Chicago's tradition in sociology is both a unique history and a current commitment. The department has reconstituted itself many times over its 110-year history, yet has retained a similar character through its transitions. Members of today's department–faculty and students alike–consider themselves not only heirs of the earlier Chicago schools of sociology, but also as part of a community charged with recreating the Chicago vision for a new generation.
The Department was founded in 1892 on the appointment of Albion Small as Head Professor of Sociology. Himself a researcher on the histories of institutions and schools of thought, Small played a central role in creating sociology as an academic discipline. He founded the American Journal of Sociology and edited it for thirty years. At the same time he helped found and manage the American Sociological Association. Small was also deeply involved with social reform, a tradition that has continued throughout the department's history.
Small's colleagues and successors included W. I. Thomas, Robert Park, and Ernest Burgess. With Florian Znaniecki, Thomas wrote one of the century's definitive sociological studies–The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. Park and Burgess together wrote an influential textbook and trained an extraordinary group of students in the 1920s and early 1930s. As theorists, Park and Burgess emphasized process and change rather than fixed social structure, an emphasis that has characterized much Chicago work since their time. As methodologists, Park and Burgess insisted on eclecticism, another emphasis that has endured. As empirical workers, Park and Burgess transformed studies of the city and its social institutions. The new sociological empiricism was added into Park and Burgess's approach with the arrival of William Ogburn at Chicago in 1927, which inaugurated a local debate over methodology–often impassioned but always respectful–that continues in the department to this day.
Park and Burgess's era–that of the first Chicago School–was succeeded after the Second World War by a second Chicago School. A generation of brilliant students studied with Everett Hughes, Lloyd Warner, and Herbert Blumer, learning the now-classic Chicago methods of urban ethnography and interpretive sociology. At the same time, however, newer types of sociology also found their place in the strongly eclectic department. Ogburn, Phillip Hauser, and later Leo Goodman trained young specialists in demography, human ecology, and the new quantitative methods, many of the latter in fact being developed by Chicago faculty and students.
The pattern of an eclectic department organized around a core value of intellectual intensity and (most of the time) intellectual respect was gradually entrenched over the 1960s. Demography continued to flourish under Hauser and Donald Bogue, ethnography under Morris Janowitz and later Gerald Suttles. Survey analysis had a golden era under Peter Rossi and others at NORC, the University's in-house survey operation. During the period 1970 to 1990, the department enjoyed an extraordinarily stable and productive period in which faculty shaped field after field in sociology. James Coleman in education, Gerry Suttles and Morris Janowitz in community studies, William Julius Wilson in studies of race, Hauser and later Douglas Massey in demography, Goodman in methodology, Edward Laumann in social structure and organization: all these gave definitive shape to important areas of sociology.