Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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Chicago School (of Sociology)

core definition

Chicago School is a term that has been applied to a number of groupings and theoretical tendencies in the social sciences. There have been Chicago Schools of economics, politics, philosophy, psychology, law and, probably most famously, sociology.

explanatory context

In each case, the Chicago School has been a reconstruction in which a particular style of working and/or theoretical perspective has retrospectively been applied to a group of practitioners at, or associated with, the University of Chicago.

The Chicago School of Sociology


The Chicago School of Sociology is probably the most famous of the Chicago Schools. However, there are a number of different constructions of the ‘Chicago School’ that cover a wide span of time and focus on different aspects of the institutional context and work undertaken by the Chicagoans.

Various different designations of the Chicago School exist, which is ironic given that most of the practitioners who were supposed to be part of these schools failed to see themselves as belonging to a ‘school’.

The assumption among historians and sociologists of sociology is that there was a ‘Chicago School’ of sociology and that it had a considerable bearing on the development of American sociology during the first half of the twentieth century. However, the exact nature of the ‘school’ and the impact it had are not clearly defined. Indeed, there is considerable debate as to whether or not the Chicagoans ever constituted a school in the metascientific sense.


Designations of the Chicago School of Sociology


The Chicago School of Sociology has a number of different meanings. For some commentators the Chicago School is limited to the major practitioners in the period from 1892 (the founding of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology) to 1933 (the retirement of Robert Park). The period around 1918 to around 1930 is regarded as the ‘Golden Era’ of the school.

For others who adopt the historical perspective, a number of generations of Chicagoans are identified.

Others see the school as concerned with urban sociology, others that it was a school of symbolic interactionism and still others that it was a school of ethnography.

The Golden Era

The Golden Era designation tends towards a view that the period from 1915 to 1933, the period of Park’s tenure, was the era of the classic ‘Chicago School’. This period is often identified as being the time when the ‘School’ was most active in its empirical enquiry, and, during which time, its more famous studies were produced. Indeed, many discussions of the ‘Chicago School’ really only see the school as operative in terms of the work carried out in the 1920s and early 1930s, particularly that guided by Park and Burgess.

A more detailed account of the development of interactionism at Chicago is outlined below

The Four Generations

Three and sometimes four generations of the Chicago School are identified. The first generation consists of the tenured staff and their students up to 1914, principally Small, Henderson, Thomas and Vincent. These are seen as the founders of a ‘Chicago Approach’ in the sense of promoting empirical enquiry and concentrating attention on the city of Chicago.

The second generation usually includes Park, Burgess, Ellsworth Faris and, in some accounts, William Ogburn. These four staff members and their students are seen as developing empirical study of social phenomena and developing social theory.

The third generation were principally graduates who, often after a short absence, returned to Chicago and became tenured. Notable here are Blumer, Wirth, Hughes and Stouffer.

The fourth generation again tended to be students of the third generation, but often developed much of their sociology away from Chicago. Becker, Strauss, Goffman and Janowitz are among the most clearly identified members of the fourth generation Chicagoans.

The ‘Chicago School of Symbolic Interactionism’

The development of symbolic interactionism is closely linked to the ‘Chicago School’. A number of different varieties of symbolic interactionism have been identified of which the Blumerian or ‘Chicago School’ approach is seen as of major importance.

‘The Chicago School of Urban Studies’

The Chicago School has been often linked with the development of urban sociology because of all the empirical studies that were done of Chicago and because of the theoretical contributions of the Chicagoans to that particular subdiscipline.

‘The Chicago School of Ethnography’

American sociology is often viewed as encompassing a methodological divide. The division into qualitative and quantitative camps is often linked to institutional affiliation, with Chicago as the champion of ethnography and the Columbia School as the flag-bearer of quantitative approaches.

The New Chicago School

There were claims towards the ned of the 20th Century that a ‘New Chicago School’ emerged in the 1950s and flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. In the main, this new school was not based at Chicago although it derived from there. The ‘New Chicago School’ is much the same as the ‘late Chicago School’ or the ‘labelling theorists’ of the ‘Chicago School’. This is primarily the work of Becker, Geer, Strauss, the later work of Hughes and his students, and the emergence of the ‘dramaturgical approach’ found in Goffman, Duncan and Burke (Littlejohn, 1977; Dotter, 1980). This idea of a new school tends to disengage the ‘fourth generation’ Chicagoans from their earlier heritage while at the same time looking to Chicago to provide a heritage for ethnographic work.


Myths of the Chicago School

The varied designations of the ‘Chicago School’ constructed as a result of different academic endeavours have lead to the emergence of a number of taken-for-granted conceptions of the school. These conceptions have taken on the character of myths. Five principle myths can be identified. They overlap and are, to some extent, contradictory. These five myths are:

(1) that Chicago sociologists were primarily social ameliorists, sympathising with Progressive or liberal ideas and concerned to resolve social problems.

(2) that Chicago sociology was dogmatically qualitative and had no interest in quantitative techniques of social research and, indeed, were openly hostile toward them.

(3) that Chicago sociology had no strong theoretical orientation and its work, in the main, constituted a descriptive exercise. Such theories as it did produce were little more than ideal-type models (notably the ‘concentric zone’ thesis) with little explanatory power.

(4) that Chicago sociology is closely associated with symbolic interactionism and dominated by the epistemological perspective of G. H. Mead.

(5) that the ‘Chicago School’ dominated American sociology until the mid-1930s and then went into decline and became isolated mainly because it retained an old fashioned, unscientific, approach to sociology.

Harvey (1986, 1987) exploded these myths but some of them persist in poorly-researched accounts of the Chicago School.

See also Harvey's review of Martin Bulmer's (1984) The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity and the Rise of Sociological Research.

analytical review

The University of Chicago (undated) provides the following history:

Chicago's tradition in sociology is both a unique history and a current commitment. The department has reconstituted itself many times over its 110-year history, yet has retained a similar character through its transitions. Members of today's department–faculty and students alike–consider themselves not only heirs of the earlier Chicago schools of sociology, but also as part of a community charged with recreating the Chicago vision for a new generation.

The Department was founded in 1892 on the appointment of Albion Small as Head Professor of Sociology. Himself a researcher on the histories of institutions and schools of thought, Small played a central role in creating sociology as an academic discipline. He founded the American Journal of Sociology and edited it for thirty years. At the same time he helped found and manage the American Sociological Association. Small was also deeply involved with social reform, a tradition that has continued throughout the department's history.
Small's colleagues and successors included W. I. Thomas, Robert Park, and Ernest Burgess. With Florian Znaniecki, Thomas wrote one of the century's definitive sociological studies–The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. Park and Burgess together wrote an influential textbook and trained an extraordinary group of students in the 1920s and early 1930s. As theorists, Park and Burgess emphasized process and change rather than fixed social structure, an emphasis that has characterized much Chicago work since their time. As methodologists, Park and Burgess insisted on eclecticism, another emphasis that has endured. As empirical workers, Park and Burgess transformed studies of the city and its social institutions. The new sociological empiricism was added into Park and Burgess's approach with the arrival of William Ogburn at Chicago in 1927, which inaugurated a local debate over methodology–often impassioned but always respectful–that continues in the department to this day.

Park and Burgess's era–that of the first Chicago School–was succeeded after the Second World War by a second Chicago School. A generation of brilliant students studied with Everett Hughes, Lloyd Warner, and Herbert Blumer, learning the now-classic Chicago methods of urban ethnography and interpretive sociology. At the same time, however, newer types of sociology also found their place in the strongly eclectic department. Ogburn, Phillip Hauser, and later Leo Goodman trained young specialists in demography, human ecology, and the new quantitative methods, many of the latter in fact being developed by Chicago faculty and students.

The pattern of an eclectic department organized around a core value of intellectual intensity and (most of the time) intellectual respect was gradually entrenched over the 1960s. Demography continued to flourish under Hauser and Donald Bogue, ethnography under Morris Janowitz and later Gerald Suttles. Survey analysis had a golden era under Peter Rossi and others at NORC, the University's in-house survey operation. During the period 1970 to 1990, the department enjoyed an extraordinarily stable and productive period in which faculty shaped field after field in sociology. James Coleman in education, Gerry Suttles and Morris Janowitz in community studies, William Julius Wilson in studies of race, Hauser and later Douglas Massey in demography, Goodman in methodology, Edward Laumann in social structure and organization: all these gave definitive shape to important areas of sociology.

associated issues

Interactionism as an orientation for sociological enquiry was extensively developed at Chicago University. There seems to be fairly unanimous agreement among sociologists on this. Disagreement arises, however, when this development is analysed more closely.

What constitutes 'interactionism', when did it develop, who was instrumental in its development, what are its tenets and from where did they derive, are all contentious questions ?

Much of this debate can be sidestepped by drawing a distinction that reflects Blumer's position in labelling his own work as symbolic interactionist. Thus Blumer falls into a different camp to the majority of his contemporaries at Chicago and most of his predecessors. Although the distinction has become blurred there are identifiable differences between the interactionism as practiced by, for example, Thomas, Park, urgess, Wirth, Hughes, and the symbolic interactionism of Blumer and his 'disciples'.

Interactionism developed at Chicago (1910-1930) was, it is generally accepted, at the forefront of the transformation of sociology in the United States from a pragmatic moral philosophy to an empirical social science (albeit informed by pragmatism).

The switch from speculative theorising to inductive theoretical development, grounded in empirical evidence, was mediated by W.I.Thomas who provided the socio-psychological underpinnings of the empirical work that was to follow. He inherited the beginings of an empiricist tradition from Henderson and Abbott but was to play a major role in transforming it to a solidly theoretically based sociology.

By way of a reaction to grand speculative design and spurred on by his 'Progressive' sympathies, Albion Small had suggested that direct study of Chicago to reveal social problems would be appropriate. Small emphasised this approach to sociology more and more, referring to his Introduction to The Study of Society (1894, co-written with Vincent) as a laboratory manual, and in it set out subjects for study.

Thomas's theory of social change was stated most succinctly in his Source Book for Social Origins (1907) in which he espoused theory of social change and social psychology which, (along with G.H. Mead) developed the work of Cooley and Dewey. This book and the later empirical developments of the ideas in the Polish Peasant, were central in lifting U.S. sociology from 'social problem solving' to 'theoretical concerns'.

The thesis of social disorganisation was important as an orientation for early interactionist work. Social disorganisation explained stability as consistent attitudes and values inculcated by individuals that will both satisfy personal desires and provide outlets for action. However, there was nothing immutable about this stability. Indeed, on one level, as societies constantly changed, they were always disorganised to a certain extent. On another level, individuals, although constrained by social norms that shape the personality, were able to transcend the prevalent norms as and when they obstructed progress to a more comprehensive state of organisation. Temperament, therefore, played a part in the accommodation of the individual to the social milieu. This 'temperament' was embodied in Thomas's 'wishes'. These wishes initially response, recognition, security and new experience) were identified by Thomas as the motive force behind human action and moulded attitudes of individuals. This approach thus made social psychology an integral part of sociology. The legacy of Thomas's social psychological component is far-reaching. Thomas had dispensed with the organic view of individuals as products of a given environment who merely reacted to stimuli. He had provided a place in social action for conscious reflection. He had provided a breakthrough that transcended the assumptions of nineteenth century American sociology. Thomas had severely challenged the idea of basic or immutable forces as determinants of social action. He had not entirely dispensed with the idea, his 'wishes' hark back but their very name implies something indeterminable. Thomas stood at the crossroads of the challenge to immutable forces, the incorporation of conscious reflection shook the very foundation of the old preconception of original forces. He had, in effect, reasserted the 'ability of man to affect his own destiny'.

W.I. Thomas, in the Methodological Note to the Polish Peasant (1918) first confronted the inadequacies of social theory. The Note lays down a challenge to then current sociological practice and examines, in depth, methodological problems of a quite sophisticated nature, even by modern standards. The Polish Peasant study is not, as has often been implied, the embodiment of qualitative life history analysis, quite remote from concerns of structured causal explanation. On the contrary, Thomas states quite clearly

'The chief problems of modern science are problems of causal explanation. The determination and systematization of data is only the first step in a scientific investigation. If a science wishes to lay the foundation of a technique, it must attempt to understand and to control the process of becoming. Social theory cannot avoid this task, and there is only one way of fulfilling it. Social becoming, like natural becoming must be analysed into a plurality of facts, each of which represents a succession of cause and effect. The idea of social theory is the analysis of the totality of social becoming into such causal processes and a systematisation permitting us to understand the connections between these processes.' (Thomas & Znaniecki, 1918, p. 36).

The idea of the potential discovery of social laws was one that Thomas retained and one that was passed onto the Chicagoans who followed: but it was not a mechanistic analysis. Thomas did not accept that social activity was caused mechanistically at either a personal or social level. While accepting the conception of science embodied in physics, Thomas pointed out that by:

'following uncritically the example of the physical sciences, which always tend to find the one determined phenomenon whichis the necessary and sufficient condition of another phenomenon, social theory and social practice have forgotten to take into account one essential difference between physical and social reality, which is that, while the effect of a physical phenomenon depends exclusively on the objective nature of this phenomenon and can be calculated on the ground of the latter's empirical content, the effect of a social phenomenon depends in addition on the subjective standpoint taken by the individual or the group toward this phenomenon and can be calculated only if we know, not only the objective content of the assumed cause, but also the meaning which it has for the given conscious beings... A social cause... is a compound and must include both an objective and a subjective element, a value AND an attitude.' (Thomas & Znaniecki, 1918, p. 38)

This crucial distinction incorporating subjective meaning was developed in the Polish Peasant study through the value-attitude dichotomy. Attitudes involve a process of individual consciousness that 'determines real or possible activity of the individual in the social world'. Values are 'datum having an empirical content accessible to members of some social group and meaning with regard to which it is or may be an object of activity'. Social values are different from objects in as much as the latter have no meaning for human activity. The incorporation of meaning into the causal process is fundamental for Thomas and the interactionists who follow him at Chicago. Thomas analyses the relationship between attitude and value and the causal implications of both on social action . He concludes that if social control is to be attained through a knowledge of social laws then the core methodological principle that must be adhered to is that

'The cause of a social or individual phenomenon is never another social or individual phenomenon alone, but always a combination of a social and individual phenomenon.' (Thomas & Znaniecki, 1918, p. 44 original emphasised throughout),

For Thomas, only by applying the principle can social theory and social practice make headway in removing 'the difficulties with which they have struggled'.

'Our problem is therefore to find both the value and the pre-existing attitude upon which it has acted and get in their combination the necessary and sufficient cause of the new attitude' (Thomas & Znaniecki, 1918, p. 45).

The analysis of social activity in terms of values and attitudes implied, for Thomas, an holistic approach. Prefacing a position which C Wright Mills (1959) was to restate and expand in Sociological Imagination , Thomas argued that, in studying society, 'we go from the whole social context to the problem, and in studying the problem we go from the problem to the whole social context' (Thomas & Znaniecki, 1918, p.19) And, in such a procedure, Thomas claimed, one should proceed as if one knew nothing of the area, for the most usual illusion of science is that the scientist simply takes the facts as they are, without any methodological presuppositions and 'gets his explanation entirely a posteriori from pure experience' (Thomas & Znaniecki, 1918, p. 37). On the contrary, Thomas asserts, a fact is already an abstraction and what one must attempt is to develop this abstraction methodically rather than presume that the uncritical abstractions of common-sense are adequate. This systemmatic process of abstraction must be done because 'the whole theoretical concreteness cannot be introduced into science' (Thomas & Znaniecki, 1918, p. 19). It is necessary to propose scientific hypotheses and distinguish data that are important for the purpose of scientific generalisation. Each step of the investigation

'will bring with it new methodological problems - analysis of the complete concrete data into elements, systematisation of these elements, definition of social facts, establishing of social laws. All these stages of scientific procedure must be exactly and carefully defined if social theory is to become a science conscious of its own methods and able to apply them with precision' (Thomas & Znaniecki, 1918, pp. 1920)

Central to this endeavour, then, is the need to ensure that 'our facts must be determined in such a way as to permit of their subordination to general laws' (Thomas & Znaniecki, 1918, p. 37) for a fact that cannot be treated as a manifestation of a law (or several laws) cannot be explained by causal processes. Incipient upon this proposition, Thomas, predating Popper, further asserts a falsificationist principle. In noting the problem of generalising laws that are initially manifest in particular spheres, Thomas suggests that the social scientist assess the core concepts of the proposition embodied by the particular law and, should such concepts relate to other circumstances, present the law in general terms. The social scientist is therefore essentially in a position to make bold conjectures, but such conjectures must be refutable: and further, because of the ethical and moral consequences of the application of generalisable social laws by social practitioners it is necessary that

'besides using only such generalisations as can be contradicted by new experience [the scientist] must not wait until new experiences impose themselves on him by accident, but must search for them, must instigate a systematic method of observation. And, while it is only natural that a scientist in order to form an hypothesis and to give it some amount of probability has to search first of all for such experiences as may corroborate it, his hypothesis cannot be considered fully tested until he has made subsequently a systemmatic search for such experiences as may contradict it, and proved these contradictions to be only seeming, explicable by the interference of definite factors.'(Thomas & Znaniecki, 1918, p. 65).

Early interactionism, via the work of Thomas, involved a nomothetic view of sociology based on empiricism, but one mediated by a concern that mental capacities be incorporated. Individuals through 'attitudes' can transcend social values and indeed transform these attitudes. Causal relations need to take account of this.

To understand the social phenomena one needs to be able to explore the structural determination of action and the social psychological . This may best be done by concentrating on the individual case and relating the biography to its social constraints as manifest in social values. This reflects the much later view by C.W.Mills, although failing to provide any critique of social structure or seriously question the adequacy of nomological perspectives in science.

For Thomas, at least initially, the optimum approach to revealing the causal nature of the social world was to concentrate on life histories . These would reveal the processes which individual attitudes were mediated by social values, and vice versa. The life history approach was, however, problematic. First, it was cumbersome, requiring vast reources and enormous cooperation to collect. Second, it was retrospective and therefore suspect because of unconscious distortions of reconstruction. (Although, for the same reason possibly revealing of social phenomena, as the psychoanalytic case study is revealing of 'supressed causes' of 'disturbance'). Third, it was difficult to use for generalisation , thus not easy to align with nomothetic concerns.

Consequently, Thomas tended to approximate the life history in his work, and this became a hallmark of U.S. sociology for more than a decade. The approximations took the form of case studies of one sort or another. In his work on female delinquents (The Unadjusted Girl, 1924) he used court and social worker records. These case records provided a ready source of material for the elaboration of the theory of social disorganisation and accompanying thesis of 'wishes' in the particular area of delinquency. Such case records were abbreviated life histories that bore upon the issue at hand. (They were, of course, uncritical sources but the aim of qualitative research has not been with structural critique).

In their earlier, influential work on the problems of adjustment facing Polish immigrants to the United States, Thomas and Znaniecki had relied heavily on correspondence between Poles in the U.S. and in Poland. This data constituted a 'slice' of life history pertinent to the research area. The surrogate life histories encompased by the letters revealed the personal attitudes and social values to which they responded. Thomas was, then, concerned primarily with the attitude-value relationship rather than with a particular method. Later, as attitude testing became more sophisticated he raised no objection to it provided it could generate the information required.

Other interactionists reflected Thomas' concerns, notably Park. His was an attempt at a 'value neutral' sociology, which while questioning social values made no attempt at a structural critique. Park is notorious for his development of empirical study in Chicago, especially through the work he encouraged his students to undertake. But he demanded that all such work be related to the 'Big Picture' of the society rather than an end in itself. This reflects the interactionist concern with close scrutiny of larger social processes, and is quite at variance with the later developments in the qualitative tradition (especially much of symbolic interactionism) that put a premium on exposing group, rather than societal processes. Park advocated a kind of scientific journalism, an enquiry that sought out the detail and dug behind the 'masks' worn by social actors. In this he was influenced, as he admits, by William James. He turned his skills as an investigative journalist to the study of social processes, and insisted that research should dig beneath the surface appearances, that researchers should do more than get their 'hands dirty' grubbing around in archives and libraries, that statistics , while a useful shorthand, were insufficient in themselves as they were divorced from the real social processes. One needed to go beyond the bare bones of statistics and flesh them out with qualitative detail. In short, statistics could not provide the insights of close observation and contact with the research area. The researcher needed to be part of the social milieu being investigated, to get to grips with it, to empathise. Observation, informal interviews, contemporary documentation, (from letters to newspapers) all provided a means to gather information while also being a part of the research area. This did not mean that 'formal devices' such as questionnaires , were disqualified, nor that participant observation became the only genuine method. While it is true that Park distrusted simple statisical accounts he was not dogmatically opposed to statistical analyses (as some commentators have implied). He encouraged Charles Johnson, as co-director of the Chicago Commission on Race Relations to investigate the Race Riot of 1919 using statistical techniques and himself employed a mixture of case study and statistical analyses in the 1925 West Coast Survey of Japanese immigrants. Indeed, as part of this study Park encouraged Bogardus to produce a quantitative indicator of social distance, which led to the Bogardus Social Distance Scale.

Indeed, participant observation in the modern sense was not a method widely adopted at Chicago until much later (1940s).

Park's work, and that of his students, did not, however, conflict with nomothetic concerns despite its empathetic emphasis. Park was not a 'Verstehen' or phenomenological sociologist, although his period of study under Simmel had informed his approach. Park never developed an epistemology that detached explanation from understanding, and while sceptical of the possibility of quantifying social phenomena and their interrelationships and thus of elaborating causal relationships, he never forsook the nomological premise of social science. Park's approach was the elaboration of observable phenomena within a Big Picture, relying heavily on an underlying social disorganisation thesis. Contextualisation, rather than 'verstehen' was central to this endeavour, with life history, recorded interview or case study in one form or another being relevant to this contextualising process. So too, was history . History was a major element in early interactionist work. It was part of the 'structualisation' process. It rooted empirical enquiry in a wider sphere. It was essential to Big Picture research. History was a part of the contextualising process. Sometimes the historical work remained as the completed thesis (for example, Edwards' study of Revolutions) other times it constituted a large part of the finished study (e.g. With's study of the 'Ghetto', 1926) while at other times it merely traced the history of a short-term institution in outline form (for example, Cressey's 'Taxi Dance Hall'). For Park, to ignore the historical context was to conjure up a Big Picture out of thin air.

related areas

See also




symbolic interactionism

Researching the Real World Section–4


Bulmer, M., 1984, The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity and the Rise of Sociological Research. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Harvey, L., 1987, Myths of the Chicago School, Aldershot, Avebury.

Harvey, L., 1986, 'Myths of the Chicago School', Quality and Quantity, 1986, 20(23), pp. 191217, available at papers/Harvey1986mythsofchicago.pdf

University of Chicago, undated, Sociology: history and culture available at, accessed 1 February 2013, page not available 14 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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