In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Chicago School of Urban Sociology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Precursors and Theoretical Foundations
  • Applied Social Science
  • Further Developments in Ecological Theory
  • Later Sociological Studies of Crime and Deviance in Chicago
  • Later Sociological Studies of Neighborhoods, Race, and Class in Chicago
  • International Legacies of the Chicago School
  • Critiques and Reappraisals

Urban Studies The Chicago School of Urban Sociology
Robert Owens
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0071


The Chicago School of Urban Sociology developed in the early 1900s at the nexus of an important institutional center for early sociological research in the United States (the University of Chicago), a rich and varied set of linked field sites (the city of Chicago and its neighborhoods), and a cohesive theoretical perspective (the ecological theory). Original and generative sociological insights developed in this milieu, and the Chicago School holds an enduring interest to historians of sociology, urbanists, and sociological theorists. Key figures in the first generation of Chicago School researchers include Robert Park and Ernest Burgess. Park earned a PhD in philosophy in 1903 at Heidelberg University and taught at the University of Chicago from 1914. Burgess earned his PhD in sociology at the University of Chicago in 1913 and returned to teach in 1916. Park and Burgess were the core faculty responsible for training a generation of students whose dissertations explored fundamental social trends and dynamics in contemporary American society, most often through the lens of Chicago’s neighborhoods. Chicago and its neighborhoods have remained a frequent site for urban sociological studies, not least because later researchers were able to build on the body of work developed initially by Park, Burgess, their colleagues, and students. The ecological theory developed by Chicago School sociologists drew inspiration from plant and animal ecology to describe the interdependence of communities and groups, the characteristics of “natural” growth, organization and disorganization, the importance of race and class to social stratification, and the networked qualities of urban life. In looking to biological science for a theoretical vocabulary for sociology, the Chicago sociologists followed a similar course to European sociologists Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Émile Durkheim. Their emphasis on social ties and group definition also shows their inheritance of Georg Simmel’s ideas, mainly through Robert Park, who studied with Simmel. The contributions of “the Chicago School of Urban Sociology” are not easily confined to urban studies, nor to a single era of intellectual activity. From the beginning, the empirical sociologists and urbanists were heavily influenced by the pragmatist tradition in philosophy represented by William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead. One manifestation of this influence was the emergence of symbolic interactionism through the work of Herbert Blumer and Erving Goffman. Later generations of sociologists self-consciously adopting the mantle of the Chicago School have shown the fecundity of ecological theory beyond the domain of urban studies.

General Overviews

Titles in this section are secondary sources that provide a broad view of the history of the Chicago School. Bulmer 1984 is the most comprehensive single source for the institutional history of sociology at the University of Chicago. Abbott 1999 tells the story of the American Journal of Sociology and interprets the development of US sociology through its editorial choices. Several essays in Calhoun 2007 intersect the formative role Chicago played in the first few decades of disciplinary professionalization. Shils 1970 is a critical source for the intellectual history of the ecological theory. Ross 1991 and Smith 1988 situate Chicago School developments in relation to developments in the other social sciences. Fine 1995 focuses on the postwar period. Plummer 1997 is a multi-volume work that includes essays on theory, methodology, and substantive empirical topics of interest to the Chicago School. Chapoulie 2020 is a recent exemplar of the Chicago School’s continuing influence in French sociology. Both Shils and Abbott were important later contributors to the continued development of ecological theory in the Chicago School tradition. See Shils 1982 (cited under Anthologies) and Abbott 1988 and Abbott 2005 (both cited under Further Developments in Ecological Theory).

  • Abbott, Andrew. Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226222738.001.0001

    A detailed accounting of the development of Chicago School ideas and institutions, with a particular focus on the American Journal of Sociology. The final chapter addresses the continuing relevance of the Chicago School at the end of the twentieth century by a contemporary practitioner of Chicago sociology.

  • Bulmer, Martin. The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity, and the Rise of Sociological Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

    The authoritative book-length historical treatment of the origins of the Chicago School of Sociology. An excellent source on the institutional conditions for research in the early years of the University of Chicago.

  • Calhoun, Craig, ed. Sociology in America: A History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

    A collaborative volume on the occasion of the centennial of the American Sociological Association. The introduction by Craig Calhoun and essays by Patricia Lengermann and Gillian Niebrugge, Neil Gross, Andrew Abbott and James Sparrow, and Aldon Morris engage directly with different facets of the Chicago School’s deep influence on sociology’s first century in the United States.

  • Chapoulie, Jean-Michel. Chicago Sociology. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

    Translated from the French, first published in 2001. A history of the Chicago School from its beginnings to the 1960s, rooted in archival work and interviews.

  • Fine, Gary Alan. A Second Chicago School? The Development of a Postwar American Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

    A volume of essays focused on developments in sociology after 1945 at the University of Chicago, animated by the question of whether the theoretical and methodological commitments of sociologists active at that time were coherent and distinctive enough to constitute a “school” of thought. Includes appendixes of University of Chicago faculty 1946–1960 and PhDs granted 1946–1965.

  • Plummer, Kenneth. The Chicago School: Critical Assessments. 4 vols. London: Routledge, 1997.

    An extensive collection of essays on the Chicago School. Separate volumes treat “Theory, History and Foundations,” “Race, Crime and the City,” “Methodology,” and the topic of “a Chicago Canon.”

  • Ross, Dorothy. The Origins of American Social Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    A history of the emergence of professional social science in the United States, situating Chicago School development alongside important developments in political science, economics, and history, as well as developments in sociology outside Chicago, notably at Columbia and Yale Universities.

  • Shils, Edward. “Tradition, Ecology, and Institution in the History of Sociology.” Daedalus 99.4 (1970): 760–825.

    Applies the ecological theory of the Chicago School to the intellectual development and institutionalization of sociology. A revised version appears in Shils 1982 (cited under Anthologies).

  • Smith, Dennis. The Chicago School: A Liberal Critique of Capitalism. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-19031-7

    A history of Chicago School that situates key figures Small, Thomas, Park, Burgess, Wirth, Ogburn, and Janowitz relative to political and economic currents of their time and the institutionalist economics of Thorstein Veblen.

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