“The Chicago School of Ethnography.” Mary Jo Deegan

From Atkinson, Paul, Amanda Coffey, Sara Delamont, John Lofland, and Lyn Lofland (eds.) Handbook of Ethnography. 2001. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.

Background: Ethnographic fieldwork and sociology as intrinsically/historically linked through ethographic traditions of fieldwork at University of Chicago in fields of work, socialization, and organzations.  Though symbolic interactionism is often central to many works, there are many ethnographies that are tied through different theoretical paradigms.  Historically, ethnographies have been focused on the exotic Other (^which plagues studies with ethnocentrism and points of marginalizing biased assumptions) – but has been useful in defining the ever elusive definition of “community” which sociology seeks.  It is important to recognize theoretical and paradigmatic differences in ethnographic research, as it becomes a critical factor in contextualizing and justifying one’s own research methods. 


The University of Chicago was a sociological figurehead for nearly fifty years – from the late 1800’s until 1942, training many prolific sociologists, many of which were students of the students of Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess.  These figures were highly impacted by the works of WI Thomas, GH Mead, and John Dewey (^from education and experiential knowledge arenas).

Ethnographies worked to study daily, personal, face-to-face interactions in specific locations – demonstrating modern, urban “social worlds”, which took and explored the role of the Other to investigate values, attitudes, practices in a time of rapid social change.  Core ethnographies of Park and Burgess are often centered on issues of race, deliquency, immigration, work, politics, as well as marriage and family.  Many of these feature statistical data supported by interviews, participant observations, or life histories – in an attempt to best triangulate data. In addition, they bring up important empistemological assumptions that should be dissected, in their study of race relations and discrimination, as well as divides between rural and city life. Likewise, their focus on empiricism led to organizational and activist-based community research, working with several community organizations to promote a new form of nascent public sociology and personal responsibility/ethical codes. Also, their reflexivity and consistent reviews (a practice continued by their students) aided to help define standpoints and promote the dissection of held assumptions through critical thinking.

Unfortunately, there are some critiques of the Chicago ethnographies. Most of the populations studied: hoboes, deliquents, gang members, etc – are all male-dominant.  Women and women’s roles are often times absent or underrepresented in these works, leaning toward a small-c conservative viewpoint of women’s separation from public spheres.  Likewise, Park had an animosity toward WEB DuBois, as the latter’s more egalitarian, activist, and militant viewpoints.  The ethnographies tend toward stereotyping and generalizations; also, methodologically, the measures taken then are quite archaic as compared to available contemporary methods.  Similarly, the fight to legitimize sociology as a science overshadows the problems of “objectivity” insisted by authors.  


A Quote: “The sociology dissertation process is a liminal journey, a passage characterized by ambiguity, uncertainty, and crisis in which the student self is abandoned and a new professional self claims a world of power, authority, maturity, and responsibility” (Deegan and Hill 1991, 322 – In “Doctoral Dissertations as Liminal Journeys of the Self”.  Teaching Sociology 19: 322-32).


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