Chicago Sociology Includes Symbolic Interactionism

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Thomas Theorem: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” W. I. Thomas, 1928

The Second Chicago School of Sociology is little known in urban studies. To be more accurate, Robert Park and Ernest Burgess and others – notably Louis Wirth and Herbert Gans – are not the sources of all Chicago Sociology, there were others of their generation whose existence has been all but ignored in urban studies.

Among its founders were – to urban sociology – invisible contemporaries of Park and Burgess – invisible contemporaries who became household names as the founders of symbolic Interactionism. They include George Herbert MeadCharles Horton CooleyEverett HughesAlfred R. LindesmithFlorian Znaniecki and W. I. Thomas. W. I. Thomas’ famous quote at the start of this research note – The Thomas Theorem – has become one of the defining statements of the symbolic interactionist perspective.

The second generation of the Chicago School became even more explicitly symbolic interactionist and includes Herbert Blumer, who was born in 1900. This second generation obviously overlaps with the first to some extent, especially Herbert Blumer who gave the perspective its name – symbolic interaction. Others include Edwin M. LemertErving GoffmanAnselm Strauss and Howard Becker.

Howard Becker has a website – The Chicago School, So-called – that clarifies some differences between the more quantitative and positivist work of Park and Burgess and the qualitative in situ approach of the symbolic interactionists, with its focus on what Robert Prus Symbolic Interaction and Ethnographic Research (SUNY Press 1996) calls in his sub-title Intersubjectivity and the study of human lived experience, or what, on the back cover, is called the “doing” of everyday life. In the field, research immersion in the life-world is crucial as part of “taking the actor’s definition”.

We also need to remember that the distinction between qualitative and quantitative methods was not clear-cut, even within the Chicago School. And there was another “school” associated with more quantitative methods: the Iowa School. Indeed, at the time the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction was formed, both Iowa and Minnesota Departments contributed equally in kind to the meeting at which the Society was set up. More on the two Schools of Symbolic Interaction and their characteristics can be found at this Colorado University timeline website and at this uiowa website.

However, following John Rex and Robert Moore Race, Conflict and Community: a study of Sparkbrook (Oxford University Press, 1967), the focus in urban sociology is by default almost entirely on the geographical sorting of classes and ethnic groups. This comes from little more than a passing comment in what has been an influential book in urban studies, using the concentric rings approach of Park and Burgess, the emergence of twilight zones and the concentration of immigrants in twilight zones.

The fact that positivism in British urban studies is disproportionately represented by  geographers, town and county planners, architects and academics from other disciplines(1) in which symbolic interactionism was unknown or at best little known, it is not surprising that the Rex and Moore’s mention of the Chicago School of Park and Burgess – a mention that was made almost in passing – should have resulted in “making invisible” in urban studies the symbolic interactionist contributions to the Chicago School.

Rex and Moore (1967) was reviewed by Ian Taylor and anyone trying to understand the politics of  Housing in Twilight Zones should first read the views of the Sparkbrook Association and compare it to the Ian Taylor review.

There is an irony in the fact that shortly after the publication of the very influential Rex and Moore study, Robert Moore was appointed professor of sociology at Aberdeen, after Raymond Illsley moved over to the Medical Sociology Unit at Foresterhill, taking his SSRC Programme Grant on medical sociology with him.(2) The point of this is that neither John Rex nor Robert Moore were symbolic interactionists, and their classic study of Sparkbrook had an unintended – and disproportionately large – impact on how urban studies developed.

There is a useful discussion of the early symbolic interactionist Chicago School in Mike Savage and Alan Warde Urban Sociology, Capitalism and Modernity  Macmillan, 1993 (Chapter 2 The Roots of Urban Sociology). Savage and Warde (1993) does what should have been done a quarter of a century earlier, to balance out the exclusively positivist interpretation of the Chicago School. Perhaps if this had been done when the deconstructionist wave that Young describes in his work arrived in Britain it would have created an alternative interactionist narrative of the nature of the Chicago School, to balance that provided by the geographical focus of Rex and Moore (1967).

Jock Young The Criminological Imagination (Wiley, 2011) discusses the new criminology in relation to the late 1960s as being on the cusp of change and a period of almost feverish deconstruction and critique resulting in the National Deviancy Symposium. One of the big differences in origins between the new criminology and the new urban sociology was the almost complete lack of any of the extensive symbolic interactionist literature on the urban sociology of local communities. This was a major part of the work of symbolic interactionists in the USA. Young (2011)

Among these was Anselm Strauss. The Anselm Strauss website has many downloadable files and an entire section on his urban sociology. Perhaps more useful than his work on images of the city is the tab on Social Worlds, and especially his paper on Social Worlds and Spatial Processes and the tab on Grounded Theory all include his and his co-author’s work that was already published in 1968 or earlier.

The Second Chicago School of Sociology is discussed in two edited collections, first in Martin Bulmer (edThe Chicago School of Sociology (1984) and a decade later by Gary Alan Fine (edA Second Chicago School? (1995). The latter argues that interactionist research is too varied to be defined as a distinct urban sociology branch of symbolic interactionists, which is an important observation.

But much of such distinction-making over what is or is not “urban” or indeed what is or is not “symbolic interactionism” in the Chicago School is beside the point. My point in this research note is simply to argue that the way the Chicago School has been defined in urban studies has reflected the predominant positivism of housing, urban and regional researchers. Applying the Thomas Theorem one might say that if enough urban researchers define the Chicago School as a positivist school this has  had real consequences for it becoming understood in a self-referral way by urban researchers as a positivist school.

The symbolic interactionists have had to fight to make their voices heard to claim a heritage of their own from the Chicago School in urban studies. It has been an uphill struggle to make this voice heard against the overwhelming and continual barrage of the positivist Greek Chorus that by its running commentaries in urban studies publications down the decades continually reaffirms that the Chicago School legitimizes the positivist claim to authority as witnessed by its pedigree.

My personal conclusion is that all attempts to define the Chicago School of Sociology as one thing or another, as positivist or interactionist, are just claims-making exercises. The Chicago School or indeed the Iowa School – are in the final analysis contrasting accountsnarratives or to use the ethnomethodology term, glosses of what is significant or important in urban studies to different observers. It might be worth looking closer at Harold Garfinkel and EthnomethodologyThis website is a useful introduction.

For earlier research notes see The Criminological Imagination 5 July 2011The Rise of Symbolic Interactionism in Housing Research 31 July 2011Structure vs Agency in Urban Research 14 August 2009Contrasting Critical Criminology and the New Urban Sociology 28 October 2009Two Social Constructions of the Chicago School 1 November 2009Marxian and Weberian Urban Researchers Join Hands 6 November 2009The Birth of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction 7 August 2009


(1) Ray Pahl, who became the major critic of the new urban sociology once it had transmogrified into urban political economy, was from the planning profession and though qualitative in his work was an urban studies positivist and not a symbolic interactionist.

(2) There was a second professor between these two, also a positivist, whose tenure was brief before he moved on – Michael P. Carter, author of Home, School and WorkPergamon Press, 1966.

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