Human Geography and the Chicago School

The first commentaries on Chicago sociology in geography are found in spatial science texts in the 1960s, with reference only to Burgess. Barry Garner, writing in 1967, referred to the ‘classic’ concentric zone model of Burgess that described the typical succession of land uses with distance from the city center. Walter Isard, in 1956, and Brian Berry, in 1959, had ‘explained’ this sequence in terms of the substitution of rents for transport costs. Spatial science in this period was primarily concerned with geometry, although neoclassical economic theory was often harnessed to provide explanations for spatial patterns. David Harvey, writing in 1969, only objected that Chicago was a sample of one so the land use succession described by Burgess could not stand as a generalization about urban spatial structure. Burgess did have a greater interest in cartography and demography than other Chicago sociologists so the connections between his writing and the interests of spatial scientists were closer than with other writers in the Chicago School but it is notable that the principal concerns of the sociologists, in the dynamics of social areas and the relationship between the social and the spatial, were totally ignored by geographers at this time. It could be that the iconic concentric rings of Burgess’s land use model, which became a standard feature of urban geography texts and university and high school curricula, hampered critical thinking about the capitalist city.

A reworking of the social aspects of urban research probably started in the 1970s with Ceri Peach in British geography. He was very enthusiastic about the Chicago School, describing it as ‘the fountainhead from which all else flows’ and he saw the basic propositions about social and spatial distance as key to an understanding of urban social and spatial segregation. However, there were some more critical reflections on Chicago sociology coming out of the urban ethnographies of Peter Jackson and others in the 1980s, including Jackson and Smith’s text, Exploring Social Geography. Certainly, acknowledging the research of the early Chicago sociologists contributed to a change in emphasis in urban geography and helped to weaken boundaries between urban geography and similar work being done in sociology and anthropology but there are still questions about the centrality of the Chicago School in urban studies.