Chicago School

Liz 1The first American academic institution to open a sociology department was the University of Chicago. The university itself was established in 1892, during the progressive Era.  Robert E. Park was a very influential figure in the Chicago school, providing it with new perspectives and urban themes.  Other key players were Ernest W. Burgess and Louis Wirth, both interested in the exploration of urban research and sociology (Lutters & Ackerman, 1996).

In communications and media studies, the Chicago School is one of several schools of paradigms.  Each school is well known for its unique set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitute a particular way of viewing the world in an intellectual discipline. Sociologists use these paradigms when attempting to solve a problem or answer a question.  The Chicago School of sociology was established with the purpose to gain a better understanding of the relationship that exists between individuals, communities, and societies.  Chicago School researchers were interventionist; looking to find problem, create a solution, and intervene. The Chicago School as a paradigm believed that media and communications play a central role in shaping individual, as well as collective lives. The Chicago School is interdisciplinary, mainly pulling from sociology and philosophy as a guide for its approach.  The Chicago School mainly explores theory of social change and processed.  It used the city of Chicago as its laboratory to explore social challenges in question.

From the beginning of the 20th century to 1950s the Chicago School was at its peak and evolving very quickly. The Chicago School was its most influential between World War I and the Great Depression.  During this time, American cities demonstrated a rapid increase in population (Lutters & Ackerman, 1996).  In 1890 Chicago’s population was about 1 million people. By the 1930’s its population tripled to over 3 million people. With a large amount of immigration and migration, Chicago became an ethnic melting pot (Bulmer,1986).  The Social urban changes such as this one, are precisely the type of phenomenon’s the Chicago School strive to answer.  The Chicago School began to focus on ethical and racial intermixture in Chicago, as well as urbanization (Bulmer,1986).  The images below visually demonstrate the urbanization of Chicago during this time period.


Liz together
South Water Street in Chicago in 1884 (left) v. South Water Street in Chicago in 1915 (right)

The Chicago School uses both a quantitative and a qualitative methodology.  A quantitative methodology is an empirical Approach, using statistics, mathematics, or computational strategies.  It is an analysis data-based. A qualitative approach is primarily exploratory research. This methodology helps to place the issue at hand in context, allowing researchers to dive deeper into the problem.  The Chicago School did however have issues. An example being its normative and moralistic way of creating solutions. It solved problems and created solutions based on a moral; when an individual’s moral compass is open to subjectivity.  Therefore, solutions created by the Chicago School to a degree were considered bias.  This paradigm also strives to create social reform.  The issue being it believes science was able to determine the correct solution for a social problem.  However, the Chicago School is well known and credited for its “scientization” of mass communication research.  The Chicago School remains one of the most significant historical advancements in sociology. It revolutionized our understanding of urbanization as a social science by closely observing and analyzing Chicago’s own repaid expansions. The Chicago school also helped develop our understanding of human geography and ethnographic research methods (Bulmer,1986).


Bulmer, M. (1986). The Chicago school of sociology: Institutionalization, diversity, and the rise of sociological research. University of Chicago Press.

Lutters, W. G., & Ackerman, M. S. (1996). An introduction to the Chicago School of Sociology. Interval Research Proprietary, 02-06.

Image Attribution: Image 1 is licensed under 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). Images 2 and 3 are in the public domain.

Written by Elizabeth Kearney, 2018


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