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Human Migration and the Marginal Man
Author(s): Robert E. Park
Source: American Journal of Sociology , May, 1928, Vol. 33, No. 6 (May, 1928), pp. 881893
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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University of Chicago
Migrations, with all the incidental collision, conflicts, and fusions of peoples
and of cultures which they occasion, have been accounted among the decisive forces
in history. Every advance in culture, it has been said, commences with a new period
of migration and movement of populations. Present tendencies indicate that while
the mobility of individuals has increased, the migration of peoples has relatively decreased. The consequences, however, of migration and mobility seem, on the whole,
to be the same. In both cases the “cake of custom” is broken and the individual is
freed for new enterprises and for new associations. One of the consequences of migration is to create a situation in which the same individual-who may or may not
be a mixed blood-finds himself striving to live in two diverse cultural groups. The
effect is to produce an unstable character-a personality type with characteristic
forms of behavior. This is the “marginal man.” It is in the mind of the marginal
man that the conflicting cultures meet and fuse. It is, therefore, in the mind of the
marginal man that the process of civilization is visibly going on, and it is in the
mind of the marginal man that the process of civilization may best be studied.
Students of the great society, looking at mankind in the long
perspective of history, have frequently been disposed to seek an
explanation of existing cultural differences among races and peoples in some single dominating cause or condition. One school of
thought, represented most conspicuously by Montesquieu, has
found that explanation in climate and in the physical environment.
Another school, identified with the name of Arthur de Gobineau,
author of The Inequality of Human Races, has sought an explana88i
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tion of divergent cultures in the innate qualities of races biologically inherited. These two theories have this in common, namely, that
they both conceive civilization and society to be the result of evolu-
tionary processes-processes by which man has acquired new inheritable traits-rather than processes by which new relations
have been established between men.
In contrast to both of these, Frederick Teggart has recently
restated and amplified what may be called the catastrophic theory
of civilization, a theory that goes back to Hume in England, and to
Turgot in France. From this point of view, climate and innate racial traits, important as they may have been in the evolution of
races, have been of only minor influence in creating existing cul-
tural differences. In fact, races and cultures, so far from being in
any sense identical-or even the product of similar conditions and
forces-are perhaps to be set over against one another as contrast
effects, the results of antagonistic tendencies, so that civilization
may be said to flourish at the expense of racial differences rather
than to be conserved by them. At any rate, if it is true that races
are the products of isolation and inbreeding, it is just as certain that
civilization, on the other hand, is a consequence of contact and communication. The forces which have been decisive in the history of
mankind are those which have brought men together in fruitful
competition, conflict, and co-operation.
Among the most important of these influences have been-according to what I have called the catastrophic theory of progressmigration and the incidental collisions, conflicts, and fusions of
people and cultures which they have occasioned.
“Every advance in culture,” says Biicher, in his Industrial Evo-
lution, “commences, so to speak, with a new period of wandering,”
and in support of this thesis he points out that the earlier forms of
trade were migratory, that the first industries to free themselves
from the household husbandry and become independent occupa-
tions were carried on itinerantly. “The great founders of religion,
the earliest poets and philosophers, the musicians and actors of
past epochs, are all great wanderers. Even today, do not the inventor, the preacher of a new doctrine, and the virtuoso travel from
place to place in search of adherents and admirers-notwithstand-
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ing the immense recent development in the means of communicat-
ing information?”‘
The influences of migrations have not been limited, of course,
by the changes which they have effected in existing cultures. In the
long run, they have determined the racial characteristics of histor-
ical peoples. “The whole teaching of ethnology,” as Griffith Taylor
remarks, “shows that peoples of mixed race are the rule and not the
exception.”2 Every nation, upon examination, turns out to have
been a more or less successful melting-pot. To this constant sifting
of races and peoples, human geographers have given the title “the
historical movement,” because, as Miss Semple says in her volume
Influences of Geographic Environment, “it underlies most written
history and constitutes the major part of unwritten history, espe-
cially that of savage and nomadic tribes.”3
Changes in race, it is true, do inevitably follow, at some distance, changes in culture. The movements and mingling of peoples
which bring rapid, sudden, and often catastrophic, changes in customs and habits are followed, in the course of time, as a result of
interbreeding, by corresponding modifications in temperament and
physique. There has probably never been an instance where races
have lived together in the intimate contacts which a common economy enforces in which racial contiguity has not produced racial
hybrids. However, changes in racial characteristics and in cultural
traits proceed at very different rates, and it is notorious that cultural changes are not consolidated and transmitted biologically, or
at least to only a very slight extent, if at all. Acquired characteristics are not biologically inherited.
Writers who emphasize the importance of migration as an
agency of progress are invariably led to ascribe a similar role to
war. Thus Waitz, commenting upon the role of migration as an
agency of civilization, points out that migrations are “rarely of a
peaceful nature at first.” Of war he says: “The first consequence
of war is that fixed relations are established between peoples, which
1 Carl Bucher, Industrial Evolution, p. 347.
2 Griffith Taylor, Environment and Race: A Study of the Evolution, Migra-
tion, Settlement, and Status of the Races of Men, p. 336.
Ellen Churchill Semple, Influences of Geographic Environment, p. 75.
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render friendly intercourse possible, an intercourse which becomes
more important from the interchange of knowledge and experience
than from the mere interchange of commodities.”4 And then he
Whenever we see a people, of whatever degree of civilization, not living in
contact and reciprocal action with others, we shall generally find a certain
stagnation, a mental inertness, and a want of activity, which render any change
of social and political condition next to impossible. These are, in times of
peace, transmitted like an everlasting disease, and war appears then, in spite of
what the apostles of peace may say, as a saving angel, who rouses the national
spirit, and renders all forces more elastic.5
Among the writers who conceive the historical process in terms
of intrusions, either peaceful or hostile, of one people into the domain of another, must be reckoned such sociologists as Gumplowicz
and Oppenheim. The former, in an effort to define the social proc-
ess abstractly, has described it as the interaction of heterogeneous
ethnic groups, the resulting subordination and superordination of
races constituting the social order-society, in fact.
In much the same way, Oppenheim, in his study of the socio-
logical origin of the state, believes he has shown that in every instance the state has had its historical beginnings in the imposition,
by conquest and force, of the authority of a nomadic upon a sedentary and agricultural people. The facts which Oppenheim has
gathered to sustain his thesis show, at any rate, that social institu-
tions have actually, in many instances at least, come into existence
abruptly by a mutation, rather than by a process of evolutionary
selection and the gradual accumulation of relatively slight variations.6
It is not at once apparent why a theory which insists upon the
importance of catastrophic change in the evolution of civilization
should not at the same time take some account of revolution as a
factor in progress. If peace and stagnation, as Waitz suggests,
tend to assume the form of a social disease; if, as Sumner says,
“society needs to have some ferment in it” to break up this stagna’Theodor Waitz, Introduction to Anthropology, p. 347.
‘Ibid., p. 348.
‘Franz Oppenheim, The State: Its History and Development Viewed Sociologically ( I9I4).
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tion and emancipate the energies of individuals imprisoned within
an existing social order; it seems that some “adventurous folly”
like the crusades of the middle ages, or some romantic enthusiasm
like that which found expression in the French Revolution, or in
the more recent Bolshevist adventure in Russia, might serve quite
as effectively as either migration or war to interrupt the routine of
existing habit and break the cake of custom. Revolutionary doctrines are naturally based upon a conception of catastrophic rather
than of evolutionary change. Revolutionary strategy, as it has been
worked out and rationalized in Sorel’s Reflections on Violence,
makes the great catastrophe, the general strike, an article of faith.
As such it becomes a means of maintaining morale and enforcing
discipline in the revolutionary masses.7
The first and most obvious difference between revolution and
migration is that in migration the breakdown of social order is initiated by the impact of an invading population, and completed by
the contact and fusion of native with alien peoples. In the case of
the former, revolutionary ferment and the forces which have disrupted society have ordinarily had, or seem to have had, their
sources and origins mainly if not wholly within, rather than without, the society affected. It is doubtful whether it can be successfully maintained that every revolution, every Aufkldrung, every
intellectual awakening and renaissance has been and will be provoked by some invading population movement or by the intrusion of some alien cultural agency. At least it seems as if some
modification of this view is necessary, since with the growth of
commerce and communication there is progressively and relatively
more movement and less migration. Commerce, in bringing the
ends of the earth together, has made travel relatively secure. Moreover, with the development of machine industry and the growth of
cities, it is the commodities rather than men which circulate. The
peddler, who carries his stock on his back, gives way to the traveling salesman, and the catalogue of the mail order house now reaches
remote regions which even the Yankee peddler rarely if ever pene-
trated. With the development of a world-economy and the inter’Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (New York, I9I4).
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penetration of peoples, migrations, as Bucher has pointed out, have
changed their character:
The migrations occurring at the opening of the history of European peoples are migrations of whole tribes, a pushing and pressing of collective units
from east to west which lasted for centuries. The migrations of the Middle
Ages ever affect individual classes alone; the knights in the crusades, the mer-
chants, the wage craftsmen, the journeymen hand-workers, the jugglers and
minstrels, the villeins seeking protection within the walls of a town. Modern
migrations, on the contrary, are generally a matter of private concern, the individuals being led by the most varied motives. They are almost invariably
without organization. The process repeating itself daily a thousand times is
united only through the one characteristic, that it is everywhere a question of
change of locality by persons seeking more favourable conditions of life.8
Migration, which was formerly an invasion, followed by the
forcible displacement or subjugation of one people by another, has
assumed the character of a peaceful penetration. Migration of peoples has, in other words, been transmuted into mobility of individ-
uals, and the wars which these movements so frequently occasioned
have assumed the character of internecine struggles, of which
strikes and revolutions are to be regarded as types.
Furthermore, if one were to attempt to reckon with all the
forms in which catastrophic changes take place, it would be necessary to include the changes that are effected by the sudden rise of
some new religious movement like Mohammedanism or Christianity, both of which began as schismatic and sectarian movements,
and which by extension and internal evolution have become independent religions. Looked at from this point of view, migration assumes a character less unique and exceptional than has hitherto
been conceived by the writers whom the problem has most intrigued. It appears as one, merely, of a series of forms in which
historic changes may take place. Nevertheless, regarded abstractly
as a type of collective action, human migration exhibits everywhere
characteristics that are sufficiently typical to make it a subject of
independent investigation and study, both in respect to its form
and in respect to the effects which it produces.
Migration is not, however, to be identified with mere movement. It involves, at the very least, change of residence and the
8 Carl Biicher, Industrial Evolution, p. 349.
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breaking of home ties. The movements of gypsies and other pariah
peoples, because they bring about no important changes in cultural life, are to be regarded rather as a geographical fact than a
social phenomenon. Nomadic life is stabilized on the basis of movement, and even though gypsies now travel by automobile, they still
maintain, comparatively unchanged, their ancient tribal organiza-
tion and customs. The result is that their relation to the communities in which they may at any time be found is to be described as
symbiotic rather than social. This tends to be true of any section
or class of the population-the hobos, for example, and the hotel
dwellers-which is unsettled and mobile.
Migration as a social phenomenon must be studied not merely
in its grosser effects, as manifested in changes in custom and in the
mores, but it may be envisaged in its subjective aspects as manifested in the changed type of personality which it produces. When
the traditional organization of society breaks down, as a result of
contact and collision with a new invading culture, the effect is, so
to speak, to emancipate the individual man. Energies that were
formerly controlled by custom and tradition are released. The individual is free for new adventures, but he is more or less without
direction and control. Teggart’s statement of the matter is as follows:
As a result of the breakdown of customary modes of action and of thought,
the individual experiences a “release” from the restraints and constraints to
which he has been subject, and gives evidence of this “release” in aggressive
self-assertion. The overexpression of individuality is one of the marked features of all epochs of change. On the other hand, the study of the psychological
effects of collision and contact between different groups reveals the fact that
the most important aspect of “release” lies not in freeing the soldier, warrior,
or berserker from the restraint of conventional modes of action, but in freeing
the individual judgment from the inhibitions of conventional modes of thought.
It will thus be seen (he adds) that the study of the modus operandi of change
in time gives a common focus to the efforts of political historians, of the his-
torians of literature and of ideas, of psychologists, and of students of ethics
and the theory of education.9
Social changes, according to Teggart, have their inception in
events which “release” the individuals out of which society is com’Frederick J. Teggart, Theory of History, p. i96.
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posed. Inevitably, however, this release is followed in the course
of time by the reintegration of the individuals so released into a
new social order. In the meantime, however, certain changes take
place-at any rate they are likely to take place-in the character
of the individuals themselves. They become, in the process, not
merely emancipated, but enlightened.
The emancipated individual invariably becomes in a certain
sense and to a certain degree a cosmopolitan. He learns to look
upon the world in which he was born and bred with something of the
detachment of a stranger. He acquires, in short, an intellectual
bias. Simmel has described the position of the stranger in the community, and his personality, in terms of movement and migration.
“If wandering,” he says, “considered as the liberation from
every given point in space, is the conceptual opposite of fixation at
any point, then surely the sociological form of the stranger presents
the union of both of these specifications.” The stranger stays, but
he is not settled. He is a potential wanderer. That means that he is
not bound as others are by the local proprieties and conventions.
“He is the freer man, practically and theoretically. He views his
relation to others with less prejudice; he submits them to more gen-
eral, more objective standards, and he is not confined in his action
by custom, piety or precedents.”
The effect of mobility and migration is to secularize relations
which were formerly sacred. One may describe the process, in its
dual aspect, p …
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university of maryland

Human Migration

traditional perspective

Robert Park

The Marginal Man by

social modification

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