Robert Ezra Park (February 14, 1864 – February 7, 1944) was an American urban sociologist, one of the founders of the Chicago School of sociology, who introduced and developed the field of human ecology. Park began his career as a journalist, having the idea of presenting the news in an accurate and timely fashion, believing that this would best serve the public. He quickly became concerned with social issues, particularly those connected to race relations, and worked for a time with Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee. As a sociologist, Park believed that fieldwork was essential. His work, using the streets of Chicago to meet people and gather research material, led to the tradition of urban sociology and human ecology that became the hallmark of the Chicago School of sociology. Despite his emphasis on practical work, Park developed several significant theoretical concepts. His work on social groups led to conceptions of "social distance" and the immigrant position as "the marginal man." Park's work on social groups underscored the difference between human beings and the rest of nature in how they choose to work together for the common good. His work on social change also supports the hope that as people encounter diverse cultures and social groups, they will gradually overcome the barriers that divide them and learn to live in harmony.
Robert Ezra Park was born in Harveyville, Pennsylvania, but soon after his birth his family moved to Minnesota, where he grew up. He was the son of Hiram Asa Park and Theodosia Warner Park. After completing high school in Red Wing, Minnesota, his father decided not to send his son to college, for he thought that Robert was not good "study material." Robert ran away from home and found a job on a railroad gang.
After earning enough money, he enrolled at the University of Michigan. His professor there was famous pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. Park’s concern for social issues, especially issues related to race in the cities, motivated him to become a journalist.
In 1894, Park married Clara Cahill, the daughter of a wealthy Michigan family. They had four children.
After working, from 1887 to 1898, for different newspapers in Minneapolis, Detroit, Denver, New York, and Chicago, Park decided to continue with his studies. He enrolled at Harvard University, in a psychology and philosophy program, for his MA degree. His professor at the time was prominent pragmatist philosopher William James.
After graduation in 1899, Park went to Germany to study in Berlin, Strasbourg, and Heidelberg. He studied philosophy and sociology in 1899-1900, with Georg Simmel at Berlin, spent a semester in Strasbourg in 1900, and took his Ph.D. in psychology and philosophy in 1903, at Heidelberg under Wilhelm Windelband (1848-1915). His dissertation, Masse und Publikum. Eine methodologische und soziologische Untersuchung, was published in 1904.
Park returned to the U.S. in 1903, briefly becoming an assistant in philosophy at Harvard, from 1904 to 1905. In the same time he engaged himself as an activist. In 1904, he was secretary of the Congo Reform Association, a group that advocated for the rights of black Africans in the Congo. Through this experience Park became more sensitive to racial issues in the U.S., and came to know Booker T. Washington, the noted African American teacher and reformer, with whom he developed a close relationship that lasted many years.
In 1905, Park accepted Washington’s invitation to join him at the Tuskegee Institute in his work on racial issues in the southern U.S. Park worked there first as publicist and later as director of public relations. In 1914, Park moved to Chicago to join the department of sociology at the University of Chicago, one of only a few departments of sociology in the United States. He served there as a lecturer in sociology from 1914 to 1923, and a full time professor from 1923 until his retirement in 1936.
During his lifetime, Park became a well-known figure both within and outside the academic world. At various times he was president of the American Sociological Association and of the Chicago Urban League, and was a member of the Social Science Research Council.
After his retirement, Park continued to teach and direct research at Fisk University. He died in 1944, in Nashville, Tennessee, one week before his eightieth birthday.
In his early career as a journalist, Park was rather idealistic. He learned that newspapers can be very powerful tools. They can change public opinion to one side, or can influence stock market values to rise or decline. Park believed that accurate and objective reporting was, thus, essential for the good of society. If the news was reported precisely and in a timely fashion, the public could respond to new information in an appropriate manner, without being faced with major shocks. The whole economy would thus function smoothly.
Park planned a new kind of newspaper, called Thought News, that would present the news in a more accurate manner. His plan was never realized, but the whole experience had a long lasting effect on Park, and influenced his career as sociologist.
Park opposed the traditional, theoretical approach to sociology, in which sociologists created “big” theories from their armchairs. He rather believed in field study as crucial for his work. He claimed that only through field experience can scientists conclude something about a subject. Park said:
Go and sit in the lounges of luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of the flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and on the slum shakedowns; sit in the Orchestra Hall and in the Star and Garter Burlesque. In short go and get the seat of your pants dirty in real research (Robert Park, 1927).
He saw sociology as:
…a point of view and a method for investigating the processes by which individuals are inducted into and induced to cooperate in some sort of permanent corporate existence [called] society (Introduction to the Science of Sociology, 1921).
During Park's time at the University of Chicago, the sociology department began to use the city that surrounded it as a sort of research laboratory. His work, together with that of his colleagues, Ernest Watson Burgess, Homer Hoyt, and Louis Wirth, developed into an approach to urban sociology that became known as the Chicago School. This Chicago School was famous for being involved more with people than with methodology, going on the streets and doing research. Through that, Park came in contact with city life, with its people, and their problems. He coined the term “human ecology” to specify this approach to sociological inquiry.
Park was especially interested in immigrants, and conducted numerous studies on them. He was famous for the term “the marginal man,” to denote the specific position of immigrants in society:
The marginal man…is one whom fate has condemned to live in two societies and in two, not merely different but antagonistic cultures…his mind is the crucible in which two different and refractory cultures may be said to melt and, either wholly or in part, fuse (Cultural Conflict and the Marginal Man, 1937).
Based on his observation of immigrant groups in the United States, Park developed his theory of group behavior. He postulated that the loyalties that bind persons together in primitive societies are in direct proportion to the intensity of the fears and hatreds with which they view other societies. This concept was developed as theories of ethnocentrism and in-group/out-group propensities. Group solidarity correlates to a great extent with animosity toward an out-group.
Park proposed four universal types of interaction in intergroup relations:
Although Park hoped that full assimilation would remove racial differences in the long run, he saw the situation of race relations in America in different terms. He regarded the concept of "social distance," referring to the degree of intimacy between groups or individuals, as more relevant. Park argued that racial prejudice and social distance should not be confused with racial conflict. In 1928, Park wrote:
There is probably less racial prejudice in America than elsewhere, but there is more racial conflict and more racial antagonism. There is more conflict because there is more change, more progress. The Negro is rising in America and the measure of antagonism he encounters is, in some very real sense, the measure of his progress.
Thus, for Park, racial conflict was the harbinger of change to come, and the cycle from accommodation to conflict to new accommodation was a special case in the general process of social change.
According to Park, different ethnic groups coexisting in an urban area would ultimately merge into a single entity. This theory became famous as the “melting pot” theory of multiethnic integration.
Park saw human society as functioning on the same level as the natural world of plants and animals, the ecological order, but also participating in a social or moral order that had no counterpart in the non-human level. Thus, he regarded human societies as having dual aspects: on the one hand they consist of individuals competing for economic and territorial dominance, but at the same time they are involved in collective actions:
[Societies] are composed of individuals who act independently of one another, who compete and struggle with one another for mere existence, and treat one another, as far as possible, as utilities. On the other hand, it is quite true that men and women are bound together by affections and common purposes; they do cherish traditions, ambitions, and ideals that are not all their own, and they maintain, in spite of natural impulse to the contrary, a discipline and a moral order that enables them to transcend what we ordinarily call nature, and through their collective action, recreate the world in the image of their collective aspirations and their common will.
Park regarded the moral or social order as one in which human beings consciously choose to communicate with one another in collective action for the common good.
Robert E. Park was a pioneer in originating and developing the field of human ecology. He changed sociology from being primarily a philosophical discipline toward incorporating field study into its methodology and becoming an inductive science of human behavior.
He introduced the urban landscape as a valuable source of data for sociological study. His emphasis on immigrants and minorities was rather novel, revealing data that shed new light on our understanding of the race relations, in- and out-group dynamics, social pathology, and other forms of collective behavior.
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