Ernest Watson Burgess (May 16, 1886 – December 27, 1966) was an American sociologist, famous for his work on urban sociology at the University of Chicago. He pioneered efforts to establish sociology as a scientific discipline, with the goal of being able to predict social phenomena, and co-authored, with Robert E. Park, a textbook that became known as the "Bible of Sociology," which put this idea into practice. His research on marriage and family, as well as the elderly, was also influential, although his efforts to apply scientific measurement to the marital relationship revealed a weakness in his approach: he could not include the dimension of love, since it was not amenable to external measures. Without this key component, his efforts to predict marital success were incomplete.
Ernest Watson Burgess was born in Tilbury, Ontario, Canada. His father, Edmund J. Burgess was a local minister in a Congregational Church. Burgess was educated at Kingfisher College in Oklahoma, where he received his B.A. degree in 1908. He continued graduate studies in sociology at the University of Chicago, receiving his Ph.D. in 1913.
After teaching in several minor colleges in the Midwest, Burgess returned to the University of Chicago in 1916, as a newly appointed assistant professor of sociology. He was the only professor at the sociology department who came directly with a background in sociology, as everybody else came from other disciplines. He was appointed full-time professor in 1927, and in 1946, became the chair of the sociology department. He remained loyal to the university, and continued teaching there until his retirement in 1952, becoming professor emeritus.
Burgess served as the 24th president of the American Sociological Society in 1934, president of the Sociological Research Association in 1942, and president of the Behavior Research Fund from 1931 to 1934. In 1938, he became involved with the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, serving as the president of the National Conference on Family Relations in 1942. In 1952, Burgess founded the Family Study Center, later known as the Family and Community Study Center. Burgess also served as an editor of the American Journal of Sociology from 1936 to 1940.
Burgess retired from teaching in 1952, but remained active in publishing. With Donald Bogue, he co-authored the textbook Urban Sociology in 1963. Burgess died in 1966, at the age of 80.
Burgess, unlike many earlier sociologists who worked to establish the theoretical structures of sociological science, was more interested in a practical approach to sociology. He invested more than fifty years of his career in researching urban sociology. He focused on social phenomena such as city growth, crime, delinquency, parole violation, and divorce.
In his work he was striving to develop a reliable theoretical tool to predict such phenomena. In 1929, he wrote: "Prediction is the aim of the social sciences as it is of the physical sciences."
Burgess devised different statistical and analytical tools to improve that prediction. He believed in qualitative research methods, like interviews and the examination of personal documents. With that, he argued, a scientist can approach the human side of a person, understanding the background of a social phenomenon.
Burgess' groundbreaking work in social ecology, in conjunction with his colleague Robert E. Park, provided the foundation for the Chicago school of sociology. Their textbook Introduction to the Science of Sociology, published in 1921, became the “Bible of Sociology,” and, according to many sociologists, the best-written textbook in sociology of the time. In their other book, The City (1925), Burgess and Park conceptualized the city into concentric zones, including the central business district, transitional (industrial, deteriorating housing, etc.), working class residential (tenements), residential, and commuter/suburban zones.
They viewed cities as something that experiences evolution and change, governed by the same forces of Darwinian evolution that can be seen in nature. The central force among all is competition. People struggle for land and other urban resources, which lead toward formation of groups and areas within the city that are based on certain interests. Those areas spread in concentric circles from the center of the city outwards. Burgess and Park's model of urban growth is thus often known as the concentric zone theory.
Burgess also spent a considerable amount of time in studying the institutions of family and marriage. He was interested in developing a scientific measure that would predict success in a marriage. In his book Predicting Success or Failure in Marriage (1939), co-authored with Leonard Cottrell, he theorized that harmony in marriage requires a certain amount of adjustment in attitudes and social behavior by both husband and wife. He developed a chart for predicting marital success, in which he associated different variables that he claimed affect marital stability. Burgess was, however, often criticized for this work, since he attempted to measure marriage without actually including any component of love or affection, something that is central to marriage.
Burgess also studied elderly people, especially the effects of retirement. He collaborated with the government in researching the success of government programs for the elderly, the results of which were published in 1960 in his book Aging in Western Societies.
Burgess' contribution to the development of modern sociology was considerable. He co-authored one of the most influential textbooks in general sociology, which continued to be used for decades after his death.
In his work, Burgess strove to establish sociology as an empirical science. He applied statistical methods, such as factor analysis, to measure a wide range of social phenomena, and worked to find reliable instruments to predict them. In this way, he managed to bridge the gap between sociology as a philosophical discipline and sociology as science.
Although his research on urban communities was quite successful, his attempts to develop scientific models describing the unique, social institutions of marriage and the family were subject to criticism for their failure to include the key component of love, which cannot be quantified with external measures, yet is essential in these human relationships.
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