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Chicago school

  Members of the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago who activated a major research programme on the American city during the early twentieth century. Many academics over several generations have been associated with the school, but William Thomas (1863-1947), Robert Park (1864-1944), Ernest Burgess (1886-1966), and Louis Wirth (1897-1952) stand out, as their collective work established and sustained a new direction for American sociology (Bulmer, 1984). Drawing, paradoxically, on both pragmatism and Social Darwinism, Chicago School sociologists combined painstaking ethnographic research with sweeping generalizations, steeped in physical metaphors and evolutionary logic, about urban society. The legacy of their work is complex and ambiguous, and contemporary authors range in their assessment of it from outright rejection, through a selective incorporation of certain insights and methodologies, to a celebration of the Chicago School as progenitor of humanistic social science.

Thomas introduced many issues that motivated subsequent research within the Chicago sociology department. The Polish peasant in Europe and America, published in 1918 (the year Thomas was dismissed over allegations of an extra-marital affair; Deegan, 1988), is a key early text, where Thomas and Znaniecki investigate both sides of a transatlantic flow of immigrants: conditions in rural Poland that led to emigration and the settlement of Poles in American cities. This four-volume work set the tone for scores of dense ethnographic studies done by faculty and graduate students at the University of Chicago. In each case researchers acquired new languages where appropriate, conducted social surveys (cf. survey analysis), and engaged in participant observation in an effort to chart the forces that bound communities together. Thomas and Znaniecki initiated perhaps the most enduring theme in Chicago School research: the dynamic between cultural retention among immigrants versus the pull to assimilate to American social mores. The residential clustering of Poles in American cities was seen as instrumental in allowing these immigrants to retain valued elements of their cultural heritage while, gradually but inevitably, assimilating to the society around them (cf. segregation). The dual nature of \'ghettoized\' neighbourhoods was further elaborated by Wirth (1928) in his seminal study of Chicago\'s Jewish community (see ghetto).

Park, who became the dominant intellectual figure in the department after the departure of Thomas, provided a formal theoretical backdrop for Chicago research by adapting principles of plant ecology to human society (Park, in Turner, 1967; also see McKenzie, in Hawley, 1968; Matthews, 1977; and Cortese, 1995). human ecology likens society to an organism, with each constituent part symbiotically related to all others in a web of relations that form around competitive and cooperative behaviour. On one level, which Park labelled biotic (sub-social), human activities at all times are the product of an innate urge to compete in the struggle for survival, a struggle most clearly discernible in the economy where individuals pursue their own ends. Competition over limited rewards sorts individuals based upon their given level of abilities. Those with similar abilities are \'naturally\' channelled into groups that find appropriate occupational and residential niches in society, in much the same way that plant species proliferate in (and eventually dominate) places where environmental qualities favour their particular genetic composition. Within these ecological groups, or communities, individuals discover that it is in their interest to cooperate and regularize their relations with one another. Thus a \'moral order\' emerges reflecting the principle of cooperation, which Park saw as a necessary complement to competition. Humans, in contrast to plant communities, temper the demands of the biotic level by developing a cultural superstructure where rules are established to modify and control competition. Otherwise, Park believed, society would lack the basis to continue its existence, leading to a \'war of all against all\'. Armed with these conceptualizations, Park\'s students set about defining \'natural\' communities, such as immigrant groups, hobos, taxi dancers and street gangs, and documenting the moral orders shared by their members (e.g. see Anderson, 1961). These investigations are invariably rich in ethnographic detail but the zeal of researchers to fit their data into the confines of ecological theory often seems forced.

Burgess was instrumental in transcribing the theory of human ecology to the urban arena, deriving a concentric model of the city based on the sorting behaviour of competition (Park, Burgess and McKenzie, 1925: see zonal model and the figure there). In his model, commercial and industrial activities capture the city centre (the central business district [CBD]) because of their ability to generate profit and outbid other land uses for locations of highest spatial mobility. A Zone in Transition surrounds the city centre, where landlords allow their residential building stock to deteriorate in anticipation of the unearned profits they will reap as the CBD expands. This district houses those least able to pay rent, typically recent immigrants and other racialized minorities, in ghettos. Beyond the Zone in Transition lies a belt of neighbourhoods housing the more settled working class, both American-born and immigrants who have achieved a modest level of social mobility. The middle class resides in manicured suburbs, or exurbs, on the periphery of the urbanized area, where they enjoy ample space and easy access to the countryside. Burgess set his model in motion by adding the concept of \'invasion-succession\', based on his assumptions that cities, as organisms, must grow, and that individuals are almost universally able to achieve upward social mobility. According to Burgess, as new commercial enterprises are established and new immigrants arrive, the CBD and Zone in Transition expand, pushing into the Zone of Workers\' Homes. At the same time, new jobs are generated, allowing working-class individuals to move up the occupational hierarchy and attain higher incomes, thereby opening new opportunities for immigrants to fill the jobs left behind. Working-class families direct their elevated incomes to the housing market and \'invade\' middle-class suburbs, expanding their zone of the city outward until they dominate the area that was once exclusive to middle-class residents. invasion and succession therefore follows the cascading effect generated by the relentless growth of the CBD.

It is deeply ironic that the Burgess model continues to inform urban planning policy in most North American cities. Planners often reproduce the zonal pattern described above by fostering the development of homogeneous land uses in specified areas of the city. The city centre is therefore scheduled to house the commercial core of the urban economy, surrounded by progressively lower densities of residential land uses. Burgess, however, believed that land uses sorted themselves into a concentric pattern at the biotic level through competition and \'natural\' selection. Within the rubric of human ecology theory, planning would be seen as part of the cultural superstructure of society, where the negative effects of excessive competition are muted. Yet planners step in to reinforce (at times even force) a concentric pattern because processes that are supposed to develop \'naturally\' do not; instead, the concentric pattern is \'naturalized\' within a bureaucracy that operates at the cultural level.

Criticisms of human ecology have been numerous and comprehensive, although the Chicago School is not without its apologists. Early commentators focused on empirical inaccuracies of the Burgess model; of these Homer Hoyt\'s (1939: cf. sectoral model — see also multiple nuclei model) demonstration that urban land values vary more within concentric zones than between them is the most significant. Assessments published during the 1940-65 period were part of a larger project to replace human ecology with structural functionalism as the basic paradigm for American sociology. Walter Firey (1947), for example, asserted that the distinction between the biotic and cultural levels of society is overdrawn within Chicago School research. Gideon Sjoberg (1960) focused his criticisms on the tendency for Park and Burgess to universalize from the American experience, producing Grand Theories that in actuality reflect time- and place-bound experiences. In particular, he argues that the Burgess model of urban land use only applies in the context of industrial capitalist societies (see Sjoberg model). Recent authors have extended this criticism, arguing that the theories presented by the Chicago sociologists contain a substantial normative content — that they legitimate the competition characteristic of capitalism and the melting-pot ideology of American society (Harvey, 1973; Castells, 1977). Still others have shown that the Chicago sociologists were incorrect in portraying European immigrants and African-Americans as similar types of ethnic communities, and that they disregarded the depth of colour-based discrimination in American society (Philpott, 1978; Persons, 1987). Finally, feminist criticism has raised an equally serious charge. Deegan (1988) has documented the collaboration between members of the Chicago School and women social critics in the opening decades of the twentieth century. By the late 1910s, however, members of the Chicago sociology department sought to distance themselves from the pioneering social surveys and intellectual insights made by Jane Addams and other women residents of Hull House. In particular, Burgess and Park advocated a sharp distinction between social work (which they deemed an appropriate pursuit for women) and sociology (seen as a manly, intellectual subject, rather than an emotional one), and thereby trivialized the work of their former collaborators (Sibley 1995). Thus, in his introduction to her book, Park characterized Frances Donovan\'s (1929) study of saleswomen in Chicago as \' … impressionistic and descriptive rather than systematic and formal … \' and \' … more interested in the history than in the sociology of contemporary life … \', despite the fact that Donovan utilized the same ethnographic methodologies as male researchers.

Yet there are those who wish to salvage elements of Chicago School thought, and they too have presented cogent arguments. While it is true that Park and his colleagues portrayed African-Americans too simply (as one ethnic group among many), this fault was related to Park\'s critique of a biologically-determined conception of race. Generally, Park emphasized the socially constructed aspects of race relations, stressing that ethnic groups (including blacks) eventually would be part of mainstream American society as they attained upward social mobility (Jackson and Smith, 1984; Persons, 1987; Farber, 1995). Jackson has also argued that the grand theories produced by Chicago sociologists are overemphasized by critics while the influences of pragmatism in Chicago School research have been ignored. He further suggests that the participant observation studies characteristic of humanistic sociology and geography have their roots in the ethnography practised by students of Thomas, Park, and Wirth (Jackson, 1984; also see Lal, 1990; and Burns, 1996). Ultimately, the work of the Chicago School must be judged within its own context, early twentieth-century American thought; in that light it probably led to as many significant advances as strategic oversights. (DH)

References Anderson, N. 1961 [orig. pub. 1923]: The hobo. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Bulmer, M. 1984: The Chicago School of sociology: institutionalization, diversity and the role of sociological research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Burns, T. 1996: The theoretical underpinnings of Chicago Sociology in the 1920s and 30s, Sociological Review 44: 474-94. Castells, M. 1977: The urban question: A marxist approach, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Edward Arnold. Cortese, A.J. 1995: The rise, hegemony, and decline of the Chicago School of sociology, 1892-1945. Social Science Journal 32: 235-54. Deegan, M.J. 1988: Jane Addams and the men of the Chicago School, 1892-1918. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Books. Donovan, F.R. 1929: The saleslady. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Farber, N. 1995: Charles S. Johnson\'s The Negro in Chicago. American Sociologist 26: 78-88. Firey, W. 1947: Land use in central Boston. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Harvey, D. 1973: Social justice and the city. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Hawley, A.H. 1968: Roderick D. McKenzie on human ecology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Hoyt, H. 1939: The structure and growth of residential neighborhoods in American cities. Washington, D.C.: Federal Housing Administration. Jackson, P. 1984: Social disorganisation and moral order in the city, Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 9: 168-180. Jackson, P. and Smith S.J. 1984: Exploring social geography. London: George Allen and Unwin. Lal, B.B. 1990: The romance of culture in an urban civilization: Robert E. Park on race and ethnic relations. London: Routledge. Matthews, F.H. 1977: Quest for an American sociology: Robert E. Park and the Chicago School. Montreal and London: McGill-Queen\'s University Press. Park, R.E, Burgess, E.W. and McKenzie, R.D. 1925: The city. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Persons, S. 1987: Ethnic studies at Chicago, 1905-45. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. Philpott, T.L. 1978: The slum and the ghetto: neighborhood deterioration and middle-class reform, Chicago, 1880-1930. New York: Oxford University Press. Saunders, P. 1986: Social theory and the urban question, 2nd edn. London: Hutchinson. Sibley, D. 1995: Gender, science, politics and geographies of the city, Gender, Place and Culture 2: 37-49. Sjoberg, G. 1960: The pre-industrial city, past and present. New York: The Free Press. Turner, R.H., ed., 1967: Robert E. Park: On social control and collective behaviour. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Thomas W.I. and Znaniecki, F. 1918: The Polish peasant in Europe and America, Vols I and II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (Vols III and IV were published two years later by Richard G. Badger, Boston). Wirth, L. 1928: The ghetto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



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