approaches. The quantifiers argued that operationalisation or measurement were central to a scientific sociology, while the Chicagoans themselves, in the main, espoused a value-free scientism. Bernard, on the other hand, argued that his opponents were a 'group of men who are dominated by a viewpoint that is almost wholly unscientific' (Quoted in Lengermann, 1979, p. 190, footnote 9).
In view of the taken-for-granted views about Chicago's lack of involvement in quantitative social research (chapter four) it is ironic that a major reason for its defeat in 1935 was its alignment with the quantifiers in the American Sociological Society.


7.3.2 The significance of the coup

The coup, then, was essentially political. Did it, however, have any other significance than an overdue rearrangement of administrative responsibilities within the discipline? Was it symbolic of Chicago's failure to grasp the new developments within the discipline? To the contrary, Park (1936), reflecting on the coup, saw sociology as a rather narrow endeavour. For him, Chicago, rather than inhibiting the development of the discipline, was the focus through which such a broadening could be effected. He recognised that the University of Chicago had 'been put on the spot by the recent attacks upon it and is more or less forced to make itself the protagonist of academic freedom'. This, Park argued, it could do in a variety of ways, some already initiated. Principally, it should 'not use the academic rostrum for the purpose of making political speeches but to use the freedom and detachment which University life offers to investigate the problems that agitate the public'. In which respect, he was heartened by the lead given by Burgess in his 'presidential address in which he raised and sought to answer the question "What contribution can sociology make to social planning?" '
Park also approved of the broadening of the compass of the Institutes of the Society for Social Research and urged that the American Journal of Sociology (which he saw as needing to attract a new readership) adopt a broader approach in view of an increasingly sophisticated public. The time, he argued, was ripe for a review of fundamental points of view and a reorganisation of research on a broader front. 'The questions that are agitating the public now are fundamentally political. I am convinced that the issues raised can be studied objectively and that we may lift the whole level of sociological thinking by attempting to define and investigate these problems rather than merely discuss them.'
Others, however, see the loss of official recognition for the American Journal of Sociology as the beginning of the end of the 'Chicago School'. It is regarded as the point at which Chicago sociology went into decline (Odum 1951; Madge, 1963; Faris, 1967; Goddijn, 1972b; Bernard, 1973; Kuklick, 1973; Martindale, 1976; Coser, 1976, 1978; de Bernart, 1982). Matthews (1977, p. 179), for example, argued that after 1935, the Chicago department's ascendancy rapidly waned. This was due to forces outside Chicago, notably

an increasing concern with the scientific status of the field, reflected in a preoccupation with methodology; the rise of other sociology departments as centers of research and graduate instruction; the absorption of major European sociological theories; and changing concepts of the proper role of the sociologist in relation to the society he studied.

That Chicago was unable to cope with these changes, Matthews attributes primarily to Park's influence and legacy. This legacy was one that was incompatible with the new direction in which American sociology was going.



[2] The question of patronage, however, was perhaps not quite as overriding a concern as it was projected. Certainly Chicago faculty were regularly consulted with a view to recommending staff, but there was no attempt to infiltrate their own graduates into departments. They wrote openly and in a non-partisan way when requests were made for suggestions and opinions. A reply from Ogburn (1930) to Hankins (who in 1935 was to vote against Chicago in the coup) is worth quoting at length

Dear Hankins:
In answer to your letter of the 15th about a man for Sociology at Smith, how would Bernard do? He is much interested in the history of sociology. I think he is a little hard to get along with. You know him, of course, quite well. House at Virginia is much interested in social theory and the history of social doctrines. He was thought very highly of here by Small and many others. Another very good man, who is an instructor here now, is Herbert Blumer. He has a fine critical head, is very much interested in social theory, knows French sociology particularly well and German sociology also pretty well. He reads both languages quite fluently. He is a very good teacher. His interests are a good deal like those of Cooley perhaps. Our plan, I think, is to keep him on here at Chicago, though he might be willing to go away. Another possibility is Louie Wirth at Tulane. He has a very keen mind. He is a Jew, however. At the present time he is in Germany and is especially well versed in European sociology. I think very highly of Wirth also. Another man worth considering is Dawson at Montreal who is one of the best men turned out here for some time. He is the head of the department and might be a little hard to pry loose. I think Malcolm Willey is one of the finest young men we have in sociology. He is probably the best teacher of any of these and has really extraordinary abilities along these lines. I believe he was a student of yours at one time. I think Willey is an unusually promising man.
Let me know if I can write more fully about any of these men, or if none of them are suitable I can try some others. Abel at Columbia might be worth considering also. I don't envy your problem of finding a good man. Good men are now wanted by Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, and Oberlin.
With cordial good wishes, I remain,
Sincerely yours,
William F. Ogburn.

Bernard, House and Willey all voted against Chicago in 1935. Return


Next 7.4 Chicago's neglect of methodological and theoretical developments