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"Maxwell Street," from Louis Wirth, The Ghetto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928).

"Maxwell Street," from Louis Wirth, The Ghetto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928). Chicago's Maxwell Street and other urban ghettoes, Wirth argued, were both a refuge from prejudice and a continuing cause of social isolation. Woodcut by Todros Geller.

The Urban Laboratory

Race and Ethnicity
Ethnic diversity has always been an important element of Chicago's character. Before the Civil War, German, Scandinavian, and Irish immigrants had clustered in separate neighborhoods of the city. In the later nineteenth century, Italians, Poles, Chinese, Greeks, Eastern Europeans, and peoples of other nationalities arrived in Chicago by the thousands and established distinct communities. By the turn of the century and in the years thereafter, a great internal migration brought African-Americans from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and other southern states to the South Side and West Side of the city.

The first Chicago sociologist to examine one of these ethnic communities in detail was W. I. Thomas, who began graduate work at the University in 1892 and completed his PhD under Albion Small in 1896. With funds provided by Helen Culver, an important benefactor of the University and of Hull House, Thomas spent ten years researching Polish society and Polish immigration to America. The results of his study, written in collaboration with Florian Znaniecki, were published in five volumes as The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-20). Thomas was particularly concerned with the difficulties of assimilation, describing how the rapid cultural changes encountered in Chicago weakened Polish group cohesion and created an individualism that strained marriages, spurred teenagers to leave home, and led to violence.

The decisive impact of Thomas and Znaniecki's study was due less to the actual data presented than the choice of subject and methodology. Although both Thomas and Znaniecki left the Unversity while the publication of The Polish Peasant was still underway, their work set in motion Chicago's strong tradition of ethnic studies. For, the Chicago sociologists, the ideal terrain of social analysis lay at points of stress. In showing how individuals or groups deviated from or accommodated to the mainstream, these social scientists hoped to provide data for reforms that would make possible a more complete assimilation of ethnic groups.

Under the guidance of Park and Burgess, an unprecedentedly wide range of race and ethnic studies was produced. Of the fifty-one sociology dissertations written at the University between 1919 and 1930, twenty-five related to race and ethnicity, far more than those of any other topic.


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