In the early 1920s, a young graduate student at the University of Chicago named Nels Anderson employed a research method that was not then familiar to students of sociology, who took data from libraries and archives for their term papers. Nels took a different approach, because there was little data to be found in those locations on the group he wanted to study: homeless working men, or "hobos." So Anderson created his own method. Over the space of a year while a student, he lived like a hobo. He visited the cheap diners where hobos with a little money could eat, and copied down the menus. He stayed in a flophouse and documented its sights and sounds and the feeling of insects crawling over him while he tried to sleep. He sat with hobos by a campfire, watched how they handled their eating utensils, and listened to their stories. He learned the nicknames that a hobo could acquire if he lost a limb after falling off a train, and he observed speakers standing on soapboxes in a public square, trying to organize the urban poor. He wrote down all of this and more. The result was a brilliant, detailed analysis of what everyday life was like for a poorly understood minority group, in what became the classic work on homelessness in the United States: Anderson's book The Hobo.
Anderson's work began a golden age of what came to be called the Chicago School of Sociology. A series of engaging monographs, all produced by the University of Chicago's Department of Sociology, explored the city from a wide variety of angles: economic inequality, juvenile delinquency, private dance halls, African-American neighborhoods, and others. A common thread through these studies was extended, up-close investigation of real people's lives, placed in the context of their communities and larger society.