Mapping the young metropolis: the concentric model of city development by the Chicago School of Sociology
In this podcast, we will take a close look at a concentric map of Chicago drawn in 1925 by Ernet Burgess, a leading scholar in the Chicago School of Sociology. From this map, we can see some foundamental thoughts of the School and how it interacts with the development of Chicago.
Hello, everyone. Welcome to my channel. It is the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2022. I am your host, Qianxun Feng, and I am currently enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Social Sciences Division. Today we’ll inverstigate a concentric map of Chicago in the 1920s.
In daily life, we usually use maps to find directions. But do you ever think that the map could reshape an intellectual group of scientists? Yes, indeed, it could. So today I wanna tell you a story about how an early map of Chicago impacts the development of theory called Chicago School of Sociology. I choose this map as my topic because I am a big fan of Chicago School and I think this map could best represents its attractiveness. I am deeply fond of the Chicago School because it is always highly interacting with the city of Chicago.
Let’s start our story. This is the map drawn in 1925 by Ernest Burgess, a leading scholar in the Chicago School of Sociology. At that time, the University of Chicago Department of Sociology was a small but vibrant faculty. And the city of Chicago had just recovered from the Great Fire. In this newly-born metropolis, the promise of America was revealed by growing skyscrapers, busy railways, and increasing immigrants. However, there were social probelms like political corruption, violent labor unrest, and bloody race riots. Then, as sociologists, how to describe those complicated changes in such a city?
Here Burgess gave his answer. Using empirical data he collected from Chicago, he drew a conceptual map of this city. From this picture, we can see a concentric model consisting of five zones. Each zone represents certain social status and ethnic group. The general rule is that the further from the Central Business District, the better living quality is, pushing wealthy local people to move out to desirable suburbs and leaving low-income immigrant families to live in the uncomfortably crowded center.
According to the University’s library, this map is the earliest attempt to illustrate social stratification within urban areas. And it is also considered as the most important single visual document in sociology, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. While it accurately captures the developing patterns of Chicago in the early 20th century, it fails to predict what the city is like today: the wealthy now live in the downtown rather than in the suburbs as proposed by Burgess.
Then, why should we still look at this map? From my point of view, this contrast is significant because it reveals a big debate concerning the Chicago School, which marks its turning point and how we understand the city of Chicago.
Back to our previous illustration of Chicago, how can we perceive this city? Is it a natural city where different social forces interact and makes the city what it must be, or a man-made city where social planners could fight against various social issues and build the city as what they want it to be? This map is an example of the natural city model argued by a leading urbanist, Davarian Baldwin: every subgroup in the society comes to settle in a certain place and then social inequalities become a natural part of urban growth patterns. While at that time other sociologists were for the man-made city, this map was so remarkable that the concept of the natural city gained more and more popularity. This idea, formally called “urban ecology”, came to be a fundamental feature of the Chicago School, which became famous for its urban studies.
From then, the sociology faculty started to send its students out into the “real world” of Chicago, seeing this vibrant metropolis as a sociological laboratory and a living textbook. Several decades after Burgess’s map, Chicago School continued to make maps of 75 community areas, Census Data, and so on all in the city of Chicago. Those works have similar structures and the concept of perceiving the city as a natural place like the very first map of Burgess, according to a sociologist called Robert Owens. Furthermore, they have greatly influenced how citizens understand Chicago. People congregate in different parts of the city by wealth and ethnicity, valuing the strength of communities and neighborhoods more than city managers.
I believe this is exactly what makes the Chicago School special: by co-existing with this dynamic city, it makes itself everlasting.
This is all of my podcast. Thank you for listening and hope you would enjoy my story.
3. Baldwin, D. L. Chicago’s ‘Concentric Circles’: Thinking Through the Material History of an Iconic Map. in Margaret Salazar-Porzio and Joan Fragasky Troyano Ed. 2007 Many Voices, One Nation: Material Culture Reflections on Race and Migration in the United States, Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press
4. Owens, B. R. (2012). Mapping the city: Innovation and continuity in the Chicago School of Sociology, 1920–1934. The American Sociologist, 43(3), 264-293.