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Sociological Objectivity as a Way of Life. A Comparison between the Chicago School of Sociology and the Mass Observation Project

Ole Münch

+44 020 7309

Ever since its development in the nineteenth century, modern urban society has puzzled and, indeed, frightened many of its contemporaries. Sociological thinkers like Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber have dealt with it by developing elaborate grand theories. Others have tried to understand modernity with the help of numbers—measuring, for example, the moral status of impoverished working-class members by counting the pubs in their neighbourhoods. What most of these early approaches have in common is a top-down or ‘gentlemanly’ (Mike Savage) perspective based on a self-understanding of moral superiority.

However, the interwar period saw a new cast of social researchers who attempted to do away with the elite bias. They ridiculed their predecessors as ‘armchair sociologists’ and ‘do-gooders’ and set out to establish what they saw as a truly ‘objective’ sociology. To understand modern society, they argued, it is important to consider its members’ point of view. How did ‘ordinary’ people understand themselves? How did they approach their modern social surroundings and how exactly did they come to terms with them?

Questions like these were posed, for example, by the members of the notorious Chicago School. Its proponents roamed the poor districts of Chicago observing their inhabitants, taking part in their everyday lives, and conducting interviews with them. They were, however, not the only sociologists in the interwar years who opted for ‘ethnographic’ methods. On the other side of the Atlantic, in England, a group of middle-class bohemians launched a research project called ‘Mass Observation’ in 1937. While the Chicago School has always been integrated into academic institutions, Mass Observation worked independently of them, and even cultivated a decidedly anti-academic self-image. The project was driven mostly by amateurs who experimented with forms of participant observation and open questionnaires, and they had a panel of ‘ordinary people’ writing diaries for the benefit of social science.

Past historians have investigated the Chicago School and Mass Observation, but have usually explained their genesis as part of either a British or American national history. And, indeed, there was arguably not much direct personal or intellectual exchange between the two schools. However, it is surely no coincidence that they appeared at about the same time in different countries.

In my project I will subject the Chicago School and Mass Observation to a systematic comparison. I will investigate the extent to which exactly the researchers, their social backgrounds, and their ideas were similar or different, and why. Such a comparison will not least reveal what was nationally specific about them, and what might need to be explained in a different context.

When comparing these sociological schools, I will also consider that sciences (and humanities) not only create theories, methods, and results, but also ‘cultures’—social contexts in which a handful of people spent great parts of their lives. They interact and develop a shared system of practices and meanings. Lorraine Daston has shown for the natural sciences how the notion of ‘objectivity’ gave rise to cultural phenomena of this kind in the nineteenth century. It created, for example, the persona of the ‘objective scientist’ as an emotionally self-controlled man who boldly confronts the facts, however unpleasant they may be. The attempt to be objective, in other words, was integrated into of a way of life that transcended science in a strict sense and drew on diverse influences beyond it.

The same holds true for the ethnographic social science of the interwar years, as I will argue—except that different cultural meanings, practices, and personas were involved. Even a cursory glance at the sources reveals that for many sociologists, their new kind of avant-garde ‘science’ was integrated into a bohemian lifestyle and self-image, which partly explains why they found it appealing. The dynamics of their avant-garde ‘culture of objectivity’ also impacted on their research findings—and my project will help to show exactly how.


Image from, Copyright Bolton Council, Image ref. 1993.83.19.09