The Self and the Social Role

Park's notion of the self is mainly derived from the tradition of William James and his followers, which has been discussed in previous chapters. What is distinctive in his approach, however, is his linking of the notion of the self with that of the social role. Park pointed out that the word person in its root-meaning refers to a mask, and that this was "a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role. We are parents and children, masters and servants, teachers, students and professional men, Gentiles and Jews. It is in these roles that we know ourselves."

Self-conceptions, Park argued, are rooted in the status we occupy and in the roles we play on the social scene. The individual's conceptions of himself are anchored in the division of labor and hence in the status order.

The conceptions which men form of themselves seem to depend upon their vocations, and in general upon the role that they seek to play in the communities and social groups in which they live, as well as upon the recognition and status which society accords them in these roles. It is status, i.e., recognition by the community, that confers upon the individual the character of a person, since a person is an individual who has status, not necessarily legal, but social.

To Park the self is constituted by the individual's conception of his role, and this role in its turn is built upon the recognition others in society accord the status upon which roles are based. "The individual's conception of himself . . . is based on his status in the social group or groups of which he is a member. The individual whose conception of himself does not conform to his status is an isolated individual. The completely isolated individual, whose conception of himself is in no sense an adequate reflection of his status, is probably insane."

Park's well-known notion of the marginal man emerges directly from his views on self-conceptions as reflections of the status a person has within a group. Marginal men, like American mulattoes, Asiatic mixed bloods, or European Jews, have their anchorage in two distinct groups while not belonging fully to either; as a result, their self-conceptions are likely to be fairly inconsistent and ambivalent. The marginal man "lives in two worlds, in both of which he is more or less of a stranger." Yet this very marginality, Park argues in accord with Simmel and Veblen, brings not only burdens but assets. "Inevitably he becomes, relatively to his cultural milieu, the individual with the wider horizon, the keener intelligence, the more detached and rational viewpoint. The marginal man is always relatively the more civilized human being.'' "It is in the mind of the marginal man that the moral turmoil which new cultural contacts occasion, manifests itself in the most obvious forms. It is in the mind of the marginal man—where the changes and fusions of culture are going on—that we can best study the processes of civilization and progress."

In his sociology of the marginal man as in the rest of his sociology, Park always focused analytical attention on those processes or situations which foster the emergence of novel forms that upset or render obsolete previous adjustments and accommodations. Durkheim emphasized the constraints that force society into predictable patterns. By contrast, although by no means oblivious to the need for social order, Park sensitizes us to the forces that break through constraints and thereby produce the new.

From Coser, 1977:365-366.


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