Ethnography is a field of research which includes studying cultural and social aspect from the lives of people. It includes participant observation as a main method of recording and analyzing narratives or accounts of people. Chicago Ethnographers provide us with a good example of the ecological aspect and to understand human behaviour through studying Chicago city as a Centre of research and a part of Urban studies.

During 19th and 20th century Chicago grew into a great metropolis, Chicago was the centre of great exchange of commerce. People migrated from eastern states and also Europe. Chicago remains one of the changing cities, which covers most of the historical past. The city has changed a lot physically and many historians and sociologists conducted research and investigation based on modern urban studies.


The University of Chicago was opened in 1892  and the first sociology department was set up in an American university. American sociology was divided into two major tendencies 1) a speculative social philosophy which focused on human society and its progress. 2) a  social survey movement which focused on the data accumulated for the growing industrial society. Both the tendencies focused on improving the human condition but both were different from each other. An Intellectual influence William Isaac Thomas persuaded empirical investigation, he tried removing the study of social organization from the biological characteristics. He also focused on the need to understand participant observation as a method of research and the use of personal documents that is diaries, letters, narratives, autobiographies etc. His study was focused on European immigrant groups and collaborated his research with Polish social philosopher Florian Znaniecki. About the same time, Thomas left the university due to some personal issues, and left behind him variety of ideas of research. He had played an important role in the growth of urban sociology.

Robert Ezra Park took to the new post in Chicago after Thomas and became an investigative reporter. He focused mainly on opium treasure spots and gambling houses, and discussed the causes of alcoholism. He wasn’t satisfied with journalism and pursued philosophy at Harvard, and continued with his academic work  in Germany and wrote a dissertation on collective behaviour. After returning to America , Park  became a press agent of an organization of Baptist missionaries. Park also attended international conference on the race problems .


Park was concerned with the American race relations and the impact of immigration on the American society, apart from this, another area which fascinated park was urbanism. He focused on the structure of ideas, books and did a lot of research. As a journalist he had immense knowledge about what is going in and around the corner. He observed various situations and things and his first paper on urban research concentrated on urban neighborhoods which included isolated places, little places, homes of immigrants, structure of the neighborhood, changes due to urbanism such as division of labor, changing kinship patterns, church, understanding city life, understanding and observing roles of different people such as the policeman, the peddler, the  school teacher, the cab driver, the reporter etc., on a whole understanding city life which goes under a massive change. Park talks about the moral order of the urban city life where in a situation where people hardly know each other, fashion or fad acts as a medium of exchange.


Park concentrated on the spatial order of the city, after researching the neighborhood, he observed the changing patterns of the residential complex, the streets , the pattern of rooms, the shops etc. For instance he states that “The Irish Kilgubbin has become the Swedish smoky Hollow, the Swedish smoky Hollow into a little Sicily and now the little Sicily becomes a Negro Quarter”. These changing patterns are important  in shaping the modern city. Park found the comparison in spatial order of the city with plant ecology. The wealthiest or the strongest inhabitants would occupy the most advantageous locations and other would adjust according to the needs and demands. Burgess illustrated ideal type diagram of city with concentric circles. The first circle is called “the loop” which is the most important circle carrying  highest land value, and all business activities. The second circle is known as “a Zone in transition”  which contained artists colonies, immigrant neighborhoods, housing etc. The third circle was known as zone of working Men’s homes, the fourth circle was Residential zone and the fifth was commuters zone. The model of Burgess was well applied to Chicago. During 1930,  Urban sociology started emerging as a new discipline from ethnography.


Two kinds of Urban studies emerged while studying Chicago, one was sociological that is Urban Sociology and the other was Anthropological that is Urban Anthropology. By 1929 , a separate department of Anthropology was established at the University of Chicago.

ANTHROPOLOGY, is the study of humans mainly concerned with primitive people, understanding and studying urban life and culture.

The methodology carried out in the study of the urban life of Chicago was similar to the anthropologists that is observation of the social aspect in a natural setting which includes informal interviews, surveys, personal documents, life histories, narratives etc. Collection of all these ethnographies result in qualitative research.

Following are the Five best known studies show and draw the interests of anthropologists and ethnographers.


It was published by Nels Anderson’s The Hobo in 1923.  According to Anderson hobo was a migrant worker, American born moving around the country aimlessly would pursue odd jobs. With the changing city life Hobo started disappearing, as they moved towards the new industries and farms which required mobile workforce. Chicago was considered as a hobo capital. Hobohemia was a part of transitional zone which was an area of uncomfortable settlements, cheap housing facilities etc. Nel Anderson vigilantly focussed on the study of hobo life where he himself becomes a participant and becomes young hobo, moving from one place to another and the research site was the same streets, alleys salons and also did the menial works such sold newspapers as a boy. He jot down the facts and figures and estimated certain number of  people coming and joining the hobo life and moving which also depended on season. According to Anderson there are five major types of hoboes , the first is seasonal worker, the second type of hobo was a migrant worker, the third type was the tramp a migrant but not a worker, the fourth type is home guard a worker but not a migrant and the fifth type was the bum, not a worker and not a immigrant. There are different personal and social causes of homeless men, alcoholism and drug use was present. Men did not have female partners, they were unmarried , some were normal practicing homosexuality. It was easy to get female company, near a bar or theatre or among street prostitutes. Pawnbrokers, restaurants who could provide them with meals for 10 cents, cheap hotels etc. where one could stay. There was no organization for hoboes, they were loosely located and were an essential element of the city of Chicago.


It was the prominent work of Fredric M. Thrashers The Gang and was published in 1927, which focused on urban life. It described a study of 1313 gangs in Chicago which had different names associated with them. Some gangs had less minimum three members. The major aspect to the gangs was territorial they arose in gangland and gathered in zone of transition of Burgess model of circles. They also hold an integral part of the social disorganization. There were economic differences between the gangs. The origin of gangs was seen in the small and unorganized groups of children , these groups would turn into a gang. The main activities of these groups would include simply roaming here and there , exploring themselves and the world, creating fantasies , exploring new kinds of behaviour , taking active participation in gang fights etc. Gangland was one such frontier where all gangs would gather together and express themselves. The gangs could turn into a secret society keeping in view the secret thrills and rituals to themselves. Some groups are also connected with Politics. Gangs indulge themselves into thieving and crime for economic motives and also known as the process of socialisation. Gangs in itself is seen as an organisation.


The Ghetto written by Louis Wirth in 1928, another study that dealt with Chicago neighbourhood. It discussed the ghetto formation of Jewish neighbourhood in Europe and America. Ghettos were voluntary concentrations of Jews in some Particular quarters , that concentrated much of the livelihoods of the people. Ghettos gave Jews some sort of autonomy and sense of belongingness. It was seen as a community which performed religious, legal, educational, and welfare activities together. Ghetto would give them liberation and a sense of freedom. They would engage in commerce with the native Chicagoans. The language they spoke was Yiddish. They were known as a vulnerable community. They changed and adapted themselves with the Chicago  ecological thought and lifestyle. Ghetto is seen as the Park’s thought on race relations and race relation cycle that is through competition, conflict, and accommodation top assimilation. The ghetto followed accommodation and later begin with assimilation.


The lower north side Chicago was a part of Zorbaugh’s monograph.  It constituted six natural areas on the lower north side- 1)the gold coast , 2) the rooming house zone, 3)Bohemia , 4)  Business and entertainment area on the North Clark Street, 5) the slum, 6) Little Sicily.  The gold coast was  the upper class area, place of leisure, place to attend first nights with opera, right balls, club meetings, elite sections of people resided. There were certain norms for this elite place that no ordinary person would enter it. It was one of the fashionable and elite residences. The rooming house zone is connected with some part of the slum and the houses are in the close proximity, but it is still considered in  the respectable parts. People are constantly staying or leaving the place, nobody stays as a permanent resident. There is no community tradition, no public opinion , and no neighbourhood interactions. The Bohemian quarter was called as Tower town. It had small quarters for daily meet ups and regular meetings. Artists , Authors, singers, chefs share the place together. Unmarried couples lived together, women have freedom to live and choose her own life to live according to her conditions. This kind of bohemian quarter was critiqued  by the main street and showed traces of decline. The north clark street was full of entertainment and business and was of a great hype. Dance halls , cabaret, restaurants, poor halls, pawn shops , cheap houses, with mixed public shop girls, gang members, prostitutes, criminals, city hawkers etc. The slum was a part of great diversity , it included cheap rented houses. It acts as a stopover for the travellers as well. It is a  hub for secret activities and underworld. Working class people who earn little income are the inhabitants of slum. The last area is the little Sicily also known as the little hell, it has Italian taste. The area had family loyalties, strict rules related to  Women and ideas of honour and shame. The rules are strict and every body has to abide by it. Lower north side is a world of its own, it has power which is exercised in many ways. The lifestyle is magnificent as seen in six different areas.


Paul G. Cressey published his work The taxi dance hall in 1932. It was the well known ethnographies associated with Chicago school  of sociology. The research was based on field work. The taxi dance hall is not respectable which was open for both the sexes, it was a setting where the girls were paid to dance in front and with the males. There were proper organised system of tickets men and young boys would buy tickets from the main entry and then they would show the tickets to the female partners whom they want to dance with, the girl collects the ticket and would get half of the price of the main ticket price, and half was earned by the proprietor, to manage other music and other expenses. Taxi dance hall was completely a distinct world as denoted by Cressey. The ecology was placed within three groups of inhabitants: 1) The owners, 2) The taxi dance girls, and  3) The patrons. The owners were related to new business opportunities and this business would also help them to reach economic fulfilment. The second group of taxi dance girls is the most important group as this group is the centre of attraction. Young girls filled with enthusiasm, thrills , satisfaction with money. These girls are detached from family and neighbourhood , and some might have gone  through a divorce and separated from family. It was a place to enjoy female company for those who were lonely and had no friends. Some people took the relationship with the taxi dance girls seriously, which led to marriage. Those relationships which involved sexual intercourse were given a special space for the couple but would lead to career in prostitution for the girl which is seen as a downward fall. Some girls would  come to taxi dance halls for short duration , earn some money and again leave the place and go back to their native places. Some girls live double lives as mentioned by Cressey where not telling their families bout the jobs they did. It is a study of a social world where many urban worlds meet and interact.


Chicago ethnographers presents commendable impression of the urban environment. The studies based on Chicago ethnography  give us a broader picture of the ecology and the relationship between the urban environment. There is also seen an interrelationship between the ethnography and anthropology, the methodology used is mainly of participant observation and field work. Chicago studies was focused on territory . There were certain criticisms related to the spatial order of the city.


Hannerz, Ulf. 1980. Exploring the City: Toward an Urban Anthropology, NY:Columbia
University Press. Chapter 2. Pp 19-58

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