‘The Chicago School research on social organisations is not so much a sociology of crime as a sociology of space’ Discuss?
The Chicago school of sociology is a well formed sociological discipline, it was established in 1892 in Chicago; it focused on criminology and identifying environmental factors associated with crime. This is the point from which this essay derives, namely that the Chicago schools work, is not so much a sociology of crime but in fact a sociology of space.
The essay is concerned with looking at the Chicago school and determining whether or not the main emphasis of research on social organisations, is in fact more of a sociology of space, than a sociology of crime. The essay will begin by looking at the formation of the Chicago school and the first sociologists of the time, including Small, Park, and Burgess. The essay will then look at the idea of the Chicago school as a sociology of crime, followed by the idea of the Chicago school as a sociology of space. The essay will then look at how the two are possibly linked and finally conclude.
The essay will argue that although the Chicago school does appear to be more a sociology of space, it is in fact actually identifying simply how ‘space’ or location affects social problems, in particular crime. So the essay will in essence argue that the Chicago school is a sociology of both crime and space.
The Chicago school of sociology was established in 1892 by Albion Small, it was the first sociology department in the world, the Chicago school of sociology was according to Marshall (1998:67) ‘Heavily informed by philosophical pragmatism, the direct observation of experience’. It was also focused on the direct commitment to fieldwork and empirical study. However the Chicago school did not just primarily use qualitative methods, but it also pioneered the use of surveys and community based statistical research.
A core theme of the Chicago schools work was its concern with the study of the city, and how the city life affected people in society, in particular crime.
Around this time Chicago was one of the fastest growing cities in the world, Chicago was the home of car production and the meat-packing industry. It was very diverse with people of different classes and people of different ethnic backgrounds; the city was ‘an exploding mosaic of contrasting social worlds’ (Downes & Rock 2003:57). Chicago was a city was in a state of great change, this is more than likely why the Chicago school adopted a fascinating gaze on the city, as it is unusual for sociologists to just study their immediate surroundings.
Robert Park joined the Chicago school in 1914 and transformed the Chicago school into a practical sociology, which tended to focus on the small scale, leaning favourably to anthropological research methods.
The Chicago school was principally interested in city life and how the city developed, for example they saw the housing market not just as that of market competition, but of a class struggle.
‘Houses in a modern city are not allocated simply by a process of competition in the market; […] it is that there is a class struggle over the use of houses and that this struggle is the central process of the city as a social unit’. (Park & Burgess 1925:273).
Chicago school theorists saw that city life and urbanisation was similar to the natural world, it was not random, but patterned and organised. This shows how originally the Chicago schools main emphasis was on the sociology of ‘space’, in how city life was organised.
A prime example of this, is Parks idea of ecology, his theory of ecology was based on the assumption that society was organised, and that the evolution of different human groups was similar to that of animals in the natural world, That city life was patterned like that of nature.
This view however is not complete as it ignores the idea that people are conscious human beings, and are capable of removing themselves from the territories they inhabit, by use of their own rationality.
Parks ecology did however act as a base idea, for Burgess to come up with his theory of the concentric circles, otherwise more famously known as the ecological model.
Parks work focused the Chicago school interest on how cities expand and become differentiated as they grow. Burgess saw that cities evolve outwards in a series of concentric circles.
At the centre of the city was the central business district (CBD), in which shops, important business and government buildings were located, it was the centre of the city and a hub of activity with high property values. Out from this was the zone of transition, where the population was poor and constantly changing and buildings were deteriorating.
Out from this then grew areas of working class housing, middle class housing to finally a suburbia on the outskirts of the city.
This shows how the principal interest for the Chicago school was on the sociology of space of how the city grew and the patterns it possessed.
As we can see that the main focus of the Chicago school was not intended to be that in particular of crime or deviance, ‘deviant populations formed but one segment of the city and were perhaps no more engaging than any other’ (Downes & Rock 203:64), the focus of the Chicago school on crime seems to have stemmed from a more practical sense in that researchers could easily look at crime, and as Burgess’s model had shown that much of crime was located into the zone of transition.
And so the focus of much work by Chicago school theorists shifted to look at the zone of transition, and why this zone was so rife in crime.
Although the emphasis here is shifting to look at crime the underlying theme is still that of space, as its looking at the zone of transition, the space between the CBD and working class housing. It is only when looking in this zone that the sociology of crime is addressed, in looking at the zone of transition theorists saw that zone possessed a particular social organisation, of the cheapest rents, frequent circulation of inhabitants, few government institutions like schools and hospitals and large influxes of immigrants, all of which contributed to high rates of crime and deviancy.
In this zone of transition deviant lifestyles became accepted and passed from generation to generation, therefore becoming instilled into society.
The Chicago school looked at crime in the zone of transition because of the practicalities behind it. As researchers could easily go into the zone of transition, and look at crime and deviance. It was a lot harder and complicated to look at processes in the city, which related to power, for example research which required great deals of access and patronage, like that of local politics.
The Chicago schools approach to crime was one in which they made a connection between criminal activity, and the life of the city. The Chicago school explained crime and deviance as centering on particular conditions in the zone of transition. In this sense the Chicago school seems to be more of a sociology of space than that of crime, as their central concern is with that of looking at how cities expand and grow, arguing that they are patterned like the natural world.
However as Downes & Rock suggest that ‘Chicago sociology was a major co-operative enterprise which launched an intellectual assault on the study of the city. Part of that assault was occupied by social problems, and these social problems were typically confined to particular districts’ (Downes & Rock 2003:80).
As Downes and Rock highlight here, that the Chicago school did focus on looking at particular areas, and in particular how cities develop, the sociology of space. But they also looked at the social problems which accompanied this development, in particular crime and deviance, the sociology of crime.
So it appears that the Chicago school was as much a sociology of crime, as a sociology of space, as the two went hand in hand. One identifying the growth of the city, and the other identifying the social problems which occurred in these ‘spaces’ created by the growth. In particular crime, which the Chicago school saw as centering in the zone of transition, an area which appeared disjointed with the rest of the city.
Bulmer, M. (1984) ‘The Chicago School of Sociology’. Chicago University Press: Chicago.
Downes, D. and Rock, P. (2003) ‘Understanding Deviance’. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Marshall, G. (1998) ‘Dictionary of Sociology’. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Park, R. and Burgess, E. (1925) ‘The City’. Chicago University Press: Chicago.
Rex, J. and Moore, R. (1967) ‘Race, Community and Conflict: A Study of Sparkbrook’. Oxford University Press: London & New York.
Sumner, C. (1994) ‘The Sociology of Deviance, an Obituary’. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
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