In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Chicago School

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Origins of the Chicago School
  • Robert Ezra Park
  • The Chicago School and the Discipline of Geography
  • Immigration, Ethnicity, and Race
  • From Chicago to Los Angeles and Beyond
  • Next Generation Chicago Schools
  • The Chicago School and Global Knowledge Noöspheres
  • The New Social Physics and a Stealth Revival of the Chicago School

Geography Chicago School
Elvin Wyly
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0242


An ambitious, comprehensive theory of social and spatial evolution that achieved hegemony—and then notoriety—in sociology, geography, urban studies, and other social sciences in the twentieth century, the University of Chicago was established in 1890. The Department of Sociology, founded two years later, was the first large and lasting institutional center of the new discipline in the United States and, indeed, the world. In sociology, the Chicago School became most closely associated with an approach known as symbolic interactionism, which focuses on micro-level processes of social interaction and the ways individuals and groups construct distinct, contextual meanings from events and behavior. Geography and urban studies were more deeply influenced by a series of spatial metaphors developed by Chicago sociologists as well as by a theory of “human ecology” emphasizing the interdependencies among people and the fast-changing environments produced by industrialization and urbanization. Generations of undergraduate and graduate students used the city of Chicago as a living laboratory for field research, building a methodological and empirical infrastructure that was widely admired, emulated, and eventually challenged. Reputation, perception, and myth associated with the Chicago School became so dominant that as early as the late 1950s, one prominent sociologist referred to the tradition as “Urbanism, Incorporated”—a nod to press portrayals of Prohibition-era organized crime as “Murder, Incorporated.” Ever since the 1960s, successive generations have used “Chicago School” as a floating signifier, either as nostalgia for a legendary lost tradition to be restored or as an epithet for obsolete, conservative modes of research that legitimate status quo inequalities of urban society. Both admiration and attack, however, are based on selective interpretations of a body of work that was simultaneously vast, intergenerationally dynamic, and marginalized within the wider hierarchical structures of academic knowledge production and policy influence. Far more powerful than sociology or geography, for example, has been a separate Chicago School of neoclassical and neoliberal economic theory and political economy. Latter-day critiques, therefore, are more relevant to the philosophical antecedents of the Chicago School that are being revived today in distinct, interdisciplinary currents of social physics, sociobiology, cybernetics, information theory, and performative computational cultures of media and representation.

General Overviews

The most concise introductions to the Chicago School and its relevance for geography are Eyles 1986, Hiebert 2000, and Martin 2009; subtle contrasts among these accounts reflect evolving theoretical currents in critical human geography. The internal diversity and contradictions of what is today often regarded as a monolithic tradition are described brilliantly in Becker 1999. Park, et al. 1925 is the classic work of what is sometimes called the first Golden Age of the Chicago School, later culminating in a generation of studies distilled in Burgess and Bogue 1964. Park, et al. 1925 was reissued as a classic in “The Heritage of Sociology” series by the University of Chicago Press in 1967 and again in 2019; Sampson 2019 reviews the legacy of the work and its relevance for the flourishing interest in the twenty-first century in urban processes by smart-city entrepreneurs, physicists, engineers, and statisticians.

  • Becker, Howard S. “The Chicago School, So-Called.” Qualitative Sociology 22.1 (1999): 3–12.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1022107414846

    Challenges the origin myth of the Chicago School as a unified, coherent body of theory and method. Provides a detailed history of the internal diversity and disagreement among the faculty and students associated with Chicago sociology.

  • Burgess, Ernest W., and Donald J. Bogue, eds. Contributions to Urban Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

    A collection of articles and excerpts from more than forty authors in what is celebrated as the “Golden Age” of urban sociology. Burgess and Bogue introduce the collection of classic neighborhood ethnographic studies with a warning about the dangers of the “modern miracle” of new quantitative possibilities, where dependence on the “super-computer” encourages naive empiricism and substitutes for inductive originality.

  • Eyles, John. “Chicago School.” In The Dictionary of Human Geography. 2d ed. Edited by R. J. Johnston, Derek Gregory, and David M. Smith, 50–52. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

    An assessment of the core ideas developed by the Chicago sociologists of the interwar period and the selective use of the approaches by geographers.

  • Hiebert, Daniel. “Chicago School.” In The Dictionary of Human Geography. 4th ed. Edited by R. J. Johnston, Derek Gregory, Geraldine Pratt, and Michael Watts, 75–78. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

    A theoretically incisive evaluation of the logics and limitations of Chicago School theories of urbanism and social evolution, with commentary on misinterpretations, abuses, and criticisms.

  • Martin, Deborah G. “Chicago School.” In The Dictionary of Human Geography. 5th ed. Edited by R. J. Johnston, Derek Gregory, Geraldine Pratt, and Michael Watts, 78–80. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    A concise evaluation of the history, influence, and limitations of human ecology, and the complex, ambiguous legacies of Chicago-style socio-spatial theory.

  • Park, Robert E., Ernest W. Burgess, and Roderick D. McKenzie. The City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1925.

    The definitive manifesto that made Chicago sociology famous and notorious. For Park, Burgess, and McKenzie, the city is not just a constellation of people, physical infrastructures, and institutions; the city is also a state of mind and a medium for the intergenerational transmission of values, customs, and traditions. Classic conceptualization of the city as a product of nature and, in particular, human nature.

  • Sampson, Robert J. “Foreword: The City for the Twenty-First Century.” In The City. Edited by Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess, vii–xiv. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019.

    A reflection on a century of transformations in cities and urban theory by one of today’s leading urban sociologists. Sampson offers a biography of the book and its context: the expanding cauldron of industrial urbanization of the first publication in the 1920s, the crisis-ridden deindustrialization when the book was reprinted in the Heritage of Sociology series in 1967, and, now, 21st-century gentrification and smart-cities algorithmic surveillance.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.