Robert Ezra Park Criticism - Essay

Morton and Lucia White (essay date 1962)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Plea for Community," in The Intellectual Versus the City: From Thomas Jefferson to Frank Lloyd Wright, Mentor, 1964, pp. 160-70.

[In the following excerpt from an article originally published in 1962, Morton and Lucia White describe Park's sociological vision of the city.]

Park's career is the story of a sociologist who first saw society at close range as a newspaperman, then developed broad philosophical and sociological interests, and finally became an influential teacher of sociology at the University of Chicago. He traced his interest in sociology to his reading of Goethe's Faust, especially to Faust's fatigue with books and his desire to see the world. Starting his world-seeing as a reporter in Minneapolis, Park later moved on to New York, "the mecca of every ambitious newspaperman"; but like Dreiser he too became disenchanted with that city because, as Park put it, the newspaperman of those days usually lasted only about eight years and then was considered obsolete. During his newspaper work, Park came to realize that "a reporter with the facts was a more effective reformer than an editorial writer thundering from the pulpit." Without abandoning his passion for concrete information, he developed an interest in the philosophy of the newspaper that sent him back to the University of Michigan, where he met John Dewey. He also had a crucial encounter with a certain Franklin Ford, who had reported Wall Street, who had become interested in the function of the press and who had influenced Dewey's thinking too. After graduating from the University of Michigan, Park entered Harvard where, he says, he "studied philosophy because [he] hoped to gain insight into the nature and function of the kind of knowledge we call news. Besides, [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."

Like Jane Addams and John Dewey, Park had come under the spell of William James. While Park was at Harvard, he had heard James deliver his famous talk "On A Certain Blindness in Human Beings," in which James decried the blindness we are all afflicted with when it comes to understanding the feelings of people different from ourselves. James urged his audience not to regard as meaningless forms of existence other than their own and to tolerate, to respect, and to indulge those who harmlessly pursue their own ways, however unintelligible these might be. In a thrust at absolutism, James issued a command of toleration: "Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands." This was the kind of advice that could inspire both social workers and sociologists in the city. "Even prisons and sickrooms have their special revelations," said James. "It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field." James' essay, Park recalled, had a steadily increasing significance for his own thinking. "The 'blindness' of which James spoke," as Park saw it, "is the blindness each of us is likely to have for the meaning of other people's lives." Park came to think that "what sociologists most need to know is what goes on behind the faces of men, what it is that makes life for each of us either dull or thrilling. For 'if you lose the joy you lose all.' But the thing that gives zest to life or makes life dull is, however, as James says, 'a personal secret' which has, in every single case, to be discovered. Otherwise we do not know the world in which we actually live."

After his work at Harvard, Park went abroad to Germany. While in Berlin he studied with Georg Simmel, whose view of the city as a state of mind rather than as merely a physical environment, profoundly affected Park's own conception of city life. Looking back on this period when his interest in sociology crystallized, Park wrote that he first thought of the sociologist as "a super-reporter" of the "Big News," of long-term trends, of what actually is going on rather than what seems to be going on. James had stimulated him to find out what went on behind the faces of individual men, while Simmel had encouraged him to study what the German sociologist called "mental life" of the city as a whole. While Park acknowledged that Americans at that time were mainly indebted to novelists for their more intimate awareness of modern life, he wanted to go beyond what might be found in their writings with the help of objective, scientific techniques.

Like Jane Addams, Park threw in his lot with Chicago in the early twentieth century, and remained for much of his life interested in its ebullient growth and kaleidoscopic transformations. He concentrated his attention on it and based his generalizations on it during the first three decades of this century, when it was growing at the rate of half a million new inhabitants every decade. He had spent his early years in a small town, but like so many of his generation, he was personally attracted to the city as a social milieu where—as he put it—"everyone is more or less on his own." In more theoretical terms he explained the attraction of the metropolis for masses of people as partly due to the fact that there they found, more than in a small community, the moral climate to stimulate their innate qualities and bring them to full expression. The big city uniquely rewarded eccentricity, according to Park: even the criminal, the defective, and the genius found more opportunities to develop their dispositions in a great city than in a small town. Among other enticements of the city, as compared with small town and country, Park noted the heightened element of chance; and he speculated further that the lure of great cities arises perhaps from stimulation which directly affects the reflexes, "like the attraction of the flame for the moth, as a sort of 'tropism.'"

Park's use of the figure of the moth drawn into the flame is one indication of his view of the city as both attractive and destructive. He observed that the city was full of what he termed plenty of "human junk," who "have fallen out of line in the march of industrial progress." He admitted that the vast, nondescript, deteriorated areas which had become the American city slums were not places of "unity and charm," but the slums seemed to Park unusually interesting because they were in social transition.

For Park, the city is not simply a legal entity, it is, in his much-used phrase, primarily a state of mind. It is not merely a collection of people, of social conveniences, or of administrative arrangements. It is "a body of customs and traditions, and of the organized attitudes and sentiments that inhere in these customs and are transmitted with this tradition. The city is not, in other words, merely a physical mechanism and an artificial construction. It is involved in the vital processes of the people who compose it; it is a product of nature and particularly of human nature." As a human ecologist, he viewed the unplanned concentration of a large population in a small locality as comparable to the natural formation of plant and animal colonies. However, in cities, Park observed, a collection of people is further organized by human "tools" like communication, transportation, political institutions, and economic devices such as factories. Tools, people and place are all woven into one "psycho-physical mechanism." A human society is distinguished from a physical collection of individuals by communication resulting in corporate action, action directed toward a common end which, Park and his collaborator Burgess held, "is perhaps all that can be legitimately included in the conception of 'organic' as applied to society."

Like Dewey and Jane Addams, Park thought that society exists only in and through communication, and he linked this theoretical conclusion with his own personal interest in the newspaper. The newspaper, Park held, was the great medium of communication within the city. He looked upon the newspaper as an organ for mobilizing public opinion in the city, taking the place of the village gossip, the town-meeting orator, and the local preacher. And because he believed that the newspaper played such a key role in the city, Park thought that the distribution of newspaper circulation might be used as a measure of metropolitan influence. Park and his associate, Charles Newcomb, pointed out that "communication is fundamental to the existence of every form and type of society, and one form of communication, namely the newspaper, has been found to circulate over the natural areas within which society is organized. Thus it may not seem unreasonable that the newspaper should be used as an index in outlining a number of metropolitan regions of the United States." Park thought of a region as a social unit to the extent to which its inhabitants read one group of newspapers.

On the assumption that cities can cohere only so long as their residents communicate with each other, Park tried to discover various social processes in Chicago which encouraged or discouraged human understanding and communication. And his general conclusion was that understanding and communication are more fragmentary in the city than in the town and the village. Though some developments in Chicago around the turn of the century, particularly the cohesion of isolated ethnic groups and the formation of neighborhood associations in the slums, protected people from social dislocation in the new environment and preserved mutual understanding, the more powerful process of division of labor ultimately substituted organization based on occupation and vocational interests for one based on family ties, culture, caste, and status. The result was the gradual dissolution of "the moral order" resting on the latter kind of connection. According to Park, "a very large part...

(The entire section is 4133 words.)

Ralph H. Turner (essay date 1967)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Robert E. Park: On Social Control and Collective Behavior, edited by Ralph H. Turner, The University of Chicago Press, 1967, pp. ix-xlvi.

[In the following essay, Turner presents an overview of Park's approach to sociology.]

Probably no other man has so deeply influenced the direction taken by American empirical sociology as Robert Ezra Park. His students, inspired by his teaching and impressed with the serious task of finding out what actually went on about them, carried out much of the early empirical research in sociology and established a pattern for the work of others. Perhaps it is because of Park's intense personal impact on his...

(The entire section is 12548 words.)

Henry Eisner Jr. (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Robert E. Park: The Crowd and The Public and Other Essays, edited by Henry Eisner, Jr., The University of Chicago Press, 1972, pp. viixxv.

[In the following essay, Eisner discusses Park's contribution to sociological theory.]

Robert E. Park's doctoral dissertation, Masse und Publikum (The Crowd and the Public), was published in 1904. A perfect copy, recently encountered in a large university library, was yellowed and brittle but apparently undisturbed by any reader for sixty-five years. This may be symbolic of the attention paid, explicitly at least, by American sociology to the earliest work of one of its most influential...

(The entire section is 5362 words.)

Park Dixon Goist (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Sociologist and The City: The Experience of Robert Park," in From Main Street to State Street: Town, City, and Community in America, Kennikat Press Corp., 1977, pp. 110-20.

[In the following essay, Goist examines Park's concept of urban life.]

Robert Redfield, a widely known anthropologist, once observed: "If one studies the rise of urban communities out of more primitive communities, it is the change in the mental life, in the norms and in aspirations, in personal character, too, that becomes the most significant aspect of the transformation." Redfield used the tools of a social scientist in investigating these and other changes in the villages and towns of...

(The entire section is 4721 words.)

Lewis A. Coser (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Robert Ezra Park, 1864-1944," in Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1977, pp. 257-383.

[In the following essay, Coser discusses Park's influences and the progress of his career.]


Readers who are familiar with the work of the Chicago School of Sociology and its most influential member, Robert E. Park, may wonder why a chapter in a book on sociological theory is devoted to a man most often associated with research rather than theory. The fact is, however, that Park himself, although very much concerned with accurate social reporting and description, saw...

(The entire section is 11862 words.)