1.1 Chicago School

15 June 2021

In 1892, the first full-fledged independent university department of sociology was established by Albion W. Small in the rapidly growing industrial city of Chicago. Though the hegemony of Chicago School scholars did not use the term “subculture", their inquiry into social problems, crime and deviance, immigration, urban life and the research methodology find relevance in subculture theory today (Haenfler, 2014). To understand why there was a continuing increase in social problems in Chicago, it is essential to consider the social, cultural, economic and political landscape of Chicago when the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago opened in 1892. 

The Second Industrial Revolution, 1870 - 1914, saw the assimilation of new technologies within industrial cities such as Chicago affecting the cities and their citizens. For example, the increase in electrical power due to the first electrical light bulb factories increased the possible hours of work for employees. The consequence of the light bulb increased job opportunities workers shared the news of the jobs in the United States between family and friends. As this news spread worldwide, people immigrated to Chicago in floods to join their families, friends and/or find work. Chicago grew to be the second-largest city in American and the destination of a large number of (mostly European) immigrants (Gelder, 1997). Michael Nicholson, a researcher at the Centre for Migration Studies, illustrates in his book ‘Identity, Nationalism, and Irish traditional music in Chicago, 1867-1900’ an example of the aforementioned idea. 

The cousin of McLaughlin’s wife had just arrived from Ireland, coming to the United States for the First time. Mclaughlin cheerfully provided his instrument to imitate a party that he hoped none would forget, playing music for a dance held in his visiting relative’s honour.

(2009, p. 111).

Nicholsen portrays the happiness of the reuniting family and how the identity of the family is celebrated traditionally with Irish music and dance in a foreign land. This reveals a displacement of the culture that came with immigration. Moreover, he writes about the struggles that came with the new urban life for immigrants: “Life in the urban United States was not the same as the existence in rural Ireland, where a devastating citywide inferno would have been unthinkable” (Nicholsen, 2009, p. 111).

Considering the social and cultural change that immigrants must have experienced in shifting from rural settings to urbanised cities like Chicago, struggling to find work, and lacking the support of neighbouring family members or friends, it is understandable that cultural groups clustered together and were often forced into conditions where they would have to steal to survive. Even for most of these immigrants who had work, it was not an easy time to live in Chicago. With long working hours in mines, factories, and sweatshops, the physical exhaustion combined with the pressure to have enough money at the end of the week to pay the bills and have enough food on the table for the whole family was incredibly high. The reality of life conflicted sharply with the painted ideal of prosperity that the American dream in Chicago promised. The conflict between the reality of life and the potential prosperous life of Chicago grew in frustration in the male working classes. It is not hard to understand if, considering the patriarchal system which encroached upon all aspects of life, the working-class male was under immense mental and physical strain. To make an economic beneficial contribution for their family in their new environment must have been nearly impossible. The dichotomy between immigrant working-class families and those families in more affluent social positions resulted in a social estrangement between the classes and within families. The consequences of social estrangement manifested in child neglect, domestic violence and family poverty. Chicago became notorious worldwide for its homicide rates, which more than tripled during the late nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries (Adler, 2003, p. 27). To add to the injustice of the time, even when police made arrests, the jurors typically exonerated or acquitted them. A mixture of gender, race and class-based notions of justice would override the rule of law (Adler, 2006, p. 5-24). Cultural difference between domestic homicide that often manifested through the strains of gender relations with urban and industrial change, expressed by historian and criminologist Jeffrey S. Adler in his article: “We’ve got a right to fight; We’re married” (2003, p. 27). Adler posits that at the centre of a family in Chicago where a murder took place, gender strains would result in domestic violence as males preserved their masculine authority.  He elaborates by revealing similarities and differences between German, African and Italian men who committed murder. Adler found there to be similarities in the motives of German and African men who murdered family members due to a decline in status. Italian men murdered family members to restore gender-based ideals of respectability that entailed patriarchal control over women and their family reputation (Adler, 2003). 

Of course, my aim here is not to give a door in which we can pass through to feel empathetic to murderers. It is, however, my aim to question and consider as far as possible the conditions in which evoked these deadly neglectful actions to understand why they did what they did. To understand their actions, one must consider the physical demands of the long hours of backbreaking work in dangerous environments. The social pressures that arose due to the increasing divide between the proletariat and bourgeoisie must also be considered. The social pressure incited emotional and social dissatisfaction in the poorer stratum isolating workers causing deep dissatisfaction, anger and frustration. Especially, as modernist capitalist ideology forgot to type in the small print, the dream of American prosperity is only for the few. To make their dreams a reality requires exploiting the many, or more specifically, the workers in the poorer stratum of society. For this reason, one can understand why the hardships that faced the low-income families produced a variety of social problems, including a variety of crimes and delinquency. From this observation, sociologists at the University of Chicago came to the realisation: “That crime and poverty were the results not of the individuals’ personal moral, or psychological failings per se, but rather products of the social environment” (Haenfler, 2014, p. 4). Through considering Chicago through two different perspectives. Firstly, through a religious lens, Chicago was filled with evil criminals that just wanted to cause harm to others. Secondly, the people in the city of Chicago lived in different milieus where crime and poverty resulted from the social environment. Is it possible to understand the effect urbanisation had on its inhabitants?  “Only by understanding the greater context in which subcultures exist can we more closely grasp subculutrists motivations and experiences” (Henfler, 2014, p. 4). In considering Chicago's social disorganised urban environment, it is possible to see how most delinquent and criminal actions such as murder resulted from multiple environmental factors, which caused a significant physical and mental strain. 

1.1.1. Hull House