Park, Robert E.

views updated May 09 2018

Park, Robert E. 1864-1944


The American sociologist Robert Ezra Park was a leading figure in the Chicago school of sociology. He was born February 14, 1864 in Harveyville, Pennsylvania. His mother, Theodosia Warner, was a schoolteacher and his father, Hiram Asa Park, was a soldier in the Union army. Soon after the Civil War the family moved to Red Wing, Minnesota, where Park grew up.

Park attended the University of Michigan and received a Ph.B. in philosophy in 1887, studying under the young John Dewey (18591952). From 1887 until 1898 he was a reporter on daily newspapers in Minneapolis, Detroit, Denver, New York, and Chicago. In 1894 Park married Clara Cahill, and they had four children: Edward, Theodosia, Robert, Jr., and Margaret (Raushenbush 1979).

In 1899 Park entered Harvard University, where he studied under William James (18421910) and Josiah Royce (18551916). He then took his family to Germany, where he studied with Georg Simmel (18581918) and took the only formal course on sociology he ever had. He completed his Ph.D. in 1904 at Heidelberg with his dissertation, Masse und Publikum (The Crowd and the Public). He returned to Harvard for a year, but soon became bored with academic life and accepted the position of secretary of the Congo Reform Association. He later met Booker T. Washington (18561915) and worked for seven years at Tuskegee Institute studying the American Negro.

At the invitation of W. I. Thomas (18631947), Park joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1914 and remained there until he retired in 1929. Between 1929 and 1932 he traveled extensively, researching race relations in other countries and teaching. He was a guest professor at Yenching University in Peking and at the University of Hawaii. From 1936 until his death in 1944 he lectured at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee (Hughes 1968).

Park was not a prolific writer, but he produced several books and numerous articles. His articles have been published in three volumes by his students as The Collected Papers of Robert Ezra Park, vol. 1: Race and Culture (1950), vol. 2: Human Communities: The City and Human Ecology (1952), and vol. 3: Societies (1955). Perhaps his most influential publication was the pathbreaking Introduction to the Science of Sociology, published with Ernest W. Burgess in 1921, which has been described as the most influential sociological textbook ever produced in the United States (Martindale 1960; Coser 1971).

In Parks view, society is best seen as the interactions of individuals controlled by traditions and norms. Park was keenly interested in social psychology, and his favorite topics were collective behavior, news, race relations, cities, and human ecology (Raushenbush 1979). Park defined sociology as the science of collective behavior, which suggests the need for analysis of social structures with the study of more fluid social processes (Coser 1971, p. 358).

These processes are divided into four major categories: competition, conflict, accommodation, and assimilation. Park held that competition is the elementary universal and fundamental form of social interaction (Park and Burgess 1921, p. 507). It is as universal and continuous in human society as it is in nature, and it assigns persons their position in the division of labor. Conflict is intermittent and personal. Competition determines the position of the individual in the community; conflict fixes his place in society (Coser 1971, p. 359). Accommodation is a cessation of conflict that is fragile and easily upset. Assimilation is a process of interpenetration and fusion in which persons and groups acquire the memories, sentiments, and attitudes of other persons and groups, and, by sharing their experiences and history, are incorporated with them in a common culture (Park and Burgess 1921, p. 735). Then when assimilation is achieved it does not mean that individual differences are eliminated or that competition and conflict end, but that there is enough unity of experience so that a community of purpose and action can emerge (Coser 1971, p. 360). Social distance refers to the degree of intimacy that prevails between groups and individuals. The degree of intimacy measures the influence which each has over the other (Park 1950, p. 357). The greater the social distance between individuals and groups, the less they influence each other.

Although Parks theory fit with the prevailing assimilationist view of his time, there are several criticisms of his race-relations cycle: (1) Park did not set a time frame for the completion of the assimilation processmaking it essentially untestable; (2) Park could not cite any racial group that had passed through all four stages of his cycleinstead, he and other assimilation theorists explained the lack of assimilation as the result of interference in the process, resulting in a tautological theory that can neither be proved nor disproved; (3) Park did not describe the assimilation process in much detail (Healey 2007; Parrillo 2005).

Park described sociology as the abstract science of human nature and experience that included the applied science of his four social process to analyze those modifications in human beings that are due to the human environment.

The same social forces which are found organized in public opinion, in religious symbols, in social conversation, in fashion, and in science are constantly recreating the old order, making new heroes, overthrowing old gods, creating new myths, and imposing new ideals. And this is the nature of the cultural process of which sociology is a description and an explanation (Park and Burgess 1921, quoted in Raushenbush 1979, p. 82).

Parks sociology always focused analytical attention on those processes or situations which foster the emergence of novel forms that upset or render obsolete previous adjustments and accommodations (Coser 1971, p. 366).

Although Park has sometimes been accused of making racist remarks, his interest in the problem of race relations stems from a desire for a deeper understanding of the human situation. In a letter to Horace R. Cayton, another Chicago school sociologist, Park elaborated on his work with Negroes, demonstrating his broader analytical views of the problems involved:

Democracy is not something that some people in a country can have and others not have, something to be shared and divided like a piesome getting a small and some getting a large piece. Democracy is an integral thing. If any part of the country doesnt have it, the rest of the country doesnt have it (quoted in Raushenbush 1979, p. 177).

Park stimulated his students to learn from their own experiences and observations: Parks teaching always gave the sense of something in the making (Raushenbush 1979, p. 184).

There is no better testimony to the impact of Parks teaching than the imposing roster of his students. Everett C. Hughes, Herbert Blumer, Stuart Queen, Leonard Cottrell, Edward Reuter, Robert Faris, Louis Wirth, and E. Franklin Frazier all became presidents of the American Sociological Society. Helen McGill Hughes, John Dollard, Robert Redfield, Ernest Hiller, Clifford Shaw, Willard Waller, Walter C. Reckless, Joseph Lohman and many other students of Park became leading social scientists. It is hard to imagine the field of sociology without the contribution of the cohort of gifted men whom Park trained at Chicago. What higher tribute can be paid to a teacher? (Coser 1971, p. 372).

Charles S. Johnson, one of Parks students, noted that his mind never ceased to work with ideas and he had not lost his zest for life and work and the still uncharted frontiers of human behavior even when, in his final illness, he could no longer speak (Raushenbush 1979, p. 176). Park died at his home on February 7, 1944, seven days before his eightieth birthday.

SEE ALSO Assimilation; Blumer, Herbert; Chicago School; Cox, Oliver C.; Drake, St. Clair; Frazier, E. Franklin; Park School, The; Sociology, American; Sociology, Urban



Park, Robert E., and Ernest W. Burgess. 1921. Introduction to the Science of Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Park, Robert E. 1950. Race and Culture: The Collected Papers of Robert Ezra Park, vol. 1, ed. Everett C. Hughes, et al. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.


Coser, Lewis A. 1971. Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Healey, Joseph F. 2007. Race, Ethnicity, and Gender. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1968. Robert E. Park. In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 11, ed. David L. Sills and Robert K. Merton, 416419. New York: Macmillan.

Martindale, Don. 1960. The Nature and Types of Sociological Theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Parrillo, Vincent N. 2005. Strangers to These Shores: Race and Ethnic Relations in the United States. 8th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Raushenbush, Winifred. 1979. Robert E. Park: Biography of a Sociologist. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Larry R. Ridener

Robert E. Park

views updated Jun 08 2018

Robert E. Park

Robert E. Park (1864-1944) was a pioneer American sociologist who specialized in the dynamics of urban life, race relations, and crowd behavior and was largely responsible for standardizing the field of sociology as practiced in the United States.

Robert Ezra Park was born on February 14, 1864, near the town of Shickshinny, in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. After the Civil War his father, a veteran of the war, took the family to live in Red Wing, Minnesota, where Park was to spend the first 18 years of his life. There he got to know Norwegian immigrants struggling to build a new life in a new land, and he shared in their adventures. He even briefly encountered Jesse James, who asked him directions to the nearest blacksmith shop while fleeing from a bank robbery (1876).

When Park graduated from high school in 1882, his father decided that Robert was "not the studious type" and that no further education was necessary. Robert ran away from home, worked on a railroad gang during the summer, earned $50, and enrolled at the University of Minnesota as a freshman in engineering. Although he had problems studying he passed his freshman courses, and his father relented and offered to finance further studies. Robert entered the University of Michigan, abandoned his interest in engineering, and majored in philosophy. He took philosophy courses with John Dewey, of whom Park said that studying with him was "an adventure that was taking us beyond the limits of safe and certified knowledge into the realm of the problematical and unknown." Park graduated in 1887 with a BA degree and a Phi Beta Kappa key.

Additional Education Leads to Sociology

Returning to Red Wing briefly, and inspired by Dewey and by a course in Goethe's Faust to seek adventure in the world, Park became a newspaper reporter, first in Minneapolis, then in Detroit (where he was city editor of two papers), Denver, New York, and Chicago. He spent 11 years learning the reporter's craft and in the process "developed an interest in sociological subjects, based on observations of urban life.

Spurred on by his father, by his marriage (1894) to the artist Clara Cahill, and by Dewey, he decided to return to university life because he "was interested in communication and collective behavior and wanted to know what the universities had to say about it." He received a Master's degree in philosophy from Harvard University (1899) and moved his family to Berlin. He enrolled at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University, where he expanded his interests in the newspaper to the broader concerns of human social life, particularly in its unplanned aspects, such as crowds and public gatherings, crazes and mobs. At the university he was exposed to the writing and lectures of the sociologist Georg Simmel; indeed, the course that he took from Simmel was the only course in sociology that Park ever had in his entire life. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg in 1903, having written a thesis titled "Crowds and Publics: A Methodological and Sociological Investigation, " regarded today as a classic study of both collective phenomena and social change.

Park returned to Harvard in 1903 and spent a year as assistant in philosophy while he completed his thesis. In 1904 he became secretary of the Congo Reform Association, a group organized in England and dedicated to publicizing atrocities perpetrated against Blacks in what was then the Congo Free State. The organization hoped to bring pressure for reform on King Leopold II of Belgium, who was solely responsible for administration of the area. "To fight such iniquity as this [Park wrote] is a great privilege." He wrote a series of articles for the muckraking periodical Everybody's Magazine, which generated considerable public outcry leading eventually (1908) to the formal annexation of the Congo by Belgium and the substitution of parliamentary control for personal rule. With this the Congo Reform Association ceased to function.

In 1905, while working with the association, Park felt himself to be "sick and tired of the academic world" and "wanted to get back into the world of men." Introduced to the noted African American teacher and reformer Booker T. Washington, Park was invited to become a publicist for Washington's Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Sensing that this might be an opportunity both to help the cause of African Americans and to learn about them and about the South, and in the process "get back into the world, " Park accepted the offer. Together they toured Europe (1910) comparing and contrasting the plight of Southern African Americans and European laborers and peasants. In that year, too, he helped organize the National Urban League. Park served Washington as confidant, as well as serving as director of public relations of the institute. He assisted Washington in preparation of the latter's The Man Farthest Down (1912) and appears as one of its authors. In 1912 Park organized an International Conference on the Negro at Tuskegee.

University of Chicago Tenure

As the conference opened, Park had decided to leave Tuskegee in order to spend more time with his family. Attending the conference was the sociologist W. I. Thomas who, after a lengthy correspondence, invited Park to join him on the faculty of the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, then one of a few departments of sociology in the United States. Park came to Chicago in 1913 and remained there until 1936, well past his formal retirement in 1933. He served as president of the American Sociological Society in 1925. He was a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii from 1931 to 1933; travelled extensively in China, India, South Africa, the Pacific, and Brazil; and in 1936 joined the faculty of Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, and taught intermittently as a visiting professor. He died in Nashville a week short of his 80th birthday, on February 7, 1944.

During his tenure in the Chicago department, both in his writing and in teaching a generation of students who for the most part themselves became influential sociologists, Park virtually single-handedly shepherded sociology from the ranks of a movement to better the world to the status of a science of social life. First, with his younger colleague Ernest W. Burgess, he tried to define sociology in a way that was more than simply arm-chair theorizing about society and its problems. Their Introduction to the Science of Sociology (1921, 1924) presents sociology as both "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." Therefore, second, Park tried to make sociology a research-oriented field of study by suggesting a strategy for social research and a laboratory—the city—in which this research could be carried out (see his 1915 article "The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment"). He coined the term "human ecology" to suggest that one dimension of sociological study. Finally, he argued that the problems of society could not be understood, let alone ameliorated, without a thoroughly documented awareness of the varieties of social processes that give rise to such problems.

Throughout his work one finds a continuing concern with social transformation and change that characterized his doctoral thesis. Additionally, the notion persists that the sociologist is very much like the reporter. But the sociologist's depiction of "the Big News" differs from the reporter's story in that the sociologist has a set of analytical categories in which to place that story, to establish relations between events over the longer term, and to predict as accurately as evidence might permit on the basis of what has happened in the past what might well happen in the future. His approach to sociology as the outcome of human communication raised the Department of Sociology at Chicago to a pre-eminent level, and his views still are influential.

Everett C. Hughes, one of Park's distinguished students, said of his mentor: Park's genius was to arouse a student's interest in a small project and develop it into a large one, stated in universal terms. … He was a tireless teacher. He insisted that data gathered for research should not be used for social casework or individual therapy. He tried to understand and guide his students in their efforts to learn and communicate clearly what they were learning. … [His] teaching always gave the sense of something in the making; he said in a handwritten note, 'Science is not knowledge. It is the pursuit of knowledge.'

Further Reading

One can best learn of Park as person and sociologist by reading his own work. In addition to his doctoral dissertation, which has been translated into English (1972), Park was the author, co-author, or editor of six books: The Man Farthest Down: A Record of Observation and Study in Europe, with Booker T. Washington (1912, reprinted 1983), demonstrates Park's commitment to civil rights at a time when such commitment among whites was rare; Introduction to the Science of Sociology, with Ernest W. Burgess (1921, 1924, reprinted 1969, 1981), is perhaps the classic statement of sociology as "the American science"; Old World Traits Transplanted, with W. I. Thomas and Herbert A. Miller (1921, reprinted 1969); The Immigrant Press and Its Control (1921, reprinted 1970); The City, editor, with Ernest W. Burgess and Roderick D. McKenzie (1925, reprinted 1967), which constitutes the first major thrust of American sociology toward the use of the urban environment as a sociological laboratory; and An Outline of the Principles of Sociology, editor (1939), a simple but solid introduction to what sociology is all about.

Park's collected papers were edited in three volumes by Everett C. Hughes, Charles S. Johnson, Jitsuichi Masuoka, Robert Redfield, and Louis Wirth (1950-1955). They deal, in turn, with Park's approach to race and culture, to human communities, and to human behavior as reflected in collective behavior, news, and public opinion. The first volume of the three contains "An Autobiographical Note, " which Park dictated to his secretary when at Fisk University and which was found among his papers after his death. An earlier "Life History" was published in the American Journal of Sociology in September 1973. Works about Park include Fred F. Matthews, Quest for An American Sociology: Robert E. Park and the Chicago School (1977); one of Park's many students, Winifred Raushenbush, Robert E. Park: Biography of a Sociologist (1979); and Everett C. Hughes, also a student of Park, "Robert E. Park, " in The Sociological Eye, edited by Hughes (1971).

Additional Sources

Lal, Barbara Ballis, The romance of culture in an urban civilization: Robert E. Park on race and ethnic relations in cities, London; New York: Routledge, 1990.

Raushenbush, Winifred, Robert E. Park: biography of a sociologist, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1979. □