The American sociologist Robert Ezra Park was a leading figure in the "Chicago school" of sociology. He was born February 14, 1864 in Harveyville, Pennsylvania. His mother, Theodosia Warner, was a schoolteacher and his father, Hiram Asa Park, was a soldier in the Union army. Soon after the Civil War the family moved to Red Wing, Minnesota, where Park grew up.
Park attended the University of Michigan and received a Ph.B. in philosophy in 1887, studying under the young John Dewey (1859-1952). From 1887 until 1898 he was a reporter on daily newspapers in Minneapolis, Detroit, Denver, New York, and Chicago. In 1894 Park married Clara Cahill, and they had four children: Edward, Theodosia, Robert, Jr., and Margaret (Raushenbush 1979).
In 1899 Park entered Harvard University, where he studied under William James (1842-1910) and Josiah Royce (1855-1916). He then took his family to Germany, where he studied with Georg Simmel (1858-1918) and took the only formal course on sociology he ever had. He completed his Ph.D. in 1904 at Heidelberg with his dissertation, "Masse und Publikum" (The Crowd and the Public). He returned to Harvard for a year, but soon became bored with academic life and accepted the position of secretary of the Congo Reform Association. He later met Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and worked for seven years at Tuskegee Institute studying the American Negro.
At the invitation of W. I. Thomas (1863-1947), Park joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1914 and remained there until he retired in 1929. Between 1929 and 1932 he traveled extensively, researching race relations in other countries and teaching. He was a guest professor at Yenching University in Peking and at the University of Hawaii. From 1936 until his death in 1944 he lectured at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee (Hughes 1968).
Park was not a prolific writer, but he produced several books and numerous articles. His articles have been published in three volumes by his students as The Collected Papers of Robert Ezra Park, vol. 1: Race and Culture (1950), vol. 2: Human Communities: The City and Human Ecology (1952), and vol. 3: Societies (1955). Perhaps his most influential publication was the pathbreaking Introduction to the Science of Sociology, published with Ernest W. Burgess in 1921, which has been described as the most influential sociological textbook ever produced in the United States (Martindale 1960; Coser 1971).
In Park’s view, society is best seen as the interactions of individuals controlled by traditions and norms. Park was keenly interested in social psychology, and his favorite topics were collective behavior, news, race relations, cities, and human ecology (Raushenbush 1979). Park defined sociology as "the science of collective behavior," which suggests the need for analysis of social structures with the study of more fluid social processes (Coser 1971, p. 358).
These processes are divided into four major categories: competition, conflict, accommodation, and assimilation. Park held that "competition is the elementary universal and fundamental form of social interaction" (Park and Burgess 1921, p. 507). It is as universal and continuous in human society as it is in nature, and it assigns persons their position in the division of labor. Conflict is intermittent and personal. Competition determines the position of the individual in the community; conflict fixes his place in society (Coser 1971, p. 359). Accommodation is a cessation of conflict that is fragile and easily upset. Assimilation "is a process of interpenetration and fusion in which persons and groups acquire the memories, sentiments, and attitudes of other persons and groups, and, by sharing their experiences and history, are incorporated with them in a common culture" (Park and Burgess 1921, p. 735). Then when assimilation is achieved it does not mean that individual differences are eliminated or that competition and conflict end, but that there is enough unity of experience so that a "community of purpose and action can emerge" (Coser 1971, p. 360). Social distance refers to "the degree of intimacy that prevails between groups and individuals. The degree of intimacy measures the influence which each has over the other" (Park 1950, p. 357). The greater the social distance between individuals and groups, the less they influence each other.
Although Park’s theory fit with the prevailing assimilationist view of his time, there are several criticisms of his race-relations cycle: (1) Park did not set a time frame for the completion of the assimilation process—making it essentially untestable; (2) Park could not cite any racial group that had passed through all four stages of his cycle—instead, he and other assimilation theorists explained the lack of assimilation as the result of interference in the process, resulting in a tautological theory that can neither be proved nor disproved; (3) Park did not describe the assimilation process in much detail (Healey 2007; Parrillo 2005).
Park described sociology as the "abstract science of human nature and experience" that included the "applied science" of his four social process to analyze "those modifications in human beings that are due to the human environment."
The same social forces which are found organized in public opinion, in religious symbols, in social conversation, in fashion, and in science … are constantly recreating the old order, making new heroes, overthrowing old gods, creating new myths, and imposing new ideals. And this is the nature of the cultural process of which sociology is a description and an explanation (Park and Burgess 1921, quoted in Raushenbush 1979, p. 82).
Park’s sociology "always focused analytical attention on those processes or situations which foster the emergence of novel forms that upset or render obsolete previous adjustments and accommodations" (Coser 1971, p. 366).
Although Park has sometimes been accused of making racist remarks, his interest in the problem of race relations stems from a desire for a deeper understanding of the human situation. In a letter to Horace R Cayton, another Chicago school sociologist, Park elaborated on his work with Negroes, demonstrating his broader analytical views of the problems involved:
Democracy is not something that some people in a country can have and others not have, something to be shared and divided like a pie—some getting a small and some getting a large piece. Democracy is an integral thing. If any part of the country doesn’t have it, the rest of the country doesn’t have it (quoted in Raushenbush 1979, p. 177).
Park stimulated his students to learn from their own experiences and observations: "Park’s teaching always gave the sense of something in the making" (Raushenbush 1979, p. 184).
There is no better testimony to the impact of Park’s teaching than the imposing roster of his students. Everett C. Hughes, Herbert Blumer, Stuart Queen, Leonard Cottrell, Edward Reuter, Robert Faris, Louis Wirth, and E. Franklin Frazier all became presidents of the American Sociological Society. Helen McGill Hughes, John Dollard, Robert Redfield, Ernest Hiller, Clifford Shaw, Willard Waller, Walter C. Reckless, Joseph Lohman and many other students of Park became leading social scientists. It is hard to imagine the field of sociology without the contribution of the cohort of gifted men whom Park trained at Chicago. What higher tribute can be paid to a teacher? (Coser 1971, p. 372).
Charles S. Johnson, one of Park’s students, noted that "his mind never ceased to work with ideas and he had not lost his zest for life and work and the still uncharted frontiers of human behavior even when, in his final illness, he could no longer speak" (Raushenbush 1979, p. 176). Park died at his home on February 7, 1944, seven days before his eightieth birthday.