Ethnography and Mentalities 2500 words

The Differences and Similarities between Chicago School Ethnography and Symbolic Interactionist Ethnography


The University of Chicago pioneered in the field of sociology between 1892 and 1942 and was able to produce virtually half of the entire world’s reputable sociologists by 1930 (Deegan, 2001).  These reputable scholars promoted the field of sociology through their publications of academic books and scholars and eventually established the popular Chicago School of ethnography (Kurtz, 1984) as we know it today.  Each of the Chicago ‘sociologist analysed the everyday life, communities and symbolic interactions characteristic of a specific group’ (Deegan, 2001, p.11).  The core Chicago School ethnographies were pioneered by Robert Park, W.I. Thomas and Earnest Burgess (Gubrium, 2007).  Deegan (2001) argued that the specific studies in Chicago School ethnographies were ‘self consciously identifiable’ and were rooted on a shared assumption of the field and the society.  Some scholars later came up with a new mentality which was termed ‘symbolic interactionism’.  This was a name later given to a distinctive sociological ideology and methodology that was identified in Sociology Department of the University of Chicago in 1937 (Rock, 2001).  Some of the well known pioneers of this approach are Goffman (1959) Becker (1964), Blumer (1969) and few others.  Both the Chicago School and symbolic interactionist scholarships, according to Deegan, later became relatively large and even characterised with conflicting ideologies among these early scholars of the popular mentalities.


This essay will explore two different Chicago School ethnographies, as well as two symbolic interactionist ethnographies and highlight the similarities and differences between both approaches, focussing more on the differences.  It will first explore the work of Johnson (1934) and Donovan (1920) based on Chicago School ethnographies.  It will also examine the works of Humphreys (1970) and Roebuck and Spray (1967) on symbolic interactionist ethnography.  The essay will then outline how symbolic interactionism forms part of the Chicago School, hence, applying the Chicago School’s basic methodologies in addition to new methodologies.  The obvious differences between the two similar but differed mentalities will be highlighted before the concluding part of the essay.


One of the popular and relevant Chicago School ethnographies was carried out by Johnson (1934).  The ethnography was concerned with race relations in an ecological setting which according to Johnson was a ‘dynamic element of the life of the community’ (viii).  It focused on ‘one little segment of mankind’ in a segregated area of a nation at the time.  The sample constituted Black population who lived within the plantation region of the Macon County in Alabama, United States.  The plantations were owned and managed by Whites who also ‘dominated business resources, government, and the ordinary way of life’ (Johnson, 1934, p.viii).This ethnography titled ‘Shadow of the Plantation’ was conducted in a cotton farming region of the Black Belt section in Alabama.  It explored why there had always been certain populations in any parts of the world who are disadvantaged or less privileged in their respective communities, hence, being dominated and manipulated by the more privileged ones.  The ethnography investigated this as it related to race i.e. how the colour of some people might put them at risk of being maltreated while the other party see their own colour as superior, endowing them with the superior powers to control and manipulate.


Johnson’s (1934) ethnography applied multiple methodology in this study, an in-depth interviews were used, the participants’ life ethnographic details were obtained, such as personal histories, personal and family lifestyles and their community cultures.  The study was equally complemented with a survey on 612 members of Black communities who inhabited the rural areas of Macon County in Alabama at the time.  The data obtained were both qualitatively and quantitatively analysed to produce a richer result.  Johnson found that life was unsatisfactory for the poor tenant farmers in the Macon County of Alabama.  His findings later attracted the attention of leaders, bureaucrats, policy makers and others interested in promoting equality in diversity.


Donovan’s (1920) fieldwork is another good work based on the Chicago School ethnography in the 1920s.  The 1920’s ethnographies, according to Gubrium (2007) focused on opportunity rather than disadvantage regarding gender, class and race relations, although they agreed there were differences but such differences were understood as part of the diversity characterising urban opportunities.  Donovan studied how the organisational differences in the workplaces influenced women’s lives.  He specifically examined how these women managed their lives with their earnings from the leading restaurant jobs in the location at the place.  The study employed multiple methodologies, namely; participant observation and comparative statistical analysis.  He found that a lot of restaurant jobs (over 1500) were available for women within one area of Chicago which required little or no previous work experience.  The restaurant managements paid low amount to the women, yet the women lived more comfortably than other professionals as evident in the following words:


The manager of the café tries to employ the youngest, prettiest, and most efficient girls that he can find and he has little trouble in finding them, for the café is the most lucrative place in which the waitress can work, not because the wages paid by the management are better than those paid in other places but because of the tips, which in the café, are the greatest source of income.

(Donovan, 1920, pp.110-111).


Among the contemporary ethnographies in symbolic interactionism is Humphreys’s (1970) work titled ‘Tearoom Trade’.  In this ethnography, Humphreys collected details of 50 different sex acts between more than 100 homosexuals.  He also endeavoured to obtain the participants’ demographic and personal information, such as age, addresses, occupations, socioeconomic statuses, marital statuses and so on.  He was interested in observing how the men were confident to engage in sexual activities in public places, the sort of personalities these men fall into and the style of activities that characterised their routines.  Humphreys noted that the men’s usual activities were regularly interrupted whenever the presence of teenagers or the police was noted.  This was possible because homosexuality was an illegal activity during the period of the research; hence, the men were on alert to avoid being prosecuted to engaging in illegal activities as it was defined at the time.  After the actual observation, Humphreys (1970) statistically analysed his data, comparing the observed men’s personal characteristics with those of other men who were not homosexuals but fit the same characteristics with them.  He did not find any significant differences between the two groups regarding their overall statuses, lifestyles and occupations.


Another contemporary symbolic interactionist ethnography is the one conducted by Roebuck and Spray (1967) in ‘cocktail lounge’.  The study was informed by the myth that the cocktail lounge is usually a meeting place for strangers interested in meeting interested sexual partners.  However, the study investigated the opposite i.e. casual sexual encounters among people who already knew each other, rather than strangers.  The study used several methods, namely; participant observation, interviews and the use of informants.  The entire data were later analysed to check the differences between the regular and irregular lounge visitors.  They found that a consistent group of people frequently visited the lounge and these individuals regarded the lounge as a vital meeting place.  From their findings, Roebuck and Spray (1967) concluded the following:


For the unattached women this means that the availability of the “consort status” at the lounge may operate as a substitute for, or enable them to postpone, the ordinary heterosexual concern of women their age–the location of a suitable marriage partner. …  For the married men, the relationships established in the cocktail lounge may actually serve to maintain marital ties that would otherwise be dissolved.

(Roebuck & Spray, 1967, p.395).


In examining the similarities and differences between the Chicago School ethnography and symbolic interactionist ethnography, it is worth stating that the later ethnography actually evolved or originated from the former.  For example, Longmore (1998) argued that even though there is no full agreement on number of variations existing in the symbolic interactionism, it draws on two considerable and methodological orientations which are the Chicago School and Social Structural/Self Theory or the Iowa School.  The Chicago School, according to Longmore (1998) stresses the need for adhering to face-to-face interaction in maintaining the self while the Social Structural/Self Theory or the Iowa School systematically examines the structural characteristics of social groups and how people get on with role relationships.  Symbolic interactionism, according to Rock (2001) is actually a name given to a ‘distinctive style of sociological reasoning and methodology’ which all evolved from the Chicago School itself.  Longmore (1998) highlighted that the symbolic interactionist scholars later created subthemes in the approach.  For example, some scholars got interest in the ‘situational approach’ which is closer to the Chicago School’s more than other approaches.  He highlighted the characteristics of the situational approach as follows:


This approach emphasizes the fluid and contingent nature of the social order.  Behavior is viewed as indeterminate, unpredictable, impulsive, and spontaneous.  Scholars focus on how individuals define situations and thereby construct the realities in which they live.

(Longmore, 1998, p.46).


Blumer (1969) is the chief actor in categorising the symbolic interactionism and in this situational approach, he focused more on the individual differences in adhering to social orders in contrary to the macro sociology orientation.  The second approach of the symbolic interactionism is the ‘structural approach’ which evolved from Kuhn and promoted survey research and quantitative analyses of data (Kuhn & McPartland, 1954).


Kuhn emphasized structural as opposed to proccesual conceptions of self and society and viewed behavior not as emergent and nondeterministic, but as determined by antecedent variables having to do with aspects of the self as well as with historical, developmental, and social conditions. …

(Longmore, 1998, p.46).


From the reported ethnographies, one obvious similarity is that both the Chicago school ethnography and its symbolic interactionist counterpart all apply similar methods and methodologies.  For instance, any of them could apply participant observation, interviews, surveys and even complement the research with qualitative or quantitative data analytical methods.  Deegan (2001) reported that Chicago ethnographies apply ‘more statistical data’ as well as a ‘series of qualitative techniques such as interviews, face-to-face interactions and life histories’ (p.12).  Since symbolic interactionist ethnography has its root directly from the Chicago School, it employs these methods and methodologies too.  However, other differences between the two ethnographies are equally visible.  The Chicago School ethnography is less methodological in its approach i.e. it studies and reports the phenomena more or less as it appears devoid of interpretation and construction biases, for example.The Chicago School ethnographies also applies ‘abstract theoretical language’ (Deegan, 2001, p.14), unlike symbolic interactionism which always try to conform to set down theories and methodologies in the discipline.


It is arguable that the symbolic interactionist ethnographies are more or less based on the social construction of events in relation to a particular culture which the ethnographer is interested in studying.  In social constructionism, Burr (1995) argued that our views of the world are both ‘historically and culturally specific’ (p.3).  She continued that whether we categorise human beings as males and females, music in terms of pop and classic, lifestyles as urban and rural life all depend on the part of world we are and the meaning given to such concepts and phenomena.  This is what we observe in the symbolic interactionist ethnographies.


Mead (1934) had earlier argued that ‘individual creates and transforms his or her self as well as society via the mind and the uniquely human ability to role take’ (Longmore, 1998, p.51).Prus (1996) then described symbolic interactionism as studying the ways people envisage their life-situations and carry on with their routine activities in relation to other people.  He continued that the approach ‘insists upon rigorously grinding its notion of the ways in which human group life is accomplished in the day-to-day practices and experiences of the people whose lives one purports to study’ (Prus, 1996, p.10).Prus continued that this is underpinned by the assumption that human life is all about community life, hence, intersubjective in nature.  He maintained that the understanding of human behaviour is incomplete when one takes away the community context in which the individual belong.


Prus (1996) argued that without the community/other, then there can be no self.  He posited that even though individuals are born with individualistic characteristics, they acquire the language that is akin to their respective communities and this shapes their activities and the way they interact within their communities.  The symbolic interactionist ethnography put all this into account whilst devising hypotheses and analysing data, unlike the Chicago School ethnographies.  Symbolic interationist ethnography could be said to be contaminated with several research methods and methodologies, unlike the Chicago School’s.  For example, the former does not only draw on the methods and methodologies which emanated from Chicago School from where it evolved, Prus (1996) noted that it also draws on pragmatism, hermeneutics and sympathetic introspection.


The two symbolic interactionist ethnographies explored in this essay all analysed their data in relation to the community.  For example, Humphreys’s (1970) work on the homosexual men compared their statuses and lifestyles to other men of that sort who were not homosexuals.  The work examined a specific population in relative to the entire population in a community.  Roebuck and Spray (1967) in their ethnography also compared two different categories of people in the community.  They examined the differences between the frequent and infrequent lounge visitors to see how sexual lives of such individuals were affected.  Symbolic interactionist ethnographies are all about the community.  Different individuals or subgroups are examined in relation to the general community.  Although some comparisons of community lives were equally visible in the Chicago School Ethnographies analysed here, the mentality did not draw on the constructionist and hermeneutic perspectives, for instance.


In conclusion, this essay has examined two different Chicago School ethnographies conducted by Johnson (1934) and Donovan (1920), as well as two symbolic interactionist ethnographies carried out by Humphreys (1970), and Roebuck and Spray (1967).  It has highlighted the similarities between the two approaches.  Further exploration of the symbolic interactionist epistemologies and methodologies has demonstrated that obvious differences do exist between the two schools of thought, despite the fact that the pioneers of the two all had their training from both same geographical location and philosophical stance.  The Chicago School ethnography is less methodological and even atheoretical sometimes, while symbolic interactionist ethnography employs vast methodological approaches and theories, mostly social constructionist, hermeneutic, pragmatist and sympathetic introspective approaches.  The application of these approaches in ethnographic fieldworks is one of the core differences between the Chicago School ethnography and symbolic interactionist ethnography.





















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