American Sociology
Robert E. Park

Howard Odum

Park, the fifteenth president of the American Sociological Society for 1925, followed the earlier pattern of coming to sociology relatively late in life and of living and working actively throughout a long life, in his case a span of eighty years. He was contemporary with that considerable group already described as being born just after the Civil War and moving into sociology from a new American epoch. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1864 but moved immediately west and graduated at the University of Michigan in 1887. Like Giddings he got much of his experience in the newspaper world and showed his genius and initiative by preferring to become secretary to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee, Alabama, to a teaching position at Chicago. Consistently enough, he later became professor of sociology at Chicago and after his retirement there, he taught at Fisk University where he recaptured, as it were, that part

(132) of his work which led E. C. Hughes to say of him, in the preface to the 1950 Robert Ezra Park: Race and Culture, that "Park probably contributed more ideas for analysis of racial relations and cultural contacts than any other modern social scientist."

Park's own estimate of his approach, methods, and contribution, prepared especially for this book, is characteristic of the man and his work. Pointing out that he was "one of the first and humbler muckrakers," he recalled that his first studies in the field, which he later called sociology, came from services as a newspaper reporter. He continued, "my experience as a reporter led me to study the social function of the newspaper, not as an organ of opinion but a record of current events. In fact, with a group of others of the same mind I started out to reform the newspaper, by making it more accurate and scientific, something like Time and Fortune. I spent six years at home and abroad at that task. Out of that grew my thesis on the crowd and the public (Masse and Publikum) and my interest in collective behavior. I think my principal theoretic interest is still the newspaper as a social institution. One thing that I discovered in the course of my studies was that there was no adequate and no precise language in which to describe the things I wanted to study, `collective behavior,' for example. As a reporter I had learned a good deal about the city and I had used my position as city and Sunday editor to make systematic studies on the urban community. During my connection with Booker Washington and Tuskegee, I had learned a great deal about the Negro. It was from these two sources mainly that graduate students found materials for the researches which I directed after I went to Chicago.

"It was these researches that revealed to me that we had in sociology much theory but no working concepts. When a student proposed a topic for a thesis, I invariably found myself asking the question: what is this thing you want to study? What is a gang? What is a public? What is a nationality? What is a race in the sociological sense? What is graft? etc. I did not see how we could have anything like scientific research unless we had a system of classification and a frame of reference into which we could sort out and describe in general terms the things we were attempting to investigate. Park and Burgess' Introduction was a first rough sketch of such a classification and frame of reference. My contribution to sociology, has been, therefore, not what I intended, not what my orig

( 133) -inal interest would have indicated, but what I needed to make a systematic exploration of the social work in which I found myself. The problem I was interested in was always theoretic rather than practical. I have been mainly an explorer in three fields: Collective Behavior; Human Ecology; and Race Relations."

In the new volume, Race and Culture by Robert Ezra Park, edited by Everett C. Hughes and published in 1950, there is an autobiographical note in which he had dictated a more intimate account of how he came to sociology.

Park was author of Introduction to the Science of Sociology (with E. W. Burgess), 1921; Old World Traits Transplanted (with Herbert A. Miller), 1921; The Immigrant Press and Its Control, 1922; The City—Suggestions for the Study of Human Nature in the Urban Environment, 1925; and the editor of An Outline of the Principles of Sociology, 1939. Race and Culture was edited by E. C. Hughes and published in 1950 in order to put together in one place the best things Park had done in this field. In an article in the American Sociological Review, June, 1944 pages 322-24, "Robert E. Park, 1864-1944," Ellsworth Faris said that Park would rather "induce ten men to write ten books than to take time off to write one himself."

While at the University of Michigan, according to E. W. Burgess, in "Contributions of Robert E. Park to Sociology" in Sociology and Social Research on page 256 of Volume 29 (March-April, 1945), Park was in a circle that included John Dewey, George H. Mead, and Franklin Ford, each of whom was seeking to understand human nature and society as a basis for building a better world. And, of course, during their decade of association, Park was much influenced by Booker T. Washington. Park was very much impressed by the Negro educator and often ex-pressed his indebtedness to that able leader. Others with whom Park was in contact were William James, Royce, Münsterberg, Santayana, Simmel, and Windelbandt.

Professor Burgess estimated that Park made several original contributions. He was a pioneer in originating and developing the field of human ecology; he gave new concepts and methods to the study of race relations; he introduced a realistic and vital approach to the study of news and newspapers in relation to public opinion and popular educa-

( 134) -tion. Park, along with W. I. Thomas, seemed to have given major impetus to the movement which shifted sociology from social philosophy to an inductive science of human behavior. His originality is accredited by the fact that he had such an intimate acquaintance with human beings and social situations and by his freedom from conventional ways of looking at behavior. Bogardus has estimated that it is rather well recognized that Park was the father of human ecology: "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."

Another of his colleagues, Ellsworth Faris, on page 323 of the above reference, says that "a partial list of the fields in which he made significant contributions would include: social psychology and the theory of personality; studies on the community; the city; human ecology (he coined the term) ; the newspaper (as an institution) ; the social survey (again as an institution) ; crowd and public — the field of collective behavior; and chiefest of all, race relations and the conflicts of cultures. In the field of method he made valuable contributions as to the use of life histories, guided and unguided, for the investigation of personality."

Earle Fiske Young, one of his students and later professor at the University of Southern California, writing of Park as "a sociological explorer" on page 439 of Volume 28 (July–August, 1944) of Sociology and Social Research, says of Park's contributions that "the robustness, virility and independence of Robert E. Park, operating in a wide variety of social research fields — race relations, the community, personality development, social pathology, human ecology, institutional organization, collective behavior, sectarianism, as well as technical methods and the logic of the social sciences — have stimulated such widely different persons and groups that no single appraisal of his meaning for sociology and sociologists can tell the whole story." He goes on to say that more than any other American sociologist, Park demonstrated the breadth of the social fields that lie ready for sociological exploration, the variety of methods available for their cultivation, and the wider implications of the findings of scientific sociology.

Park's presidential address, published in Papers and Proceedings of the Twentieth Annual Meeting, Vol. XX, was entitled, "The Concept of Position in Sociology," and was a contribution to the relatively new concept of human ecology. In fine, the sociologist's interest in human ecology is in man's relation to other men as found in definite and typical patterns. Insofar as social structure can be defined in terms of position, and social changes in terms of movement of the population, social phenomena are subject to mathematical measurement. The growth of a city is more than a mere aggregation of people, but involves many changes which are measurable. Not all social phenomena can be measured in terms of location, position and mobility, for the true unit of social inter-action is a changing attitude. Nevertheless social relations are often correlated with special relations and hence are measurable in a certain degree.


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