Robert Ezra Park Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Robert Ezra Park 1864-1944

American nonfiction writer.

Park played an important role in shaping and defining sociology as a modern social science in late nineteenthand early twentieth-century America. Seeking diverse experiences in social observation, including a doctorate in philosophy and several years' experience as a newspaper reporter and editor, he began his career as a practicing sociologist at the age of forty-nine, working as part of the highly influential sociology faculty at the University of Chicago. Through his publications on subjects such as race relations, the effect of newspapers on the public, and the contrast between rural and city life, as well as his work with graduate students and as the co-author of a seminal sociology textbook, he helped to promote his innovative approach to sociological study, which combined direct, objective observation in the field with the sort of rigorous, organized methodology practiced in pure scientific research.

Biographical Information

The son of a prosperous Midwestern businessman, Park was financially independent, which enabled him to follow a varied and wide-ranging career path. He took undergraduate, master's, and doctorate degrees in philosophy, studying in the United States and Germany with such scholars as John Dewey, William James, Georg Simmel, and Wilhelm Windelband. For several years he worked as a reporter and city editor for daily newspapers in New York, Chicago, and several other cities. Employed as a press agent for a society formed to protest abuses against native peoples in the Belgian Congo, he met writer and educator Booker T. Washington, who encouraged him to study southern African American life at the Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama. In 1914 Park became a lecturer in the sociology department at the University of Chicago. At the time Chicago was a turbulent, rapidly expanding urban center, and Park and his students and colleagues at the university attempted to document what was going on in the city while at the same time developing and perfecting the proper research methodologies to do so. He died in 1944.

Major Works

When Park was still a student, sociology was not yet defined as a branch of academic study that was completely separate from philosophy; however, it was the focus of Park's interest, as reflected in his doctoral dissertation, Masse und Publikum (1904; The Crowd and the Public). Park is credited by some sources as the principal author of The Man Farthest Down (1912), a study of European peasant life he wrote with Washington. After starting his career as an academic at the University of Chicago, Park wrote prolifically, publishing a number of scholarly papers, notably "The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment," which reflects his interest in the evolving social dynamics of modern urban life. He also wrote several full-length studies, mostly in collaboration with others, including Old World Traits Transplanted (1921), The Immigrant Press and Its Control (1922), and The City (1925). With Ernest W. Burgess, he cowrote the landmark textbook Introduction to the Science of Sociology (1921), in which he introduced the concept of sociology as a science with an organized theoretical basis.

Critical Reception

Commentators point out that Park was not as influential as a theorist or original researcher as he was in helping to form the way modern sociology was viewed and practiced. The most important contributions attributed to Park involve his work as a teacher, through the Park and Burgess Introduction to the Science of Sociology and his training of students who would make significant contributions to sociological literature, such as Neis Anderson's The Hobo (1923), Frederic Thrasher's The Gang (1927), and Harvey Zorbaugh's The Gold Coast and the Slum (1929).