Other Chicago’s

In the process of locating knowledge, in a particular discipline and a particular place, exclusions occur. This may not be a serious problem if histories and geographies of ideas identify only loosely bound places that are argued to be key nodes in the production of knowledge. However, in the case of the Chicago School, narratives that claim so much for the academics in the sociology department are largely silent about important urban research done elsewhere in the same university and the city. In 1936, the University of Chicago Press published The Tenements of Chicago, 1908–1935, edited by Edith Abbott. This collection of essays on housing questions had been preceded by papers on housing questions by Abbott and Sophonisba Breckinridge that appeared in the American Journal of Sociology in 1910 and 1911 and these two produced a book on housing problems in the city in 1912. The later work presents a strong contrast to the sociologists’ monographs, with their emphasis on social disorganization and assimilation. In a chapter on landlordism, for example, Edith Abbott and Helen Rankin Jeter used Marxist concepts of use and exchange value (without referencing Marx) to explain how landlords contributed to inequalities in the housing market. Similarly, in a chapter on rents, Jeter noted how anticipated land value, taxation, and income from the site, pushed up subsequent valuations without regard for the needs of tenants or their ability to pay, or for the continuing decay of the building. This argument was well supported with evidence from Olcott’s Land Values Blue Book of Chicago, which charted annual changes in the geography of land values in the city. The women’s view of race and housing was also significantly different to that of the men in the sociology department. Following a paper by Breckinridge in 1913 and earlier research on race by W.E.B. DuBois in 1899, Edith Abbott and Mary Zahrobsky noted how housing submarkets were created by discriminatory practices. In particular, they argued that black families were paying significantly higher rents than white immigrants for comparable accommodation because discrimination against black people limited the supply of housing available to them. Scarcity meant that landlords could postpone repairs and raise rents knowing that an apartment could be let at any time. Another study by a woman, Mary Faith Adams, noted how Mexicans were similarly affected by racism in the housing market. We could compare these analyses of housing submarkets with Park’s facile observation (in 1935) that because of the abandonment of middle class housing near the city center as a result of ‘white flight’, ‘‘by a singular turn of fortune, the southern Negro, lately from the ‘sticks’ – the man politically farthest down – now finds himself living in the centre of a great metropolitan city,’’ making no reference to the subdivision of properties by landlords or their failure to invest.

In addition to what would now be considered incisive analyses of housing problems in Chicago, some of the women also made perceptive observations on the lives of recently arrived immigrants. These included an account of evictions of Italian families by a railroad company, noting the pain of separation from the rest of the community, and the adjustment problems of Croatians who still felt a strong attachment to their rural homeland. There is an awareness of injustice and exploitation that is missing from the urban ethnographies of the sociologists. The political implications of their research are spelled out in one of Edith Abbott’s contributions to the book. Noting the problem of low pay and the lack of affordable housing provided by the private market, she makes a case for large scale public housing. It is clear from the essays in The Tenements of Chicago that this group of women were somewhere to the left of Robert Park.

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba Breckinridge were both on the faculty of the University of Chicago where Abbott was dean in the School of Social Service Administration so it is not as if the women’s research was hidden from the sociologists. In fact, Burgess acknowledged Breckinridge’s outstanding contribution to social work, while maintaining a distinction between ‘scientific’ sociology and ‘practical’ social work. The failure of the sociologists and Park in particular, to recognize their contribution to urban theory, appears to be a consequence of sexist attitudes and a distaste for the women’s politics. One sociology student recalls being immersed in sociology as a science and hearing only occasional rumblings about the old maids downtown who were wet nursing social reformers. The gendering of academic knowledge was exacerbated by the editorial policies of the American Journal of Sociology. While Albion Small was editor, the proportion of papers by women fell from 15% to 5% suggesting that American sociology became a more masculine enterprise as the subject established a place in the academy. Park conflated gender and politics, once remarking that the Chicago women were more dangerous than the city’s corrupt politicians or gangsters. This observation reflected conservative male anxieties about Hull House settlement and its most prominent member, Jane Addams. Hull House was one of a number of settlements established in large American cities (and in London, Manchester, and Liverpool) in the late nineteenth-century to provide support for newly arrived immigrants and the poor more generally. Members of Hull House provided literacy classes and a cre`che for working women, as well as undertaking research on housing conditions. Apart from her work in the settlement and elsewhere in the city, Addams was an important figure in the peace movement during World War I and she was prominent in the international women’s movement. Edith Abbott and other contributors to The Tenements of Chicago had also been involved in Hull House and Abbott acknowledged the help of Addams’ co founder, Julia Lathrop, in the preface. The radical background of Abbott and other members of the Social Service Administration faculty is clearly something that Robert Park found troubling. Until Martin Bulmer’s 1984 history of The Chicago School of Sociology, there was neither acknowledgment of the academic contribution of the women nor any sustained critical commentary on Park and his colleagues. Earlier accounts by geographers, including Peach, Jackson and Smith, and Cater and Jones, all neglected to specify or mention the work of the School of Social Service Administration and its contribution to urban theory.

Park, Science and Race

Most accounts of the Chicago School understandably present Robert Park as the central figure because he set research agendas and promoted urban ethnography. Although others did most of the urban research, Park is associated with innovative methodologies and the identification of significant topics for research. There is a common assumption that the approach to research promoted by Park involved ‘getting your hands dirty’ but there is evidence that Park himself insisted on keeping a distance from the research subject. This comes from his view of science. Showing the influence of Windelband’s scientific philosophy during his education in Germany, and Auguste Comte, who distinguished between abstract and concrete science, Park maintained that sociology, including human ecology, was an abstract science, whereas geography and social work were concrete sciences that provided the facts that sociologists used in their theorizations. According to his notional hierarchy of knowledge, abstract and theoretical sociology was ‘higher’ than concrete, fact gathering activities, like social work research. This had two implications. First, it allowed Park to devalue social work research and, second, it made it possible for him to argue that the sociologist should try to maintain objectivity by not getting involved with the subject. Interestingly, Burgess did not share this view and he called for the integration of social work and social theory. Park’s position on the theoretical status of sociology was crucial in relation to work on race. In 1919, there was a ‘race riot’ in Chicago (there were similar but not so serious conflicts in Liverpool and Cardiff in the same year) and Park was appointed to the Chicago Commission on Race Relations to investigate the riot. A report on the riot was actually produced by the black sociologist, Charles Johnson, with some help and guidance from Park. Martin Bulmer noted that it showed a high degree of scientific detachment from what he (Bulmer) called the ‘emotional’ subject matter. The poor state of race relations at this time encouraged sociology students to get involved but Park advised them that they should approach the problem with detachment, ‘like a scientist dissecting a potato bug’. This clearly contradicts the view that Chicago sociologists promoted hands on research. Maybe they did but apparently not on questions that were politically charged. A survey of sociologists connected with Park at this time concluded that there was an overriding concern to distinguish sociology from socialism.

The assumption that the Chicago School in the early twentieth century initiated research on urban ethnicity and socio spatial relations has probably contributed to the neglect of earlier work on race and space by W.E.B. DuBois. In his research on the black population of Philadelphia at the end of the nineteenth-century, DuBois, as a black (albeit middle class) academic, recognized not only the significance of racism in relation to employment and housing but also the collective strength black migrants gained through affiliation to black churhes and (enforced) residential clustering. He also put the black experience into a comparative framework by looking briefly at the migration streams of Italian, Jewish, and Irish minorities. This was a landmark work. However, while Park acknowledged DuBois’ contribution to an understanding of race in America in a general way, he took nothing in terms of theoretical insights from The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899. Similarly, histories of urban social geography have neglected DuBois’ contribution. Thus, we could conclude that ‘the Chicago School’, as a collective endeavor in the production of knowledge, has, in part, been defined by omissions.


This article has focused on the early twentieth century because it was the academics in the Department of Sociology during this period that have had most influence on human geography, initially in the realm of spatial science and later in broader urban social geography. Howard Becker, a member of the ‘second Chicago School’, has argued that the department was never a ‘school’ because there was no unifying theoretical or methodological perspective. Although most histories emphasize ethnography, there was also an early quantitative tradition established by William Ogburn in the 1920s and followed by Hauser, Stouffer, and Duncan. Similarly, Burgess favored questionnaire surveys and quantitative techniques rather than ethnography. Social geography’s Chicago School has been built around Robert Park, who was a complex character. His positive role in developing urban ethnography must be acknowledged but his resistance to ideas coming from elsewhere, notably from the Chicago School of Social Service Administration, has contributed to partial and distorted histories of urban research in the early twentieth century city.