Chicago School of Sociology Research Paper Starter

Chicago School of Sociology

This paper examines the beginnings of the "Chicago School" of sociology, the founding of the University of Chicago's Department of Sociology. This historical overview is intended to show the historical setting and philosophical inclinations of the early school, and to introduce the key individuals behind the department. The history also establishes the relationships between the founders and the practitioners who carried on the development of the department, and to briefly explore the history of the school's theoretical development by examining the basic differences between a Behaviorist and Symbolic Interactionist theoretical approach. Next, the paper examines the definition of "school" and presents arguments from various researchers that demonstrate an ongoing debate about what the "Chicago School" actually means. Finally, basic conclusions that can be drawn from the history, theory, and debate of the definition of "Chicago School," and comments on the Chicago School's influence in the field of sociology are offered.

Keywords American Journal of Sociology (AJS); Behaviorism; Chicago School of Sociology; Empiricism; Ethnography; Fieldwork; National Opinion Research Center (NORC); Society for Social Research (SSR); Symbolic Interactionism; Urban Sociology

Population, Urbanization


The Chicago School of Sociology

The University of Chicago was founded in 1892 and from its inception the University formed the first separate Department of Sociology in the world. The fact that it was the first independent sociology department likely contributed to the department's need to establish a well-contemplated approach to the field, and to develop what could clearly be considered a departmental program. Cortese (1995) notes that the political and philosophical underpinnings in American society at the time were strongly liberal, and this caused the new department to immediately become more concentrated on addressing "social problems" (¶ 12) which probably made theory development a lower priority. Cortese also observes that, in addition to the liberal philosophy permeating the newly founded university, Christianity and the particular values of late 1800's Christian society influenced the development of the new Chicago sociology department. He supports that argument with the interesting observation that four of the first professors — including the founder of the department, Albion Woodbury Small — were all Christian ministers. A.W. Small chaired the new department for its first thirty years, so it is quite likely that the department was influenced with a Christian sense of values and morality.

Cortese asserts that Small did not distinguish between sociology and religious values, and this was probably the main reason that the department was so closely linked to social welfare (Cortese, 1995, ¶ 21). This period in America is concurrent with the Victorian era in England, a period when, in the cities burgeoning from the industrial revolution, a prosperous middle class emphasized the virtues of morality and education, and various social reforms became popular. Thus, from its inception, reform-oriented Christian liberals guided Chicago University's Department of Sociology, and they focused on analyzing and addressing problems in American society from a moral point of view. Their studies were aimed at advising government policymakers toward developing programs that would help decrease poverty, illiteracy, child labor, delinquency, alcoholism or other social ills.

Once the department had become established, it entered a new phase of its development, mainly because of two professors, American sociologist Robert Park and Canadian sociologist Ernest Burgess. These two worked closely together and created a work entitled "The City," and this book essentially formed the foundation of the "Chicago School." According to Burns (1996), both professors believed that the field of sociology should be moved more toward an experimental science, meaning some of the moral and Christian premises underlying sociology should be replaced with a more empirical method (p. 476). Faught (1980) clarifies this philosophical shift of Park's seminal work, "The City," when he argues that Park formulated his sociological concepts empirically "to provide a critical stimulus to legitimating what came to be the Chicago School Paradigm." Faught quotes another important figure in the Chicago School, Everett Hughes, whom Park mentored. Hughes recounts the effect of Park's "The City:"

Not long after its publication Small called the faculty of the several departments of social science together and proposed that they all work on a common project — the city — and that they start their work at home. With support from a foundation, this in fact became a programme (Hughes, cited in Faught, 1980, p. 74).

The City as Social Laboratory

Burns notes that both Burgess and Park encouraged their students to perceive Chicago as a "social laboratory" where sociologists could carry out their studies, research or experiments (Burns, 1996, p. 476). Harvey notes that, during this same period, the department created the Society for Social Research (SSR — organized in autumn, 1921), and that the organization's mission was to gather students and staff so as to develop research projects. According to Harvey, who quotes Park, the SSR was originally founded to "stimulate a wider interest and a more intelligent co-operation among faculty and students in a program of studies that focused investigation on the local community" (Harvey, 1987, p. 257). Thus, the principle of using the city of Chicago as a large sociological laboratory began with Park, and was further developed through the inception of the SSR.

Cortese gives an interesting summary of Park's personality, and the description seems relevant when considering what kind of sociology Park was engaged in at the University of Chicago. Park, who graduated from the University of Michigan in 1887, worked over a decade as a newspaper reporter in various large cities around America — New York, Detroit, Denver, Baltimore, and Chicago. Cortese writes that Park "often roamed urban streets without specific assignment and became enamored with degenerate environments," and that "newspaper assignments … sent him to gambling houses and opium dens that first sparked Park's interest in sociology" (Cortese, 1995, ¶ 37). Thus, Park seems to have understood the importance of observing humanity rather than formulating theories to apply to humanity; his sociological theories were probably guided and formulated through observing people. On the other hand, we should recognize that many of these founding professors, as well as those who most influenced the School, either studied in Germany (like Park) or applied German philosophy and German sociological theory. Thus, theory certainly was not altogether ignored or completely replaced by Christian liberal philosophy, as might seem the case.

Theory in the Chicago School seems to have developed by first analyzing people and the institutions of society. Cortese notes that Park had a tendency to analyze the larger schemes of "revolution, anarchism, crowds, collective behavior, geography, peasants, cities, race relations, and human ecology," and Cortese believes that Park's personality "cannot be overlooked as factors which made him the leader and key figure of the Chicago School" (Cortese, 1995, ¶ 48). Park's fascination with people, from both a social and philosophical standpoint, is probably why the department carried out a lot of research and studies that were about "race and ethnicity, intergroup relations, immigration into American society, and the social problems of urban areas, notably Chicago" (Cortese, 1995, ¶ 51). Harvey observes that, whenever researchers have written about the Chicago "School" of Sociology, Park is usually in the center of the discussion; in fact, what some authors have referred to as the "Golden Era" of the Chicago School is precisely the period in which Park worked within the department. This is why Harvey notes that, "One way of describing the 'school' has been to simply link together the faculty in the Department at the time Park was a member" (Harvey, 1987, p. 261).

During this period, there seems to have been tension in developing the right theoretical approach for sociology. On the one hand there was the fact that sociology is focused on people and societies, which requires observation and interpretation of human behavior. On the other hand there is the desire to be based in objective science and a quantitative scientific method. During this period, the theory of Behaviorism was under development, and Behaviorism is a strongly inductive and data driven approach to human behavior. It may be that the Chicago School was faced with either accepting the tenets of Behaviorism as its theoretical approach, or rejecting it by developing a different theoretical foundation.

The "New" Chicago School

We have already seen the characteristics of the early period as well as the "Golden Era"; from those phases many researchers believe that a "New Chicago School" came into being in the 1950s, and this new school flourished for the next two decades. According to Harvey, this new school was not solely based in Chicago, although that is its source. This is an important point because this distinguishes between "school" as a place and "school' as a set of particular theories and methods to which some group subscribes. Harvey (1987) writes that the New Chicago School arose from a "post-war cohort of graduate students at Chicago, such as Becker and his associates who were heavily influenced by [Everett] Hughes" (p. 267). This new school attempted to change the direction of research away from a strictly "quantitative approach to sociology." Harvey notes that the new generation of sociologists (such as Hughes) thought that a quantitative approach was creating "theoretical sterility of sociology." The New Chicago School concentrated on creating a "systematic, open and empirical approach to theory construction." According to Harvey, this allowed the new generation of academicians to "take into account the richness of social reality while adopting rigorous sociological method" (1987, p. 267). It seems sociologists at Chicago believed that Behaviorism — a strict application of objective science on human beings — might deprive them of interpreting human behavior and society to create a more fruitful body of research. However, the...

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