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

8. Schools and metascience

8.3 Conclusion: units, myths and metascience

In general, when referring to units, notably to 'schools', most commentators adopt the term quite loosely and it is usually directed to three interrelated ends. First, school is used as a categorising device in an attempt to provide a root through the diversity of the history of sociology, be it at a theoretical, substantive or methodological level. Second, this mapping of history has been used as a means for marking out territory by representatives of different theoretical approaches. Third, the school is used as an exemplar of a particular approach to sociology, particularly directed at the colonisation of a sub-discipline. None of these are directly concerned with a metascientific enquiry that would critically engage these categorical and demarcation processes.

The problem that arises in these non-metascientific usages is that a large degree of over-generalisation takes place with secondary accounts piling on each other and leading to mythologisation. This is in part a result of the reliance on memory and oral tradition, by sociologists engaged in writing about the history of sociology, and a lack of detailed research to check what they presume they know. This book, in the first instance, has illustrated how such a process has occurred in the case of the 'Chicago School of Sociology' by focussing on five myths about the work of those sociologists in, or associated with, the Department of Sociology at Chicago.

The designation of the 'School', motivated by the various concerns of commentators, has drawn on and reinforced the myths, while such myths also provide suitable handles for historians and sociologists of sociology to grasp. The analysis of the myths has suggested some of these interrelations, for example the legitimating role of Mead in the history of symbolic interactionism, the establishment of an historical tradition of participant observation research, the exemplary nature of early Chicago urban sociology, and the dichotomisation of American sociology into 'qualitative' and 'quantitative' traditions as a framework for locating the development of the discipline.

Myth generation is both a function of the process of constructing history and of prevailing conceptualisations of the areas of knowledge to which the history relates. There is an interrelationship between historical accounts and taken-for-granted contemporary conceptualisations such that, for example, in constructing the history of the 'Chicago School' current ideas about the nature of sociology inform the historical reconstruction of its component parts and, conversely, historical accounts, written for whatever purposes, provide case data that inform a general conceptualisation of the history of sociology.

The examination of the myths of the 'Chicago School' suggested why specific myths might have arisen. In more general terms, however, the implication has been that myth construction is an almost inevitable consequence of the development of academic disciplines and their historical reconstruction. Such reconstruction has tended to be a presentist or 'Whig interpretation' (Butterfield, 1931) of the history of the contribution of significant figures ('great man' history) or of the progress of influential ideas ('great ideas' history). Sociologists and historians of science have, however, come increasingly to question the historical reconstruction of a discipline in these terms. The debate in the philosophy of science, stemming from the Popper-Kuhn engagement and taken up by Lakatos, among others, has, in two ways, generated a critique of historiography of science. First, it has raised questions about the relationship between history and the rationality of science. Second, the concern to specify the community framework of scientific knowledge production has undermined both the sweeping construction of ideational traditions and the naive idealistic assumption of history as the work of individuals.

Arguably, the 'unit' approach to the history of sociology overcomes many of the problems of the 'great man' and 'great ideas' perspectives (Mullins, 1973; Tiryakian, 1979a). This view, as has been suggested, is grounded in the paradigmatic view of the development of science deriving from Kuhn (1962), which has brought a reassessment of traditional notions of the 'progress of science'. However, in practice unit approaches are problematic as their attempts to force historical events into preformed categories leads to internal inconsistencies, a distortion of the historical evidence and an abandonment of the Kuhnian paradigm thesis that purports to underpin the model (Harvey, 1985). Furthermore, adopting a frame of reference located so squarely in the philosophy of science debate means that an essentially internalistic perspective is adopted. This fails to provide any mediation of science and society and of past and present (Chalmers, 1978; Feyerabend, 1975a, 1975b). Kuhn and Lakatos, and the models based on them, are all 'historicist' in that their models appropriate history selectively in order to establish the credibility of their frame [1]. This approach thus inhibits detailed empirical investigation. While providing a basis for a critique of the 'great man' and 'great ideas' approaches to the history of academic disciplines, most 'unit' approaches do not provide a satisfactory alternative because they, too, tend to lead to distortions of the knowledge production process. A unit approach is not, of itself, immune to the construction of myth.

In the case of the historical reportage of the 'Chicago School of Sociology', the unit approach has accentuated the development of myths and has fed through to affect the very nature of the sociological enterprise and thus of what constitutes sociological knowledge. This, then, suggests that the usage of terms such as 'Chicago School' are of limited value and should be approached critically when undertaking metascientific work or examining the history of science. This is particularly clear when a 'school' appears to have several overlapping designations, as in the case of the 'Chicago School'.

The critical examination of the myths of the 'Chicago School' suggested an alternative characterisation of the work and impact of the Chicagoans to that popularly held. The 'School' was an integral part of American sociology, developing as the discipline developed. It was early concerned with social reform but not in isolation from theoretical understanding, and rapidly moved away from reformist concerns as the discipline attempted to establish a more overt scientific basis. This shift coincided with the institutionalisation of the knowledge transformative processes in the Society for Social Research. The Chicagoans were concerned with empirical data collection and tended towards methodological eclecticism. However, they did not neglect theory and developed theoretical concerns in line with the general development of the discipline and drew on a variety of different traditions, particularly pragmatism, of which Mead was but one source. Chicago sociology had been prominent in America throughout the first half of the twentieth century and was particularly dominant administratively in the discipline for decades. Its decline, when it came, was not because Chicago was out of touch, or retained a dogmatic attachment to an outmoded approach to sociological work, but more likely because it lost key personnel and with them a unique research environment. Structural changes in the discipline due to the rapid expansion of sociology in universities from 1930 meant that it could never regain its former dominance.

The detailed analysis of the history of the 'Chicago School' highlights some severe problems for the unit approach. However, this, of itself, does not mean that a unit approach is an unsuitable way to proceed. It may well be preferable to the simplistic cumulative theses usually embodied in the 'great man' and 'great ideas' approaches. The issue is not so much the focus of attention of the history, and thus of the metascientific enquiry, as the process of engagement with the historical material. Identifying the unit is merely the beginning rather than the climax of such metascientific enquiry.

In constructing a unit, decisions have to be made about the way it is circumscribed. The identification of the unit is of major importance because it clearly colours the way in which the historical evidence is approached. Linking people together into research units requires some thesis about the criteria for knowledge production. The problem, for unit approaches is, then, the determination of the criteria.

I would suggest that rather than build a stage-by-stage model to accommodate a revised Kuhnian thesis (Mullins, 1973), or to tightly define roles within an ideal-type community in order to accommodate a research programme thesis (Tiryakian, 1979a), a metascientific unit analysis should concern itself with the processes by which cross-fertilisation of ideas through critique is managed. The focus should be on the way in which the body of sociological knowledge, to which members apply themselves, is transformed through critique [2]. There is no requirement to concentrate on reconstructing groupings of ideas or people and thus, rather than adopt 'conventional' or taken-for-granted categories, a critical engagement with the historical evidence is encouraged. The unit is seen as dynamically interacting with established knowledge rather than as the harbinger of a segregated orthodoxy or the cultish development of a heresy.

In this sense, the unit is a community circumscribed by an institutional affiliation and a communicative network for the transmission and critique of ideas. Such a network may be restricted to direct interpersonal relations, or based on more formal structures such as conferences and institutes, and may or may not be supported by one or more journals. In the long run, a periodical would appear to be important in sustaining the coherence and momentum of a critical unit. It is not necessary, however, that the journal be 'wholly controlled' by the unit, but rather that it re-present the processes of critique. The work of the unit may or may not be directed to a specific subject matter or involve elaborations of a core theory. The dynamic of the school may then be perceived, in Kuhnian terms, as dependent on puzzle-solving within a wider discipline or sub-discipline (Martins, 1972), with occasional revolutions transforming the paradigm; or, in Lakatosian terms, as the cross-fertilisation of researchers working in different research programmes located within a school (or possibly even across school boundaries).

Essentially, then, the focus of attention is on the supportive association of researchers (which must be able to attract or generate research monies and have the facilities to undertake research) that acts constructively to criticize the research endeavours of its members. The emphasis is on study of the development of knowledge through critique, rather than the pursuit of presuppositions, core ideas, subject boundaries or groupings of practitioners in, and for, themselves. The case study of the 'Chicago School' provides an initial exploration of this approach. Assessment of its fruitfulness requires further research. However, such research must be based on primary sources rather than trading on myth.



[1]    This reflects the situation in the philosophy of science where historical material is used as a basis for supporting a given thesis about the generation of scientific knowledge. See, for example, Holton (1973), Howson (1976). This is also evident in the development of the sociology of science, for example, Barnes (1972), Mulkay (1972). It would seem, however, that when it comes to their own subject area, sociologists tend to be less scrupulous in examining the historical evidence and presume to know the subject. Return

[2]    This is not to imply that all knowledge derives from critique within metascientific units. All I am suggesting is that an approach that concentrates on metascientific units, which I think may well be a valuable approach, should investigate the knowledge transformative processes rather than be overly concerned about the constituents of interactive networks. Return


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