Chicago School of Sociology

The Chicago School of Urban Sociology refers to work of faculty and graduate students at the University of Chicago during the period 1915– 35. This small group of scholars (the full time faculty in the department of sociology never numbered more than 6 persons) developed a new sociological theory and research methodology in a conscious effort to create a science of society using the city of Chicago as a social laboratory. The Chicago School continues to define the contours of urban sociology, most clearly in the contributions of urban ecology and applied research within the urban environment.

The University of Chicago was founded in 1890 as a research university modeled after Johns Hopkins University and Clark University. The Chicago School of the period discussed here is represented by three generations of faculty. The first group included Albion Small (founder of the department), W. I. Thomas, Charles R. Henderson, Graham Taylor, and George E. Vincent. The second generation included Small, Thomas, Ernest Burgess, Ellsworth Faris, and Robert Park. It was this group that trained the graduate students responsible for the classic studies of the Chicago School. The third generation included Park, Burgess, Louis Wirth, and William Ogburn. This group of faculty would remain intact until the time Park retired from the university in 1934.

While it is common to date the origin of urban sociology at Chicago with Park’s arrival in 1914 and his subsequent work with Burgess, the idea of the city as a laboratory for social research came much earlier. Henderson applied for funds for a systematic study of the city in the first decade, and Thomas began his research on The Polish Peasant in Europe and the United States in 1908. An early (1902) description of the graduate program in the American Journal of Sociology stated:

The city of Chicago is one of the most complete social laboratories in the world. While the elements of sociology may be studied in smaller communities . . . the most serious problems of modern society are presented by the great cities, and must be studied as they are encountered in concrete form in large populations. No city in the world presents a wider variety of typical social problems than Chicago.

The sociology faculty pioneered empirical research using a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods in an effort to develop a science of sociology. Park formulated a new theoretical model based upon his observation that the city was more than a geographic phenomenon; the basic concepts of human ecology were borrowed from the natural sciences. Competition and segregation led to formation of natural areas, each with a separate and distinct moral order. The city was ‘‘a mosaic of little worlds that touch but do not interpenetrate.’’ Burgess’s model for the growth of the city showed a central business district surrounded by the zone in transition, the zone of working men’s homes, the residential zone, and the commuter zone. Roderick McKenzie expanded the basic model of human ecology in his later study of the metropolitan community.

The research and publication program of the Chicago School was carried out under the auspices of a Local Community Research Committee, an interdisciplinary group comprised of faculty and graduate students from sociology, political science (Charles Merriam), and anthropology (Robert Redfield). Support came from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial (more than $600,000 from 1924 to 1934). Graduate students under the guidance of Park and Burgess mapped local community areas and studied the spatial organization of juvenile delinquency, family disorganization, and cultural life in the city. The research program produced a diverse array of studies broadly organized around the themes of urban institutions (the hotel, taxi dance hall), social disorganization (juvenile delinquency, the homeless man), and natural areas themselves. Among the notable Chicago School studies are Frederick Thrasher, The Gang (1926); Louis Wirth, The Ghetto (1928); Harvey W. Zorbaugh, The Gold Coast and the Slum (1929); Clifford S. Shaw, The Jackroller (1930); E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family in Chicago (1932); Paul G. Cressey, The Taxi Dance Hall (1932); Walter C. Reckless, Vice in Chicago (1933); and E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family in Chicago (1932).

The Chicago School dominated urban sociology and sociology more generally in the first half of the twentieth century. By 1950 some 200 students had completed graduate study at Chicago. Many were instrumental in establishing graduate programs in sociology across the country, and more than half of the presidents of the American Sociological Association were faculty or students at Chicago. The American Journal of Sociology, started by Small in 1895, was the official journal of the American Sociological Association from 1906 to 1935. The dominance of the Chicago School also generated antagonism, and a ‘‘minor rebellion’’ at the annual conference in 1935 would result in the founding of a new journal, the American Sociological Review, and marks the decline of influence of the Chicago department.

There were early critiques of the Chicago School, including Missa Alihan’s 1938 critique of the determinism inherent in Park’s human ecology (Park wrote that ‘‘on the whole’’ the criticisms were correct). Maurice Davie (in 1938) reanalyzed data from Clifford Shaw’s Delinquency Areas (1929) and showed that delinquency was associated with areas of physical deterioration and high immigrant populations and not in the concentric zone model used in the Chicago studies. Burgess’s concentric zones were soon replaced by a variety of models showing multiple nuclei and eventually the decentralized, poly centered city. Still, urban ecology remains the dominant model and method among urban sociologists at present.

Recent attention has focused on the role of women in the development of the Chicago School. Deegan (1986) argued that the contribution of women was marginalized by Park and other male faculty. Jane Addams’s Hull House had conducted early community studies. Edith Abbott was a part time instructor in the department, and Addams had been offered a part time position. Many of the Chicago faculty were involved with Hull House and other social reform movements; Graham Taylor was one of the early members of the department. Burgess would later note that systematic urban research at Chicago started with the Hull House studies begun by Abbot and Sophonsia Breckenridge in 1908. Although many of the graduate students would use the settlement houses to assist their research, efforts to distinguish themselves from social reform and the emerging field of social work may explain a reluctance to connect the Chicago School with these earlier studies.

The influence of the early work of the Chicago School may be seen in some later studies, notably St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis (1945) and in several community studies directed by Morris Janowitz in the 1970s. William Julius Wilson’s work on poverty neighborhoods in 1980–95 once again made use of the city as a social laboratory, including a sustained program of training for graduate students, but Wilson would leave for Harvard before this research agenda was completed. The Chicago School of Urban Sociology has not had lasting influence in the work of the department.

In addition to urban sociology, there are claims to various other Chicago Schools in ethnic studies, crime and delinquency, symbolic interaction, and other fields. The Chicago School of Urban Sociology does not usually include G. H. Mead or W. Lloyd Warner, both of whom were important figures in the department in the 1930s (Mead) and 1940s (Warner). Louis Wirth noted that the Chicago School included many different theoretical models and perspectives and included methodologies ranging from personal documents and ethnography to quantitative analysis. Park felt that Thomas’s work formed the foundation for the department, but wrote that he was not aware that he was creating a ‘‘school’’ or a ‘‘doctrine.’’ The Chicago School label developed in large measure from critiques by scholars from other universities. Recent work in urban geography has argued that while Chicago was the model for urban theory of the twentieth century, Los Angeles is the model for urban theory of the future. It should be noted that the Los Angeles School (a title coined by the authors themselves, in contrast to the Chicago School) is more appropriately urban studies, rather than urban sociology.


  1. Abbott, A. (1999) Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  2. Becker, H. S. (1999). The Chicago School, so-called. Qualitative Sociology 22:3-12.
  3. Blumer, M. (1984) The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity, and the Rise of Socio logical Research. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  4. Deegan, M. J. (1986) Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892-1918. Transaction Books, New Brunswick, NJ.
  5. Faris, R. E. L. (1970) Chicago Sociology, 1920-32. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  6. Kurtz, L. R. (1984) Evaluating Chicago Sociology: A Guide to the Literature, with an Annotated Bibliography. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  7. Matthews, F. H. (1977) Quest for an American Sociology: Robert E. Park and the Chicago School. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal.
  8. Short, J. F. (Ed.) (1971) The Social Fabric of the Metropolis: Contributions of the Chicago School of Urban Sociology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  9. The University and the City: A Centennial View of the University of Chicago: The Urban Laboratory. Online.

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