The Chicago School discussed in this article is that University's Department of Sociology, although Chicago has, or had, other celebrated schools, such as The School of Economics and The School of Pragmatism. The term 'school' may suggest a group of scholars working closely together and sharing philosophies and methods, as in Plato's academy. It may also suggest something rather special – a constellation of academics that is leading the way in an academic field, a group whose work inspires others in the discipline and shapes a paradigm for research. In this sense, there have been a few schools in geography, notably the Berkeley School, centered on the key contributions of Carl Sauer to theorizing landscape, and many years later, the Los Angeles School of postmodern urbanism associated with geography and planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California. The second case is more difficult to argue because individuals contributing to postmodern theory are more widely dispersed – we would have to acknowledge contributions from Frederic Jameson at Santa Cruz and non Californian Homi Bhabha at the University of Sussex, for example. Generally, it could be suggested that we need to be skeptical about this Platonic and place specific vision of a school. Certainly, in the case of the Chicago School of Sociology, it would be necessary to talk about mythologies, fictions that reflect an external perception of the sociology department and have contributed to an uncritical view of the institution's contribution to knowledge. Any detailed examination of the work done in the department, particularly during the first 50 years of its existence, demonstrates that it has accommodated radically different approaches to social research, often at the same time, and that the sociologists have had an uneasy relationship with academics in cognate fields, particularly academics elsewhere in the University of Chicago.
The Chicago School began as a graduate department of sociology in 1892, in a period when the city was growing very rapidly. The department's first chair, Albion Small, had studied both in Germany and the United States and in Chicago he was concerned to promote a systematic, scientific sociology. He was a key figure in establishing sociology as an academic discipline in the United States as first editor of the American Journal of Sociology. Small appointed William Thomas, who had also studied philosophy and sociology in Germany and who, with Znaniecki, produced a major study of Polish peasants in Europe and America between 1918 and 1920. Robert Park accepted an invitation from Thomas to teach in Chicago and, after 6 years in a part time position, he became a professor in 1914. Park's previous experience was diverse. His undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan was in philosophy, he worked as a journalist in New York City, did a master's degree in psychology and philosophy at Harvard, studied philosophy in Berlin under Simmel and in Strassburg under Windelband, and completed a PhD in philosophy at Heidelberg. He then lectured at Harvard, worked as press agent for the Congo Reform Society, and was personal assistant to Booker. Washington at Tuskegee College, Alabama, until he moved to Chicago. These three – Small, Thomas, and Park – had some common ground, particularly their familiarity with Simmel's philosophy gained during their studies in Germany. Ellsworth Faris, appointed in 1919, had a doctorate in psychology and had worked as a missionary in Africa. Ernest Burgess, appointed in the same year as Faris, was the only member of the department in the early period who was trained as a sociologist. Disciplinary boundaries in the humanities and social sciences in the early twentieth century were more fluid than later in the century but philosophical and methodological diversity was a continuing theme of Chicago sociology. There were two other key figures in the early development of Chicago sociology. These were Louis Wirth, who became a professor in 1926 and was a major contributor to early studies of urban ethnicity, and Herbert Blumer, professor from 1931, who was concerned with relationships between urban ecology and social psychology.
A strong interest in philosophy and a concern with universal theory were fundamental to the development of scientific sociology at Chicago. The department is probably best known for its promotion of urban ecology. Park and Wirth, for example, saw the communities juxtaposed in the industrial city as an expression of an ecological order, a system of competition and temporary equilibrium based on spatial interdependencies. This competitive system, however, develops into a cultural order, whereby mutual understandings emerge from increased interaction among members of different groups, and then a moral and political order, in which societal norms and goals are articulated, is realized. It is easy to see how this evolutionary system fitted American beliefs in assimilation and the adoption of 'American values' and how it fails to explain conflict, exploitation, and the persistence of groups who do not subscribe to mainstream values. Robert Park's introductory essay in The City, published in 1925, demonstrates that he was well aware that socio spatial relations were more complex than this model of urban ecology suggests. In a long list of problems that he would include in an urban research agenda, Park identified social unrest, strikes, and violence, for example, but he did not provide any clues about how he would deal with them theoretically.
Although there were some differences in the theoretical approaches of members of the faculty – between Park and Burgess, for example – it has been suggested that there was a common philosophical underpinning to research in the School. This was pragmatism, a form of empiricism in which a fundamental proposition is that knowledge acquires meaning and validity on the basis of its usefulness. Theory, then, is inseparable from practice. Of the key figures in the pragmatist group in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, John Dewey and George Herbert Mead were members of the University of Chicago and a third, William James, had taught Robert Park when he was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. Mead was a social psychologist and professor in the sociology department from 1894 to 1931. Pragmatism provided the philosophical basis for symbolic interactionism, a term coined by Herbert Blumer, who had been a student of Mead. We could think of it as an approach to understanding that involves engagement with others, accepting the pragmatist premise that the acquisition of knowledge requires involvement in the world and the observer's involvement affects outcomes and, therefore, what is known. Peter Jackson and Susan Smith argued that symbolic interactionism chimed with Chicago sociologists' strong interest in social reform but there are other views on their social commitment and involvement that will be turned to later.
The particular urban projects undertaken by the Chicago School during this period have been referred to as urban ethnographies although the level of involvement that is required in modern anthropological research was not evident in most of these studies and there was a common tendency to observe other cultures through an assimilationist lens. Projects included studies of vice (Reckless), the ghetto (Wirth), black families (Frazier), and mental illness (Faris). These were all focused on the city but one of the most innovative and outstanding studies was Thomas and Znaniecki's five volume The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, tracing the migration of Polish peasants from the villages of Poland to Chicago parishes, using a range of methods and materials, including oral histories, letters, and newspaper reports. A fundamental weakness of the urban community studies is demonstrated in Zorbaugh's writing on wealth and poverty – The Gold Coast and the Slum. Zorbaugh provided a detailed description of life in a relatively poor Persian district, close to the affluent Gold Coast, but interpreted institutions of everyday life, such as coffee shops, as evidence of 'social disorganisation'. Cultural difference was seen as a failure to adapt to progressive, modern American values. Despite such ethnocentricity, we could argue that Chicago sociologists in the early period laid the foundations for modern urban social geography. The way in which the work of the Chicago School entered geographical consciousness, however, was curious.