Blown away by thought of windy city

Department and Discipline
November 12, 1999

It is not often in the field of social theory that a group of scholars, a history of ideas and a style of work become gathered and identified through their geographical location: the Frankfurt School being one example and the Chicago School another.

This book is a diligent address by a Chicago sociologist of Chicago sociology, a genre that is just celebrating its centenary. For many, the 20th century marks out the duration of a unified discipline, but it is less well recognised that W. I. Thomas held his chair in sociology at Chicago quite independently of Durkheim who was, at the same time, "founding" our all-too-European tradition in France.

In this book we are taken into the parallel American universe that generated such quality in diversity and spawned so many of the authors and texts that punctuate, and signpost, the development of our discipline.

Andrew Abbott's work is also a history of the various stages and transitions that the American Journal of Sociology has passed through on its way to becoming the main, and certainly the most influential, journal for the discipline in North America. But his archival approach to the wealth of material provided by the AJS , which was his original topic, prefigures and determines the character of this text such that the narrative often becomes lost in the detail.

This is a disarmingly honest work, the author confessing with a remarkable degree of insight at the end of chapter one that "this intensive and perhaps sometimes a little tedious review of an enormous historical tradition leaves us in an even deeper quandary than when we started", and beginning his epilogue with the statement: "I promised at the outset a wearying journey through 'thickets of detail, copses of complexity, and forests of fact.' And surely no one can gainsay that description"

Not a gripping read then - but this book is honest in ways beyond self-deprecation. The author refuses to render the Chicago School coherent despite this reader's desire to hear order, thematic constraint and epistemological structure. The Chicagoans and their ideas scatter and fragment and resist all attempts to assemble them and generate a taxonomy. We are often left wondering what was so school-like about this particular school other than that it all happened in Illinois.

The concept of a school is, indeed, one of the many historical myths that Abbott seeks to sweep aside and his method is relentless. The earlier works of Martin Bulmer, Paul Rock and Barbara Lal, all scholars working from the United Kingdom and creating intelligible, instructive and, for me,compulsive accounts of Chicago sociology, are appraised for the quality and ingenuity of their writing but sidestepped because of their revisionism. Whereas Rock's work brings symbolic interactionism out as the confluence of Chicago, Abbott gives it a mere five isolated index entries and G. H. Mead only four.

While vapourising the many icons whom we systematically frame as part of the Chicago School, and while equally dispelling any possibility of a "great man" theory of events (though there have been enough great men in this faculty), Abbott occasionally charms with the anecdotal as evidential.He knows not only the date that Herbert Blumer tended his resignation but the earlier date that he informed his colleagues of his pending departure; he knows that Everett C. Hughes was not a very likeable man; he knows who did and who did not have their tenure renewed. All fascinating stuff but insufficient without the structural account to provide a mosaic of understanding.

What happened here to qualitative methodology, urban ethnography, the study of occupations, social reaction theory, biographical method, typification studies, social ecology, pragmatism, adult socialisation and so on? All are mentioned but not frequently enough to register as significant if we were to employ the constant comparative method or Howard Becker's analytic induction.

The rigorous desire to avoid stereotyping or gross characterisation leaves us with a litany of names that reads like a Midwestern electoral register and a history that amounts to one damn thing after another (just in case we lapse into causality). This is frustrating as we also gain the impression that Abbott probably knows more about Chicago sociology than any other living figure.

At another level, the author will not allow a further form of materialist reductionism: that the sociology is not really anything to do with Chicago as a city either. The facts of Chicago's location; its ethnic mix (and grid-regulated segregation); its pattern of immigration and housing; its governance and corruption; its violence and transgression (remember Al Capone and the St Valentine's Day massacre?); its sheer drive and unique culture. This "wonderful town" can surely have had no bearing on its sociology, Abbott insists,yet ethnomusicologists can convince me that it is precisely this town that created its unique jazz and blues sounds. Apparently the Zeitgeist escapes what Abbott describes as "such teleological tales, in which the school springs out of the heady mix of early 20th-century America".

As you may have gathered, the book was an enjoyable read for this reviewer. I cannot gain too much knowledge about this impressive assembly of intellectuals and the sheer weight of their influence. I suppose you need to share these feelings to want to read the book, despite its style and despite its analysis.

It is certainly not for the general reader but rather for a cultural historian of sociology. I have sat and listened to Becker and Julius Roth telling stories about their great teachers and about how they saw a unity of purpose in the Chicago School. Abbott states a "fundamental insight of the Chicago tradition" - "to take the location of social facts seriously, to see all social life as situated in time and place". It stands for that, but it stands also for so much more.

Chris Jenks is professor of sociology, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred

Author - Andrew Abbott
ISBN - 0 226 00098 2 and 00099 0
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £31.50 and £12.00
Pages - 249

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