American Sociological Association

Robert E. Park

Robert Ezra Park

Robert Ezra Park

February 14, 1864 - February 7, 1944

Robert Ezra Park was born February 14, 1864 in Harveyville, Pennsylvania, the son of Hiram Asa Park and Theodosia (Warner) Park. Park completed High School in Red Wing Minnesota, where his family had moved from Pennsylvania. In 1882, Park entered the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis where he studied until he entered the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1883. In 1887 he earned a Ph.B.

From 1887 through 1898 Park worked as a journalist in Minneapolis, Detroit, Denver, New York, and Chicago. In 1898, Park entered Harvard University to study psychology and philosophy, earning an M.A. in philosophy in 1899. In 1899, Park traveled to Germany where he studied at the University of Berlin. He spent a semester studying at the University of Strasbourg, followed by a few years spent at the University of Heidelberg studying philosophy and psychology.

Following his return to the United States, Park spent two years at Harvard University (1904-05), lecturing in Philosophy. From 1905-1914, Park worked with the Tuskegee Institute, first as publicist and later as director of public relations of the institute. After Tuskegee, Park moved to Chicago in 1914 where he initially served initially as a lecturer in sociology (1914-1923), followed by appointment as a full professor of sociology in 1923.

Park served as President of the American Sociological Society (later changed to Association) in 1925. His Presidential Address entitled "The Concept of Position in Sociology" was delivered at the organization's annual meeting in New York in 1925 and was later published in the Proceedings of the 1925 Annual Meeting.

After Park's retirement in 1933, he spent his winters in Nashville, Tennessee and his summers in Michigan. Park died on July 2, 1944 in Nashville. An obituary for Dr. Park was published in the American Sociological Review upon his death.

In his 1951 book, American Sociology: The Story of Sociology in the United States through 1950, Howard Odum provided the following biographical sketch of Robert E. Park (pages 131-135):

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 prefer-ring 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 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 original 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 education. 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, 7944) 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.


Written by Ellsworth Faris, published in the American Sociological Review, 1944. 9:322-325.
Robert Ezra Park died at Nashville, Tennessee, February 7, 1944, exactly one week before his eightieth birthday. A scholar of international reputation, his own work and that of the students whom he inspired and trained will insure for him a high rank among the leading sociologists of his generation. Although he was deeply concerned in the effort to formulate the basic concepts of sociology into an integrated and consistent system, yet the fertility of his mind and the versatility of his interests led him to cultivate a wide range of fields and problems. 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, not as a technique) ; 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. He also did much to develop the use of maps for the investigation of social phenomena. In one field he did not work, that of statistics, for Park had no mathematics. His published books deal with general sociology, immigration, the press, and the city but his articles cover a very wide field.

In view of the highly creditable achievements of Park as a sociologist it is interesting to record that his academic connections with the University of Chicago did not begin till he was fifty years old and that he held the rank of professor of sociology for only ten years, though he did remain at the university for two years after his retirement, still working, and he spent the last eight years of his life as visiting professor at Fisk University. He came into the field late in life but was allowed thirty years-not so brief a span, after all.

Park was graduated from the University of Michigan at the age of twenty-three and for eleven years was in newspaper work, first as reporter and later as city editor of a metro­politan daily. This career he abandoned and went to Harvard to study philosophy, earning the master's degree. After this he went to Europe for four years for study and travel and received his doctorate from Heidelberg at the age of forty. There followed a year as assistant in philosophy at Harvard but it left him wholly uncertain as to what he wanted to make of himself. He has told us in public addresses more than once how he seriously considered going to South Africa to place himself in the hands of Cecil Rhodes, whom he considered to be a master organizer, and asking that empire builder to find a place for him.

At this juncture occurred the first of two "accidents" which were to alter the courses of his life. The Congo Reform Association was conducting a campaign in the press against the regime of Leopold II and for a press agent they turned to Park. He duly fed the atrocity stories to newspapers to the satisfaction of all -all save the Congo government. This relatively brief connection aroused a lively interest in the Negro problem and in the possibility of understanding it. He had heard that Booker Washington in Alabama was doing excellent work and so went to Tuskeegee to see what he could learn.

Park was not exactly a rich man but he inherited a competence and there were no finan­cial worries. He could go where he pleased and travel as much as he liked. At Tuskeegee he found Washington to be all and more than he had heard and so for eight or nine years he remained associated with Tuskeegee, coming north in the summer, and finding the association increasingly interesting and informing. The fruits of the association would make a fascinat­ing story and no one will ever know the debt Washington owed to Park, though neither of these men cared anything about the debt or the credit. It was while he was there that the second "accident" occurred, a meeting with W. I. Thomas, who was so favorably impressed that he promptly arranged for Park to come to the University of Chicago for one summer to give one course of lectures on the Negro in America for a fee of $500. That was how Park came into academic life. When he had finished his course he did not return to Alabama; he had found his vocation at last.

He was not trained in sociology; none of his generation were, for there was no one to train them. His education in philosophy had brought him into intimate contact with such men as John Dewey, William James, Royce, Munsterberg, Santayana, Simmel, and Windelband. He was a profound scholar if by scholarship is meant a knowledge of the great books, new and old, in three languages. His years with the newspaper had brought him into contact with all sorts and conditions of men and his years among the Negro had provided him with deep insights into human nature. He began his teaching after his children were grown up and at a time of life when there were no distracting influences and he gave himself wholeheartedly to sociology and to his students.

His success was not immediate. In 1914 Small was an outstanding figure on the campus, Henderson was still remembered for his brilliant work, and Thomas was at the height of his fame, attracting students into his courses by the hundreds. By 1920, however, when the students swarmed back after the war, Park had become the outstanding member of the department. He was no speech-maker and his reputation did not depend on his lectures, profound and stimulating though they were. His practice became to make appointments with each of his students and to have protracted interviews with each one of them, learning their background and interests and planning definite problems for investigation. This procedure was enormously time-consuming and Park was usually late to meals-but he loved it.

If his literary output is not impressive in quantity, the reason is obvious. He did plan many books which he did not write. Several volumes were projected in collaboration with his colleagues which were never produced. But the books he caused to be written and the ones he laboriously edited and corrected are numbered by the scores and the men he trained will yet write many more because of him. He held it better to induce ten men to write ten books than to take time off to write one himself.

His criterion of acceptability did not always commend itself to the rest of us for he insisted that, if a man had done his best and that more work would not improve the thesis, it should be approved. This is not quite so bad as it sounds for many were eliminated before they came to the point of writing, but he was very charitable if a mediocre man had worked hard and done his best. He often said that the best results in the long run could be expected, not from the most brilliant men, but from the competent ones who could be depended on to take a continuing interest in a problem and stay with it. It must be confessed that the results often justified his contention.

For nine years he continued as a professorial lecturer with the same nominal salary but, because he sought to give to the university instead of receiving from it, he developed other courses and presently was teaching two full quarters every year, courses which we quietly announced in the catalogue. One day there came from the administration an official document "authorizing Dr. Park to give courses in the Winter quarter without salary." They had finally discovered what was going on and thus regularized a highly irregular procedure. Eventually a new president approved his appointment as full professor-he was fifty-nine years old. He was not indifferent to the recognition but it would not have made any difference had he never been given his due. No one ever possessed greater "moral capital" than he. Was it not Aristotle's great-souled man who never walked fast since nothing he wanted justified hurry?

Park's teaching and research activities were literally world-wide. He visited post-war Germany and conferred with the prominent sociologists of Europe. A whole academic year was spent at the University of Hawaii, where he left behind not only a tradition of diligent research but a group who knew how to work. He lectured in Peiping where he taught Chinese students how to discover what they had not known how to find. In India he met many kindred spirits and in South Africa he gained an insight into that most difficult of all racial situations. In Brazil he was so impressed with the almost unique conditions that he did not rest till he had found a gifted American student whom he persuaded to learn the Portuguese language and for whom he secured the funds to insure a residence of two and a half years in Bahia. Park visited him during that period for counsel and advice and finally, on request, recommended him for a professorship in the University of Sao Paolo which is now a promising center of sociological study and research.
When his work was done at Chicago he was not content to remain idle. Like Tennyson's Ulysses-it was a favorite poem of his-he held it vile to store and hoard himself while his grey spirit yearned to follow knowledge like a sinking star. And so, right through his eightieth year, he taught and trained his devoted students at Fisk. 

Ample and satisfying recognition had come to him. He had been president of the American Sociological Society, member of the National Social Science Research Council, delegate to the Institute of Pacific Relations, director of the race relations survey on the Pacific coast, editor of a series of books on immigration for the Carnegie Corporation, associate editor of several learned journals, and member of more than a dozen learned societies.

His conception of sociology as an objective science, "a basic science of human nature," made him oppose any effort to turn sociology into a propaganda instrument. He steadfastly opposed what passes for "reform." Because of this he sometimes encountered opposition from his Social Worker colleagues on the campus who wrongfully interpreted his position as implying indifference to human welfare. But he steadfastly insisted that sociologists must not become agitators for he held that this would only mean partisanship, the loss of the scientific temper, and above all the loss of that influence and authority which objective science should command. He looked forward to the day when the administrator, of whatever party, would look to the sociologist as the expert with knowledge to impart instead of a partisan with opinions to promote. "Nothing ought to be done which cannot be done" was one phrase with which he sought to silence those whose zeal was not according to knowledge. 

He had a profound faith in the future of sociology and looked forward to the time when it would be a profession to be practiced and not merely a subject ,to be taught. Hardly any man has done more in a long life to bring this to pass than Park did in his thirty years.

Get Involved


ASA needs you to serve the discipline

Join a Section

Explore ASA's community of specialists in the discipline

Join ASA

Join or renew your membership