Robert Ezra Park

The Person

Readers who are familiar with the work of the Chicago School ofSociology and its most influential member, Robert E. Park, may wonder whya chapter in a book on sociological theory is devoted to a man most often as-sociated with research rather than theory. The fact is, however, that Parkhimself, although very much concerned with accurate social reporting anddescription, saw his major contribution in the development of a set of conceptsthat would allow systematic classification and analysis of social data.

The contemporary assessment of Robert Park's work roughly coincideswith his self-appraisal when he wrote:

We had in sociology much theory but no working concepts. When a stu-dent proposed a topic for a thesis, I invariably found myself asking the ques-tion: what is this thing you want to study? What is a gang? What is apublic? What is a nationality? . . . etc. I did not see how we could haveanything like scientific research unless we had a system of classification anda frame of reference into which we could sort out and describe in generalterms the things we were attempting to investigate. Park and Burgess' In-troduction was a first rough sketch of such a classification and frame of refer-ence. My contribution to sociology has been, therefore, not what I intended,not what my original interest would have indicated, but what I needed tomake a systematic exploration of the social work [sic] in which I foundmyself. The problem I was interested in was always theoretic rather thanpractical.

Park not only classified, as he modestly says; he searched for relationships be-tween classified variables and thus engaged in theoretically guided researchrather than merely descriptive reporting. As Everett Hughes has noted,"[Park] had no desire to form a system, yet he was primarily a systematicsociologist." It is as such that he commands our attention.

From Coser, 1977:357.


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