Robert Ezra Park: A Newspaperman and Student of Philosophy
A Newspaperman and Student of Philosophy
Having been immersed in a progressive atmosphere at the University of Michigan, Park decided upon graduation in 1887 not to go into his father's business but to seek a career in which he could give expression to his reforming concerns. He soon realized, however, that he differed from his Michigan friends by not indulging in utopian dreams and blueprints for reform. Most well-intentioned programs for change, he seemed to believe, were futile since they were based on insufficient knowledge of underlying social realities. Before reform could be implemented, a much greater knowledge was needed of present-day society than was so far available. Intimate acquaintance with social problems was a prerequisite for attempts to resolve them. The one career that seemed to present an opportunity for first-hand observation was newspaper reporting. So Park became a newspaperman.
From 1887 to 1898 Park worked for daily newspapers in Minnesota, Detroit, Denver, New York, and Chicago. He was soon given special assignments to cover the urban scene, often in depth through a series of articles. He wrote on city machines and the corruption they brought in their wake. He described the squalid conditions of the city's immigrant areas and the criminal world that was ensconced there. Constantly on the prowl for news and feature stories on urban affairs, Park came to view the city as a privileged natural laboratory for the study of the new urban man whom industrial society had created. Much of Park's later work and research interests grew organically out of his experiences as a newspaperman.
In 1894 Park married the daughter of a leading Michigan lawyer, Clara Cahill. The couple were to have four children. Four years after his marriage, Park decided that his empirical knowledge of the ways news was being created might be broadened by further academic study. He went to Harvard to study philosophy "because [he] hoped to gain insight into the nature and function of the kind of knowledge we call news." In addition, he "wanted to gain a fundamental point of view from which [he] could describe the behavior of society under the influence of news, in the precise and universal language of science.
At Harvard, Park studied psychology with Muensterberg and philosophy with Royce and James. After earning his M.A. in 1899, he decided to go to Germany for further studies. He first went to the University of Berlin where he listened to Georg Simmel and was deeply influenced by him. Except for these courses with Simmel, Park never received any formal instruction in sociology.
While in Berlin, Park came across a treatise on the logic of the social sciences, Gesellschaft und Einzelwesen (1899), by the Russian sociologist B. Kistiakowski. "It was the first thing I had found anywhere," he wrote, "that dealt with the problem with which I was concerned in terms in which I had come to think of it." According to Pitirim Sorokin, Kistiakowski expounded in this book a series of views on the characteristic tendencies of modern society that were in many respects similar to those developed by Simmel as well as by Toennies in Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. Since Kistiakowski had been a student of Wilhelm Windelband, Park went to Strasbourg and later to Heidelberg to study with the neo-Kantian philosopher. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis, entitled Masse und Publikum, under Windelband. Returning to Harvard in 1903 he put the finishing touches to his dissertation and served for a year as an assistant in philosophy.
From Coser, 1977:367-368.