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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16.1 (2002) 50-66

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Saul D. Alinsky and the Chicago School

Lawrence J. Engel
Edgewood College

The Chicago School of Pragmatism is one of the most prominent intellectual and activist movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s, one that is receiving a fair amount of attention with the resurgence of American Pragmatism (Shook 2001). Initially led by John Dewey, the movement defies easy categorization and has influenced both scholars and social activists. Two of the most famous Chicago social activists of the twentieth century, Jane Addams and Saul David Alinsky, had ties to the Chicago School. While the relationship of Addams with the Chicago School has been persuasively shown (Seigfried 1996, Deegan 1988), the relationship with Alinsky, the "dean of modern community organizing" (Boyte 1983, 34), has not been examined. The following argument establishes that relationship.

Neither Alinsky's intellectual roots nor the social theory of his Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) have yet to be definitively researched by scholars. IAF Executive Director Edward Chambers (1995) recognizes this as a weakness and acknowledges that the IAF has always been better at action than reflection. The classic community organizing texts are Alinsky's three books and numerous articles as well as Chambers's 1978 extended pamphlet Organizing for Family and Congregation. 1 These texts, however, do not provide a social-theoretical explicit grounding.

Alinsky's Earliest Mentor

The word "mentor" refers to a counselor who guides the development of another's professional and personal growth. In the first biography of [End Page 50] Alinsky, P. David Finks argues that Alinsky's mentor was United Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis (1984, 45). Chambers (1995) concurs, adding that "Alinsky wrote the book on Lewis (Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography) and that the principles of organizing are in that book." However, Alinsky first met Lewis in 1939 through his work with the Back of the Yards Organizing Council, after he had already developed the central components of his organizing theory. If Alinsky had already formed his views, if Lewis was not his mentor, who was?

Alinsky attended the University of Chicago from the fall of 1926 through the spring of 1932, majoring in sociology. Finks recognizes the influence of sociologist Robert Ezra Park as Alinsky's "favorite professor," and Ernest W. Burgess, "a colleague of Park" (1984, 61). Horwitt, Alinsky's second biographer, agrees. Balancing the "intellectually stronger of the two," Park, with the "highly respected" Burgess, Horwitt (1989) furthers and reinforces Finks's claim of both sociologists' influence upon Alinsky. While both authors' purpose is biographical and their audience popular, it is nonetheless important to examine on what basis their claims of influence are made. Neither shows any bibliographic reference to the works of Park and Burgess to substantiate their judgments.

The Chicago School of Pragmatic Sociology:
Alinsky's Intellectual Roots

The Chicago School of Pragmatic Sociology epoch (1915-1950) emanated from the single principle that "the science of sociology should be built upon empirical research" (Bogue 1974, ix), research that moved away from "general theory, social philosophy, or purely historical work toward the firsthand empirical investigation by means of personal documents, observations, and interviewing" (Bulmer 1984, xiii). The school originated in 1892 when President Harper recruited Albion Small who built a program that came to dominate American Sociology for thirty-five years. Small's coauthored An Introduction to the Study of Society (1894) was a "laboratory guide" for the study of American society and provided an outline for Chicago sociology. Small viewed sociology as a tool for democratic social change: "conventionality is the thesis, Socialism the antithesis, Sociology is the synthesis" (quoted in Smith 1988, 76). The exponents of this approach (George E. Vincent, William I. Thomas, Ellsworth Faris, Robert Ezra Park, and Ernest Watson Burgess, to name a few) pioneered research initiatives in urban Chicago that eventually became subdivisions in American sociology: urban studies, the family, criminology, race relations, mass media, and social psychology. 2 Alinsky referred to these sociologists as "men whose names were to be as famous in sociology as the Apostles are...


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