What makes real people?
Before I was seven years old I asked my father that
"What's the matter with you?" my dad asked
in response. "What kind of notion is that--real people?"
"People that live in houses," I tried to
explain. "People that stay together in towns."
I was expressing in a child's blunt language the
basic questions of theology, philosophy, and psychology. What is human? How do
people become what they are? And the original questions of sociology. Questions
of social organization and disorganization. How and why do people form groups?
How and why do they get disconnected? How can they get together?
My family was among an original American homeless
category, called migrant workers. We traveled in a battered car throughout the
western half of the United States, harvesting fruits and vegetables, and
peddling novelties from door to door.
I was born in the hopyards of Oregon, and with the
seasons and years we followed the crops over routes later known as
"migrant streams." We slept in the car, or in a tent. Sometimes there
were rows of one-room shacks provided by the growers, and sometimes strictly
supervised government camps.
I saw my mother stand at the edge of a field with a
dead baby in her arms. Someone reported us to the sheriff. He said he would try
to get a federal agent to help us. He couldn't give permission to bury the baby
in his county because we were nonresidents. I knew there was big depression,
and every town was trying to keep the bums out. I heard my Dad say the
government is full of graft, that rich people work the poor to death and then
kick them in the teeth; and a poor man's got no chance. Sometimes he said he
was just fed up with doing the rich man's dirty work, so we made willow baskets
and paper flowers to sell. The earliest thing I can remember is selling baskets
and flowers. Dad told me to go up one side of a street and back down the other
throughout the neighborhoods, knocking at each house and entering each place of
business, saying, "Would you like to buy a basket? They are 25 cents
Up one side of a street and down the other. Going
systematically through the towns I learned about urban patterns. Gradually I
learned the buildings that were not houses, and stores might be called public
buildings. I was fascinated by the schools, libraries, and churches, and began
to understand that these were shared and often provided through community
cooperation and taxation. So basket peddling gave me opportunities to observe
life in a settled community, and to become aware of the contrast between this
and my own lifestyle, dress, language, and total condition. I heard people call
us gypsies, tramps, migrants, bums, farm labor, transients, and oakies.
The designations so obviously set us apart that I began to conceive of the townsfolk
as real people. I asked, "What makes real people?" because I had
sensed the vital concepts of being and belonging. What does it mean to be a
person? What does it mean to belong?
People have asked these questions in the contexts of
religion and philosophy for as long as we have records of human thought. When
we began to use scientific methods to ask these questions, psychology was born.
At about the time I was asking them, the same questions were being examined
from another viewpoint, far more sophisticated, but remarkably like my own. It
was the viewpoint, growing out of the relatively new academic field of
sociology, that persons are to a great measure shaped by their society. And
people who are placed on the outside of social life because of circumstances or
factors such as race or gender are likely to be acutely aware of social
patterns that people inside the society take for granted.
At the University of Chicago, where American
sociology became involved more with people than with methodology, Robert Ezra
Park developed the idea of a marginal personality (Park & Burgess,
1921). He postulated that the loyalties that bind persons together in primitive
societies are in direct proportion to the intensity of the fears and hatreds
with which they view other societies. This concept is developed as theories of
ethnocentrism and in-group/out-group propensities. Group solidarity correlates
to a great extent with animosity toward an out-group.
With expansion of communication and transportation
came the transformation of primitive societies into a wider and more rational
social order, what we call civilization. Movements and migrations that
accompany this process bring about a mixture of peoples and fusion of cultures,
with the result that some persons find themselves in ambiguous positions,
caught between, not belonging solidly to an in-group, and therefore confused as
to relationship with an out-group.
Park (1921) then added his own theory of what he
called the marginal man, described as one who lives at once within two
or more different and often somewhat antagonistic cultures. The marginal
personality type arises at a time and place where there is a significant
merging of cultures and people. Such persons find themselves always on the
margins, rather than comfortably integrated. The positive aspect, Park noted,
is that marginal persons are by definition the more civilized human beings.
They can observe their own and other groups with considerable objectivity.
Because of personal detachment, they can learn to accept differences, develop
wide appreciations, and make mature adjustments.
When I read of the marginal person, I recognized
myself. I tell some of my experiences as kind of parable. You may find in it
some special meaning in these days when all boundaries seem indistinct and,
perhaps more frequently than at any time in history, people live on the
My training as a basket peddler gave me almost unique
advantages. I was compelled to talk to strangers and walk into strange
buildings. I knew I was different and did not belong in the way of real people.
Yet I had a kind of claim, as the homeless do, to the streets and public areas.
I examined buildings and school grounds, tried out the swings, peeked into the
windows. I was more curious than afraid. The paradox was that while I did not
belong I was in a better position than most children to understand the concept
I discovered for myself the free public library, the
church with its marvelous Sunday school, and schools. I wanted to go to school
to learn to read and get a town job and live in a house. Schools were free and
attendance laws made me feel I would not be turned away. Finally, two years
later than most children I had my opportunity.
Ironically, after I started going to school I became
even more alienated. Now I was a kind of traitor to my own people. My parents,
threatened in their position as I made ideals of the teachers, scoffed and
ridiculed and even punished me. I was scolded for saying "thank you"
in that highfalutin way, trying to act like those nasty nice school teachers. I
was slapped for saying "ain't" was a wrong word, and sent to bed for
putting ideas into the heads of the little ones. The migrant kids called me
smarty and stuck-up because I liked school and would not join in picking up
At school I was a curiosity. Older than my classmates
and accomplished in some areas beyond any of them, I was behind where it
counted most. I had to guess at the material they had covered before I arrived.
They told in oral reports of music and dancing lessons. They baked cookies,
competed in talent shows, drew pictures, and knew the names of movie stars.
In my early years I knew nothing of life in a house.
Constantly I stumbled over such terms in lessons and tests as: windowsill,
curtain rod, cabinets, highboy, lavatory, drawer pull, mantle, casters, ladle,
light switch. We had no electric lights except in government camps, where they
were turned on and off from a main switch. We never had a telephone, vacuum
sweeper, washer, toaster, refrigerator, radio, or floor lamp. We never had a
private bathroom, or a kitchen sink, or an oven. I never owned a tricycle,
bicycle, or pets. We did not go on vacations, have company, take lessons, or
pack luggage. We had no front yard, back yard, next door, or neighborhood. We
did not sweep or shovel walks. We had no shelves, attic, cellar, or basement.
For years I owned no hairbrush, toothbrush, nail file, or pajamas.
At about the time I was trying to find myself between
the migrant camp and the town, one of Park's students, Everett Stonequist, was
writing The Marginal Man--A Study in Personality and Culture Conflict
(1937). He described the marginal man as "one who is poised in
psychological uncertainty between two or more social worlds, reflecting in his
soul the discords and harmonies, repulsions and attractions of these
worlds." Stonequist's study examines representative types of marginal
persons. Among his references are autobiographical writings, such as The
Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. DuBois, and My Life as German and Jew,
by Jakob Wassermann. From the literature and extensive investigations of
factors of race and social conditions, he generates a kind of marginal
personality profile. Stonequist characterizes marginal persons as painfully
self-conscious, excessively sensitive to others' opinions and actions, and
"ambivalent in attitude and sentiment." Feelings of inferiority arise
out of social situations where they are stigmatized as inferior or made to feel
unacceptable. They look for ways of proving themselves, constantly striving to
find situations in which they might excel.
Stonequist (1937) did not emphasize personality
traits as problems. His main point was to show how marginality, like migration
and fusion of cultures, can affect social experience in periods of rapid
culture change. "Population intrusion," he says, "sets in motion
a process of culture change that breaks down old cultural forms, releases
individuals from their domination, and so gives rise to periods of creative
activity and advance." Then he quotes the historian, Teggart: "While
historically advancement has been dependent upon the collision of groups, the
resultant response has taken place in the minds of persons, so we are led to
see that all transitional eras are alike in being periods of mental awakening,
and of the release of initiative in thought and action." Persons who learn
to adjust themselves, Stonequist concludes, can contribute to the solution of
the conflict of races and cultures. I paraphrase here from closing chapters of
his book: Marginal persons may become pioneers and creative agents in a new
social order that seems to evolve as narrower group interests give way to
larger human values. The marginal man is the key personality in the contacts of
cultures. It is in his mind that the cultures come together, conflict, and
eventually work out some kind of mutual adjustment. He is the crucible of
cultural fusion. Thus the practical efforts of the marginal person to solve his
own problem lead him consciously or unconsciously to change the situation. His
interest may shift from himself to the objective social conditions and launch
him upon the career of conciliator, interpreter, reformer, or teacher. It is in
the mind of the marginal person that the inner significance and driving motives
of culture change are most luminously revealed.
In 1992 Charles Taylor of Princeton University wrote Multiculturalism
and "The Politics of Recognition." Taylor sees in the United
States today "unprecedented powers of creation [and destruction] at the
disposal of increasingly interdependent societies with diverse cultures."
He says the pivotal question is whether the democratic ideal may be served by
providing each separate group with identity for its members, or connecting the
democratic value of diversity to the value of expanding the cultural,
intellectual, and spiritual horizons of all, enriching our world by exposing us
to differing cultural and intellectual perspectives.
Since ethnic groups became more interested in social
and political recognition, the term marginality has been used in a
negative sense not intended by the early sociologists. Rejection of the melting
pot metaphor and fear of assimilation have resulted in emphasis on recognition
more than cooperation. Recently, however, new terms are being used for the
concept of being able to merge cultures without negative consequences for
either group distinctiveness or individual identity and self-esteem. These
include DuBois' double consciousness, Thurgood Marshall's double vision,
and David Hollinger's postethnic perspective. Representatives of Native
American, Black, Hispanic, and Asian cultures have all suggested the future of
American democracy depends on respect for identity in the context of a common
culture. In a psychology course I teach at a theological seminary I have
several students who plan to work in other cultures. I assign them a reading
authored by a former missionary. He says the psychological adjustment necessary
for optimum multicultural relations is to yield part of one's birth culture to
merge with another. He compares this with the initial socialization of a child,
making adjustments to become a fully developed personality within a social
context. He calls his model the 150 percent person. The person who is more than
When I graduated from high school I still lived with
my family in a migrant shack without a telephone or plumbing. I had learned to
live in two worlds, supporting migrant causes, yet feeling like a real person
as I gave a speech at commencement. I could move from one role to another with
considerable skill, and feel a certain pleasure from the experience. I was
coming to realize that not belonging exclusively to one group has a positive
side. I didn't need to fight anyone in order to assert myself. I was developing
the wide range of sympathies and appreciations I needed to become a bridge for
my people. Now I have worked as an educator with migrant populations in the
United States, and with peoples of several ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic
conditions in Europe and Latin America. Psychology and sociology certainly have
given me essential information and tools. My experience as a marginal person
has given me that feeling of extra percentage. I began my quest for identity
with the desire to be a real person. Now I see the challenge for you and me in
multicultural America is to be a little more than real.
Park, R. E., & Burgess, E. W.
(1921). An introduction to the science of sociology. Chicago: University of
Stonequist, E. V. (1937). The marginal man: A study
in personality and culture conflict. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Taylor, C. (1992). Multiculturalism and "The
Politics of Recognition": An essay by Charles Taylor (with commentary by
A. Gutman, S. C. Rockefeller, M. Walzer, & S. Wolf). Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press.
This article was originally presented as the Psi
Chi Distinguished Lecture at the Psi Chi/Rocky Mountain Regional Convention,
held in conjunction with the Annual Meeting of the Rocky Mountain Psychological
Association in Reno, Nevada, April 18, 1997.