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

7.5 The introspection of the 'Chicago School'

Chapters three and four have suggested that, methodologically, the Chicagoans were eclectic and involved in the development of both quantitative and qualitative techniques; and that this involvement continued into the 1950s (and beyond). Similarly, the Chicagoans were extensively involved in theoretical developments, going far beyond urban sociology, as we saw in chapter five. In line with changes in the discipline, the Chicagoans tended less towards holistic theorising and more towards sustained analysis of specific areas of study. General concepts, however, such as 'social disorganisation' and 'definition of the situation' remained central to American sociology throughout the first half of the century.
Nonetheless, the decline of the 'Chicago School' is sometimes framed as Chicago's parochialism. Chicago is seen as losing touch, through its introspective attitude that was dominated by complacency and conservatism. They could not let go of their study of Chicago and tended to ignore more substantive areas of research, and were indifferent to academic and organisational developments in the discipline outside Chicago.
The Chicagoans, I would suggest, were not insular. They were very much a part of sociology on a national level through their involvement in formal organisations notably the American Sociological Society and the Social Science Research Council. In addition, the American Journal of Sociology remained a major sociological journal and continued to be edited and published at Chicago. The Summer Institutes of the Society for Social Research continued to develop a broader perspective. The Society had constantly appealed for such broadening.

The Summer institute has become one of the most interesting and valuable events of the year for sociologists and students of sociology at the University of Chicago and neighboring schools. Its purpose is to serve as a clearing house for current research projects. Here students and faculty members bring their hypotheses, data, and conclusions and submit them to the shafts of friendly criticism from some 75 or 100 fellow research workers.... Moreover, if any members, especially at schools other than the University of Chicago, know of fellow instructors or graduate students whose research could profitably be brought before the Institute, a prompt note about it would be appreciated.
The plan this year is to have a still larger number of research reports from other graduate departments than in the past. Increased contact with points of view in other universities and with points of view in departments closely allied with Sociology at the University of Chicago should be stimulating. (Bulletin of the Society for Social Research, June 1929, p. 1)

This expansionist attitude was repeated in 1930. 'Reports are not limited to members, however. If members know of others who are doing research work falling within the scope of the institute, a word about it will be appreciated' and went further in 1931 with the Institute being the most ambitious to date with the three Mid-West universities co-operating with a central theme of regionalism. In November 1932 the Bulletin carried an article on page 1 that noted that

Your officers and executive committee are in agreement that these tendencies [of growth] should be, or are, in the direction of greater inclusiveness of membership and of participation. The Society desires both persons who are engaged in research among all of the social sciences (and not in sociology merely); and who are members of institutions throughout the north central region (and not only at the University of Chicago).... Information concerning interesting research undertakings in other social fields and in other institutions which might profitably be brought to the attention of members is therefore solicited.

This broadening of interest and appeal is reflected in the doubling of the number of non-sociology staff at the university who addressed the society over the period 1924 to 1935; and the increase from six to thirty one per cent in talks on philosophy and other social sciences over the same period, (see Appendix 3).
The Society for Social Research had applied for membership of the American Sociological Society as a regional chapter in 1934 and, even after the coup, continued with this affiliation. In 1937, H.A Phelps, Secretary of the American Sociological Society wrote to Bernhard Hormann, Secretary of the Society for Social Research at Chicago to ask for advice on, and consent to, the formation of a Conference of Secretaries of regional societies, (Phelps, 1937).
Besides the formal involvements of the Chicagoans the informal network of relationships with graduate students working in the discipline, and communications with other academics on issues ranging from tenure recommendations to academic discussion all continued uninterrupted.
The Chicagoans had fairly close academic links with other major sociology departments, through both visiting lectureships and personal contact and correspondence. During the thirties, for example, Burgess taught at Columbia and Park at Harvard. Visiting lecturers at Chicago included Talcott Parsons (see Appendix 1) and Wirth communicated extensively with Parsons, particularly in relation to Parsons' The Structure of Social Action that Wirth reviewed. Parsons also sent Wirth a preview of his address to the American Sociological Society of 1937 entitled 'The Role of Ideas in Social Action' (Parsons 1937a). Wirth also had a long-standing friendship with Robert Lynd, who would have liked Wirth to join him at Columbia (Lynd, 1941b), and with Howard Odum of North Carolina. Wirth was also on first name terms with Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld and was instrumental in the invitation extended to the latter to teach at Chicago in 1949.
The Chicagoans were also very much involved in Government sponsored research, notably Works Program Administration (WPA) and Federal Employment Relief Agency (FERA) projects. Blumer, for example, worked on narcoticism and Sutherland worked on probation and parole as well as studying men living in Chicago shelters in conjunction with H.J. Locke. Hauser was granted two years leave of absence (1934-5) to work on FERA projects and Ogburn was heavily involved in government-sponsored research throughout the thirties. Such activities prompted the following comment in the Bulletin of the Society for Social Research (December 1934, p. 3)

It appears that it is a good rule, if a sociologist is unaccounted for in these days of the New Deal, to look for him either in Washington or somewhere on the staff of the F.E.R.A. Conservatively estimated, about 10% of the Society members are occupied in this manner. The following are in Washington: P.M. Hauser, C.S. Newcomb, E.J. Webster, S.A. Stouffer, F.F. Stephan, J.O. Babcock, E.D. Tetrau, H.G. Woolbert.

Park shied away from political doctrine (Blumer, 1972) and his continuing detachment from this new perspective on the relationship between the sociologist and society is clearly reflected by his letter to Wirth (Park, 1941). In it Park referred to a petition he had been asked to sign. He wrote that he was usually 'allergic to pressure groups' but in this case supported 'the President and the policy of the Government in this crisis'. He was 'in favor of militarism' but was 'not interested in the defeat of Germany, nor the destruction of the Nazi regime, in order to preserve the English Empire, much less to preserve the existing regime in Russia. I am interested, however, insofar as such a defeat will discourage international crime and aid in the creation or restoration of international order'.

The academic climate of the thirties was unfriendly to Park's determinedly detached, apolitical approach to research. The number of sociologists working in public agencies increased, and many came to consider their role as that of manipulative elite, consultants to a powerful state rather than an active, rational public. As they became involved in the practical problems of the depression era and the challenge of Fascism from abroad, an open commitment to social engineering and political involvement replaced the Parkian image of the concerned scholar as detached observer and midwife to attitude change. (Matthews, 1977, p. 183)

While Park may have been disinclined to breach his apoliticism, this was not the case with the other members of the department. Wirth was concerned with the political implications of sociological enquiry and specifically the defeat of Nazism (Wirth, 1941); and Ogburn too, considered the sociologist's role to be more than the detached observer (Ogburn, 1942). In a scathing attack on popular folk lore, customs and norms, presented as a retrospective on the peculiarities of mid-twentieth century Americans, Ogburn abandoned the 'objective reporting of attitude' for a thinly disguised ridicule of popular ignorance. For example, he noted that:

The adults sometimes had a childish faith in experts. The opinions of a Negro boxing champion named Joe Louis were eagerly sought on political matters, especially as to whom to vote for in a presidential election. The connection between the strength that could deliver a knockout blow to an opponent's chin and wisdom in political matters seems not to have been questioned. (Ogburn, undated, pp. 2–3)

Similarly, writing around 1952 on McCarthyism, Ogburn again directed attention against the folly of popular misconceptions and their dangers, in a manner that reflected the new role of the sociologist.

Granting the need of stamping out communism, it hardly seems necessary to turn our political institutions upside down in order to do it....
However, as a slogan [communism] has very broad appeal to a people whose warlike patterns are activated and who want to fight an enemy, at home if not abroad. The leader of such an emotional drive may well become a hero to many who respond with extreme devotion.
This extreme devotion helps to explain why followers are not alienated by McCarthy's gross behavior. (Ogburn, 1952, p. 1–8)

Throughout his career, Ogburn had been concerned with major social and political issues, from his early research for the 'President's Mediation Commission' on the strike in the lumberjack industry (Ogburn, 1917), through his involvement as Director of Research on the Presidents' Research Committee on Social Trends (1933), and his subsequent social trends research that was directed towards the problems of the depression era and war years. Indeed, his 'detached' enquiries and observations on the Second World War and the cold war with Russia that followed resulted in him being labelled alternately 'pro-Nazi' and 'pro-Soviet', the latter during the McCarthy era. Burgess, too, had been involved with national policy initiatives through his work on the Wickersham Committee and he was chairman of the Family and Parent Education sub-committee of the White House Conference, (Burgess, 1934).
However, during the 1920s, such involvements were individual endeavours and 'the thrust of concern was to get out and study the world, not get involved in these controversial issues of public policy' (Blumer, 1972, section 2, p. 7). It was during the 'New Deal' that things began to change, though; and when Ogburn edited 'American Society in Wartime' (1943) the majority of the Chicago faculty contributed, including Faris and Park who were, at that time, emeritus professors.
The substantive research interests of the Chicagoans were, therefore, rather broader than the myth would suggest. The study of the city of Chicago was at its height in the 1920s, although, of course, even then the Chicagoans did not spend all their research time in this way. In many respects, the study of the city of Chicago was pragmatic. The rapidly developing city was a superb and convenient microcosm of social life and change in America and funding for its study was available for researchers. This, of itself, did not make the Chicagoans parochial and insular, for, as we have seen, the sociologists were encouraged to adopt a 'big picture' approach to sociological enquiry, even when it was of a small area or aspect of the city of Chicago. Furthermore, as we have also seen, many of the staff had commitments beyond the narrow confines of the University, notably through government sponsored research. A stubborn parochialism was, then, not the cause of Chicago's 'decline' in the 1940s.

Next 7.6 The loss of research ethos