American Sociological Association

Ernest W. Burgess

Ernest Watson Burgess

May 16, 1886 - December 27, 1966

Ernest Ernest Watson Burgess W. Burgess served as the 24th President of the American Sociological Society. His Presidential Address "Social Planning and the Mores" was delivered at the organization's annual meeting in Chicago in December 1934. Upon his death in 1966, an obituary was published in The American Sociologist.

Burgess willed his professional papers to the University of Chicago, which maintains this information in its Special Collections Research Center. The UC Library provides the following background information on Burgess:

Ernest Watson Burgess was born on May 16, 1886 in Tilbury, Ontario, Canada to Edmund J. Burgess and Mary Ann Jane Wilson Burgess. His father was a minister in the Congregational Church. Burgess attended Kingfisher College in Oklahoma and received his B.A. in 1908. The following year Burgess entered the University of Chicago as a graduate student in the Department of Sociology. He received his Ph.D. in 1913.

After several years of teaching in several Midwestern schools and collaborating in several social surveys, Burgess returned to Chicago with an appointment as Assistant Professor in Sociology in 1916. He has been called the first "young sociologist," since all the other professors had entered the field from other professional areas. His career spanned five decades from 1916-1957, when his emeritus appointment ended. Burgess remained active a number of years beyond this retirement, co-authoring a text on Urban Sociology with Donald Bogue as late as 1963.

In 1927, he achieved the status of full professor, and in 1946, he became chairman of the department. Although he retired as professor in 1951 at the mandatory retirement age, he remained active and salaried as Chairman until 1952. It was during this same period that he founded the Family Study Center, which later became the Family and Community Study Center.

Burgess was active in many professional organizations. The leading sociological organizations to which he was elected President include the American Sociological Society (1934), the Sociological Research Association (1942), and the Social Science Research Council (1945-1946). He took over the directorship of the Behavior Research Fund in Chicago from Herman Adler, from 1931 to 1934. In 1942, he became President of the National Conference on Family Relations, an organization which he had helped found in 1938 after his involvement with the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection.

His editing roles were extensive. He was managing editor of the American Sociological Society from 1921-1930, and editor of the American Journal of Sociology from 1936-1940. As Director of the Behavior Research Fund, he had the opportunity to edit a number of monographs from various areas of the social sciences, many of which represented pioneering efforts in their respective fields.

His involvement in a number of other distinctive organizations ranged from sponsorship to chairmanship. Among these were the American Law Institute, Vincent Astor Foundation, Chicago Census Advisory Committee, Chicago Urban League, Chicago Area Project, Chicago Crime Commission, Committee of Fifteen, Douglas Smith Fund, Illinois Citizens Committee on Parole, Illinois Academy of Criminology, National Recreation Commission, International Congress of Criminology, and The City Club.

Leonard Cottrell wrote that "Professor Burgess was not a systematic theoretician but an eclectic par excellence." Despite a truly "eclectic" approach to theoretical and methodological camps, Burgess applied all these different perspectives to the same set of research interests for nearly five decades. It can be argued that the truly systematic feature of his research, as distinguished from the more comprehensive theoretical structures erected by the earlier founders of sociology, was an effort to develop a reliable tool for prediction of social phenomena, e.g., delinquency, parole violation, divorce, city growth, and adjustment in old age.

Empirical research pursued for the purpose of prediction lies at the foundation of each of Burgess' major research projects. As Burgess wrote in 1929: "Prediction is the aim of the social sciences as it is of the physical sciences." Cottrell wrote that "the emphasis, therefore, was not on testing theoretically derived hypotheses so much as on identifying efficient predictors." For the sake of improving prediction, in addition to statistics and "factor analysis," Burgess constantly supported the more "subjective" case study methods and the use of personal documents. Burgess defended the study of the actual cases themselves in full detail, not only from the statisticians, but equally from the "theoreticians" who attempted to typify and classify the person. As Burgess wrote in "The Family and the Person" (1928), admitting all these and other criticisms that might be raised, there is a certain type of knowledge or understanding that comes from the examination of personal documents which one does not obtain in dissertations on the origin and nature of personality, nor from psychological, psychiatric, or psychoanalytic classifications of personality types.

Throughout his career Burgess participated in efforts to promote the collaboration of specialists from all the different social science areas to work together on joint research projects. His final project to study old age typified this by combining the efforts of medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists in a single all-inclusive effort.

Ernest Burgess' career spanned all phases of the development of sociology at Chicago. Beginning with the early years in which sociology and anthropology were wedded in the same department, to the development of specialized research centers for contemporary social phenomena, e.g., the Family and Community Research Center and the Chicago Community Inventory, Burgess' influence helped to maintain a strong empirically oriented series of research projects and dissertations.

Ernest Watson Burgess died on December 27, 1966. He was 80 years old.

Burgess, Ernest Watsons. Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library, 1100 East 57th Street, Chicago, IL 60637.


In his 1951 book, American Sociology: The Story of Sociology in the United States through 1950, Howard W. Odum provided the following biographical sketch of Ernest Watson Burgess (pages 168-171):

Of the senior American sociologists who were born beyond the borders of the United States, four became president of the American Sociological Society. These were all heads or chairmen of departments in American universities: James Q. Dealey at Brown, E. W. Burgess at Chicago, R. M. Maclver at Columbia, and Louis Wirth at Chicago. Other heads of departments at America's largest institutions who were not native included Pitirim Sorokin, chairman at Harvard, Maurice Davie of Yale, and Paul Lazarsfeld of Columbia.

Ernest W. Burgess, the twenty-fourth president of the Society, continued the University of Chicago succession, having received his Ph.D. degree in 1913, twenty-seven years after his birth in Ontario, Canada, in 1886. He came to the University of Chicago by way of Oklahoma, graduating in 1908 from Kingfisher College, and from Ohio where he was instructor in Toledo University in 1912–13. Before coming back to the University of Chicago where "Park and Burgess" became the best-known pair of American sociologists in the textbook world, he was assistant professor of sociology at Kansas from 1913 to 1915, and at Ohio State in 1915–16. He was then assistant professor at Chicago from 1916 to 1921, associate professor from 1921 to 1927 and professor since 1927.

Like his colleagues at Chicago and in other urban universities he was called on to participate in numerous activities in closely related fields of endeavor. He was acting director and director of the Behavior Research Fund of Chicago from 1930 to 1939. He was secretary of the Chicago Area Project, 1934–43; secretary of the National Conference on Family Relations, 1938–41; president in 1942. He was a member of the Chicago Recreation Commission, the Chicago Crime Commission, and the Citizens Association of Chicago. Before being elected president of the American Sociological Society, he was its secretary-treasurer from 1921 to 1930, and he was editor of The American journal of Sociology from 1936 to 1940. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Statistical Association, the Sociological Re-search Association (president, 1942), Social Science Research Council (chairman, 1945–46), American Association of Social Workers, the Mental Hygiene Association.

Returning now to an earlier statement in which Park and Burgess were featured, it seems likely that their text Introduction to the Science of Sociology, published in 1921, was the most influential sociology text of any that had been written and perhaps of any that has yet been published. This was true in a number of ways. In the first place, the book immediately recaptured the Chicago tradition for its great body of graduates in sociology and became the "Bible of Sociology" for them all. That is, the Park and Burgess book was a major contribution from the workshops of the Chicago sociologists worthy of Small and Vincent and Thomas and carried the science of sociology far beyond their advanced stages. The book was so well organized and so mature and comprehensive that, although it was intended as an introductory text, it was usually required of all graduate students in classes taught by Chicago alumni. It put together the concepts of the social process, relying on the work, not only of Small's beginnings, but of Cooley and Ross. Only Ross has approached the comprehensiveness of its treatment of social interaction and social process. Many years later, and continuously, texts like Kimball Young's continued to develop and to adapt the elements in this text, and many students of race and minority groups drew on its concepts of conflict, accommodation, assimilation, acculturation, amalgamation, even as Park himself, a student of race relations, sought to utilize their concepts.

Burgess also collaborated with Park in The City in 1925. This book, while largely a recording of the results of current studies, was also a pioneer in the new field of human ecology being developed at the University of Chicago. This, again, set the Chicago group in a new span of leadership, which was continued for many years in their urban studies. McKenzie at Michigan, Wirth at Chicago, Hollingshead at Indiana and Yale continued the direct succession, while scores of younger sociologists made "ecological studies" which, although often little more than studies of the spatial distribution of phenomena in cities, nevertheless built up the prestige and following of the Chicago group to such an extent that Bernard later was to lead a revolution against its powerful influence. In many ways it may be said that the strong points of Burgess were to be found in his work as collaborator, in his almost limitless capacity and will to cooperate and in his tireless efforts in the direction of students, in meeting with committees and action groups, in his capacity as editor, and in projecting studies and programs of work. Scarcely less definitive, in that it immediately ranked Burgess at the top of the sociologists utilizing new objective ways of measurement, was his Predicting Success or Failure in Marriage, in collaboration with Leonard Cottrell of Cornell who was to become the president of the American Sociological Society in 1950. Other collaborations included Personality and the Social Group with Herbert Blumer; The Belleville Survey with J. J. Sippy; The Lawrence Survey with F. W. Blackmar.

As a product of the 1934 meeting of the American Sociological Society of which he was president that year, Burgess edited and published the Proceedings in 1935 under the title, "The Human Side of Planning." In this volume appeared his presidential address entitled "Social Planning and the Mores," in which he concluded that the mores and backgrounds of America were such that democratic planning could be achieved and that the United States might thus lead the world of nations. This speech was addressed to the New Deal era and was therefore somewhat prophetic of the need for planning in the "one world"order that was to develop after World War II.

In an ex-officio way Burgess has maintained his place in the influence upon American sociology in several ways. He was co-author of the most influential of all general textbooks, he was editor of The American journal of Sociology, following Small and Faris; he was chairman of America's most prolific department of sociology, along with Faris and Ogburn; and he was generous in his services on committees and commissions and in having the good will of professional folk in many fields. His voluntary services as secretary of the American Sociological Society for so many years has not been equaled.

Burgess' contributions might be said to be about equally distributed in a half dozen areas. First, his theory and concept of sociology may be summarized simply in his statement that "from a philosophy of society sociology is emerging into a science of society." Burgess was generally credited with the greater part of the work of completing the Park and Burgess magnum opus, while Park was supposed to have set up the main frame of reference and outlines. In a second area, namely in the study of marriage and the family and in his participation in local and national family organization efforts, Burgess' work came to be known as one of the special sources in this field. Approximately a fourth of his published articles were in this field. His third special area was in the field of delinquency in which about a fifth of his articles were published, and in which he did yeoman service in committees, conferences, and organizations. A fourth field was personality study in relation to social adjustment, a field in which, again, about a fifth of his articles were published.

Burgess contributed some ten articles on research and methodology, besides several others relating to methods in social work, criminology, and community study, in addition to the chapter on "Social Research" in Twentieth Century Sociology, summarized in Chapter 15 of this book. He wrote no less than six articles dealing with social work interrelations with sociology and contributed a number of biographical sketches, including one on Frank W. Blackmar.



Written by Herbert Blumer, published in The American Sociologist in 1967, 2(2):103-104. 
The death of E. W. Burgess on December 27, 1966 closed a memorable career of a distinguished sociologist, a dedicated citizen, and a saintly person. Born in Tilbury, Ontario on May 16, 1886 Burgess came to the United States in 1888, living almost all of his life in the southwest and midwest. He received his PhD in 1913 in Sociology at the University of Chicago. After brief teaching tours at the University of Kansas and Ohio State University he joined the Department of Sociology, University of Chicago, in 1916, remaining at the latter institution through the rest of his academic life. He was honored with many distinguished positions, serving as Secretary-Treasurer and subsequently as President of the American Sociological Society, President of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, President of the Socio logical Research Association, Chairman of the Social Science Research Council, President of the National Conference on Family Relations, President of the Gerontological Society, Editor of the Publications of the American Sociological Society, Editor of the American Journal of Sociology, and Editor of Marriage and Family Living. 

The devotion of Burgess to the development of sociology and to the furthering of its interests is unmatched in the history of our discipline. If one views in full his various lines of activity and achievement one must recognize, I believe, that he has contributed more than any other person to the development of sociology in the United States. His contributions spread out in many directions- an enormously influential role in building sociological societies, an inspired training of a host of graduate students, many of whom came to occupy distinguished positions in our ranks, an inauguration of an impressive series of new significant lines of research, and a creation of original and significant theoretical views in a variety of fields of sociological concern. These contributions bear recounting.

Burgess was unstinted in his readiness to lay and expand the institutional basis of our discipline. In our preoccupation with theoretical and research achievements we are prone to overlook the vital significance of basic organizational work on behalf of a scientific discipline, especially in its early period of struggle. Burgess played a role of paramount importance in implanting and entrenching sociological interests on our national scene. His contributions to the organizational development of our parent organization- originally the American Sociological Society- are largely unknown to present day sociologists. Yet, during the crucial and trying years of the 1920's, Burgess as Secretary-Treasurer was the single individual on whom devolved the responsibility of preserving, protecting, guiding and shaping our national organization. Those of us who were familiar with his efforts can give testimony to his untiring zeal, his imaginative ingenuity and his outstanding selflessness in carrying out successfully a difficult mission. Burgess brought this same spirit of devotion to furthering the interests of sociology into other realms. He played a significant part in the formation and development of the Social Science Research Council. He was a most respected voice in the American Council of Learned Societies, when the participation of our national organization in that body was more pronounced. He was very instrumental in the formation of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, and served as its president during the first two years of its career. He played a key role in the formation of the National Conference on Family Relations. And, in his later years, recognizing the need for sociological studies in the neglected field of old age, he entered zestfully into the work of the Gerontological Society. This skeletal recounting of some of his lines of organizational effort reveal Burgess as a tireless and unselfish servant of our discipline, ever ready at the cost of personal sacrifice to devote himself whole-heartedly to the extension of its interests. He never sought the posts of honor and responsibility with which he was entrusted; he was very much sought for these posts by those who recognized the high level of dedication and ability that he would bring to them.

Burgess was a central figure in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago during the zenith period of its eminence. He was intimately associated with Robert E. Park in working out the ideas and lines of research that made the city of Chicago such a fruitful laboratory for down-to earth empirical study. He collaborated with Park in the writing of the Intro duction to the Science of Sociology, a volume that was the primary theoretical guide post for many American sociologists for a sizeable period of years. Together with Park, he guided, supervised, and encouraged the many forms of graduate research which were lifting the veils covering what Park used to refer to as the terra incognita of city life. While his primary areas of specialization were The Family, Criminology, and Recreation (his students noted humorously that he was never married, was incapable of deliberately committing any crime, and practically never engaged in recreation), he gave valuable aid to students working in a wide variety of fields. His imprint on the graduate students passing through the Department at Chicago was great and his influence on large numbers of outsiders was no less significant.

Burgess had a very fertile mind, leading him to originate a series of new lines of research of great importance in our discipline. Through his early studies, he was primarily responsible for opening the field of parole prediction and prediction of success or failure of marriages. His work on the concentric ring organization of the city was very influential on urban ecological study. He was the originator of studies of the distribution of delinquency in modern cities, giving rise to the concept of delinquency areas and laying the basis for intensive study of such areas as natural social formations. In this connection one must note Burgess' key role in shaping the work of the Institute of Juvenile Research in Chicago and in laying down the lines of study associated with Shaw and Mackay. Burgess was more responsible than anyone else for the view of the family as an ongoing interaction of personalities. To the best of my knowledge he was the first person to introduce and use the method of group interviewing in probing into the mechanisms of family life and gang life. I know of no better way of acknowledging Burgess' remarkable ability to make creative innovations than to report what I was privileged to hear from two eminent social scientists of their day- Charles E. Merriam of Political Science and Harry A. Millis of Economics; they both agreed that if they were con fronted by a really tough empirical research problem in social life they would rather have Burgess at hand for its solution than any other person in the social sciences.

Burgess shared, and operated in, the tradition of W. I. Thomas and Robert E. Park: to catch and respect human group life as it is being lived, to recognize that it is embodied in the experience of its participants and that it must be dug out of that experience, to cultivate one's sensitivities to enter into the ongoing collective experience of people, to bring to bear on the data thus acquired imaginative and flexible analysis, and to ever return to the flow of actual life as the testing ground of one's analytical notions. This down-to earth stance does not lead to grand theorizing nor to a mere application of a pre-established or imported technique. It calls for flexible probing, and progressive correction of views as one enters more and more into the natural life of people. It places a premium on the readiness to discard the pre-established images with which every student approaches the study of group life, and on innovative yet disciplined imagination in responding sensitively to the course of experience of those under study. Burgess cultivated and exercised these talents in a way that inspired his associates and to a degree that war rants lasting recognition of him as a distinguished and creative sociologist.

One cannot take proper measure of Burgess without recognizing his singularly unselfish and spirited contributions as a citizen. He was a very conscientious person, very much alive to the problems of his community and ever willing to act on behalf of the good cause. He was a prominent member of the Chicago Crime Commission, the Chicago Recreation Commission and Citizens Association of Chicago. Much of his time, interest and effort was given to organized attempts to correct serious community problems.

I have said that Burgess was a saintly person. This is indeed true. Never in more than a quarter-century of association with him at Chicago did I see a single instance of conduct that was petty or mean. All those who had any association with him- his many friends and numerous acquaintances- found him to be a naturally kind and self-effacing person, with a high order of personal integrity and an abiding commitment to understanding and improving the lot of mankind. 

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