Chapter 4 • The Chicago School 45

Chapter 4 • The Chicago School 45

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Chicago School, there were no absolutes, no set of universal rules governing human behavior. First, there are places where normal behaviors would be defined by those outside of the place as deviant, in the “hobo jungles,” for example. There people engage in “deviant” behavior by cor- rectly defining the situation and following the roles expected of them. The behavior is not, of course, deviant from the perspective of that specific setting but only from the perspective of outside society. Second, people can misdefine situations, act inappropriately, and become devi- ant. Thus, a misreading of situational guidelines can lead to rule-violating behavior. For instance, at the street corner near your home you may legally make a right turn at a red light. Elsewhere, you may erroneously assume, much to your dismay when you get a ticket, that right turns are also allowed.

Symbolic interactionism, then, provided a true social origin for both self-concepts and behaviors. It also gave us a relativistic (i.e., situational) understanding of the rules and guidelines that govern behavior. The Chicago School gave criminology an appreciation of the effect of social settings and situational values on crime and deviant behavior, which served to offset the universal rule approach of the Positive School. The appearance of the labeling perspective in the criminological writing of the 1960s was directly related to this theoretical approach.

culture conflict

Having taken a relativistic position on human values and behavior, it was only natural for the Chicago School to recognize that conflict is common in society. After all, contact between peo- ple of different values and lifestyles will almost always lead to some type of conflict. Robert Park, impressed by the thoughts of a dominant German conflict sociologist, Georg Simmel, incorporated the notion of conflict as a central component of an influential sociology textbook that he wrote with Ernest Burgess (1924) and specifically used the term “culture conflict” in a 1930 article. Here, conflict is viewed as a major social process, set in motion by the differences in values and cultures among groups of people. Louis Wirth, one of Park’s students, wrote his thesis on cultural conflicts in immigrant families (1925), and a few years later (1931) wrote about the relationship of the conflict of cultures to crime and delinquency (see Reiss, 1964, for an overview of Wirth’s work). Another graduate (and subsequently a faculty member) of the Chicago School, Edwin Sutherland, also wrote (1929) on conflicting values and how criminal behavior arises from them.

The best statement of culture conflict theory, however, came from a scholar who was not a member of the Chicago School. In his book Culture Conflict and Crime (1938), Thorsten Sellin produced what is seen today as the seminal work on culture conflict. Although the book was to have been written with Sutherland as a project of the Social Science Research Council, Sellin alone completed the work. The central thesis of culture conflict, though, was borrowed from the writings and teachings of Park, Wirth, and others at the University of Chicago (Sellin, in Laub, 1983b).

Sellin’s culture conflict theory revolves around the idea of conduct norms, or rules that govern behavior. In this sense, conduct norms are similar to W. I. Thomas’s concept of defini- tions for behavior. According to Sellin, one is reared with cultural values about proper conduct. The content of those norms varies from culture to culture. Groups with social and political power

Thorsten Sellin (1896–1994)

Thorsten Sellin was born in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden. His family moved to Ontario, Canada, when he was 17. He received his B.A. in 1915 from Augustana College, Illinois, and his M.A. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1916 and his Ph.D. in 1922. Sellin began his career teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and remained there until his retirement in 1967. He had an excellent command of languages, with expertise in Swedish, English, German, and French. He served as long-time editor of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. His interest in crime statistics and a crime index

was tied to his service as a consultant and special agent with the U.S. Census Bureau, where he advocated for states to adopt the uniform collection and maintenance of crime statistics in the 1930s. His career was highlighted by his work on interna- tional crime and punishment issues. Distinguished accomplish- ments include leadership in the International Society of Criminology (President 1956–1965), the International Penal and Penitentiary Commission (Secretary General), and the United National Social Defense Section. His policy critiques of capital punishment include some of his best-known writings.

46 Chapter 4 • The Chicago School

can even use their conduct norms to control the definition of crime. Thus, the legal definition of crime is but the conduct norm for one particular social group. People come in conflict with these legal definitions of behavior accidentally or intentionally. If one’s own culture approves an act but the dominant culture does not, the stage is set for criminal behavior.

Sellin suggested that there are two main forms of culture conflict. The first, called primary conflict, occurs when two different cultures govern behavior, for example, when someone from one culture emigrates to another cultural area. The “old” culture cannot simply be cast off, and for a while it continues to influence the person’s behavior. Sellin’s classic example of this involves an “Old World” family who moved to New Jersey: The daughter was seduced by a young man, and her father, following an Old World tradition, killed him to protect the family honor. The father was arrested, yet he could not understand why, because from his cultural per- spective he had committed no crime. Another example of primary conflict is when one country conquers another and imposes its laws on the conquered people. Citizens of the conquered nation run afoul of some of the new laws simply because they are not yet accustomed to the new laws or they find them too restrictive. For example, Mexico’s Metlatonoc Indians have fought the gov- ernment to retain their practice of offering a bride’s family money up to $500 upon her marriage. The custom, frowned upon by contemporary Mexican society, has been one of the many issues leading to rebel uprisings and the attempt to enact an Indian Rights Law that would allow native villages to retain their ancient traditions. However, human rights groups throughout the area argue that the presence of wealthy drug traffickers in these opium-growing regions has increased the value of selling women often into lives of abuse and degradation (Lloyd, 2001).

Sellin’s other form of culture conflict is called secondary conflict. Here, he was referring to smaller cultures existing within a larger culture; the term we might use today is “subculture.” People who live in a geographic area begin, over a period of time, to create their own set of val- ues (conduct norms). While these values are not wholly different from those of the larger culture, there are enough differences to give rise to conflict. The people within an urban, center-city neighborhood, for example, may develop values leading to lawbreaking. The agents of the law, of course, respond from the framework of laws based on middle-class values, laws that do not allow for subcultural differences. Thus, some subcultures see gambling and prostitution as legiti- mate behaviors, but the larger society has usually declared them illegal. Because of their values, then, the members of such subcultures are more likely to be arrested for gambling and prostitu- tion than are other members of society whose values are more closely represented in law.

The notion of conflict, and culture conflict, as it grew from the Chicago School, has strongly influenced American sociological criminology. In his book Explaining Crime (1974, p. 141), Gwynn Nettler states that all subsequent social explanations have been based on the assumption that culture conflict is the fundamental source of crime. While his point may be argu- able, the relativistic conflict approach of the Chicago School has been critical to the further development of criminology.

An Example of Primary Culture Conflict

Here is a typical report you might find in a newspaper: A relative of a teenage girl recently pulled her out of school by grabbing her by the hair and forcing her along with him. The reason was that she was not wearing a hijab (a traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women) and he found it an affront to his religion and his

family. The family had recently moved to the United States from the Near East. Unfortunately, the incident was reported to the authorities, who did not share his cultural behavior, and the man was arrested for child abuse.

An Example of Secondary Culture Conflict

A few years ago, wearing a “hoodie” was not as common as now and its modern usage allegedly originated in hip-hop culture. A young man wearing a hoodie was stopped and detained in a middle-class neighborhood because he was dressed like someone who “didn’t belong there and was obviously up to no good.” The

dominant middle-class culture simply didn’t associate that style of dress with their children, so the young man was in conflict their values (and assumed to be deviant). In another example, police in an Australian city allegedly initiated a “hoodie free zone” because they associated those who wore hoodies with burglars.

Chapter 4 • The Chicago School 47

claSSIfIcatIon of the School

As diverse in its viewpoints as it was, the Chicago School still shared a few commonalities. The main thrust of its work, for instance, was positivist in character, albeit of a “newer” social variety. The assumption of determinism strongly characterized all the work of the school, from the initial symbolic interactionism of Mead and Thomas to the statistical work of Shaw and McKay. Further, the positivist emphasis on systematic observation and testing is clearly reflected in the work of the Chicago School. It is clear that Chicago criminologists saw pathology in the city, and they conducted their studies in an effort to learn what was wrong. Ultimately, they wanted to correct the social ills of the city, and crime and delinquency were high on their list. The Chicago School also helped create what may be the best criminological examples of using theory to develop reform and treatment programs.

Classifying the Chicago School as either structural or processual is difficult, largely because different members of the school stressed different factors in their explanations of soci- ety. Regardless of any assumptions they might have made about the structure of society (seen most clearly in the later work of Shaw and McKay [1942]), the dominant orientation was that of process. All those associated with the Chicago School stressed the processes involved in behav- ior, the ways that people come to act in response to other people, real or imagined. Even the reli- ance on social disorganization (in reality a structural element) was derived from a different source from that of the anomie-strain theories that followed later (see Chapter 6). For the Chi- cago School, the product of social disorganization was a variety of conduct norms and behavior rules, not societal strain. These various norms result in deviance as members of different groups or subcultures apply different definitions to the situations they commonly shared. Thus, the school’s focus was on the process of gaining definitions, and its underlying question was, How do individuals use their definitions of self and situation to produce behavior?

Chicago School theorists were, at heart, consensus theorists. This does not mean that they did not emphasize conflict—they did. The assumption, however, was that consensus, or a natural conformity to cultural lifeways, is the initial pattern of human behavior. This was demonstrated by their appreciation of diversity in human behavior, yet it was a patterned diversity, one shared by the members of the culture to which one belongs. It was only where one group came into contact with another that conflict developed. And, of course, these theorists recognized that soci- ety is made up of a variety of cultural groups; therefore, conflict is simply a fact of life.

Finally, the Chicago School produced chiefly microtheories (with the exception of culture conflict, which is a macrotheory). The social-psychological approach to the study of human behavior dominated almost all the work of these theorists and became the common thread that wound through the diverse positions they espoused. They focused more on the process of becom- ing deviant than on explaining how the structure of society affects deviant behavior. This is somewhat ironic, given that members of the Chicago School developed the study of ecological rates and prepared the evidence for most of the macrotheoretical work that followed.


Although the sociological approach to studying modern social problems began as an interest of a small group of professors and students, the second generation of scholars expanded their interest into the realm of city programs and local research offices. Sampson (2002a) summarizes the characteristics of the work of the Chicago School as (1) an emphasis on the area or place of social activity; (2) a view of the community as well as the city as a complex social organism; (3) a preference for studying the dynamic and variable social organizations of the people rather than just their traits or characteristics; (4) data collection that focuses on a variety of methods and techniques with a focus on direct observation; and (5) a concern for public affairs and community improvement through empowerment.

The theoretical positions advanced by the Chicago School became the basis for much of the criminological work

of the next three decades (1940s through the 1960s). The theo- retical explanations that the Chicago School theorists (and their followers) gave to their research data can still be found behind many contemporary criminological theories. In short, because of its widespread influence, the Chicago School was the disci- pline of criminology prior to the late 1950s.

Major PointS of the School

1. Humans are social creatures, and their behavior is a prod- uct of their social environment.

2. Social environments provide cultural values and defi- nitions that govern the behavior of those who live within them.

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