There is, arguably, another key to all this. Chicago's own somewhat surprising dominance earlier in the century, given the relatively small size of the department, and its apparent loss of prestige in the 1940s and 1950s could be explained by the dissipation of its research environment. The secret of Chicago's success was possibly that
The dense, highly integrated, local network of teachers and graduate students centered around common problems, which was characteristic of Chicago sociology in the 1920s, had few parallels at the time or since. (Bulmer, 1984, p. 1)
Chicago sociology flourished in a research environment stimulated by an inter-disciplinary approach to the social world. In effect, the dynamism of the research collectivity, at a time in which sociology was emerging from its infancy, was central to the impact that Chicago made on the discipline. Park's influence on the research ethos has been emphasised (Faris, 1967; Matthews, 1977; Raushenbush, 1979; Bulmer, 1984) and it seems that for a decade or so he was a crucial motivator of graduate students. The research he encouraged was frequently directed to the city of Chicago, following the earlier suggestion of Small and Thomas. It was not, however, in any other sense a programmatic research policy.
Matthews (1977) has suggested that theoretical development at Chicago was somewhat limited and that with Park's going and the end of a period of intense and primarily empirical research, the theoretical weaknesses of Chicago sociology began to appear. For Bulmer (1984, p. 203), the going of Park did not expose theoretical weaknesses but was important in the dissipation of the research ethos.
With his departure, the department began to falter, lacking the stimulus derived from the intellectual integration he provided. No one else could supply the compelling overview, the insistent movement between the particular and the general, the curious and penetrating questioning, the devotion to students, which he did.
Blumer and Hughes see Park's departure, and the loss of research ethos that followed it, in a more practical light. They suggested that Park worked hard to developed students in the 1920s although some of them were not particularly bright. 'He took these people and he brought out of them whatever he could find there.' (Hughes, 1980, p. 267)
Park had an extraordinary amount of patience in working with someone who had an interest and, consequently, Park would take individuals who— most of them men...—who were really very mediocre ... but in working with them, he would just continuously draw out, lay out new lines along which to proceed, just leading these individuals more and more into a depthlike kind of knowledge of the area in which they were working. And some of the better monographs which came out, frankly, were of this sort. (Blumer, 1980b, p. 268)
Park's lack of involvement in the Department in the 1930s and his final departure in the middle of the decade undoubtedly affected the environment. It is debateable, though, whether the loss of one person could have had as profound an effect as some of the commentators suggest. A more fatal blow to the ethos and development of research at Chicago arguably occurred later, in the early 1950s, when the core of the Chicago faculty was uprooted. Chicago's dominance had, of course, gone by 1950, but the loss of Ogburn, Wirth, Burgess and Blumer within a two-year period at the start of the decade signalled the end of an era and a loss of ambience. Chicago was no longer 'the place to be' for a sociologist. The environment epitomised by the enthusiastic meetings and Institutes of the Society for Social Research was gone. The unique research experience that was located at Chicago and seemed to radiate out from it in the 1920s was an important factor in the rise to prominence of the 'Chicago School'. Once the momentum had begun to slow down then Chicago gradually lost its dominance. The loss of Park was probably associated with this gradual loss of momentum but so too was the staleness of the subject matter. Chicago sociology, at least to the outsider, was very much the sociology of Chicago and this gradually lost its uniqueness and appeal, especially as national issues became more and more the concern of sociologists. The combination of factors that came together to make the 'Chicago School' such an outstanding research department gradually lost their significance or disappeared. Chicago shifted from being a dominant to a leading sociology department. The loss of research ethos was important in this shift but it was by no means the sole reason for the change. Indeed, the loss of research ethos reflected more substantive structural changes in the discipline.
Next 7.7 Structural factors leading to Chicago's decline