Robert Ezra Park. Biografia

Robert Ezra Park was born on February 14, 1864 in Harveyville, Penn- sylvania. Soon after his birth his family moved to Red Wing, Minnesota, where the young Park grew up on the Mississippi River as the son of a prosperous businessman. Like Veblen, Cooley, and Mead, he is a product of the Middle Border. After his graduation from the local high school and despite the opposition of his father, Park went to the University of Minnesota. After one year there, he transferred to the University of Michigan.
At Ann Arbor, Park was fortunate to find an inspiring teacher, the young John Dewey, and to become a member of a group of like-minded students who discussed the social issues of the day in the spirit of the reforming ideas then spreading all over the Midwest. Dewey introduced Park to a remarkable man, Franklin Ford, who was to have a decisive influence on his subsequent career. Ford had been a newspaperman and had reported in detail on the vagaries of the stock market and the impact of news on that market. He had come to see stock prices as a reflection of public opinion shaped by the news, and was therefore led to infer that with more adequate reporting, general public opinion could be made to respond to current events in as accurate a manner as the stock market. Much like some later pollsters and survey analysts, Ford believed that if the changes in public opinion could be gauged with precision, "the historical process would be appreciably stepped up, and progress would go forward steadily, without the interruption and disorder of depression or violence, and at a rapid pace."
Ford and Park planned a new kind of newspaper, to be called Thought News, which would register as well as influence movements of public opinion by more accurate presentation of the news. The paper never reached publication, but Park's views on the crucial importance of the news, the media of communication, and the influence of public opinion were largely shaped by his conversations with Franklin Ford.
Having been immersed in a progressive atmosphere at the University of Michigan, Park decided upon graduation in 1887 not to go into his father's business but to seek a career in which he could give expression to his reforming concerns. He soon realized, however, that he differed from his Michigan friends by not indulging in utopian dreams and blueprints for reform. Most well-intentioned programs for change, he seemed to believe, were futile since they were based on insufficient knowledge of underlying social realities. Before reform could be implemented, a much greater knowledge was needed of present-day society than was so far available. Intimate acquaintance with social problems was a prerequisite for attempts to resolve them. The one career that seemed to present an opportunity for first-hand observation was newspaper reporting. So Park became a newspaperman.
From 1887 to 1898 Park worked for daily newspapers in Minnesota, Detroit, Denver, New York, and Chicago. He was soon given special assignments to cover the urban scene, often in depth through a series of articles. He wrote on city machines and the corruption they brought in their wake. He described the squalid conditions of the city's immigrant areas and the criminal world that was ensconced there. Constantly on the prowl for news and feature stories on urban affairs, Park came to view the city as a privileged natural laboratory for the study of the new urban man whom industrial society had created. Much of Park's later work and research interests grew organically out of his experiences as a newspaperman.
In 1894 Park married the daughter of a leading Michigan lawyer, Clara Cahill. The couple were to have four children. Four years after his marriage, Park decided that his empirical knowledge of the ways news was being created might be broadened by further academic study. He went to Harvard to study philosophy "because [he] hoped to gain insight into the nature and function of the kind of knowledge we call news." In addition, 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.
At Harvard, Park studied psychology with Muensterberg and philosophy with Royce and James. After earning his M.A. in 1899, he decided to go to Germany for further studies. He first went to the University of Berlin where he listened to Georg Simmel and was deeply influenced by him. Except for these courses with Simmel, Park never received any formal instruction in sociology.
While in Berlin, Park came across a treatise on the logic of the social sciences, Gesellschaft und Einzelwesen (1899), by the Russian sociologist B. Kistiakowski. "It was the first thing I had found anywhere," he wrote, "that dealt with the problem with which I was concerned in terms in which I had come to think of it." According to Pitirim Sorokin, Kistiakowski expounded in this book a series of views on the characteristic tendencies of modern society that were in many respects similar to those developed by Simmel as well as by Toennies in Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. Since Kistiakowski had been a student of Wilhelm Windelband, Park went to Strasbourg and later to Heidelberg to study with the neo-Kantian philosopher. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis, entitled Masse und Publikum, under Windelband. Returning to Harvard in 1903 he put the finishing touches to his dissertation and served for a year as an assistant in philosophy.
In 1914, at the age of fifty, there came another turning point in Park's life: he embarked on an academic career. At the suggestion of W. I. Thomas, he accepted a summer appointment in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago to give a course on "The Negro in America" for a fee of $500. Soon afterward he joined the department as a permanent member and continued teaching there until 1936.
Park's success at Chicago was not immediate. When he joined the department, its founder and spiritus rector, Albion Small, still dominated it, and Thomas, who had joined the department in 1896, was its most creative and forceful member. By 1920, however, when the students came back after the war, Small was nearing retirement and Thomas had been forced to resign. Park became the outstanding member of the department.
Stimulating though his lectures were, Park's reputation did not depend on them. He insisted on getting to know each of his students personally and having protracted interviews and sessions with them. Learning about their back- ground and interests in this personal way, Park then helped them map out their field of research and specific research problems. It was a time-consuming procedure, but he loved it.
Park brought his interest in the city into the university. He wrote that he had "actually covered more ground, tramping about in cities in different parts of the world, than any other living man." Out of this he had gained "a conception of the city, the community, the region, not as geographical phenomena merely but as a kind of social organism." It was the study of this organism in all its details that he now urged upon his students. The city of Chicago was to become a great natural laboratory for research on urban man and his natural habitat.
For nine years Park taught at Chicago as a professorial lecturer with the same nominal salary. But being dedicated to his students and having some independent means by inheritance, he offered more courses than he was paid for. One day he received an official document "authorizing Dr. Park to give courses in the winter quarter without salary." The administration had finally discovered what was going on and wished to regularize the irregular. Park's appointment as a full professor came only in 1923, when he was fifty-nine years old.
Park was a colorful man, even in appearance. Leading a sedentary life while at the university, he developed a thickset and pudgy physique. His white hair was long, perhaps because he forgot to pay regular visits to the barber. Living up to the stereotype of the absent-minded professor, he would sometimes appear before his class with shaving soap in his ears and with his clothes in disarray. He would frequently forget where he had placed a book, and it even happened that he came to a convention forgetting to bring a copy of the paper he was scheduled to read. He once continued serenely with his lecture while a student walked to the front of the room and tied his neckwear, which had been dangling loose from his collar.
In the classroom Park had a gruff voice and manner, so he sometimes felt the need to explain that when he spoke rudely he did not mean to offend but that this was just his manner when thinking hard. Nevertheless, tears would sometimes flow when he told a student that his (the student's) ideas were not worth a damn. At times the chairman of the department, Ellsworth Faris, found it advisable to inform incoming graduate students that Park was one of the great scholars in sociology and that they should not be put off by his crustiness, thus depriving themselves of an exceptional opportunity. Once students got to know Park, and discovered the warmhearted and affectionate man behind the gruff mask he liked to present, they became exceptionally de- voted to him. Few men have had as many deeply attached and grateful students.
Park was not a very prolific writer. Ellsworth Faris said of him that he would rather "induce men to write ten books than to take time off to write one himself." Apart from his dissertation, he wrote only one book, The Immigrant Press and Its Control (1922). His main contributions came in a series of influential articles and introductions to the books of his students, which have now been gathered in the three volumes of his Collected Papers. Perhaps his most influential publication was the pathbreaking Introduction to the Science of Sociology, which he published, with Ernest Burgess as a junior author, in 1921 and which is by far the most important textbook-reader in the early history of American sociology. One other book that appeared under his name, Old World Traits Transplanted, was the result of Park's collaboration with W. I. Thomas, though it was signed by Park and a junior author. This was done because the publishers and sponsors refused to print a book authored by Thomas, who had recently been forced to resign his university position be- cause of what was then judged to be a case of sexual indiscretion.
Park received ample professional recognition during his lifetime. He served as President of the American Sociological Society (1925), a delegate to the Institute of Pacific Relations, a director of the Race Relations Survey on the Pacific Coast, an editor of a series of books on immigration for the Carnegie Corporation, an associate editor of several academic journals, and was a member of the Social Science Research Council and more than a dozen other learned societies. He was also the first President of the Chicago Urban League.
An inveterate traveller, Park, before during and after his Chicago appointment, roamed all over the world, exploring its racial frontiers and studying its cities. He visited Germany and conferred with its leading sociologists; he spent a whole academic year at the University of Hawaii; he lectured in Peiping and visited India, South Africa and Brazil.
After his retirement from the Chicago faculty, Park, ever ready to share his knowledge with students, moved to Fisk University, where, right through his eightieth year, he taught students and directed their research activities. He died at Nashville, Tennessee on February 7, 1944, exactly one week before his eightieth birthday.
Perpetually curious and ever open to novel experience whether on the racial frontier or in the wilderness of cities, Park was above all devoted to training men who would be able to map the social world with precision and objectivity. He was deeply committed to reform and improvement of the human condition, but felt what was needed at that juncture were trained and disciplined observers of the passing scene. Students attracted to the area of race relations were generally strongly disposed to social action against racial discrimination and for Negro civil rights. Park shared their sentiments. But, in Ernest Burgess' words, he "told them flatly that the world was full of crusaders. Their role instead was to be that of the calm, detached scientist who investigates race relations with the same objectivity and detachment with which the zoologist dissects the potato bug."
According to Park, "a sociologist was to be a kind of super-reporter, like the men who write for Fortune. He was to report a little more accurately, and in a manner a little more detached than the average . . . the 'Big News.' But in Park's view the sociologist was no mere gatherer of facts. He gave his students, in Everett Hughes' words, "a perspective in which to see themselves and thus satisfy their curiosity. The perspective was a system of concepts abstract enough to comprehend all forms of interaction of men with one an- other."
Devoted to the enterprise of studying urban life and culture with the same painstaking meticulousness and attention to detail that anthropologists use when they describe primitive tribes, Park was convinced that no such study was, to use his expression, worth a damn, if it was not guided by an array of concepts that would allow the student to sift the significant from the un- essential. To the extent that he managed to convey this sense of the importance of theory to his students, and he was by no means always successful, he made them transcend mere empiricism to become true sociologists.
There is no better testimony to the impact of Park's teaching than the imposing roster of his students. Everett C. Hughes, Herbert Blumer, Stuart Queen, Leonard Cottrell, Edward Reuter, Robert Faris, Louis Wirth, and E. Franklin Frazier all became presidents of the American Sociological Society. Helen McGill Hughes, John Dollard, Robert Redfield, Ernest Hiller, Clifford Shaw, Willard Waller, Walter C. Reckless, Joseph Lohman and many other students of Park became leading social scientists. It is hard to imagine the field of sociology without the contribution of the cohort of gifted men whom Park trained at Chicago. What higher tribute can be paid to a teacher?
Park soon gave up his previous ambition to teach because he felt "sick and tired of the academic world, and wanted to go back into the world of men." He wrote much later that he could "trace [his] interest in sociology to the reading of Goethe's Faust." "You remember," he explained, "that Faust was tired of books and wanted to see the world."
William James once read to his class his essay "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings." This essay greatly impressed Park. "The 'blindness' of which James spoke," writes Park, "is the blindness each of us is likely to have for the meaning of other people's lives. . . .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." James spoke of the "personal secret" that makes life boring to one person and full of zest to another. Park seems to have concluded after listening to James that his own "secret" consisted in his desire to alternate between active involvement in social affairs and detached analysis and social description. Having spent six years in the academy, Park resolved to return to the give-and-take of the social world which had fascinated him during his newspaper career.
The social problems of the Negro seemed to Park at the time to be the most acute in America. His interest in racial issues, which continued to be a prime focus of his concerns throughout his later career, was spurred by having met Booker T. Washington, the President of Tuskegee Institute. Park soon joined forces with Washington and became his informal secretary, accompanying him on his travels. He went along on the research trip to Europe, which resulted in Washington's book, The Man Farthest Down; experts agree that this account of the miseries of Europe's underclass was mostly written by Park. Park worked with Washington for nine years and had great respect for him. He once remarked to Ernest Burgess that he learned more from Washing- ton than from any of his teachers. Park seems to have been especially impressed by Washington's consummate skills in the strategy and tactics of social action.
Park met Washington when he was invited to become secretary and press agent of the Congo Reform Association, a group of reformers who wanted to draw public attention to the oppression, corruption, and depravity of the Belgian colonial regime in the Congo. He was about to go to Africa to study the situation at first hand, when Washington invited him to Tuskegee and convinced him that he might best start his studies of Africa in the South. As a result, Park spent seven winters, partly at Tuskegee and partly roaming about the South, "getting acquainted with the life, the customs, and the condition of the Negro people." During those years he also wrote a series of muckraking exposes of the Belgian colonial atrocities in the Congo for Everybody's Magazine.


Robert Ezra Park rappresenta una delle figure più affascinanti della sociologia classica, in particolare di quella urbana, per l'impostazione metodologica introdotta negli studi della vita nelle metropoli americane e per l'originalità dei temi, specie riguardo le relazioni tra immigrati e comunità ospitanti e l'analisi della società multietnica.

Il pensiero di Park verrà influenzato da figure quali John Dewey, tra gli esponenti di spicco del pensiero americano di quel periodo, e Franklin Ford, editore e giornalista dalle idee innovative sul rapporto tra opinione pubblica e ordine sociale, e dalle lezioni di Simmel, al quale assisterà nei suoi viaggi europei e dal quale resterà notevolmente legato sia sui temi che sui metodi.

Ispirato dal filantropismo americano di quegli anni, Park è convinto che lo studio scientifico debba trovare applicazione pratica attraverso riforme del sistema sociale che ne favoriscano un miglioramento materiale e civile. Ma il progetto di riforma sociale, alla quale la curiosità sociologica deve dare corso, è unita in Park ad una conoscenza scientifica che si basa sulla ricerca empirica qualitativa, l'etnografia.

Fin da subito interessato a temi quali disuguaglianza sociale, relazioni razziali e vita metropolitana, Park, insieme ad Ernest Burgess (con il quale intesserà una proficua collaborazione), è uno dei primi a concentrare i suoi studi sull'analisi della nascente società multietnica. Partendo dalla figura dello straniero simmeliana, elabora il concetto dell'immigrato come uomo marginale, una sorta di ibrido culturale inserito in una rete di relazioni spesso contraddittorie a cavallo di due mondi.

Con le sue idee contribuisce anche all'elaborazione della teoria assimilazionista per spiegare sia il rapporto tra immigrati e società urbana americana sia le dinamiche sociali in genere: egli individua, infatti, un ciclo delle relazioni etniche suddiviso in quattro passaggi, dove quello conclusivo consiste nell'assimilazione del migrante con i modelli culturali della società d'arrivo.

Gran parte della sua notorietà deriva anche dai suoi lavori durante l'esperienza presso il Dipartimento di Sociologia dell'Università di Chicago dal 1914 al 1936: periodo nel quale insieme ad altri, quali Wirth, Anderson, Burgess, White etc., dà vita ad un insieme di studi sulle condotte individuali e sulle dinamiche dei gruppi sociali nella vita metropolitana che verrà identificato come Scuola di Chicago. Oltre all'oggetto d'analisi, la realtà urbana e le sue manifestazioni, specie quelle più marginali (gli hobo, le taxi girl, i migranti etc.), tratto comune delle ricerche è il paradigma d'analisi utilizzato: ossia l'analisi ecologica, dove le trasformazioni e l'evoluzione del sistema sociale, assimilate ai processi interni della vita delle piante per la loro sopravvivenza, sono viste come esito di una dinamica ecologica, ossia modellata da processi competitivi e adattivi che ordinano lo stesso assetto spaziale della società.