The widely known Chicago School of Sociology is generally acknowledged as a highly innovative and foundational current of sociology, but has arguably been fundamentally misunderstood.
Despite being dominant during the first half of the 20th century, the CSS has subsequently been heavily criticized, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s within sociology, for reasons clearly relating to a (one-sided) cross-temporal Oedipal rivalry between successive generations of Chicago sociologists (essentially the so-called – and self-styled – “Second CSS” seems to have felt a need to “kill the father”…), as well as more recently, within geography and urban studies, as part of an otherwise stimulating (and necessary) debate about the need to foster a (semi-Kuhnian?) paradigm shift in mainstream epistemological thinking about cities.
Many of the various critiques of CSS scholarship that have been offered are undoubtedly valid, but others are without question quite spurious, and yet more arguably derive from fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of both the CSS and their work. One reason for the latter is that, as is evident from even just a cursory review of the critical literature on CSS scholarship, few people – especially today – seem to read in any detail more than three articles by CSS scholars: Robert Park’s 1915 American Journal of Sociology paper on “The City”, Ernest Burgess’ 1925 book chapter on “The Growth of the City”, and Louis Wirth’s 1938 American Journal of Sociology paper on “Urbanism as a Way of Life”. While all three constitute important syntheses of basic CSS theoretical propositions, they are by no means the be all and end of what was a much broader body of thinking that, and one that was moreover in fact quite contradictory, partly because what ultimately defined it was less its theorisation than its commitment to radical empirical research, with all the “messiness” that this entails.
Certainly, this is something that becomes very clear when one (re-)reads in detail some of the so-called “core ethnographic monographs” of the CSS, as a recent CUS seed grant-funded workshop organised at the University of Amsterdam 16-17 March 2017 has highlighted very well. The twelve participants were all asked to (re-)read a classic CSS monograph touching on a theme relating to their expertise, and consider its enduring relevance, both theoretically and empirically, in relation to their own work. All of the workshop participants were hugely surprised, encountering works that contradicted received wisdoms about CSS thinking, noting that these works offered often extremely original and avant-garde analyses of phenomena in a way that continued to be insightful today, as well as a globally contextualised appreciation drawing on comparisons across a variety of different places beyond Chicago, including, among others, China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, or Scotland, for example. Eight of the preliminary and informal think pieces produced for discussion at the workshop are available below, and an edited volume that will include more extended versions of these essays as well as some new ones, and also critical commentaries by a range of urban scholars is currently being prepared – watch this space!