Born on February 14, 1864, in Harveyville, PA, and raised in Minnesota, Robert Ezra Park graduated from the University of Michigan, where he studied with the philosopher John Dewey. Concerned with social issues of his day, especially racial problems in urban settings, Park became a newspaper reporter, and eventually resided in Chicago. In 1898, he entered Harvard University where he studied with William James. After earning an M.A., he traveled to Germany, where he heard lectures from Georg Simmel on sociology and studied with the philosopher Wilhelm Windelband. After completing his doctoral dissertation, he taught at Harvard before being invited by Booker T. Washington to affiliate with the Tuskegee Institute in order to investigate racial issues in the South. In 1914, Park joined the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology, where he remained until 1936. After retiring, he moved to Fisk University, where he continued teaching until the end of his life.
Through his publications and his numerous students, Park became widely known, serving as president of the American Sociology Society, as a member of the Social Science Research Council, and as president of the Chicago Urban League. He died at Nashville, Tennessee on February 7, 1944.
During Park’s time in Chicago, the University’s Department of Sociology began to focus on the surrounding urban environment as a laboratory for social research. Along with his faculty colleagues, Ernest Burgess, Louis Wirth, Homer Hoyt, and numerous students, Park developed an orientation to urban ecology that became known as the “Chicago School of Sociology.”
His essay “The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment,” originally published in 1915, served as the introductory chapter for the influential essays collected in The City (1925). Park’s other essays in the volume included “The Natural History of the Newspaper,” “Community Organization and Juvenile Delinquency,” “Community Organization and the Romantic Temper,” “Magic, Mentality, and City Life,” and “The Mind of the Hobo: Reflections upon the Relation Between Mentality and Locomotion.”
Through his studies in Chicago and his visits to cities around the world, Park developed his concept of “natural areas.” For Park, the relationship between individuals and groups within such areas involved mobility among urban spaces and across social classes. Mobility, in turn, often resulted in social disorganization and individualization, as formulated in his famous article “Human Migration and the Marginal Man” (1928). Throughout his career, Park related his theories about assimilation, community structure, and mobility to the plight of ethnic populations.
- Matthews, F. H. (1977). Quest for an American sociology: Robert E. Park and the Chicago School. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
- Park, R., E., Burgess, W., & McKenzie, R. D. (1925). The city. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Park, R. (1952). Human communities: The city and human ecology. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
- Persons, S. (1987). Ethnic studies at Chicago, 1905-1945. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.