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 on Robert E. Park
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 Biography 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.