Robert E. Park
|Born||February 14, 1864|
Harveyville, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, US
|Died||February 7, 1944 (aged 79)|
|Doctoral students||Howard P. Becker|
Roderick D. McKenzie
Robert Ezra Park (February 14, 1864 – February 7, 1944) was an American urban sociologist who is considered to be one of the most influential figures in early U.S. sociology. Park was a pioneer in the field of sociology, changing it from a passive philosophical discipline to an active discipline rooted in the study of human behavior. He made significant contributions to the study of urban communities, race relations and the development of empirically grounded research methods, most notably participant observation. From 1905 to 1914, Park worked with Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute. After Tuskegee, he taught at the University of Chicago from 1914 to 1933, where he played a leading role in the development of the Chicago School of sociology. Park is noted for his work in human ecology, race relations, human migration, cultural assimilation, social movements, and social disorganization.
Robert E. Park was born in Harveyville, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania on February 14, 1864 to parents Hiram Asa Park and Theodosia Warner Park. Immediately following his birth, the Park family moved to Minnesota, where he grew up.
Park lived in Red Wing for his first eighteen years. He was not considered a promising student, but he liked learning about the people in his town and their ancestries, a niche which would prove to be useful throughout his life. Park graduated high school in 1882—finishing tenth overall in a class of thirteen. Park was interested in attending college after high school, but his father did not allow him to do so, ironically because he felt his son was not "study material." As a result, Robert ran away from home and found a job working on a railroad.
Park's concern for social issues, especially issues related to race in cities, led him to become a journalist. Franklin Ford and Park made plans for a newspaper, Thought News, which would report public opinion. Although it was never published, Park still pursued a career as a journalist. From 1887 to 1898, Park worked as a journalist in Detroit, Denver, New York City, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Park's experience as a reporter led him to study the social function of the newspaper, "not as an organ of opinion, but as a record of current events". As a reporter Park learned a great deal about urban communities, which inspired his later sociological endeavors.
In 1894, Park married Clara Cahill, the daughter of a wealthy Michigan family and had four children: Edward, Theodosia, Margaret and Robert.
Park first attended the University of Minnesota where he excelled in his courses. Because of his success at the University of Minnesota, his father offered to invest in furthering Robert's education at the prestigious University of Michigan. Upon entering the University of Michigan, Park decided to transition from studying science to instead studying philology. His professor Calvin Thomas exerted a great influence on him. He challenged him to expand his mind and deeply pursue the concepts presented in his courses.
John Dewey also had a very strong influence on Park during his college year. After Park took Dewey's course on logic his sophomore year of college, he decided to again shift his major, this time to philosophy. Park stated that his interest in going to college has originally been purely practical, originally intending to pursue engineering, but this mindset shifted when he began taking courses which truly intrigued him. He was endlessly fascinated by the notion of exploring the realm of the dubious and unknown rather than focusing on the secure knowledge offered to him in his previous years of education. Upon becoming a student of philosophy Park became, "presently possessed with a devouring curiosity to know more about the world and all that men had thought and done". His future work in the field of sociology, which primary focused on human's behavior in different environments, proves that this exploratory mindset stuck with him for the rest of his life.
At the University of Michigan Park was involved in the school newspaper, The Argonaut. He held a position of associate editor his junior year and managing editor his senior year. He wrote a satirical piece titled, "A Misapprehension, A Realistic Tale à la Henry James". The connections he formed at The Argonaut would prove helpful in later landing him a job as a reporter at Minneapolis newspaper.
Park graduated from the University of Michigan (Phi Beta Kappa) in 1887 and attended Harvard University. He earned an MA from Harvard in 1899. After graduating, he went to Germany to study at Friedrich Wilhelm University. He studied philosophy and sociology in 1899–1900 with Georg Simmel in Berlin, spent a semester at the University of Strasbourg (1900), and took his PhD in Philosophy in 1903 in Heidelberg under Wilhelm Windelband and Alfred Hettner with a dissertation titled Masse und Publikum. Eine methodologische und soziologische Untersuchung, which translates to: Crowd and Public: A methodological and sociological study. Park then traveled to Germany to study at the University of Berlin. He enrolled for one semester at the University of Strasbourg and a few years at the University of Heidelberg studying under studied in Heidelberg with Georg Simmel, earning his PhD in 1904.
In 1904, Park began teaching Philosophy at Harvard as an assistant professor. Park taught there for two years until celebrated educator and author, Booker T. Washington, invited him to the Tuskegee Institute to work on racial issues in the southern United States. Park and Washington originally met through their mutual interest in helping Africans through the Congo Reform Association of which Park was secretary and Washington was vice president. Over the next seven years, Park worked for Washington by doing field research and taking courses. In 1910, Park traveled to Europe to compare US poverty to European poverty. Shortly after the trip, Washington, with the help of Park, published The Man Farthest Down (1913). This publication highlights Parker and Washington's journey to explore Europe in the hopes of finding the man "the farthest down" in order to explore these people were choosing to emigrate and the likeliness of a future change in positions. This led them on a six-week journey through the British Isles, France, Italy, Poland, Denmark, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
After Tuskegee, Park joined the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago in 1914, first as a lecturer (until 1923), then as a full professor until his retirement in 1933. During his time in Chicago, he continued to study and teach human ecology and race relations. In 1914, Park taught his first course in the Sociology and Anthropology department. The course was titled The Negro in America and it was, "Directed especially to the effects, in slavery and freedom, of the white and black race, an attempt will be made to characterize the nature of the present tensions and tendencies and to estimate the character of the changes which race relations are likely to bring about in the American system". This class was important from a historical perspective because it may have been the first course ever offered at a predominantly white institution that focused exclusively on black Americans. This set a precedent for classes with similar focuses to come.
During Park's time at the University of Chicago, its sociology department began to use the city that surrounded it as a sort of research laboratory. His work, together with that of his Chicago colleagues, such as Ernest Burgess, Homer Hoyt, and Louis Wirth – developed into an approach to urban sociology that became known as the Chicago School. This would become Park's legacy.
After leaving the University of Chicago, Park moved to Nashville, Tennessee. He taught at Fisk University until his death in 1944, at age 79.
During his lifetime, Park became a well-known figure both within and outside the academic world. At various times from 1925, he was president of the American Sociological Association and of the Chicago Urban League, and he was a member of the Social Science Research Council.
Park coined the term human ecology, the study of the relationship between humans and their natural, social, and built environments. Park himself explains human ecology as, "fundamentally an attempt to investigate the processes by which the biotic balance and social equilibrium are disturbed, the transition is made from one relatively stable order to other". Bogardus acknowledges that Park is the father of human ecology, proclaiming, "Not only did he coin the name but he laid out the patterns, offered the earliest exhibit of ecological concepts, defined the major ecological processes and stimulated more advanced students to cultivate the fields of research in ecology than most other sociologists combined." 
Park found that a key underpinning of his human ecology is the concept of competition. He believed that it is the primary feature of the biotic level of life. He maintained that human beings restricted in some areas when it comes to competition, while in the plant and animal kingdom it is uninhibited. He maintained that human restriction of competition is what allows our modern concept of society to exist. According to Park's papers regarding this topic, "Dominance" and "Succession: An Ecological Concept", ecological competition can be manifest itself through dominance and succession.
While at the University of Chicago, Park continued to strengthen his theory of human ecology. Along with Ernest W. Burgess developed a program of urban research in the sociology department. They also developed a theory of urban ecology, which first appeared in their book Introduction to the Science of Sociology (1922). Using the city of Chicago as their they proposed that cities were environments like those found in nature. Park and Burgess suggested that cities were governed by many of the same forces of Darwinian evolution that happens in ecosystems. They felt the most significant force was competition. Competition was created by groups fighting for urban resources, like land, which led to a division of urban space into ecological niches. Within these niches people shared similar social characteristics because they were subject to the same ecological pressure.
Competition for land and resources within cities eventually leads to separation of urban space into zones with the more desirable zones imposing higher rent. As residents of a city become more affluent, they move outward from the city center. Park and Burgess refer to this a succession, a term also used in plant ecology. They predicted that cities would form into five concentric rings with areas of social and physical deterioration concentrated in the center and prosperous areas near the city's edge. This model is known as concentric zone theory, it was first published in The City (1925).
Park spent a great deal of time studying race relations with Booker T. Washington while at the University of Chicago. Park contributed significantly to the study of race relations, with Everrett Hughes stating that, "Park probably contributed more ideas for analysis of racial relations and cultural contracts than any other modern social scientist."
Park worked closely with Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute from 1907 to 1914. While working under Washington, Park's primary interest was the system that had evolved to define Black-White relations in the South. Park said that he learned more about human nature and society while in the South. He says that, "These seven years were for me a sort of prolonged internship during which I gained a clinical and first hand knowledge of a first class social problem . . .[It was from Washington that] I gained some adequate notion of how deep-rooted in human history and human nature social institutions were, and how difficult, if not impossible it was, to make fundamental changes in them by mere legislation or by legal artifice of any sort".
After leaving the Tuskegee Institute, Park joined the University of Chicago where he developed a theory of assimilation, as it pertained to immigrants in the United States, known as the "race relation cycle". The cycle has four stages: contact, conflict, accommodation, and assimilation. The first step is contact followed by competition. Then, after some time, a hierarchical arrangement can prevail – one of accommodation – in which one race was dominant and others dominated. In the end assimilation occurred. Park declared that it is "a cycle of events which tends everywhere to repeat itself" and that it can also be seen in other social processes." He was instrumental in founding the race relations course at Chicago.
Park's "analysis of conflict" has been disregarded in the modern view of "symbolic interactionism". His theories in sociology have been forgotten over time. In 1931, Park's reputation took a downfall where his idea of "symbolic interactionism" was pushed aside.
Park's impact on the field of sociology is palpable yet often goes unrecognized. The majority of the sociologists born in the nineteenth century borrowed and concentrated in other fields and their work was considered sociological after the fact. Park was one such sociologist, with much of his interests originating in philosophy and then evolving into what we consider to be modern sociology when he began to focus on studying Chicago. His work led to the development of the Chicago school (sociology). Park along with fellow Chicago School sociologists Ernest Burgess and Louis Wirth created a theoretical basis for sociology which emphasized the more methodological approach which we recognize today. The Chicago school of thought regarding urban ecology still guides much of the work conducted in this field today.