Burgess, Ernest W.

views updated May 29 2018

Burgess, Ernest W.



Ernest W. Burgess, American sociologist, was born in 1886 in Ontario, Canada. That same year his parents moved to the United States. He received his A.B. from Kingfisher College in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in 1908 and his PH.D. from the University of Chicago in 1913.

Burgess is so completely associated with the University of Chicago that it is easy to forget that before he began teaching there in 1916 he had taught at the universities of Toledo (Ohio) and Kansas and at Ohio State University. He became a professor of sociology at Chicago in 1927 and professor emeritus in 1951. He died in 1966.

The strongest influences on Burgess’ academic development were those of W. I. Thomas, Robert E. Park, and George Herbert Mead. Thomas urged his students to go out into the city, as he did, to study the behavior of people in actual social situations. Park also insisted that a sociologist study life as it really exists. Mead’s primary concepts—the social self, conversation of gestures, and taking the role of the other—were incorporated into Burgess’ thinking. Burgess’ idea that family unity arises out of the interaction and communication of family members can be traced to Mead’s influence.

Burgess’ two dominant interests were the family and the aged. It was he who virtually opened up the subject of the family as a field of sociological inquiry. His interest in the family began when he was asked to teach a course in the subject at the University of Chicago in 1916. Determined to break with romanticized conceptions of the family and of marriage, he conceptualized the family as “a unity of interacting personalities” (1926a).

In 1928 Burgess participated in a study that attempted to predict the success or failure of parole (1928a). This study led him to focus on the problem of predicting the success or failure of marriages. When he first began his study on this subject, in 1931, he used data obtained from only one spouse. Before that project was completed, however, he had embarked on a more ambitious one, with more satisfactory data, which included gathering data during the engagement of couples, predicting their adjustment in marriage, and reinterviewing the couples three to five years after marriage (Burgess & Wallin 1953). He concluded that the quality of adjustment depended primarily on the homogeneity of attitudes and social characteristics of the husband and wife.

Studying the life cycle of the family led Burgess to his concern with the aged. He was primarily interested in the decline in the economic role of the aged, the roles of husband and wife in old age, problems associated with the husband’s retirement, changing expectations of support of the aged on the part of the aged themselves and of their children, and government programs for the aged.

Burgess had a considerable impact both on the development of sociology in general and on the field of the family in particular. One source of his broad influence on the social sciences was the immensely successful textbook he coauthored with Park (1921). In addition, he was president of the American Sociological Association, the Sociological Research Association, the National Conference on Family Relations, and the Gerontology Society. It is hard to overestimate the importance of his research and his theories in establishing the sociological study of the family. While more recent work in this field has devoted somewhat more attention than Burgess did to the family as an element in the larger structure of a society, his objective, toughminded approach raised the study of the family to a high level in the field of sociology.

Harvey J. Locke

[For the historical context of Burgess’ work, seeSocial Darwinismand the biographies ofMead; Park; Thomas. For discussion of the subsequent development of Burgess’ ideas, seeCity, article oncomparative urban structure; Ecology, article onHuman Ecology; Marriage; and the biography ofWaller.]


(1921) 1929 Park, Robert; and Burgess, Ernest W. Introduction to the Science of Sociology. 2d ed. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1926a The Family as a Unity of Interacting Personalities. Family 7:3–9.

1926b The Romantic Impulse and Family Disorganization. Survey 57:290–294.

1926c Burgess, Ernest W. (editor) The Urban Community: Selected Papers From the Proceedings of the American Sociological Society, 1925. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1928a Factors Determining Success or Failure on Parole. Pages 203–249 in Illinois, Committee on Indeterminate-sentence Law and Parole, The Workings of the Indeterminate-sentence Law and the Parole System in Illinois. Springfield, III.: Division of Pardons and Paroles.

1928b Family Tradition and Personality Development. National Conference of Social Work 55:322–330.

1928c The Family and the Person. Pages 133–143 in American Sociological Society, The Relation of the Individual to the Group. Publications, Vol. 22. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1939 Burgess, Ernest W.; and Cottrell, Leonard S. Predicting Success or Failure in Marriage. New York: Prentice-Hall.

(1945) 1963 Burgess, Ernest W.; Locke, Harvey J.; and Thomas, Mary M. The Family: From Institution to Companionship. 3d ed. New York: American Book Co. → See especially Chapter 22 on “Family Relations in the Middle and Later Years.”

1953 Burgess, Ernest W.; and Wallin, PaulEngagement and Marriage. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

(1953) 1954 Burgess, Ernest W.; Wallin, Paul; and Schultz, Gladys D. Courtship, Engagement and Marriage. Philadelphia: Lippincott. → First published as Engagement and Marriage, by Ernest W. Burgess and Paul Wallin.

1955 Council of State GovernmentsThe States and Their Older Citizens. Chicago: The Council. → A study directed by Ernest W. Burgess and Sidney Spector.

1960 Burgess, Ernest (editor) Aging in Western Societies. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1964 Burgess, Ernest W.; and Bogue, Donald J. (editors) Contributions to Urban Sociology. Univ. of Chicago Press.


Cavan, Ruth [Shonle] 1949 Personal Adjustment in Old Age. Chicago: Science Research Associates.

Dentler, Robert A.; and Pineo, Peter 1960 Sexual Adjustment, Marital Adjustment and Personal Growth of Husbands: A Panel Analysis. Marriage and Family Living 22:45–48.

Pineo, Peter C. 1961 Disenchantment in the Later Years of Marriage. Marriage and Family Living 23: 3–11.

Burgess, Ernest W.

views updated May 18 2018

Burgess, Ernest W. (1886–1966) Born in Canada, Burgess taught at Chicago University from 1916 until his retirement in 1952. He was a major influence on the development of the Chicago School, stressing the value of empirical research, and pioneering the study of the city (with Robert Park), delinquency (with Clifford Shaw), and family life. Many of his most influential writings will be found in The Basic Writings of Ernest W. Burgess (1974) edited by Donald J. Bogue. See also CONCENTRIC ZONE THEORY.