The paper takes as its point of departure American sociologist Robert Park’s seminal concept of the “marginal man.” In 1928, Park defined the marginal man as a distinctive personality type produced by the contact and collision of cultures, a “cultural hybrid,” a “man on the margin of two cultures and two societies, which never completely interpenetrated and fused.” The marginal man, conceived in this way, was an ambiguous, Janus-faced figure. On the one hand, Park and his students viewed marginality as a source of personal and social disorganization. On the other hand, marginality was also potentially an impetus to insight, creativity, and innovation. The creative potential of marginality is illustrated with a historical example that Park studied: the Jewish Kehillah of New York, an experimental attempt from 1909 to 1922 to provide the city’s burgeoning Jewish population with a unified and democratic community structure. Following this discussion, the paper briefly highlights how later sociological work has extended Park’s insights into marginality to the study of occupations, gender, and scientific innovation, as well as contemporary migration and multiracial identity. The paper’s conclusion outlines some ways in which Park’s concept of marginality remains relevant to present-day concerns, it proposes some directions for future research.
Discussant: Thilo Lang