Tracing the origins of immigrationism: the Chicago School

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septembre 20, 2012 par Sororité Aryenne


Created in 1892, the department of sociology of the University of Chicago was to be the first university department of sociology ever created in the history of mankind. This department gave birth, at the beginning of the 20th century, to a specific current of thought focusing on immigration and deliquency. . Between 1910 and 1935, one of the most influential trends of American sociology was forged there, a trend which was to prove itself to be of cardinal importance for the world’s future. Many American researchers and thinkers of great value met there over the course of the years. But the most representative of what is known today as the Chicago School was, without question, William Isaac Thomas (1863-1947).

 

Consciously leaving aside the political views and the economic sides of immigration, Thomas was the first to develop an optimistic conception of the latter by extolling the virtues of an alleged so-called « cultural enrichment ». He insisted that immigrants should continue reading and speaking their own language so as to favour the transition towards full assimilation. Thomas considered assimilation to be both desirable and inevitable. In his opinion, it required the establishment of a common memory shared by both the native and the migrant, an establishment which involved learning a new language, and accustoming people to a new culture and a new history. Public schools should be in charge of such an education. In order to prevent culture shocks, Thomas also recommended that « native » Americans familiarized themselves with the cultures, habits and ways of life from the countries where immigrants came from as well.

 

In his mind, and according to the concept of a marginal, hybrid and crossbreed man sharing two distinct cultures without having a thorough knowledge of either of them, assimilation was essentially a psychological process. In short, future societies were to be built by cultural integrations, that is to say by continuous and direct interactions between individuals of different cultures and habits, a process which should lead to profound changes in the initial cultural patterns of both human groups.

 

Still according to him, miscegenation was an enrichment. Indeed, Thomas rejected what he called « biological reductionism » and claimed that immigrant’s  behaviors were not related to racial or physiological issues of any kind or whatsoever, but, on the contrary, directly linked to the social issues they met on an everyday basis. He therefore came to the following conclusion : « the true variable lies in the individual, not in the race ».

 

Equally interesting is his approach to the issue of delinquency among immigrants. In 1924, the gang war raged in Chicago. Subsequently, Illinois Association for Criminal Justice decided to set up a wide-ranging investigation into criminality. The gangs occupied what was then called « the Poverty Belt », where the housing deterioration and the unceasing population reshaping disrupted everything. The gang seemed to Thomas to be an answer to such a disruption, but also a sign of cross-cultural conflict between immigrants and the values which traditionally shaped American Society. Thomas saw in delinquency the way immigrants gave themselves a future and an inspiration. In other words, he regarded immigrant delinquency as a necessary stage towards assimilation, a stage all the more inevitable since second generation immigrants were the product of an environment where rules were customary infringed.

 

You understand now, I think, the laxity and leniency Europe and America tend to demonstrate towards the turbulent and rebellious behavior so often shown by immigrant populations.

 

( The career of W. Isaac Thomas was in addition branded by an arrest by the FBI under the charge of « interstate immoral transport of females for sexual purposes », that is to say, pimping. )

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