Robert Ezra Park “Human Ecology”

Robert Ezra Park’s major sociological contribution was human ecology, which related Darwins’ “web of life” in natural ecology to the human social system. Park found many transferable properties from plant and animal relationships to the relationship among individuals in a community. Park points out three essential characteristics of a community: a population that is organized by territories, rooted in the soil it occupies, and individual units foster a symbiotic interdependence.  Competition of the community regulates number and preserves the balance between competitors.

Numbers must be regulated as a community is placed under a great deal of stress when the numbers of community members exceeds the amount of resources available. This disequilibrium is usually a product of a change such as famine, disease, or war, and can even destroy a community. Park demonstrates such disequilibrium, and the extent to which competition restores the communal equilibrium, in presenting the 1892 infestation of boll weevils across the Mexican border in Texas, which devastated cotton fields across the US. This beetle infestation presented enough disequilibrium between resources and people that, as Park states, it gave rise to “changes in the organization of the industry long overdue” and, through competition for farmers to survive, expedited the migration of African American farmers to northern cities.

Competition also controls the balance within the community through two ecological principles: dominance and succession. The principle of dominance tends to construct communities spatially, through its relative location to industries and commercial institutions. Park states that the dominant areas in any community are usually the locations with highest land values, which are typically in the central shopping and banking districts. From these points, the land values decline, and through competition, these values begin to influence locations of neighborhoods, businesses and social institutions. This dominance of land use causes the community to move through stages of succession where stable equilibrium can be realized. This societal developmental process is cyclical and organized on two levels; biotic and cultural.

The biotic, or symbiotic, level is established through competition, while cultural is established through communication and consensus. Park argues that the economic and territorial competition among individuals creates an economic interdependence among them, thus creating a symbiotic relationship. This competition is unrestricted and an important part of uniting individuals because of the interdependence created. The cultural level is achieved through mores, customs and traditions that create a sense of common purpose among individuals. This level is more restrictive and individuals are not as free to compete.

Park acknowledges that society develops through more than just the ecological level. He recognizes an economic, political and moral order, arranged in a hierarchical pyramid structure where the ecological order serves as the foundation and the moral order at the top. He argues that the ties which hold a society together are “physical and vital rather than customary and moral”. I believe Park is arguing that our economic dependence on each other is more important than our personal relationships.


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