Robert Park’s Marginal Man: The Career of a Concept in American Sociology

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2014-01-05 20:00Z by Steven

Robert Park’s Marginal Man: The Career of a Concept in American Sociology

Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research
ISSN 2076-8214 (print)
ISSN 2078-1938 (online)
Volume 4, Number 2 (2012)
pages 199-217

Chad Alan Goldberg, Professor of Sociology
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Who now reads Robert Park? The answer, it turns out, is that many still do, and with good reason. Robert Ezra Park (1864–1944) was one of the leading figures in what has come to be known as the Chicago school of sociology, which played a central and formative role in American sociology as a whole, especially from 1914 to 1933 when he taught at the University of Chicago (Matthews 1977; Raushenbush 1979). Park remains well known among American sociologists today for his pioneering work on urban life, human ecology, race and ethnic relations, migration, and social disorganization, much of which continues to be assigned and read (though not uncritically) in graduate courses in the United States. This essay focuses on Park’s seminal concept of the “marginal man,” originally presented in his 1928 article “Human Migration and the Marginal Man” and later elaborated in the 1937 book The Marginal Man by Park’s student Everett Verner Stonequist (1901–1979), who earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1930. After examining the origins of the concept in the work of Park and Stonequist, I review the marginal man’s subsequent career in American sociology. This review is not intended to be exhaustive or comprehensive. Instead, it aims to highlight several important lines of development: attempts at theoretical revision; application and extension of the concept to new areas of social inquiry, including the study of occupations, gender, and scientific innovation; and a revival of interest in the marginal man concept as it relates to Park’s original interests in race and ethnic relations and migration. Throughout the essay, I emphasize how the reception, interpretation, and application of Park’s concept was shaped by the ambiguities of the concept itself, which suggested the potential for maladjustment and disorganization but also for creativity and innovation, and by the changing social and historical context in which American sociologists worked. In the essay’s conclusion I outline some ways in which Park’s concept remains relevant to present-day concerns, and I propose some directions for future research…

…While Park and his students regarded Jews as the prototype of the marginal man, they did not confine the concept exclusively to Jews. Indeed, it was partly inspired by Park’s interest in Americans of mixed black and white ancestry and by the similar notion of double-consciousness formulated by the African-American sociologist and social reformer W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963). The “American Negro,” Du Bois (1903:3) suggested in his book The Souls of Black Folk, was only permitted to see and evaluate himself through the eyes of an “American world” that regarded him with “amused contempt and pity”; the result was a feeling of “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Notwithstanding Park’s close ties to Du Bois’s rival, the African-American educator Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), Park ([1923] 1950:291–292) invoked Du Bois and his notion of double-consciousness a full five years before introducing his own concept of the marginal man. Park’s students were also familiar with the notion of double-consciousness (Wirth Marvick 1964:336; Stonequist 1935:6–7; Stonequist 1964:338). Thus, it was likely under Du Bois’s influence that Park and his students identified the mixed-race individual as a marginal man—not by virtue of heredity, they insisted, but because of the social situation in which he typically found himself (Park 1928:893; Park [1931a] 1950:382; Stonequist 1935:7). Over time they extended the concept from mixed-race individuals to African Americans, perhaps because the line between the two populations was difficult to draw (Park [1934a] 1950:67–69; Wirth and Goldhamer 1944:340; Stonequist 1964:336; for a dissenting view from outside the Chicago school, see Myrdal 1944:699–700, 1385n28). In addition, Park’s participation in a 1923 survey of race relations on the American Pacific Coast led him to conclude that the marginal personality type was also present among Asian Americans. Describing with sympathy a young woman of Japanese ancestry who was born and grew up in the United States, Park ([1926a] 1950:248–249) noted that she was not fully accepted in either country: her American manners, dress, and language provoked resentment in Japan, while her origins made her the target of race prejudice in America. According to Park, the Asian American thus found himself or herself, like the mixed-race individual, the African American, and the modern Jew, at the intersection of two worlds, not fully at home in either and internally divided as a result.

The marginal person as Park and Stonequist conceived him or her was an ambiguous, Janus-faced figure. On the one hand, Stonequist ([1937] 1965:220–221) suggested, the marginal man’s “mental conflict” could become a “disorganizing force” preventing his “psychological integration.” Personal disorganization could, in turn, lead to social disorganization. Wirth, for instance, citing his own study of Jewish immigrant families in Chicago, linked culture conflict to delinquency (Wirth 1925; Wirth [1931] 1964:235–236). On the other hand, living simultaneously in two worlds made the marginal man “the individual with the wider horizon, the keener intelligence, the more detached and rational viewpoint” (Park, in Stonequist [1937] 1965:xvii–xviii). He was therefore well suited to become an intermediary and interpreter between the races or cultures that were represented in his own person (Park [1934b] 1950:136–137; Stonequist [1937] 1965:175, 177–179, 182; cf. Willie 1975). Furthermore, culture conflict could serve as an impetus to creativity. Veblen, who was not part of the Chicago school of sociology but spent fourteen years at the University of Chicago from 1892 until 1906, suggested as early as 1919 that the intellectual pre-eminence of Jews in the modern world stemmed from the conflict of cultures which they experienced as a result of their dispersion and migration. According to Veblen (1919), culture conflict imbued Jews with a healthy skepticism toward Jewish and gentile conventions alike, which in turn was a primary requisite for creative contributions to intellectual life. Park ([1931b] 1950:366–369) also envisioned the possibility that the marginal man might become a creative agent, particularly through his leadership of nationalist or racial mass movements. Likewise, Wirth ([1931] 1964:241) was careful to acknowledge that “not every case of culture conflict inevitably leads to delinquency…. Delinquency represents merely one way in which the conflict may be expressed if not resolved.” Echoing Park, he added that a person experiencing such conflict, “far from becoming a criminal, may develop into a prophet, a reformer or a political leader.” Stonequist made a similar point: The marginal man could seek to overcome his inner conflict by changing the external ethnic relations which had produced it. The culture conflict which he experienced as a crisis provided him with an opportunity to “reconstruct his conception of himself as well as his place or role in society,” and “those [marginal] individuals who have the potentialities to reconstruct their personalities and ‘return’ as creative agents not only adjust themselves but also contribute to the solution of the conflict of races and cultures” (Stonequist [1937] 1965:122–123, 220–221)…

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