The Atlanta Sociological Laboratory 1896-1924: A Historical Account of the First American School of Sociology

By Wright, Earl, II | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The Atlanta Sociological Laboratory 1896-1924: A Historical Account of the First American School of Sociology


Wright, Earl, II, The Western Journal of Black Studies


Introduction

The discipline of sociology is replete with historical data citing theoretical formulations, methodological advancements, and other significant contributions by some of the founders, advocates, and innovators of the discipline. Men such as Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx are canonized classical sociologists that every student of the discipline is required to study because their scholarship, presumably, exemplifies sociological excellence. Now included within many discussions of influential, yet historically overlooked, sociologists and social scientists are women such as Harriet Martineau, Ida B. Wells, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Jane Addams and the women of the Hull-House settlement (Cannon, 1997; Deegan, 1988; Macionis, 2001; Riedesel, 1981; Ritzer, 2000; Sheth and Prasch, 1996; and Terry; 1983). The ideas of these women and men represent a vast continuum upon which a variety of sociological concepts, theories, methodologies, and investigations have contributed to the relatively young discipline. Many of the individuals who participated in the construction of sociology through their theoretical and empirical research efforts did not do so in a vacuum. Institutions of higher learning were very instrumental in the development and maturation of sociology. Schools such as Kansas University, Columbia University, University of Nebraska, University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago are locations where many American social scientists received institutional support and guidance and were afforded the intellectual freedom to develop sociology into the area of study that it is today. These American institutions, through advancements in sociological theory and methodology, seemingly, replaced Europe as the central locations of innovative sociological developments during the late 1800's and early 1900's. One American university rose above the rest to become a leader in sociological developments, in part, because of tremendous institutional support that resulted in, supposedly, groundbreaking theoretical formulations and methodological techniques.

The Chicago School of Sociology, 1913-1930

In 1892 the University of Chicago established the first "named" sociology department in the United States (Harvey, 1987). Founded through the philanthropic efforts of John D. Rockefeller, the University of Chicago, from its inception, placed an immense importance upon an extensive and ambitious research agenda. Research, as defined by the University of Chicago Committee on Development (1925), is

... the employment of human curiosity for the purpose of enlarging the field of human knowledge in the interest of human progress (1).

To that end, the Committee on Development proclaimed:

`Here is to be found intellectual freedom.' [The University of Chicago] established as its official motto, and has kept it: `Let knowledge grow, that life may be enriched.' By setting up lofty ideals of scholarship, by recognizing research as one of its primary aims, and by encouraging freedom of investigation as a prime condition of success in research, [The University of Chicago] began on a plane to which many other institution has been slowly ascending (9).

One beneficiary of the ambitious research agenda of the University of Chicago was the newly formed sociology department. Albion Small was chosen to lead this new department through its formative years. University of Chicago officials thought so highly of Small upon his hiring that they declared,

In Sociology, the name of a man like Professor Albion W. Small, Head of that Department of the University, stands for pioneer work in organizing a subject that belongs to the present generation and has made for a broader view of human society (39).

Despite the lavish praise bestowed upon Small, the sociology program at the University of Chicago did not become the school of American sociology until Robert Park, Ernest Watson Burgess, and the second generation of University of Chicago sociologists entered the department and pioneered extensive urban research investigations. …

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