Bally Hoo Café, 1942 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
Ernest Watson Burgess (May 16, 1886 – December 27, 1966) was a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. During the early twentieth century he and his students conducted extensive sociological research in the Chicago area, often focusing on particular communities and subcultures. Several of these studies focused on homosexuality; accordingly, the Burgess Papers, which include research materials collected by Burgess and his students, are a valuable source of documentation about the history of Chicago’s gay community.
Ernest Watson Burgess was born on May 16, 1886 in Tilbury, Ontario, Canada to Edmund J. Burgess and Mary Ann Jane Wilson. 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.
A lifelong bachelor, Burgess remains something of an enigma. Little is known about his personal life — he lived in Hyde Park near the Gothic university towers with his sister, Roberta, 1 and half year younger than him and who attended the same schools as he did, and vacationed at a summer home in the Indiana Dunes, 50 miles from Chicago. Their father, Edmund James Burgess, lived with them since his retirement in 1916 up until his death in 1930.
He himself took part in his research on particular communities and subcultures. He attended at least two drag balls in 1932 and was so intent on his observations at a New Year’s Eve “fairy ball” that he followed several of the drag queens into the bathrooms. “[They] put up their dresses to urinate,” he recorded in his distinctive, slanting, bold script. His students’ reports are vivid. The party was just coming into full swing when one researcher arrived at the Ballyhoo Café, at 1942 North Halsted Street, at 11:30 p.m. on September 24, 1933: “Seventy-five were queer fellows and 25 queer girls. The hostess dressed in masculine style was queer as well as the M.C.” The girls — “mentes,” as they were called — got drunk on gin. Probing all the while, the researcher asked one to dance. He reported that she talked about the “jam” people —code for “straight” — and confided that queer people despised them.
Roberta Burgess died in January 1961 and Ernest moved to a retirement house, Drexel Home, at 6140 S Drexel Ave, Chicago, IL 60637. Ernest Watson Burgess died on December 27, 1966. He was 80 years old.
Leonard Cottrell has written "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.
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