The Chicago school: A political interpretation

Norbert Wiley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


My main point is that the 1920s Chicago School got its scholastic or school-like quality primarily from its notion of what a human being is, from its social psychology, and only secondarily from its sociology. These sociologists developed the novel idea that humans are constituted by symbolic or cultural elements, not biological forces or instincts. They applied Franz Boas's discovery of culture to human nature and the self. In particular, they showed that ethnic groups and their subcultures are not biologically determined or driven by fixed instincts. In the 1910s and 1920s, the Americanization movement held that ethnic groups could be ranked on how intelligent, how criminal, and therefore how fit for democracy they were. This powerful movement, the extreme wing of which was lead by the Northern Ku Klux Klan, advocated different levels of citizenship for different ethnic groups. The Chicago sociologists spearheaded the idea that humans have a universal nature, are all the same ontologically, and therefore all the same morally and legally. In this way, they strengthened the foundations of civil liberties. The Chicago professors advanced their position in a quiet, low-keyed manner, the avoidance of open political controversy being the academic style of the time. Their position was nevertheless quite potent and effective. The actual sociology of the school, also quite important, was largely an expression of the democratic social psychology. In addition, the sociology was dignified and elevated by the moral capital of their theory of human nature.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)39-74
Number of pages36
JournalStudies in Symbolic Interaction
StatePublished - 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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