Robert Ezra Park 1864-1944

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Human Ecology


The underlying assumption in Park's theoretical system bear the distinctive historical imprint that marked the worlds not only of Dewey and James, but of other interactionists...including Charles Horton Cooley, George Herbert Mead, and W. I. Thomas among others. Park was born the year before the ending of the great American Civil War and died a year before the Axis powers were defeated in the Second World War. However, his life life was shaped more by the reformist spirit and progressive politics that marked the Midwest from the latter decades of the nineteenth century until the outbreak of the "war to end all wars." It was an era of explosive industrial growth, the urban-based factory system, and teeming cities fed by immigrants and migrants from the declining countryside. It was a time of muck, of muckrakers, and of publishers such as Hearst and Pulitzer who made fortunes by commodifying and sensationalizing despair. It was a winter of urban slums and rural blight, of child labor and industrial death and dying, of racist division and the privilege of the native born. But through it all, Park and his kindred spirits retained an optimism found on pluralist beliefs: The abuse of their period were only temporary aberrations; the American people when educated and informed would do the right thing; and above all, the existing society held out the promise of justice. 

Consistent with the pluralist image of human nature, Park held an ambivalent view of individuals. On the one hand, men and women compete and struggle. On the other, they exhibit emotional ties, ideals, and a common purpose. Although it is true that each uses the other, the one commonly joins the many in collective action to "recreate the world" (Park 1952:178-181). Yet Park, more than modern interactionists, reserved a place for instinct. He argued that social distance, a state of mind that separates groups such as races or classes by creating conceptions of social "place," does not have to be learned. Moreover, he believed that prejudice is essentially an expression of the natural disposition to maintain that social distance. However, Park also recognized that prejudice is a conservative force for the maintenance of the status quo (Park 1950:255-260). 

As to society, Park assumed an order where antagonistic elements are bound, at least temporarily, by arrangements collectively termed "social control." Thus by means of binding norms, the members of society conform rather than give vent to their different interests. This state of equilibrium is dynamic, especially in an "open class" society (Park and Burgess 1966:664-665, originally published 1921). Park's conception of society is one of constantly emerging states of accommodation, in which conflict between contending parties comes to a temporary halt. Yet he defined each new plateau as a point in a progression. As a clear illustration, Park cited the turbulence of race relations in the United States. He thought such conflicts are indicators of progressive change and that the more powerless groups walk away from such struggles with a new accommodation and improved status (Park 1950:229-235).

Park's assumptions concerning the nature of human science logically follow from the discussion thus far. Sociology was defined as the science of collective behavior. However, we would miss Park's meaning should we focus on the usual meaning of the the term collective behavior. Although Park was interested in such things as publics, crowds, and especially public opinion and the media, it is the processual meaning inherent in the collective forms of social life that entranced him. Such is evident in a dynamic theoretical language of stages, movement, transition, and forms of renewal. For Park (and other interactionists), the social reality is not static and timeless but changing and temporal. Its nature is not base, society and its means of social control are created through processes. And for Park, as with Simmel, explanatory systems in sociology must seek to identify and clarify these essentially micro-level courses of action. 

Theoretical Content

In Human Communities (1952), Park pioneered with his early efforts in the field of human ecology. He conceived of the community as a "biotic" arrangement. Whether comprised of plants, other animal species, or Homo sapiens, communities share the common properties of a population distributed along territorial lines "rooted in the soil," with each constituent member or group living in a symbiotic relationship. The social community is also such a biotic order, reflecting interdependence and territoriality, which emerges from a universal struggle for existence. As with all communities, each member of society competes for position in the "spatial" order, yet each is dependent on others and the whole. 

Park describes the developmental change within the community by reference to the twin principle of dominance and succession. The former refers to the competitive clash among dissimilar members or groups for standing or resources. The latter refers to an orderly process through which all biotic orders develop and change. In the metropolitan community, territorial zones or areas reflect by the social conditions of their population the struggle for power. Yet, the population of such "spaces" does not remain fixed (1952:144-155). For example, the immigrant newcomers routinely settle near the city center. City centers are typically decaying areas that are ripe for commercialization and industrialization. However, Park argued that the immigrants did not stay there. Rather, they moved, over time and generations, outward through other concentric zones toward the suburbs. This is the movement of succession (1952:221-225). 

The principles of dominance and succession both stem from what Park (and his colleague Ernest W. Burgess) believed to be the most basic social process: competition. Drawing from biology, he argued that this form of interaction is universal and elementary in all natural or biotic orders. However, he identified other processes that are distinctively societal. While competition over resources and space is ongoing and impersonal, conflict is a conscious process intended to secure social status and the relative control associated therewith (Park and Burgess [1921] 1966:505-507). The third process is accommodation, which denotes a temporary end to conflict and the support of the prevailing hierarchy through measures of social control (such as law and custom) (Park and Burgess [1921] 1966:664-665). Finally, comes assimilation, in which dissimilar people and groups share their experiences and form a truly common culture (Park and Burgess [1921] 1966:729-735). 

A final focal concern in Park's theoretical system centers on the relationship between self and society. The conscious conceptions of distinctive identity are based in large measure on the roles played by the human actor. For Park, such roles are bound generally to one's status and specifically to one's occupation. In Society (1955) he argued that the origin of the self is in the responses of others to one's particular status in the social order. It therefore follows that the individual simultaneously bound by two cultures with different conceptions of status and role may possess a distorted social identity. Park employed the term marginal man to describe this condition. Yet in the tradition of Simmel's work on the stranger, Park argued that marginality provides a special vantage point from which to understand and critique arrangements taken for granted by the mainstream. And in a manner reminiscent of Dewey, Park asserted that "It is in the mind of the marginal man--where the changes and fusions of culture are going on--that we can best study the processes of civilization and progress" (1950:356). 


Park, Robert Ezra. 1950. Race and Culture. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Park, Robert Ezra. 1952. Human Communities. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Park, Robert Ezra. 1955. Society. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press. 

Park, Robert Ezra and Ernest W. Burgess. [1921] 1966. Introduction to the Science of Sociology. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 


(Perdue 1986:228-233)

Perdue, William D. 1986. Sociological Theory: Explanation, Paradigm, and Ideology. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.