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The University and the City
A Centennial View of the
University of Chicago
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Dr. Ben L. Reitman, "Classification of Tramps, Hobos, and Other Types of Homeless Men," undated.

Dr. Ben L. Reitman, "Classification of Tramps, Hobos, and Other Types of Homeless Men," undated. While based largely on his own experience and observation, Nels Anderson's The Hobo also drew on information provided by Ben Reitman, a physician who had lived and worked among the homeless of Chicago.

The Urban Laboratory

Social Science Research
Drawing on their studies of social conditions in Chicago, Park and Burgess developed generalized theories of urban ecology which explored how cities became divided into separate zones by class and function. They believed that cities had a natural history that, if examined and analyzed, could explain urban cultural patterns. Under the guidance of Park and Burgess, a whole generation of young sociologists explored Chicago to locate problems and populations that could provide data on which to base explanatory models.

The studies produced by these investigators relied on personal contacts between researchers and their subjects. Sociology students were trained to find individuals who typified a particular social problem, a juvenile delinquent or dance hall girl or someone else on the margins of conventional society, and observe and interview them at length. The best of the field research generated by this method was that which captured most fully the life and character of the subjects. In his preface to Clifford Shaw's The Jack-Roller: A Delinquent Boy's Own Story (1930), Burgess described the ideal "life-history documents" as microscopes through which to view "the interplay of mental processes and social relationships." Burgess praised Shaw's study, which followed a single delinquent boy for six years, as a "perfect" example of this type of scientific research.

Race and Ethnicity
Another student of Burgess, Nels Anderson, had lived and traveled with hobos before coming to the University to study sociology. As a researcher, Anderson moved into the Madison-Halsted area known as Hobohemia and began interviewing homeless men for their life histories. Afterward, their reminiscences were supplemented with the written records of city welfare agencies so that his subjects' accounts were both verified and enlarged. Anderson's interviews, some running as long as 150 pages, were incorporated into his monograph, The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (1923).

The intensely personal accounts of individuals collected by the University's sociologists revealed the city of Chicago as a burgeoning metropolis colored by endless hard-luck stories and disturbing verities. The literature of Chicago sociology as it accumulated during the 1920s and 1930s pulsed with vivid tales of drifters, gamblers and hoodlums, domestic strife, sexual vice, the dangers of industrial occupations, the tensions of assimilation, and the powerful undercurrents of group and class.


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