The Urban Laboratory

Ernest W. Burgess, undated
Ernest W. Burgess, undated
Photograph by Paul A. Wagner
With Robert Park, Burgess played a central role in defining the urban research program of the “Chicago school” of sociology.
Social Science Research

At the outset, William R. Harper defined the University of Chicago as an institution committed to rigorous standards of research, yet open to the broadest engagement with American society. "Democracy," he wrote, "has scarcely begun to understand itself. It is in the university that the best opportunity is afforded to investigate the movements of the past and to present the facts and principles involved before the public. It is the university that, as the center of thought, is to maintain for democracy the unity so essential for its success."

The important position of the social sciences in this program emerged early in Harper's recruitment of faculty. Albion Small, the president of Colby College, was persuaded to come to Chicago and head an academic department of sociology. Like others Harper recruited, Small seized the opportunity to devote himself to research in his chosen field. "I must put the bulk of my time in on my special work, and in the supervision of courses in . . . Sociology," he wrote. "Our Chicago scheme is the first on this continent to provide for Social Science a chance to be fundamental and comprehensive."

As epitomized by Small, the first generation of social scientists at Chicago saw research as a tool for the promotion of reform. An ordained Baptist minister, Small favored secular scholarship over the pulpit. Nonetheless, like Biblical scholar Harper, he shared liberal Protestant expectations that scientific research into the problems of society would lay the path to a more equitable American democracy. In the first issue of the American Journal of Sociology, which he founded, Small wrote, "I would have American scholars, especially in the social sciences, declare their independence of do-nothing traditions. I would have them repeal the law of custom which bars marriage of thought with action." Sharing the pages of the Journal in the early years were other reformers with strong religious backgrounds, including Jane Addams of Hull House, whose father was a Congregationalist minister, and Charles R. Henderson and Shailer Mathews, both clergymen and professors in the University's Divinity School.

For more secular scholars such as sociologists Robert Park and Ernest W. Burgess, Chicago was an ideal subject for systematic research that displayed nearly every human condition compressed into a single, crowded urban mass. In their classic book The City (1925), Park and Burgess argued that city life offered all of human society simultaneously, something that scholars investigating isolated tribes in remote locations could never encounter. "The same patient methods of observation which anthropologists like Boas and Lowies have expended in the study of the life and manners of the North American Indian," wrote Burgess, "might be more fruitfully employed in the investigation of the customs, beliefs, social practices, and general conceptions of life in Little Italy on the lower North Side of Chicago."

The Taxi-Dance Hall: . A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life
The Taxi-Dance Hall: . A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life
Paul G. Cressey
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932

“It is a mercenary and silent world - this world of the taxi-dance hall,” wrote Paul Cressey in his famous study. “Feminine society is for sale at ten cents a dance.”

Classification of Tramps, Hobos, and Other Types of Homeless Men, undated
Classification of Tramps, Hobos, and Other Types of Homeless Men, undated

Dr. Ben L. Reitman

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.

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.