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The University and the City
A Centennial View of the
University of Chicago
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Ernest W. Burgess

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


Book, The Taxi-Dance Hall

Paul G. Cressey, The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life (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."

The Urban Laboratory

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."

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