Chicago School

The Chicago School refers to the work of authors associated with the University of Chicago, especially during the period 1915–35. Their main focus was urban sociology and they used the city of Chicago as a social laboratory, because, at that time, Chicago was one of the biggest cities in the USA with a wide variety of social problems (crime, delinquency, homelessness, class strife, etc.), and populated with people of various ethnic and racial background. This group of scientists pioneered the use of new empirical, qualitative, and quantitative, research methods. With the use of new methods came a new theoretical approach that members of the Chicago School wanted to apply to wider society.

Some of the most notable members of this group were: Robert E. Park, Edward Burgess, Franklin Edward Frazier, William Ogburn, Lloyd Ohlin, Robert Redfield, Shaw Clifford, Woodbury Albion Small, Edwin Sutherland, William Isaac Thomas, Frederic Milton Thrasher, Louis Wirth, Nels Anderson, and Florian Znaniecki. During the same time, a group of female authors and activists also worked in Chicago and were influenced by the theoretical and empirical approach of the Chicago School: Edith Abbott, Jane Addams, and Sophonisba Preston Breckenridge.

                               Woodbury Albion Small

Small was the head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago from 1892 to 1924. Small is highly important for the institutionalization of sociology in the United States for several reasons: he was the first founder and head of a sociology department in the USA; he also published the first textbook of sociology – An Introduction to the Study of Society (1894); he was the founder and first editor of the first sociological journal in America - American Journal of Sociology; he was one of the founders of the American Sociological Society (which was founded in 1905), the first professional association of sociologists in the United States, of which he was president for two terms.

In addition to the above-mentioned activities, Small's merits for the development of sociology are reflected in the following contributions: introducing the American scientific public to the achievements of social sciences in Germany; development of sociological method; formulating the place of sociology within the field of other social sciences; insisting that sociology should be, in addition to theoretical, applied science that will contribute to the improvement of society. According to Small, sociology is a general science that should synthesize all knowledge from other specialized social sciences. He believed that the scientific character of sociology could be improved by developing objective and quantitative methods.

Small's theoretical views were most influenced by the works of Ratzenhofer and Marx's theory of class conflicts. The concept of "interest" has a very important place in Small's theory. He defines interests as: “the simplest modes of motion which we can trace in the conduct of human beings”. Interests are instilled in every individual. Small divided human interests into six groups: 1) the health interest (consisting of the interests of nutrition, sex, and work), 2) the wealth interest, 3) the interest of socializing, 4) the interest of cognition, 5) the aesthetic interest, 6) the interest moral upliftment.

Within one person, but also society, there is a constant struggle between these different interests. All human activities can be explained through one or a combination of several interests. Individuals sometimes have common and sometimes conflicting interests. In order to realize their interests, individuals unite in groups. Since its inception, the state has alleviated the conflicts of opposing groups by establishing rules of the contest for the realization of interests. The state also leads to the establishment of cooperation between citizens and an increase in the importance of higher types of interests. Small saw sociology as a science that deals with the study of the group basis of social life. Social groups act as the core of organized interests and thus form the basic units of the social process. The function of the social process is the realization of vital human interests.

                               Thomas and Znaniecki

Isaac Thomas conducted research, in collaboration with Polish sociologist Florian Znaniecki, on Polish peasants, that lasted four years, and the results of that research were published in the five-volume book The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920). The research began with the method of observation and conversation, and later institutional documents were used: 8000 documents from the archives of Polish newspapers, data from immigrant organizations, records of social agencies, police, and court reports, as well as documents from the Polish church community in Chicago. In addition to institutional documents,  personal documents were also extensively used – Thomas and Znaniecki placed an advertisement in a newspaper asking individuals to send them their personal letters, and in response, they received 15,000 letters, of which they selected 754 for publication; as well as a complete autobiography of the average immigrant of peasant origin.

Thomas is the main author of parts of the book concerning the theoretical framework, hypotheses, and conclusions of the research. Znaniecki wrote a part of the book that referred to the methodology used in the research but also wrote about the theoretical approach used in the research. The authors' approach was a synthesis of sociology and psychology, and social changes were at the center of the analysis. They saw social psychology as representing the application of individual psychology to collective phenomena. They believed that people's values ​​and attitudes were an integral part of their "definition of the situation" in which they found themselves.

Attitudes refer to the special organization of a person's response concerning a social situation, while the answer itself can be explicit or implicit. To understand attitudes, it is necessary to understand the values ​​that people have. Value is any form of activity of an individual, for which (activity) the meaning is socially determined. An individual's activity is a link between values ​​and attitudes. In that sense, social psychology studies all those attitudes that are important for the social organization of life and which are manifested in social activities. This science studies cultural attitudes, that is, rules of conduct that regulate active relationships between individuals themselves, but also between individuals and the group as a whole. Rules of conduct can take the form of customs, laws, ideals, etc., while institutions, such as family, community, tribe, and state, systematize these rules and they form the center of social organization.

The definition of the situation is created by the interaction of the objective environment and the subjective experience of people. The authors considered that individuals act towards the external environment by the meanings that that environment has for them. Definitions of the situation were individual, but the common cultural and religious heritage of Polish immigrants, on the one hand, and the shared experience of adapting to rapid social change and complicated integration in a new country, on the other, contributed to these definitions being very similar, hence, that definition of situation become common to the entire immigrant community. That is exactly how the mutual relationship between personality and culture came about. The focus was on psychological factors - the desire for recognition, and the need for security - as well as on institutions and organizations. Nomothetic social science is possible only if the entire social emergence is viewed as a product of the continuous interaction of individual consciousness and objective social reality. His theoretical approach is a combination of sociology and social psychology. The primary field of this science is the study of "attitudes" and "values".

Social groups at lower levels of cultural evolution tend to control all individual activities. At higher levels of cultural evolution, areas of culture appear that stand outside social regulation and no longer have a direct impact on the survival or coherence of society. Sociology as a science should study only those cultural areas that are important for social organization. Sociology, in Thomas' conception of it, is a narrower science than social psychology and is encompassed by it. Thomas believes that the role of social psychology is to be a methodological center of sociological interest, but also an auxiliary science to other special social sciences. The basic methodological principle is that individual and social phenomena are caused by a combination of these phenomena, that is, one value and one attitude are never independent but exist in combination with each other. In society, there is a constant interaction between objective social consciousness and individual consciousness. In that sense, every social phenomenon represents a dual relationship of interaction between already existing social values ​​and individual attitudes that influenced those values. Thomas' approach is to focus on the complicated relationship of "social organization" with individuals.

                        Robert Park and Edward Burgess

Robert Park was one of the founders of Chicago School. His theoretical approach was influenced by the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer, the formal sociology of Simmel and Tönnies, the theoretical approach of Isaac W. Thomas and Znaniecki, the interactionist social psychology of Herbert Mead, and John Dewey's pragmatism. In his works, Park studied problems of urban sociology and racial and ethnic relations. He and Burgess jointly published two books that are key to the formation of the Chicago School of Urban Sociology - Introduction to the Science of Sociology (1921) and The City (1925). These two books laid the theoretical and methodological foundations for the study of urban social phenomena. Park viewed sociology as a "natural science" that should study the relationships and processes that take place between different communities in society.

Influenced by Simmel's teaching, Park adopted the view that social interaction should be viewed as a key sociological category. Social interaction has four main forms: contact, conflict, accommodation, and assimilation. There are always relations of "dominance" in society, that is, there are always one or more communities in society that are dominant. The relations of dominance and cooperation follow the rules of "succession", the most important of which are those that exist between different urban zones, each of which has a different function and demographic composition. Simmel's sociology also influenced Park's concept of social distance. Park saw a Jew, an immigrant, a homeless man, and a "marginal man" as examples of what Simmel defined through the concept of "foreigner".

Park formulated his sociological approach known as "human ecology". The city is a product of human nature, a state of mind (attitudes and feelings) that is maintained through customs and traditions. Human ecology is a science that studies the action of forces that, within the natural area of ​​human habitation in the city, lead to the creation of typical groups of individuals and institutions. The city represents the unity of moral, natural, and ecological order. A city is a place of the creation of a new moral order. The city shattered the traditional moral order and led to the creation of a new order based on individual freedom and solidarity and based on common interests. The main natural factors that affect human ecology are: the physical and administrative division of the city into urban areas, traffic and communication technologies, and the economy based on the division of labor.

Due to the social and technical division of labor city is going through changes: specialization and rationalization of activities, creation of professions and professional organizations, and the growing predominance of secondary over primary relations between individuals. The physical and moral organization of the city act on each other and shape and change each other. "The organization of the city, the character of the urban environment and the discipline which it imposes is finally determined by the size of the population, its concentration and distribution within the city are" (Park, 1925). The city leads to the breakdown of the traditional way of life, close neighborly relations are lost, and people live in anonymity. The anonymity and intensity of city life, and especially the focus on work, earning money, and economic relations, has a devastating effect on the form and function of church, school, and family institutions. Traditional forms of social control are losing their significance, especially in the communities of newly arrived immigrants. Changes in the economic, moral, and interpersonal relations in the city have led to the emergence of many social, moral, and mental disorders. The most significant negative consequences of the urban environment are: crime, alcoholism, homelessness, juvenile delinquency, etc.

Park wanted to study the "natural history" of individuals, groups, and institutions, and that history takes place within complex socio-ecological trajectories. Park considered qualitative methods to be the best methodological tool for the empirical study of such histories. These methods are: life histories obtained through long interviews, participatory observation, investigative journalism, and the like.

Park and Burgess together wrote the book The City (1925), which is one of the first and most famous works in the field of sociology of the city. As an analytical tool for processing this data, Park and Burgess used ecological maps, the most famous of which is the one on concentric ecological circles in Chicago. Burgess and Park presented the American city as an ecological structure - a set of localized and isolated zones, each with its own category of the population. These zones often have the shape of concentric circles, so this model of urban development is known as the theory of concentric zones. There is a business zone in the center, outside it is a transition zone characterized by ghettos, slums, and crime; the next is the working-class residential area –populated by second-generation immigrants. Outside of these is the residential zone, and the last is the suburban zone. Urban zones are going through their own evolution, and the main driving force of that evolution is competition. People are fighting for land and other urban resources within the city.

City districts and neighborhood relations in them operate relatively independently of the wider physical and social urban environment. A big problem for many cities is the class and/or racially isolated neighborhoods, known as ghettos. Within such ghettos, a specific moral order is often formed. Park believed that racial relations always go through the following cycle: contact, conflict, accommodation, and eventually assimilation. Park defines accommodation as a process of reducing the level of conflicts in order to establish social order and stability. Assimilation, on the other hand, is a cultural fusion of different people and groups, because the attitudes and sentiments of other people and groups are adopted, which ultimately leads to a common cultural life. Prerequisites for assimilation are contacts within primary groups and a common language. Assimilation is not a cultural sameness, but a shared experience and sharing of mental patterns that enable the creation of a community with a unique view of collective goals. Park considered racial assimilation to be, not only a necessary but also a desirable product of racial relations. He viewed African-American communities in cities in the northern United States as internal immigrants, as many of them moved from the southern USA, where there were completely different economic, socio-environmental, and moral circumstances.

                            Homelessness and Slums

Anderson's first book, The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man  (1923), which dealt with the homeless in Chicago, was the fruit of one of the first participatory studies, as a research method in sociology, because the author himself spent a lot of time on the street with the homeless themself. The period of industrial development that spread from the east to the west of the USA caused the need for occasional and seasonal work, which led to an increase in homelessness because this type of work was neither safe nor sufficient for a normal life. Anderson discovered that homeless people have different economic and ethnic backgrounds and that the reasons for falling into a state of homelessness are different. What unites them is the distrust towards all institutions, organizations, and people who have power, which was, in part, justified.

Louis Wirth wrote the book Ghetto (1928), where he studies the life of Jewish immigrants who lived in two city districts of Chicago. Wirth called one city district a "ghetto", comparing it to the real ghetto in which Jews lived in medieval Frankfurt. He believed that the experience of living in medieval ghettos, in which Jews were forced to live in isolation, imprinted the "ghetto experience" on the Jewish mind, which in the United States also, now voluntarily, began to live in isolated neighborhoods. Wirth believed that, with the increase in the assimilation of immigrants, their residential mobility also increased. Harvey W. Zorbaugh conducted empirical research on the slums in Chicago and wrote about it in the book The Gold Coast and the Slum (1929).

           Chicago School and African-American experience

Edward Franklin Frazier is one of the most influential African-American sociologists of the first half of the twentieth century. He received his doctorate from the University of Chicago. Frazier, based on case studies and statistics, performed a macro analysis of the family and social life of African Americans. His approach combined a diachronic (historical) and a structural perspective. One of his basic theoretical assumptions is that African Americans, having been brought to the American continent as slaves, did not retain the culture they had in Africa. The loss of culture is the result of a series of critical shocks: enslavement in Africa; boat trips to America; experiences of slavery; and, in the end, the social disorganization that followed the liberation. This means that the culture of African Americans is largely a product of the reaction to the conditions of slavery and the dominant culture. The culture that African Americans developed in the United States is mostly fatalistic because it represents "surrender" to white Americans, that is, acceptance of a subordinate position. The socio-cultural position of African Americans, as well as the peculiarity of their culture, led them to become a subordinate caste within the American social structure.

By the time Frazier began his research, the migration of a large number of African Americans from the rural south to the industrialized urban centers of the north had been going on for half a century. The difficulties that African Americans have experienced in adapting to living conditions in new environments are the cause of crime, vice, and delinquency among African Americans. In his opinion, the most important thing for the progress of African Americans is to build racial consciousness, which would not be aimed at glorifying "black" culture but would be directed toward the pragmatic goals of achieving socio-economic progress. Frazier believed that African Americans should not imitate the cultural patterns of whites, but that the process of socio-cultural assimilation should include a critical attitude towards the dominant culture.

                Chicago School and the Study of Crime

Clifford Shaw taught at the University of Chicago and was also the director of the Institute for Juvenile Research. Shaw has published several books dealing with juvenile delinquency and delinquency. In the book The Jack Roller: A Delinquent Boy's Own Story (1930), Shaw presents a case study of a delinquent boy. In this study, he combined the biographical method (he interviewed the juvenile delinquent in detail about his life) and the collection of official and statistical data. Shaw focused on several areas of boys' life: the boy's attitudes, the sociocultural world in which he lived, and the time sequence of situations and experiences. He first collected and chronologically arranged the data of official institutions, then asked the boy to write his own story, after that, in conversations with him, Shaw asked the boy to clarify the discrepancies between his report and official data and thus encouraged the boy to think about his delinquency. In addition, he collected data on school, family, environment, and delinquency rates.

In the book Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas (1931), co-written by Shaw and Henry McKay, the authors explore the distribution of delinquency in different parts of Chicago in the early twentieth century. They found that delinquency is increasing in neighborhoods away from the city center and that some neighborhoods have had high rates of delinquency for decades, even though ethnic composition has changed significantly in the same neighborhoods. Neighborhoods with high delinquency rates had high rates of adult crime, tuberculosis, and infant mortality. Shaw and McKay created an environmental model to explain juvenile delinquency. They observed the increase in delinquency in the context of the growth of the city, because with that growth comes the formation of neighborhoods with specific physical, social, economic, and cultural characteristics.

The neighborhoods, where the population is declining, where poverty is widespread, and where a large proportion are immigrants and African-Americans, are most affected by delinquency. As a result of these factors, togetherness, and common goals are declining, leading to a reduction in the influence of institutions and social control. All these circumstances have led to the existence of opposing value systems. The decline in the community's ability to informally control crime has led to the formation of a criminal subculture. Delinquent subcultures, peer pressure, and the need to belong to a group were key factors in the development of delinquent behavior. For young people, belonging to delinquent groups meant the possibility of achieving goals that they could not achieve otherwise. As a solution to these problems, the authors proposed the implementation of programs that would unite and strengthen the community and social life in it.

Frederick M. Thrasher wrote the book The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago (1927). This research is the first thorough study of a gang of minors in a large city. Thrasher used a large number of methods in his research: court statistics, observation, collection of personal data of members of juvenile gangs, as well as interviews. Thrasher observes juvenile gangs through an ecological paradigm developed by the Chicago School of Sociology. Gangs are the product of the structural and environmental consequences of the social disorganization that took place in Chicago. Juvenile gangs have sprung up in isolated and impoverished immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago. Gangs were part of the psychological and group processes among adolescents in these neighborhoods. Thrasher defines a juvenile gang as follows:

"The gang is an interstitial group originally formed spontaneously and then integrated through conflict. It is characterized by the following types of behavior: meeting face to face, milling, movement through space as a unit, conflict, and planning. The result of this collective behavior is the development of tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, morale, group awareness, and attachment to a local territory." (Thrasher, 1927).

Jail time and criminal endeavors were a source of pride and prestige in gangs. Apart from criminal activities, members of juvenile gangs spent most of their time playing cards, smoking cigarettes, and harassing neighbors and shop owners. Thrasher was an advocate of social reforms and the practice of juvenile courts, as a solution to the problem of juvenile gangs.

Relevant authors who are not in this encyclopedia: Cressey, Paul; Ellsworth, Faris; Henderson, R. Charles; McKenzie, Roderick; Reckless, Walter; Taylor, Graham; Vincent, E. George; Zorbaugh, Harvey.


Anderson, N. The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (1923);

Frazier. The Negro Family in Chicago (1932);

Cressey, Paul. The Taxi Dance Hall (1932);

Park. Old World Traits Transplanted: the Early Sociology of Culture (1921);

     -     The Immigrant Press and Its Control (1922); 

Park, and Burgess. Introduction to the Science of Sociology (1921);

     -     The City: Suggestions for the Study of Human Nature in the Urban Environment (1925);

Reckless, Walter. Vice in Chicago (1933);

Shaw. The Jackroller (1930);

Shaw, and McKay, Henry. Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas (1931);

Small. General Sociology (1905);

     -     Adam Smith and Modern Sociology (1907);

     -     The Meaning of the Social Sciences (1910);

Thomas, W. I. Source-Book for Social Origins (1909);

     -     Suggestions of Modern Science Concerning Education (1917);

     -     Old World Traits Transplanted (1921);

     -     The Unadjusted Girl: With Cases and Standpoint for Behavior Analysis (1923);

     -     The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs (1928);

Thomas, and Znaniecki. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, 5 vol. (1918-1919);

Thrasher. The Gang (1926);

Wirth. The Ghetto (1928);

Zorbaugh, Harvey. The Gold Coast and the Slum (1929).


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