The Rise, Hegemony, and Decline of the Chicago School of Sociology, 1892-1945

Anthony J Cortese. The Social Science Journal. Volume 32, Issue 3. 1995.

“Until a man is prepared to die for what he believes, he does not believe.”
—Robert Ezra Park, letter to Clara Hill (his future wife)

Thomas Kuhn has proposed that “perhaps science does not develop by the accumulation of individual discoveries and inventions.” The growth of science is, instead, much more uneven and discontinuous. No longer is it accepted that science can be totally objective, or that scientists “discover” physical or social reality. Rather, science can be regarded as claims-making activities. Science, as claimsmaking activities, is an example of the social construction of reality.

Recent developments in the sociology of science have brought this endeavor within the scope of the sociology of knowledge, which has been criticized for relegating some knowledge (false knowledge) as socially contingent. This type of analysis was first carried out by Marx and Engels in regard to the concept of false consciousness. An even more extreme critique of the sociology of knowledge is the stance that all knowledge is socially contingent or relative.

The strong programme, a sociology of science approach to social problems, provides a succinct two-pronged response to these criticisms. The first is methodological; treat all ideas (whether true or false) alike. The task of the sociology of knowledge, then, is to explain how ideas come to be held as true or rejected as false, not the evaluation of knowledge claims. The sociology of knowledge is not the arbitration of truth. The second response of the strong programme is substantive in nature. The basic objective of the sociology of knowledge is to trace the origins of scientific knowledge in social interaction.

According to traditional science, the natural world is objective. Scientists test theories for consistency with observable facts. There is cumulative growth of scientific knowledge. Scientific development occurs when social subjective influences on knowledge are neutralized. However, Kuhn’s sociological interpretation of the history of science regards scientific progress as non-cumulative. Instead of studying nature, scientists provide accounts of nature. Scientific observation is based on theoretical assumptions which, in turn, are based on ideology. In short, observation is interpretation. The social world is the very genesis of scientific knowledge, not an intrusion on science.

Science ignores the social “life-world.” Scientific texts ignore failures, competing paradigms, anomalies, and the hard work involved in scientific activity. The 1986 tragedy of the space shuttle, Challenger, forced us to acknowledge the unpredictable losses that sometimes occur and the humanistic dimension of science, so often tucked away. Science down plays or refuses to admit set-backs, giving the illusion of steady accumulation of facts. The conventions of scientific writing (e.g., use of the third person) draw attention away from scientists’ activities.

In traditional epistemology, science is discovery; focus is on interaction between the scientist and nature. In revised epistemology, science is interpretation; focus is on interaction between the scientist and other scientists (i.e., the scientific community’s collectively negotiated cognitive order). Claims-making is the essence of scientific work. The scientific community must evaluate the validity of contributions to the advancement of knowledge. It is this judgment by the community of scholars which determines whether cognitive claims are transformed into scientific knowledge.

Some ethnographic studies of science support the notion that science is claims-making activity. Science has a tendency to memorialize individual achievements. For example, the practice of eponymy, naming a phenomenon after its founder (e.g., pasteurization named after its discoverer, Louis Pasteur, in 1881), promotes a “great person” theory of the history of science that further obscures the social nature of scientific knowledge. “Great ideas” and “flashes of insight” often result from social interactions and institutional arrangements which actually generated and disseminated scientific ideas.

What fuels the development of scientific disciplines are general methodological innovations rather than either new theoretical models or new empirical observations. Such methodological infusions are the contributions of a small number of major Schools. The School approach is used to analyze the Chicago School of Sociology under the leadership of Robert E. Park.

In the following section, the question of how the Chicago School originated is addressed. This entails a look at how George Herbert Mead and W.I. Thomas provided initial theoretical direction for the School. The socio-historical context in which the School emerged is examined. What was the controversy or conflict in the discipline that served as a key for starting a new collective identity for researchers? How did the socio-historical context contribute to the rise of the School? Park, as the leader of the Chicago School, and the School’s decline are also discussed. In conclusion, I raise questions about Chicago Sociology and the Schools approach.

The Origin and Rise of Chicago Sociology

In 1892, the University of Chicago was founded, including the world’s first department of sociology. Assisting sociology in finding its academic niche was a consistency between its political and practical themes and the atmosphere of liberalism that prevailed in American society at that time. Sociology focused on “social problems,” not theory. Emphasis on cognition was developed into a social psychology (later known as symbolic interactionism) by Charles Horton Cooley, and two University of Chicago scholars, George Herbert Mead and W.I. Thomas. This brand of sociology had political implications. Sociologists were reformoriented liberals, not radical revolutionaries or conservative cynics.

The American creed preached equal opportunity and the primacy of individual rights over those of the group. Social psychologists studied the individual, the dyed, and the small group. This drew attention away from the negative implications of the macro-structures of stratification, wealth, and power, the focus of German scholars such as Friedrich Engels, Max Weber, and Karl Marx.

Albion Small received an offer to join the faculty at the newly founded University of Chicago. Her persuaded University officials to start a program in sociology and he became its head professor. Small founded the American Journal of Sociology, serving as editor for 30 years (1895-1925).(9) He is noted for introducing German social thought to the attention of American sociologists. Even more important was his founding and developing the top Department of Sociology. Between about 1915 and 1940, the University of Chicago dominated sociology in the U.S. The dominance of the Sociology Department was representative of the social sciences at Chicago during that period.

First-hand empirical research became highly valued, and even demanded, at Chicago since it was a procedure by which the hypotheses of the developing social sciences could be examined more scientifically and rigorously. Perhaps the most significant contribution the Chicago sociologists (most notably Park, W.I. Thomas, and Ernest Burgess) made was the development of specific research methods in sociology. Chicago sociology methodological innovations occurred, chronologically, between earlier social surveys, aimed at social reform, and later highly scientific social surveys. Some of the distinctive research methods linked to Chicago sociology are personal documents, intensive field research, documentary sources, social mapping, and ecological analysis.

Both qualitative and quantitative methods were important. Nevertheless, the salience of qualitative methods, historically, emerged first followed with a heavy emphasis on quantitative methodology and statistical analysis in the late 1920s with the arrival of William Ogburn from Columbia University (although Burgess was known for his use of quantitative research methods prior to this). Overall, the department was committed to excellence, not to a preference for certain types of methods over others.

The development of the social sciences at Chicago was characterized by strong collegial and social integration, interdisciplinary interchange, and a focus on the city. Sociology was particularly influenced by the intellectual currents provided by pragmatist philosophy and symbolic interactionism. Several features of modern social science departments on the rise, at that time, emerged: the ability to obtain large-scale grants for empirical research; the use of ancillary staff and the purchasing of equipment, graduate work connected to research programs; intensive graduate seminars; the teaching of methodology; and an emphasis on publishing research findings. A basic contribution of the founders of American sociology was the institutional establishment of sociology departments in American universities. The publication of The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920), by W.I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, and Thomas’s dismissal from the University in 1919 (both of which are discussed below), signaled the advent of the Chicago School.

The establishment of a School requires a setting in a large and diverse metropolis where mass communication is readily accessible. Members of the University of Chicago were heavily involved with local affairs. There was a close relationship between the University and the city. Chicago provided University faculty with employment in various civic and municipal agencies. Chicago had been more tolerant of intellectual diversity than New York City, for example. The appeal of the University to faculty lay less in large salaries than in the freedom of research and educational innovation that it offered.

Chicago’s first president, William Rainey Harper, viewed the University as a research center. Senior professors were hired to teach exclusively at the graduate level. Harper was a major contributing factor in bringing the University national and international eminence. It was he who created the university, worked at its achievement of hegemonic status, and ensured that it remained there. Harper had the persuasiveness to attract highly talented faculty to the university. Millions of dollars from the Rockefeller foundation were used to lure the most distinguished scholars to Chicago. In two decades, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. gave $35 million in endowment to the University. In 1910, Rockefeller donated ten million more dollars for current operating expenses.

Academic specialization and interdisciplinary exchange were keys to the success of the social sciences at Chicago. Empirical sociology resulted from a growing concern with urban social problems and their amelioration. Early empirical research was not rigorous but sharply tinged with moralism. Small and Charles Henderson, a fellow sociologist, did not draw a distinction between sociology and religious values. The early Department had a definite Christian orientation. Small, Henderson, Shailer Matthews, and Charles Zueblin were all ministers. Social welfare was also linked to the Sociology Department in its earlier years. Anthropology was also part of the curriculum. The Department remained joint until 1929.

The Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Chicago split into two separate departments because there was conflicting interests about which discipline was of greater importance. Both programs expanded in 1925, when Edward Sappir was appointed associate professor of sociology. That is when the interdisciplinary competition in the single large department increased between sociology and anthropology. The leaders of both disciplines competed for the University’s resources (e.g., office and classroom space, salary allocation, etc.). After sociology’s emphasis on quantitative methodology, the anthropologists claimed that they had stronger links to other disciplines than sociology. Sociologists believed that the activities of their discipline had greater social relevance than anthropology. The sociology program, under the prodding leadership of Park, had grown disproportionately stronger than anthropology.

Ogburn’s arrival at Chicago in 1927 signaled a new emphasis on quantitative sociological methods and statistical analyses. This drove a methodological wedge between sociology and anthropology. Prior to this, the qualitative methods used by sociologists and anthropologists alike were quite compatible. In fact, the topics that sociologists and anthropologists studied, as well as their methods, were strikingly similar. What distinguished the two disciplines were the units of analyses. While Chicago sociologists focused on social dynamics and patterns of social organization and disorganization in urban life, Chicago anthropologists focused on “pristine” cultures in “underdeveloped” societies. In short, the split may be viewed as the result of a rift on methodological grounds. Since the Tiryakian schools approach argues that general methodological innovations fuel the development of scientific disciplines, the break-up with Anthropology carries a special empirical significance to the continued hegemony of Chicago Sociology.

As a new university, Chicago lacked the social pretensions of an Ivy League School, such as Harvard or Yale. It was free from religious or denominational coloring; it was coeducational, and it admitted blacks. Chicago was modeled after the German university system. Its tenets focused on the value of graduate training, research publication, academic leadership nationally and internationally, and excellence. Even before the University of Chicago had admitted its first students, the University of Chicago Press was established as an organic part of the institution, not as an attachment.

Small served as chair of the Department until his retirement in 1924. He was also responsible for founding the American Sociological Society (ASS) in 1905, the precursor to the American Sociological Association (ASA). W.I. Thomas and George Vincent, both of whom were among the first Ph.D.s in sociology in 1896, were soon a part of the faculty. John Dewey’s pragmatist philosophy had a substantial impact on the history of empirical research at Chicago. Robert Park had studied under Dewey at the University of Michigan.

Chicago sociology was also characterized by an awareness of European social thought. Park did advanced study in Germany, taking three courses from George Simmel at the University of Berlin in 1900. The German Idealism of Simmel left an impact on both Park and Thomas (who had also studied in Germany) and added an intersubjectivistic component to Chicago sociology. The Chicago paradigm included both an external, objective approach and subjective view, including the inner elements of the Lebenswelt.

The Significance of The Polish Peasant

W.I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki had a significant impact on the development of urban sociology with their solid study, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, published between 1918 and 1920. Like Durkheim’s Suicide, The Polish Peasant represented an integration of data and theory. The common element in Chicago sociology-a strong commitment to empirical research, owed an enormous amount to the example set by Thomas. In The Polish Peasant, Thomas and Znaniecki began what was to become a Chicago characteristic of using personal documents as a type of research methodology.

In 1908, Thomas was able to secure $50,000 from Helen Culver, the Hull-House heiress, to study immigration problems. The focus on immigration as a research topic gave sociology status as a distinct and autonomous discipline. Thomas conducted the research with objective, unemotional, and scientific relentlessness. His goal was to understand social behavior, not to change society. In sharp contrast to Durkheim, Thomas interpreted deviance from social norms or rules as culturally patterned behavior, not as an adaptation to strain.

Znaneicki was especially interested in methodology; it was he who suggested adding A Methodological Note to the end of the book. Thomas and Znaneicki employed four distinct research techniques which made the study a landmark.

First, personal letters between immigrants in America and their families and friends in Poland were used for inductive purposes. Thomas had gotten the idea of using letters when he picked up a letter off the street that a woman had just thrown out of an upper-story window.

Second, a 312 page autobiographical life-history of an immigrant peasant was used as a representation or composite of the experience of many immigrants. Wilhelm Dilthey had argued that “autobiography is the highest and most instructive form in which understanding of life comes before us.” The autobiography demonstrated the social and individual disorganization that is often involved in the process of acculturation.

Third, Polish newspapers and files and archives from the Bureau for the Protection of Immigrants represented the first systematic use of those sources from which to derive data.

Finally, work agency and court records of Polish-American organizations were used as an indication of the extent and types of social disorganization. These sources also documented the beginnings of self-help as a community, e.g., the formation of Polish-American support organizations.

Social action was mediated by individual consciousness in the form of attitudes and objective social reality in the form of social values. Thomas hypothesized that individuals were motivated by four wishes: new experience, security, response, and recognition. Social psychology became defined as the science of attitudes; sociology was the science of social values and the theory of social organization.

Thomas was dismissed from the University in 1919. He had been arrested at a Chicago hotel in the company of a Mrs. Granger, the wife of an army officer serving in Europe. Thomas was charged with violation of the Mann act and with false hotel registration. Janowitz alludes to the possibility that Thomas may have been framed by the government. There were plenty of other academic philanders. Why pick on Thomas? “Mrs. Thomas was active in Henry Ford’s peace movement … Thomas’s arrest was a means of embarrassing and discrediting her.”

Since Mrs. Thomas threw out her husband’s personal papers, we may never know the full story behind the arrest and subsequent firing of W.I. Thomas. Although Thomas was never prosecuted, he was summarily fired. In retrospect, it appears that Thomas was fired for his anti-war sentiments and related activities. The University of Chicago president, Harry Pratt Judson, ordered the University Press (which had published the first two volumes of The Polish Peasant) to break the contract and stop publication of further volumes.

Thomas and Znaneicki illuminated the disruptive impact of life in a strange new environment. The various methods employed by them influenced many sociological studies conducted by Chicago graduate students, such as Harvey Zorbaugh’s The Gold Coast and the Slum, Ernest Mowrer’s Family Disorganization, Frederick Thrasher’s The Gang, Nels Anderson’s The Hobo, and Paul C. Cressey’s The Taxi Dance Hall. In conclusion, Thomas may be viewed as a co-leader, along with Park, of the early Chicago School of Sociology.

The Field of Race Relations

It was W.E. DuBois who first conducted social survey research on blacks in the United States. His book, which reported the results of the study, is called The Philadelphia Negro. Both Park and Thomas had a strong interest in race relations in the United States. Among other topics, race and ethnic relations was an important area of sociological research with which the Chicago School became involved. Park lacked the conventional prejudices against racial and ethnic minorities. It was no coincidence that Charles S. Johnson and E. Franklin Frazier, two of the earliest top-notch, black sociologists, were students of Park.

Park had been influenced by Booker T. Washington’s anthropological writings on race. Park supervised Johnson’s study of the 1919 race riots in Chicago. Park demonstrated an awareness to avoid some of the methodological pitfalls which had plagued the social survey movement, such as leading questions and the use of white interviewers with black respondents. He also recommended using census tract data in the analysis. Above all, Park stressed scientific neutrality and warned against copying the reform orientation of the social survey movement.

Park: The School’s Leader

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1887, Robert Park spent eleven years as a newspaper reporter in Chicago, New York, Detroit, Denver, and Baltimore. He often roamed urban streets without specific assignment and became enamored with degenerate environments. It was newspaper assignments which sent him to gambling houses and opium dens that first sparked Park’s interest in sociology. Park’s early years were not prosperous; he had been regarded as coming from the wrong side of the tracks. Perhaps it was his socioeconomic background that resulted in his empathy with blacks; he could relate well to their struggling and their development of self-consciousness.

Park had the good fortune to study the humanities and social sciences in Europe. At Friedrich-Wilhelm University, Park took courses on ethics, the history of philosophy in the 19th century, and sociology-the one and only course which he ever took on the subject. Park went to Strasbourg and studied under Windelband because of compelling mutual, intellectual interests. Park followed Windelband to Heidelburg and did advanced study there.

When Park returned to the United States, he became an assistant at Harvard where he finished his dissertation. Later he became Secretary of the Congo Reform Association, an organization set up to contest the unjust, colonial policies of King Leopold of Belgium. It was while Park was Booker T. Washington’s secretary at the Tuskeegee Institute that he first met W.I. Thomas in 1912. Park organized an International Conference on the Negro; Thomas was one of the guest speakers. It was their common interest in race relations that first brought the two together. They soon developed a close intellectual relationship. It was Thomas who had brought Park to Chicago in 1913.

Park began his career as a sociologist late-at the age of 49; his first teaching assignment at Chicago was a course called The Negro in America. Park and Thomas had a great deal of respect for each other. Thomas credited Park for his prodding intellectual stimulation. Park organized Thomas’s successful bid for the presidency of the ASS. Park also paid tribute to Thomas a key to the inception of the fertile Society for Social Research.

Although Small founded the sociology department, it was Park who was its central figure. Nevertheless, W.I. Thomas was the intellectual progenitor of empirical study in the Chicago department, an important theorist, and one whose mark carried through the 1920s. Thomas also collaborated with Park on a monograph titled Old World Traits Transplanted, though Thomas’s contribution could not be acknowledged on the publication and was only revealed thirty years later. The work of Thomas was often overlooked as Park received most of the attention.

After Thomas left Chicago, Ernest Burgess assumed co-leadership of the Chicago School with Park. Burgess and Park enjoyed a close intellectual relationship, just as Thomas and Park had. Burgess and Park shared an office on campus and fruitful scholarly collaboration for many years. Because of the large amount of attention which Park received, the contributions of Burgess to the Chicago School have been underrated. Burgess and Park collaborated on research and teaching from 1916 (when Burgess began his appointment at Chicago) to 1934 (when Park retired). They team-taught a graduate seminar on field studies annually since 1918-1919.

The influence of Burgess on research methodology was greater than Park’s, yet it was typically Park who received top billing. Burgess was also much more theoretically precise than Park. Burgess was the sociologist in the shadows who added depth, clarification, precision, and elaboration to much of Park’s work. The accomplishments of Burgess may have been partially obscured by his position in the shadow of Park. Park had a much more dominating and dynamic personality than Burgess. Moreover, Park’s contributions to sociology were outstanding in their own right. In addition, Park was the senior of the two. Burgess was promoted to associate professor in 1921 and to full professor in 1927.

Although Burgess was insightful, he was never the leader Park was. Yet the theory of concentric zones was a clear indication of how Burgess improved on the work of Park. He gave concrete form to Park’s general methodological ideas. Given the salience of research methodology in the development and hegemony of Schools, one could argue that the contributions of Burgess have been underrated. At any rate, the intense intellectual climate of Chicago in 1920s owed much to the collaboration between Park and Burgess.

Park had a compelling, charismatic personality. Some students left Park’s office shattered from their encounters with that forceful figure. Park spent an enormous amount time with students; his own writing productivity suffered because of this. He unselfishly helped students with their writing style and urged them to publish their works. “Some students were treated to field trips, strolls through Chicago on which Park mused on the significance of what they saw; others recalled casual encounters in the street which became long discussions of the student’s work.” Park gave dinners for students and extensively loaned books to them. But his primary interest was in the process of sociological research, not the student.

Park was motivated by a quest for knowledge and a deep curiosity for the various groups of people living in Chicago. He was a voyeur of sorts and seemed to learn best through self-instruction. His colleagues as well as students were motivated and stimulated by his “unquenchable curiosity and inquisitiveness about the world and his capacity for linking general ideas and empirical particulars.” Perhaps it was his motivation to do sociology that was Park’s greatest attribute. This more than compensated for his writing style which was penetrating but incoherent and discontinuous.

Park throve on intellectual talk and had a great deal of interdisciplinary contact, according to University of Chicago graduate, Everett Hughes. Having studied in Germany, he was well read in Simmel and Tonnies, but, curiously, virtually ignored Durkheim and Weber. Park’s background in philosophy was also a major asset, as was his knowledge of diverse cultures. He knew more regions of the United States intimately than any sociologist of his generation, having lived in the Midwest, Massachusetts, the South, and the Pacific Coast. His international experience was substantial, including jaunts in South Africa, Germany, Brazil, and Asia.

Park studied revolution, anarchism, crowds, collective behavior, geography, peasants, cities, race relations, and human ecology. He examined the present in order to forecast the future. Park’s personal qualities cannot be overlooked as factors which made him the leader and key figure of the Chicago School. “He was strikingly handsome, genial and witty; he had gusto.”

Park was not good as a formal lecturer; he received inconsistent course evaluations. He was, however, a brilliant supervisor of graduate students. Park was reflective, perceptive and effective at bringing out the latent talent of students. For example, he edited, wrote the preface to, and arranged for the University of Chicago Press to publish Nels Anderson’s The Hobo.

Mead, Blumer, and Symbolic Interaction

George Herbert Mead taught in the Philosophy Department of Chicago. He wrote little; his contribution to sociology was compiled by students from classroom notes after his death. Most Chicago graduate students took his course on Advanced Social Psychology. In the course, Mead presented his evolving thoughts which constitute the book Mind, Self; and Society, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1934. His major thesis is that the human mind and self arose in a process of social interaction. This model of the social self influenced Herbert Blumer, a young instructor in the sociology department who later developed symbolic interactionism. According to Mead, reflexivity, the ability to objectify oneself, is what differentiates humans from other animals. Blumer picked up on Mead’s focus on the fluidity and continuous negotiation of the social order.

During the 1920s, American sociology was developing its premier research tradition at Chicago through the spirit of W.I. Thomas and the leadership of Robert E. Park. The research interests of the Chicago School of sociology turned to race and ethnicity, intergroup relations, immigration into American society, and the social problems of urban areas, notably Chicago.

Thomas, who had studied philosophy in Germany, argued for a voluntaristic component of social behavior that fit well with the complex theory of the social mind as proposed by Mead. The Thomas theorem (If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences) characterized a highly fluid life capable of rapid changes. Blumer, who coined the term symbolic interactionism, developed a sociology of microinteraction that can be viewed as an elaboration of both Mead and Thomas.

There may also be an element of John Dewey’s pragmatist philosophy in Blumer’s Symbolic Interactionism. Dewey had been on the philosophy faculty with Mead at the University of Chicago before moving on to Columbia and may have been part of the intellectual influence on Blumer. Blumer borrowed Dewey’s situational model which argued against a rational calculating cognition. Blumer maintained that reality is socially constructed, that society is process, not structure, and that individuals continuously create and recreate their roles; people do not simply find roles ready-made.

Blumer was highly influential even though symbolic interactionism never became the dominant paradigm in American sociology. (Current interpretive social theory traces its roots to symbolic interactionism.) He was at the University of Chicago for 20 years before going west to organize the Department of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. He also served as editor of the American Journal of Sociology. Symbolic interactionism built on the strength of the Chicago School in participant observation to examine forms of interaction spontaneously and indeterminately negotiated by the participants themselves.

The Hegemony of the Chicago School

The Sociology Department of Chicago was a School or community of scholars committed to the “best” of methodological and sociological perspectives. Its strength was its eclecticism and diversity. The hegemony of the Department was already established by 1915. Chicago was producing and would continue to produce the most productive Ph.D.s. Moreover, “of the first 40 presidents of the ASS, no less than 19 were either former graduate students or current or former staff of the University of Chicago.” Between 1915 and 1930 Chicago sociology was at the height of its achievement. The hegemony of Chicago School lasted for twenty years. The dominance of the School continued until the 1940s.

All Schools have a manifesto, a”proclamation of its basic mode of perceiving or relating to the world.” I believe that the Chicago School had two. First was Park’s “The City: Suggestions For The Investigation Of Human Behavior In The City Environment.” This classic article was published in the American Journal of Sociology (AJS) in 1915. Urban studies at Chicago was conceptualized within a scientific framework. This stood in marked contrast, with earlier studies focusing on social welfare and reform. Park sought to generalize in a scientific manner in this influential piece. His article provided a loose framework from which Burgess developed his theory of concentric zones.

The second manifesto of the Chicago School is the textbook, Introduction to the Science of Sociology, written by Park and Burgess and published in 1921. For almost two generations of students at Chicago and other universities, this introductory text, also known as the Green Bible, “came to symbolize the new discipline.” The sociological theory of Park was basically included in the text and in “The City” essay; most of his subsequent work was refinement, elaboration, and application of the conceptual framework which he had worked out by 1921.

Chicago students and staff lived sociology, continuing class discussions on research over lunch and into the evenings. The typical study consisted of multiple methods, using literature searches, historical and current documents, interviews, observation, personal documents, life histories and statistics on ecological structure. The Chicago School is known for using informal and unstructured methods of interviewing and observation. For example, John Landesco used participant observation in this ground-breaking research on Organized Crime in Chicago. His research was aided because of an identification with the group being studied; Landesco spoke the language of organized crime.

Another strong example of Chicago field research was Clifford Shaw’s two life histories: The Jack Roller: A Delinquent Boy’s Own Story and The Natural History of a Delinquent Career. The Chicago School was noted for a combination of different methods, although life histories and other personal documents are the least commonly used today.

The Institutionalization of Sociology

Chicago dominance in sociology relied on close collaboration among faculty and between faculty and graduate students. The team-player approach to sociology was an intentional objective. Scott E.W. Bedford, a departmental faculty member from 1911 to 1925, was refused salary increases by Small because he was not a team player, did not support the ASS, and refused to team-teach with Burgess.

The Chicago School combined three broad types of sociological method: (1) the case study which was descriptive of the “whole;” (2) the historical method which included the use of autobiographies, diaries, and personal letters; and (3) the statistical method which provided measurement. There was a sequence in the use of methods during the process of a research project. Existing statistical data, historical narratives, and descriptive accounts were first examined. Then case studies, were conducted in the form of observation, research interview, or diary. Historical methods were used to understand the traditions and past of the group. Finally, statistical analyses were run with case study results. The emphasis on complimentary research methods was characteristic of the Chicago School, reflecting an openness to different approaches and a focus on high quality research.

Burgess was a leader in the use of quantitative methods; he was especially known for his use of spot maps. Plotting cases of social phenomena on a map according to the locality in which they occur is a type of statistical procedure for classifying large numbers of cases.(66) Census data was also important; Burgess is considered the father of modern census tract statistics. Despite the quantitative emphasis of Burgess, it was not until the arrival of William F. Ogburn from Columbia in 1927 that altered the balance of hard and soft research methods in the department. Ogburn was an impressive teacher and had a considerable impact on sociology graduate students.

The quantitative methods used at Chicago were interdisciplinary. Samuel Stouffer, one of Ogburn’s star students, was a strong proponent of statistical methodology and went on to Harvard to introduce quantitative sociology there. Ogburn and L.L. Thurstone were creating statistical and psychometric laboratories such as Harper had envisioned for the physical sciences. Although the department became much more quantitative in the later 1920s, qualitative sociology was not abandoned. The quantitative perspective did not dominate. Chicago was pretty well balanced. Herbert Blumer, Everett Hughes, and later, Morris Janowitz favored case studies. This attention on qualitative methodology could be traced back to Charles H. Cooley who maintained that measurement was but a single example of precision. Burgess always attempted to play the arbitrator in methodological arguments.

Until the 1930s, Chicago social sciences had strong interdisciplinary links. Park, Mead, and Thomas could command an audience across departments of the University. Sociology was impacted by other academic disciplines. Jacques Loeb, a Chicago biologist, influenced Park and Thomas. Park applied biology to his study of the city of Chicago. He applied the research on ant societies by Loeb to the processes of social control and communication in human societies. The social sciences at Chicago shared the same building until World War II; there was a great deal of interdisciplinary contact among faculty. Chicago sociology did not reach hegemony alone; it was part of a collective enterprise shared by several departments of social science, including economics, political science, and psychology.

It is conceivable that there were interdisciplinary rivalries developing at Chicago between sociology and the other social sciences. They competed for salary increases, grant money, federal contracts, prestige, political power, community appointments, national scholar awards, and office and classroom facilities on campus.

The University was able to maintain a collaborative thrust with which its early rivals could not compete. Clark University, an early intellectual powerhouse, decline rapidly. Johns Hopkins also underwent a relative decline while Chicago peaked. Harvard established a sociology department in 1931 under Pitrim Sorokin; still their faculty could not compete with Chicago. Finally, the American Journal of Sociology was a prestigious outlet for reporting research results. The ability and means of disseminating such information is an important component of a School.

The Decline of the Chicago School

The Chicago School of sociology began to decline after Park’s departure in 1934. There was a failure to produce an outstanding successor to Park as the School’s leader. This may be due, in part, to the eclecticism of research methods. Without a strong leader, the character of the Department soon changed. The methodological diversity that was once a blessing became a curse. Park and Burgess were the only departmental faculty substantially involved with graduate students. Perhaps it was their personal style of mentoring and guidance that attracted graduate students.

Park’s departure left a tremendous void in the department. Burgess was unable to carry the School by himself. He did not possess great leadership capacity; moreover, Park’s intellectual stimulation was sorely missed. Park’s charisma and bold personality encouraged intellectual production; however, it may have also limited a transition to a successful successor. The fact that other sociology faculty were not more fully involved with graduate students probably contributed to the decline of the School. It is possible that it was simply a pragmatic intra-institutional issue that prevented more faculty from advising graduate students.

The decline was also hastened by a lack of cumulative progress in quality empirical research. The scientific research program of Chicago became static, not dynamic. There was a failure to link particular studies to abstract generalization and a unified theoretical framework.

Park moved to Nashville, Tennessee after he retired in 1934. Meanwhile, Chicago sociology, lacked the momentum that Park had given with his guidance and leadership. His ideas were creative and penetrating; the School missed his intellectual synthesis and critical evaluation of social thought. In addition, the new mixture of faculty in the late 1930s did not gel like before. The quality of graduate students, with the notable exceptions of Everett Hughes and Samuel Stouffer, was low; perhaps students had grown too dependent on Park.

The Great Depression of the 1930s resulted in a crisis in the academic job market. The role of the professional sociologist was undergoing a significant transformation. It was a period more concerned with far-reaching national problems than local issues. Columbia faculty, for example, were not focused on local problems in New York. The national economy, industrial development, and global security took precedence over deviant life styles in Chicago. There was ferocious defense of political democracy. Later there was also rapid transformation of the international community through organizations such as The International Court of Law in the Hague and the United Nations.

Qualitative case studies on deviant subcultures came to be viewed as less relevant than statistical analyses of macro units of analyses such as institutions. The United States was becoming increasingly involved with international issues such as geopolitics, military alliances, and global security. It is no coincidence that the time frame of the hegemonic status of Chicago Sociology appears to be sandwiched between two World Wars.

There seemed to be a greater need for applied knowledge than knowledge for the sake of pure science or theory. The new methods of survey research were better designed for examining the effects of the Depression on the impact of mass communication than field research or aggregate statistical data.

After 1945, Columbia and Harvard rivaled or surpassed Chicago sociology in terms of faculty production, faculty quality, and graduate training. The ASS cut ties with the AJS and set up a new, competitive journal, the American Sociological Review.

The decline has to be expected considering the cyclical nature of social change. Just as individuals are born, develop, grow old and die, epicenters of creativity and scientific leadership are created, rise, peak, and finally decline. Cycles take place in most of social life, including institutional dominance and decline, and departments of sociology are not immune to that.

The Chicago School of sociology developed a niche in demography and institutional analysis, leaving behind a changed orientation to sociology, graduate training, and empirical research.

Summary and Conclusions

Although the Chicago School of sociology peaked over sixty years ago, it has continued to influence current sociology through its contributions to field research, participant observation, urban sociology, and social psychological or intersubjective features of social organization and social processes. Yet the quantitative emphasis of the Chicago School has been largely forgotten. The School was noted for its synthesis of general theory and first-hand empirical research. Chicago sociology was also characterized by the pursuit of a broad scientific research program, meshed with a concern to generalize and theorize about social processes. The University stressed research and standards of scholarship and publication. Attention was given to training graduate students in research, not undergraduate education.

The heart of a School is its leader and founder. Robert Park was the key figure in the history of the Chicago School; after his retirement, the School rapidly declined. This was conceivably inevitable since schools typically do not last beyond the generation of their founders. Yet leadership was shared by Park and Thomas in the early years, and then by Park and Burgess, after the dismissal of Thomas from the University. These individuals in leadership positions complimented each other. For example, Park provided a loose framework for research in his essay, “The City,” from which Burgess elaborated and developed the theory of concentric zones.

The Chicago School maintained a strong cooperative spirit. But was the Chicago group open or closed? Does a School require uncritical acceptance by the disciplines of their leader’s view? The School was characterized by anti-dogmatism and openness. Students were not forced to reproduce the perspectives of their teacher. In fact, creative, critical thinking was encouraged, and even demanded, of students. Albion Small created the conditions for the hegemonic status which Chicago sociology later enjoyed, but it was not until W.I. Thomas brought Park to Chicago that the School began to develop.

Strong financial backing contributed to the rise of the School. The role of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial during the 1920s was a major innovation which accompanied the academic transformation of the social sciences. The use of private foundations for scholarly research have been criticized as a instrument by means of which private capitalistic enterprises and entrepreneurs exercise domination over intellectual life. There was, however, no evidence of this linked to the Memorial. In fact, John D. Rockefeller Jr. bent over backwards to avoid influencing the direction and the affairs of the University. This was perhaps another reason for the long period of dominance of the social sciences at Chicago. The insistence of the financial supporters at Clark University to participate in the day-to-day decision-making processes probably hastened the rapid decline there.

While the Schools approach to the development of the social sciences was criticized for placing a check on creative, individual scholarship, the team concept to social research was paying dividends. Chicago became the leading center in the social sciences in the 1920s. Park and Burgess made lasting contributions in the areas of urban sociology, race-ethnic relations, criminology, and social problems. The Chicago School of sociology demonstrated that empirical research could be integrated into an academic discipline, as opposed to being pursued outside academia, as in the social survey movement.

In 1915, under Small, the Department of Sociology still was encased in its 19th century cocoon. But during the 1920s, under the leadership of Park and Burgess, sociology began to transform into its modern form. Chicago sociology made it clear that social theorists must answer to empirical sociologists. The School may best be remembered for its collective commitment to research excellence, the synthesis between theory and research, and its intellectual and methodological diversity.

The vigor and creativity of the Chicago School cannot be understood without consideration of certain factors: its reaction to social and technological trends which seemed to call out for sociological expertise in the 1920s; the intellectual power of its explanatory scheme; the academic setting which demanded teaching, research and public service; and the unusual and supportive relationships existing between sociologists and other professional groups with whom they had contact during this period.

I believe that the Chicago School was an open system. It attracted a wide variety of faculty and graduate students. It was free from the dogmatism of religious schools and the elitism of Ivy League schools. It certainly was open to the influence of other disciplines and to the local issues. It did not shy away from controversy. Even with the enormous success of its qualitative sociology, the Chicago School remained committed to all types of analysis and diversified methodologically. The arrival of Ogburn demonstrated that the Chicago School was willing to approach scholastic excellence from all angles. Besides Ogburn, Burgess, Thurstone, and Stouffer were leaders in quantitative methods.

Graduate students were encouraged to think on their own and to develop their own particular research interests. Uncritical acceptance of faculty positions generally did not occur. Faculty supervision of graduate student research provided rigorous training which resulted in quality work. Internal criticism and refereeing were very strong. The core group of teacher-scholars at Chicago were able to develop a sense of community among faculty and students.

Was the Chicago School’s frequent publications in its own journal, the AJS, and by the University of Chicago Press, an attempt to bypass criticism by external referees in other areas? Perhaps constructive critique could best be provided from within the School. Why should top quality work not be afforded the outlet of a prestigious press and a journal which was at the cutting edge of the discipline? Faris has called the period of Chicago hegemony the most important single episode in the history of American sociology.

The fact that several disciplines reached hegemonic status at Chicago suggests that a Chicago School of Sociology may have emerged without Park. There is a sense of idolatry regarding Park. Recall that Burgess influenced methodology and Thomas influenced theory more than Park. In retrospect, they may deserve just as much credit as Park. It should be argued, nevertheless, that Park’s leadership capabilities flourished in spite of the intensive, yet healthy, intellectual rivalry within the department. This points us to the intangible positive attributes of Park that are so characteristic of a School’s leader.

One of the reasons for the decline of Chicago Sociology was institutional competition. Other departments of sociology, most notably at Harvard and Columbia, were starting to assert themselves as national powers. Like Chicago, Columbia was also pretty well balanced between quantitative and qualitative perspectives, with Lynd and McIver in field research and political sociology respectively, which continued with Lazarsfeld and Merton. Columbia developed a hegemonic position in political sociology, with most of today’s main figures in political sociology (e.g., Linz and Lipset) who received their graduate training at Columbia. It is noteworthy that both Columbia and Chicago experienced a period of institutional decline (Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s, Columbia more recently).

Several key questions remain. What are the most important characteristics of a School? Why was there not more involvement by Chicago sociology faculty, with the exception of Park and Burgess, with graduate students? Can you have a School with only a couple of faculty that are training students in the scientific research program? How do you define hegemony? How does one date the decline of the School?–by a loss of creativity at the center, or the passing of the School’s graduates from influence elsewhere? A measure of institutional dominance and decline in a discipline would be an important contribution to the social sciences.

What about the occurrence of four Chicago trained sociologists who became consecutive presidents of the ASA from 1968-1971? Does this indicate a revitalization of Chicago sociology? Chicago is currently ranked second among sociology–graduate programs–behind the University of Wisconsin (Madison). Finally, where will the next hegemonic School of sociology be? What will be the social conditions that permit an area of intellectual creativity to become the next epicenter of modernity?

This article suggests how knowledge, scientific activities, and academic disciplines are socially situated and driven through an empirical investigation of the social origin and development of the Chicago School of Sociology. The School contributed significantly to the scientific community’s collectively negotiated social order. The Chicago School, as an open, cooperative, interdisciplinary supportive environment of intellectual and methodological eclecticism, is a paradigm to be emulated.