Robert Park & Urban Ecology Research Paper Starter

Robert Park & Urban Ecology

This article presents an overview of the concept of urban ecology (sometimes called human ecology), which grew out of the work of Robert Ezra Park and the Chicago School of sociology between about 1915 and 1935. The term urban ecology is based on an extended analogy between natural ecosystems and human communities in what Park thought of as the social "laboratory" of Chicago. Park essentially attempted to provide a model for understanding the processes by which individuals and communities interact with each another and their surrounding urban environment. Park's distinction between the biotic and social orders of city life clarifies the analogy between ecosystems and cities: In this context, plants, animals, and humans all have a biotic level of life, but only humans have a social (or cultural) level of existence. The mixture of qualitative (or descriptive) and quantitative (or statistical) methodologies used by the Chicago School is also significant, particularly in a historical context.

Keywords Biotic; Chicago School of Sociology; Concentric Zone Theory; Dominance; Ecological School; Ethnography; Qualitative Research; Quantitative Research; Social Control; Social Darwinism; Social Distance; Succession; Zone of Transition

Sociological Theory: Robert Park


Chicago School of Sociology

The Chicago (or "Ecological") School was an important force in the establishment of sociology as a distinct and influential discipline in the United States. Although the Chicago School was more of a school of working sociologists than a distinctive and coherent school of thought, Park and his colleagues and students played an important role in developing a more scientific methodology for studying social issues related to crime, immigration, and urban development (Becker, 1999).

The experience and program of research that Park brought to the study of sociology at the University of Chicago suited the situation well: The school was pursuing a more empirical approach to scholarship, and the city itself was experiencing both substantial growth and extensive social problems. Park had covered similar social problems for twelve years as a journalist and reporter, and he subsequently spent seven winters studying racial conflict in the American South. That course of study was undertaken on the advice of Booker T. Washington, the President of the Tuskegee Institute. Park had also spent nine years as Washington's secretary and studied racial issues domestically and internationally in that capacity.

Park likened a good sociologist to a reporter who presents factual information of such quality that it can simultaneously provide insight about the reader and society itself. He also frequently told his students that the role of the prospective sociologist is to pursue information objectively rather than to be a "crusader" (Coser, 1977). Nevertheless, an aura of societal reform hovers around much of the work of the Chicago School. Common topics of Chicago School dissertations include homelessness, deviant behavior, crime, strikes, ghettos, and brothels (Abbott, 1997). Park termed sociology "the science of collective behavior" (quoted in Coser, 1977, p. 358).

The Urban Environment

Park used the Darwinian notion of a "web of life" to illustrate the comparison between natural and urban environments. He literally studied insect ecology in order to find a model that could be applied to human society (Cortese, 1995). The rhetorical emphasis Park and others placed on terms like "competition," "conflict," "scarce resources," and "division of labor" can distract contemporary readers from the fact that these terms were meant to emphasize multiple interactive relationships rather than mere competition (Abbott, 1997). In short, Park is sometimes taken to be an advocate of the discredited notion of social Darwinism, which viewed competition and social hierarchy as a healthy or desirable forces. Gross and Krohn (2005) summarize the central idea that urban ecology explored: "All parts of the environment are interdependent and are moved by individual, collective, and ecological forces" (p. 69).


Park was more proficient as an editor, collaborator, teacher, and dissertation supervisor than as a writer or researcher. Ernest Burgess has been credited with systematizing Park's somewhat vague theories and imperatives regarding practitioner detachment (Cortese, 1995). In a seminal early sociological textbook, Introduction to the Science of Sociology, Park and Burgess (1966 [1921]) developed a four-stage system for describing social processes:

  • Competition
  • Conflict
  • Accommodation
  • Assimilation

The first stage exists at the biotic level in that it is universal to all living things; the second at the conscious level in that it is related to periodic disputes over issues such as social status or limited resources; the third involves a temporary suspension of conflict through social control and the subordination of one of the parties involved in the conflict; and the fourth involves a resolution of the related conflict through integration (or "assimilation") into a common culture (pp. 502–505, 644–665; 730–735; Coser, 1977). The meaning of the term "assimilation" is this formula is a crucial but contentious issue.

A related dominance principle in this analogy refers to the unequal level of access that different individuals or organisms have to social status or resources; some trees, for example, do not have as much access to sunlight as others. Park (1952) used the ecological term succession for upward social mobility; at the plant or animal level, the term denotes natural development or progression (pp. 220–225). Whereas biotic relationships are universal in that all life forms exist in some sort of interdependent environment, the social level of human existence allows for conscious communication and collective action (Park 1952; Coser, 1977, pp. 359–360).

Concentric Zone Theory

Park and Burgess (1925) also developed the concentric zone theory of the city: A central business section that is surrounded by four outer areas that are occupied by successively more affluent groups. According to this model, new immigrants tend to occupy the second of the five areas, the zone of transition that is characterized by a high level of social problems, deteriorating quality of housing, and low-paying jobs. The three outer levels are occupied by the working class, the middle class, and the commuter class, respectively.

Natural Areas

The modern city is also described as a kind of ecosystem comprised of "natural areas": Function-related sections (including social, business, and residential sections); physical barriers (like rivers or large roads and buildings); financial divisions (like affluent suburbs and ghettos); and ethnic enclaves. These divisions are "natural" in the sense that the inhabitants of each of the four residential areas tend to engage with similar economic, social, and "ecological" issues. Rapid and drastic alterations in social institutions, values, and standards have been termed "social disorganization theory" or "differential social organization" in this context (Park, 1952; Coser, 1977). Park (1936) also framed the forces that shape the city in terms of a different four-tiered system:

  • Population
  • Artefacts (technological culture)
  • Custom and beliefs
  • Natural resources.

This model accounts for the role that technology-related issues occupy in the urban environment and, as such, might seem to minimize the importance of the ecological analogy; at the very least, the technological angle is an expansion on the social/cultural level of human life.

Although these ecological analogies may seem implausible to contemporary readers, Park also provided social-psychological explanations for the process of competition, conflict, accommodation, and assimilation. The methodological techniques by which these ambitious models were tested are themselves an important element of the Chicago School's legacy.



Park termed his preferred technique of firsthand fieldwork "participant observation," which resembles what anthropologists term the qualitative method of ethnography. This approach, as he defined it, involves immersing the sociological practitioner in the subjective experiences of others and producing an objective account of those experiences (Cavan, 1983, p. 414). Quantitative research, such as survey results, census data, and map-making, were also used extensively by students of the Chicago School to identify the spatial patterns of social problems in specific areas and, indeed, how specific areas might be classified according to the concentric zone theory (Cavan, 1983; Bulmer, 1984). The use of qualitative research in the form of personal information is particularly characteristic of the early stage of the Chicago School.


Thomas and Znaniecki (1918) assembled the first major work of the Chicago School; it is a study of Polish immigrants that made substantial use of both quantitative and qualitative research: newspaper reports, official archive material pertaining to immigrants, interviews, personal stories, and private letters. This five-volume collection, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America: Monograph of an Immigrant Group (1918–1920), has been considered a useful study of the psychological and social changes triggered by immigrant transplantation in general and Polish social history itself for many decades (Coser, 1978). W. I. Thomas, in particular, emphasized the elements of immigrant behavior that were culturally patterned prior to transplantation, rather than simply examining the immigrant's response to a new environment. Rather as Burgess's methodological acumen helped Park's ideas reach theoretical completion, Thomas's work may well have been more sensitive to the nonmethodological elements of these social issues than Park's work (Cortese, 1995). In other words, neither the concentric zone theory nor the competition/conflict model explain the reasons that those in the zone of transition might find upward social mobility such a challenge as well as Thomas's approach does. Despite this early emphasis on qualitative fieldwork, it soon declined after a colleague named William Ogburn rose to prominence in the department, but quality of results remained the main point of emphasis.

Park's Teaching

The possible drawbacks of qualitative research were familiar...

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