William Isaac Thomas


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Thomas was born in Russell County, an isolated region of old Virginia, on August 13, 1863. His father, Thadeus Peter Thomas, combined preaching in a Methodist church with farming. His son said that the social environment in which he grew up, twenty miles from the nearest railroad, resembled that of the eighteenth century. He felt that in his subsequent moves to a southern university town and later to the metropolitan cities of the Middle West and the North he had lived "in three centuries, migrating gradually to the higher cultural areas."

That this became possible, Thomas stated, was "due to some obscure decision on the part of my father to attend an institution of learning--Emory and Henry College, Virginia." His father's father, Thomas's grandfather, was a stubborn Pennsylvania Dutchman, rich in land but with narrow peasant prejudices against cultural pursuits. He opposed his son's search for booklearning and punished him by sharply reducing his inheritance and forcing him to take up farming in an undesirable geographical location and on poor and marginal soil.

Thomas's father, however, remained deeply attached to the idea of learning. When he realized that his seven children had no adequate educational opportunities in the provincial backwater where he was making a poor living, he moved with his family to Knoxville, Tennessee, the seat of the state university.

Young Thomas spent his childhood and early adolescence with the mountain people, sharing their passionate interest in shooting and hunting. "My zeal for this," he writes, "was fanatical. I reckon that I passed no less than seven years of my youth in the woods alone with a rifle, without a dog, shooting at a mark, regretting the disappearance of large game and the passing of the Indian and of pioneer life." There exists no record of the impact that the new urban environment of Knoxville must have made on the young mountain boy, but it would seem that he managed the cultural transition without experiencing a major shock. Having enrolled at the University of Tennessee in 1880 and majoring in literature and the classics, Thomas soon became a leader among the undergraduates, excelling not only scholastically but socially as the "big man on campus." He won honors in oratory, became president of the most prestigious literary society, and at the same time captained the university's officer training unit.

During his first two years at the University, Thomas's zest for learning was less than conspicuous. But after that, under the influence of two teachers, Professors Alexander and Nicholson (the first a Greek scholar, the latter a devoted Darwinian who taught zoology, geology, and other natural sciences), Thomas decided to become a scholar. "I recall," he has written, "that on a hot August day in the summer vacation, between the sophomore and the junior year, I had a conversion. After some . . . profound reflection I determined that I was to go in for scholarship." This decision taken, he immediately paid a visit to Professor Alexander and announced his life plan. He also recalls that soon afterward, impressed by German scholarship, he resolved to seek further enlightenment in German universities. (At the time, it was generally assumed that German universities provided graduate instruction vastly superior to what was available in America. Hence, young academics were motivated by values and attitudes to study in Germany.) When friends inquired about his future career, he replied: "I am going to Germany." But that time was not yet. After graduation he stayed on at the University as an instructor, teaching Greek, Latin, German, French--most of them, as he later admitted, rather inadequately. Now carrying the honorific title of Adjunct Professor, he was also entrusted with instruction in natural history. The newfangled idea of specialization, it would seem, had not yet reached the University of Tennessee.

Throughout this period, the eager and ambitious young instructor never abandoned the idea of going to Germany. He finally obtained a leave of absence for a year's study and spent the academic year 1888-89 at Berlin and Goettingen. This year was decisive in determining his future intellectual orientation. It was in Germany that his interests changed from natural history and philology to ethnography, although this interest was not entirely new. Already at Tennessee reports of the Bureau of Ethnology had come to his attention. Moreover, as an adolescent he had roved over the Cumberlands and the Smoky Mountains in search of game, and, as he noted in his autobiographical sketch, he had later collected "a list of about 300 'Chaucerian' and 'Shakespearian' words surviving in the speech of the mountaineers." These early interests led him in Germany to immerse himself in the writings of the German folk psychologists Lazarus and Steinthal and to pay close attention to Wilhelm Wundt's Voelkerpsychologie. At the same time he attended courses in old English, old French, and old German, given by some of the leading German experts in these fields; he also continued his study of Greek culture under the great German classicist Wilamowitz.

Returning from Germany, his cultural horizons having been decisively broadened, he resolved not to go back to the University of Tennessee, and instead accepted a professorship in English at Oberlin. This was a traditional subject, to be sure, but Thomas taught it mainly within a comparative framework. His concern with ethnography also led him to a careful perusal of Herbert Spencer's Principles of Sociology and to further comparative studies suggested by Spencer. His three years at Oberlin were among the most satisfactory of his life. "I was not at that time sufficiently irreligious," he noted later, "to be completely out of place, and yet a sufficient innovation to be a novelty."

Nevertheless, when the news reached him of the opening of the first American Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, he gave up what looked like an established career at Oberlin to become a graduate student at Chicago. Though attracted by the department's offerings in sociology and anthropology, Thomas took relatively few formal courses in the department doing most of his work in courses marginal to sociology, including biology, physiology, and brain anatomy. Although he paid but scarce attention to his directors of study, Albion Small and Charles Henderson, and seemed more inclined to explore the city of Chicago than the departmental library, Thomas must clearly have impressed his mentors. After only one year in residence he was invited to offer his first course in sociology in the summer of 1894. In 1895 he served as an instructor, and in the following year, having completed his doctoral work (his thesis was entitled "On a Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes"), he became an assistant professor. In 1900 he was promoted to associate professor, and in 1910, having by this time assumed a prominent position in the department, he became a full professor.

While Albion Small's teaching focused on theoretical issues and historical data, and Charles Henderson's on social problems and their remedies, Thomas's interest was mainly in ethnographic and comparative studies. At that time the Chicago Department was a joint department of sociology and anthropology, and Thomas offered courses in what today would be called cultural and physical anthropology. In line with this orientation he returned to Europe immediately after receiving his doctoral degree to visit a variety of cultural settings. He travelled as far as the Volga, preparing to write a comparative study of European nationalities. This project was shelved, but he returned to it around 1909 when he revisited Europe "for the purpose of studying peasant backgrounds with reference to the problem of immigration."

In 1908, Helen Culver, heiress of the founder of Hull House, offered Thomas $50,000 to study problems of immigration. For the next ten years he directed the Helen Culver Fund for Race Psychology, which enabled him to finance the studies that eventually led to the publication of The Polish Peasant. Without this generous endowment it is unlikely that the work would ever have been published. It enabled Thomas to make a number of trips to Poland in search of pertinent materials and also covered other research expenses.

Thomas had originally planned to study a variety of Eastern European immigrant groups, but he gave this up as being too ambitious an undertaking. He focused instead on the Poles, the largest and most visible ethnic group in Chicago, who seemed to be beset by a number of social problems, from family disorganization to crime. It is also likely that this son of a southern rural minister had some special sympathy for the uprooted sons and daughters of Polish villagers struggling to find a foothold in the urban jungles of metropolitan Chicago.

After deciding to concentrate his study on the Polish community, Thomas, befitting his ethnographical training and following established procedures among anthropologists, mastered the Polish language. He then set out to develop extensive contacts with the Polish community in Chicago, as well as to take field trips to Poland. At that point, Thomas still used methods that had been developed in studies of nonliterate peoples and did not yet think of gathering written information.

One rainy morning, while walking down the back alley behind his house, Thomas had to side-step to avoid a bag of garbage which someone was throwing from a window. As the bag burst open at his feet, a long letter fell out. He picked it up, took it home, and discovered that it was written in Polish by a girl taking a training course in a hospital. It was addressed to her father and mainly discussed family affairs and discords. It then occurred to Thomas that one could learn a great deal from such letters. This was the unlikely accident that led to Thomas's development of the life-history method for which he has since become famous. Let no one be tempted to interpret the incident as confirmation of the "accidental theory of history." It took a very peculiar kind of man with very special gifts and training to pay attention to a bag of garbage thrown at his feet.

For more than a decade after this incident, Thomas moved back and forth between the Chicago Polish community and communities in the old country to gather written materials to supplement oral information. The 2,244 pages of the final work are largely given to the reproduction of these materials. Thomas used 754 letters acquired through an advertisement in a Chicago Polish-language journal, apparently offering 10 to 20 cents for any letter received from Poland. He used some 8,000 documents bought from the archives of a Polish newspaper that he approached during a visit to that country in 1909-10. He also used data and documents from Polish parish histories in Chicago, from immigrant organizations, from the files of charitable and legal aid associations, and from diaries of Polish immigrants (for which he paid the authors).

During his trip to Poland in 1913, Thomas met the Director of the Polish Emigrants Protective Association, Florian Znaniecki, a young philosopher who was not allowed to teach in Russian-dominated Poland because of his commitment to the idea of Polish nationalism. Znaniecki proved to have a wide knowledge of Polish peasant life--a rarity among members of Poland's gentry intelligentsia. The materials he collected for Thomas from the archives of the Polish Emigrants Protective Association proved invaluable. A year later, when World War I broke out and Germany invaded Poland, Znaniecki left his home country and went to see Thomas at Chicago. It is not entirely clear whether Thomas had formally invited him or not, but the important fact is that Thomas asked him immediately to join his project as a research worker. Soon thereafter Znaniecki became his co-author, working closely together with him until the completion of the monumental work.

During the many years of preparation for the book, Thomas and his wife Harriet Park, whom he had married in 1888, actively participated in the social and intellectual life of Chicago. They had close connections with various social work agencies and were identified with many of the social-reform activities described in earlier chapters of this book. At times, Thomas's "advanced views" on such social problems as crime and delinquency did not suit the established powers. The Chicago Vice Commission, for example, which was set up by well-meaning but timid establishmentarian souls, seemed to recoil in horror at some of the "progressive" suggestions of Thomas, who had done considerable research work for the Commission's use. Not only Thomas's views, but also his life-style offended some of the bien pensants. He certainly did not conform to the image, prevalent at the time of a staid and withdrawn academic. He dressed well, enjoyed the company of attractive women, mixed in bohemian quarters, and dined in posh restaurants as well as local dives. He was, as they say, a controversial figure. His unfashionable ideas and flamboyant life-style made him attractive to students but also aroused a good deal of animosity, even enmity, among the more settled denizens of the faculty club and administration building.

In 1918, those who had been secretly gunning for him finally had an occasion to move in for the kill. The Chicago Tribune, which had long been perturbed by the "unsound ideas" of professors at the University, announced one day in big headlines that Thomas had been arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The charges? Alleged violation of the Mann Act (which forbade the transport of young women across state lines for "immoral purposes") and false hotel registration. These charges were later thrown out of court, but in the meantime the publicity had been extensive, especially since the lady with whom he was involved, one Mrs. Granger, reported that she was the wife of an army officer then serving with the American forces in France. Why the F.B.I. got involved in this case is unclear, but it has been suggested that Thomas's wife was under surveillance for her pacifist activities and that the F.B.I. might have thought it expedient to discredit the husband so as to humiliate the wife. While such an interpretation might have seemed farfetched a few years ago, it does not seem so now.

What followed constitutes one of the shameful chapters in the history of American universities. The president of the University of Chicago, Henry Pratt Judson, supported by the trustees, moved immediately to dismiss Thomas. Albion Small, the chairman of his department, offered no public defense, although he made some private moves to protect Thomas and wept in his office over the loss of his prize student and colleague. There was no faculty protest and hardly a voice was raised from the ranks of Thomas's immediate colleagues. Everett Hughes writes me that this could not have happened at Harvard. No Boston paper would have mentioned an incident involving a Harvard professor. "Chicago was too parvenu to control the papers." (Personal communication, April 12, I976.)

Thomas's career was shattered at the age of 55, and he never again was given a permanent position at any university. The University of Chicago Press, which had issued the first two volumes of The Polish Peasant, broke its contract with the authors and refused to publish the succeeding volumes (which were later issued by an obscure house, Richard G. Badger of Boston). Despite his twenty years' services, the University of Chicago and its minions did everything possible to drop his name into an Orwellian memory hole. Even the University of Chicago archives contain nothing to remind one of Thomas, except for a few administrative letters.

The Carnegie Foundation behaved just as badly. It had earlier commissioned Thomas to write a volume in their Americanization Studies series. When, after the unfortunate incident, the manuscript, Old World Traits Transplanted, was delivered, the Foundation insisted that Thomas's name not appear as the author; the book was published under the names of Robert E. Park and H. A. Miller, who had done some minor work on the volume. Only in that way could the reputation of the Foundation and of the social sciences be protected. A recommendation for Thomas's appointment to the staff was vetoed by the directors. It was a famous victory for the philistines.

After the Chicago disaster Thomas moved to New York. He lectured for a number of years at the New School for Social Research, then a haven for such unconventional scholars as Thorstein Veblen, Charles Beard, and Harold Laski, but at that time it was nonetheless a marginal academic institution. In 1936-37 Pitirim Sorokin, one maverick recognizing another, appointed him to a visiting lectureship on the Harvard faculty, where he was lionized by the graduate students and instructors. This was his last academic position.

During the New York years, Thomas, despite his public hounding, nevertheless was able to do a good deal of research, much of it sponsored by Mrs. W. F. Dummer of Chicago, a wealthy woman philanthropist who never faltered in her support of him. In later years he also received grants from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial and the Bureau of Social Hygiene. In the late thirties he served for a while as a staff member of the Social Science Research Council and was closely associated with the Social Science Institute of the University of Stockholm.

Thus, even without a regular university appointment Thomas was given the opportunity to continue his research. Yet the philistines did not relent easily. When some of the Young Turks of sociology, backed by Robert Park, argued in 1926 that it was high time that Thomas be offered the presidency of the American Sociological Society, leading sociologists, among them the ministerial Charles A. Ellwood, argued that this would be inappropriate and would sully the honor of American sociology. When his name was entered for nomination, the "old guard" sought to find an appropriate candidate to defeat him. Thomas considered withdrawing his name under these circumstances and was only persuaded to stay in the race by Ernest Burgess who assured him that the Young Turks, Louis Wirth, George Lundberg, Stuart Chapin, Stuart Rice, Kimball Young and others, would mobilize their younger colleagues on his behalf. They did, and he won by a wide margin.

Despite his trials and tribulations, Thomas, the dirt farmers' tough son from the Virginia hills, seems never to have been discouraged. His zest for life stood him in good stead. He managed to cope with whatever problem he tackled, in work or in private life. Earlier in his career, when he was dissatisfied with the finish on his dining table, he invented a better furniture polish. Later, disliking his inferior golf balls, he invented a better one--and enjoyed the proceeds of his patent. In 1935, after his first marriage had broken up, the seventy-two-year-old man married his thirty-six-year-old research associate Dorothy Swaine, who later became a leading student of demography and the first woman president of the American Sociological Society. Nothing in his life, and a rocky life it was, could defeat William I. Thomas. Even in his last years of semiretirement he continued his research in New Haven and Berkeley. He died at the age of 84 in December 1947.

From Coser, 1977:530-536.

(Special acknowledgement to Larry R. Ridener and The Dead Sociologists' Society) http://raven.jmu.edu/~ridenelr/personal/VITA.HTML


The names William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki have come to be linked in the minds of generations of scholars because The Polish Peasant in Europe and America is their common masterpiece. It is for this reason, although their cast of mind and even their personalities differed in many ways, they will be treated together in this chapter. Their work is intertwined in the history of sociology, and their lives may be best approached in terms of their contrapuntal relationships.

Given this focus on their common work, The Polish Peasant will be discussed first, even though both authors, and Thomas particularly, had already made other noteworthy contributions prior to their joint enterprise. The purpose of The Polish Peasant was to provide a documented sociological treatment of the life-experiences of Polish countrymen as they came to be involved in the major social changes that attended their moves from the relative security and rootedness of their native villages to the uprooting wilderness of American urban life. My emphasis, however, here, as elsewhere, is not on the detailed findings of this work, but on the major theoretical underpinnings that give it a significance well beyond its stated purpose.

From Coser, 1977:511.

The Polish Peasant--A Landmark

The Polish Peasant is a monumental achievement, the earliest major landmark of American sociological research. Being centrally concerned with issues of ethnic identity and ethnic subcultures, it should be of special interest at present when these issues have again assumed a salience they seemed to have lost for a time since Thomas's and Znaniecki's days.

The raw materials of the book (which are reported in exhaustive detail) are derived from life-histories of Polish immigrants to Chicago. These materials--personal letters, autobiographies, diaries, and other personal documents--are extremely rich in their peculiar specificity. The purpose here is not to delve into the documentary evidence at length, worthwhile task though that would he; rather, my aim is to delineate the ways, sometimes successful, sometimes not, in which the authors captured the peculiarities of their detailed accounts within a net of generalizing abstractions.

Thomas and Znaniecki self-consciously rejected the fallacy that any science ever consists in the accumulation of facts. "A fact by itself," they wrote, "is already an abstraction. . . . The question is only whether we perform this abstraction methodologically or not, whether we know what and why we accept and reject, or simply take uncritically the old abstraction of 'common sense.'" Methodical abstraction would allow them to do justice to their material and yet transcend it, thus providing a theoretical frame that could be used on other materials that had no concrete resemblance to the Polish data they report in their work.

From Coser, 1977:511-512.

The Polish Peasant--Its Theoretical Underpinnings

The theoretical scheme underlying The Polish Peasant may be best understood as an attempt to go beyond both a purely individualistic or subjectivistic approach to sociological data and a generalized "objectivistic" interpretation of social life and social change in which acting, feeling, thinking individuals would be granted no analytical attention. They wished to avoid the trap of psychologistic interpretation found, for example, in the work of their contemporary Franklin Giddings, where most of humankind's travail is considered as the result of "consciousness of kind" and similar psychological constructs. Yet they also wished to avoid a type of theorizing of a certain positivistic variety, which emphasized the determinant influence of geography, climate, or race on human behavior, or of a vulgar Marxism. In short, they objected to seeing people as playthings of forces over which they had no control.

In their attempt to do justice to both objective and subjective factors, they developed a scheme in which only the conjoint interplay of individual attitudes and objective cultural values was seen as adequate to account for human conduct. By attitude they understood, "a process of individual consciousness which determines real or possible activity of the individual in the social world." An attitude is a predisposition to act in relation to some social object; it is not a purely psychic inner state. A social value, on the other hand, is understood as "any datum having an empirical content accessible to the members of some social group and a meaning with regard to which it is or may be an object of activity." The authors specified further that only certain classes of values, namely those that are embodied in norms and rules of conduct, come within the purview of sociological investigation. These values consist of the ". . . more or less explicit and formal rules of behavior by which the group tends to maintain, to regulate, and to make more general and more frequent the corresponding types of actions among its members. These rules [are] . . . customs and rituals, legal and educational norms, obligatory beliefs and aims, etc."

The main focus of their investigation is social change. They proceed to show that it is always the result of an interplay between attitudes and values. As they put it, "The cause of a social or individual phenomenon is never another social or individual phenomenon alone, but always a combination of a social and an individual phenomenon. Or, in more exact terms: The cause of a value or of an attitude is never an attitude or a value alone, but always a combination of an attitude and a value."

Thomas and Znaniecki formulated this basic approach in a variety of ways, as when they speak, for example, of the "reciprocal dependence between social organization and individual life organization." But their underlying stress on conjoint investigation of the objective and the subjective dimensions of social behavior remains constant throughout their work. It will be remembered from earlier chapters of this book that this general orientation is closely related to the social psychology and sociology of Cooley and Park and that it has its roots in the pragmatic philosophy of William James, Mead, and Dewey. What is perhaps less obvious is that it is closely related to Marx's stress that people make their own history but they don't make it as they please; they are constrained by the play of social forces they encounter on their scene of action. It is also closely related to Robert K. Merton's later insistence that social actions need always to be explained in terms of individual choices between socially structured alternatives.

To Thomas and Znaniecki the influence of external or objective factors upon human conduct assumes importance only to the extent that they are subjectively experienced. Hence, it is the task of the analyst to try to show how subjective predispositions, or attitudes, molded by experience, determine the response of individuals to the objective factors that impinge upon them. Thus, it is not the social disorganization of city slums that determines deviant behavior of recent immigrants, but it is experienced loosening of normative constraints in the slum that results in deviant reactions in individual slum dwellers.

In an effort to conceptualize a set of basic dispositions that could then be related to the interplay of attitudes and values, the authors developed their well-known classification of the four basic human wishes: (1) the desire for new experience; (2) the desire for recognition; (3) the desire for mastery; and (4) the desire for security. Though this classification is more often cited than any other discussion in The Polish Peasant, it seems to be among the least valuable aspect of the work. To establish such lists of basic wishes or drives is a sterile enterprise. Other authors have established similar lists consisting of ten or many more such basic predispositions which are equally plausible and equally powerless to account for the complicated motivational repertory of the human animal. (Indeed, both Thomas and Znaniecki became quite sceptical about this aspect of methodology in The Polish Peasant at a later stage in their careers.)

Thomas and Znaniecki's incursion into general psychology by way of the so-called theory of basic wishes resulted in failure. Their development of the rudiments of a social psychology, on the other hand, has borne abundant fruit. They sharply distinguished psychical states from attitudes, assigning the study of the first to general psychology and of the second to social psychology. "By its reference to activity," they stated, "and thereby to the social world the attitude is distinguished from the psychical state. . . . A psychological process is . . . treated as an object in itself, isolated by a reflective act of attention, and taken first of all in connection with other states of the same individual. An attitude is a psychological process treated as primarily manifested in its reference to the social world and taken first of all in connection with some social value. . . . The psychological process remains always fundamentally a state of somebody; the attitude remains always fundamentally an attitude toward something."

Even if one conceives of social psychology as the science of social attitudes, it would still be possible to restrict one's focus largely to attitudes of individuals. This was, however, not what Thomas and Znaniecki had in mind. As they put it: "The more generally an attitude is shared by the members of the given social group and the greater the part it plays in the life of every member, the stronger the interest which it provokes in the social psychologist. . . . Thus, the field of social psychology practically comprises first of all the attitudes which are more or less generally found among the members of a social group, have a real importance in the life-organization of the individuals who have developed them, and manifest themselves in social activities of these individuals." What the authors are concerned with, in other words, are not the idiosyncratic responses of particular individuals, but rather attitudes that these individuals share to a greater or lesser extent with other members of the groups in which they are variously placed. Social psychology, in this view, is the "science of the subjective side of social culture."

On the other hand, the objective side of culture, the investigation of social values, is the proper domain of sociology. Social values are objective cultural data that confront the individual, as it were, from the outside. "These values cannot be the object matter of social psychology; they constitute a special group of objective cultural data . . . the rules of behavior, and the actions viewed as conforming or not conforming with these rules, constitute with regard to their objective significance a certain number of more or less connected and harmonious systems which can be generally called social institutions, and the totality of institutions found in a concrete social group constitutes the social organization of this group. And when studying the social organization as such we must subordinate attitudes to values. . . "

It was the peculiar genius of Thomas and Znaniecki to balance their emphasis on attitudes, subjectively defined meanings, and shared experience, by an equally strong emphasis on the objective characteristics of cultural values and their embodiment in specific institutions. This is why their analyses in The Polish Peasant move from consideration of microsociological units, such as primary groups and family structures, to the larger institutional settings in which these smaller units are embedded. Linking the study of primary groups to the larger institutional context, Thomas and Znaniecki studied the community in which primary groups in general, and the family and kingroups in particular, flourished; they then proceeded to investigate the still wider frame of social organization, which included the educational system, the press, voluntary organizations, and the like. Though each of these, they argued, could not be analyzed in isolation, each provided distinct arrangements of social values that assumed salience, in different and varying degrees, as objects to which attitudes were directed even as they themselves shaped these attitudes.

The main chord that Thomas and Znaniecki strike over and over again is the reciprocal relation between attitudes and values, between individual organization and social organization, between individual behavior and the social rules that attempt to control it. This meant to them a continued interplay involving not only individual adaptation but also disruption of social order. Like their contemporary Robert Park, they believed that equilibrium between individual desires and social requirements was at best a marginal and exceptional condition. In general, social controls and social norms never succeeded in completely suppressing individual efforts to break the bonds imposed by social organization. The dialectic of social change involved efforts on the part of the group to bend members to its requirements and, at the same time, attempts on the part of these individuals to break group-imposed constraints in order to realize aspirations not condoned by the norms of the group.

Thomas and Znaniecki were intent upon countering the prevalent moralistic pronouncements about such serious social problems as crime and delinquency by stressing that the roots of the problems were in social conditions rather than individual failings. Hence, when they introduced the notion of social disorganization they defined it as "a decrease of the influence of existing social rules of behavior upon individual members of the group." But they took pains to emphasize that this notion "refers primarily to institutions and only secondarily to men." That is, like Durkheim's notion of anomie, the concept of social disorganization refers primarily to a disordered state of society rather than to a condition of individuals. Moreover, they also pointed out that there was never a one-to-one association between social and individual disorganization, so that even in disorganized areas of a city, for example, one could expect to find a number of individuals who manage to organize their lives in a satisfactory manner. "The nature of [the] reciprocal influence [of life-organization of individuals and social organization] in each particular case is a problem to be studied, not a dogma to be accepted in advance." To Thomas and Znaniecki social disorganization never meant a static condition but rather a social process subject to a great deal of variation in impact and extensiveness.

From Coser, 1977:512-516.

A Typology of Human Actors

In an effort to explore further the interplay between social organization and individual attitude, between social constraint and individual response Thomas and Znaniecki developed a suggestive typology of human actors, distinguishing three typical cases in terms of the variant responses of people to cultural demands. This typology, it should be noted, as distinct from their abortive attempt to delimit basic wishes, has had a considerable influence on the subsequent typologies of David Riesman and other current scholars.

Thomas and Znaniecki first describe the Philistine who is "always a conformist, usually accepting social tradition in its most stable elements. . . . Every important and unexpected change in the condition of life results for such an individual in a disorganization of activity." His type of adjustment has become so rigid as to preclude the development of any new attitudes except through the slow changes brought about by age in the individual and by time in his social milieu. The polar opposite of this type is the Bohemian, "whose possibilities of evolution are not closed, simply because his character remains unformed." In this type, "we find an undetermined variation of schemes." He may be highly inconsistent, "but on the other hand he shows a degree of adaptability to new conditions quite in contrast to the Philistine." While the first type is a conformist and the second a rebel, the creative man is an innovator adaptable to new conditions, displaying variegated interests. These are "compatible with a consistency of activity superior to that which tradition can give if the individual builds his life-organization not upon the presumption of the immutability of his sphere of social values, but upon the tendency to modify and to enlarge it according to some definite aim." The creative man does not simply act within the grooves of tradition, nor is he indiscriminately rebellious when it comes to societal requirements; rather, with a judicious blend of innovation and tradition he clears a new path through the forest of the customary and can hence be a creative guide in efforts to bring about social change.

Thomas and Znaniecki made it clear that what they were delineating here were ideal types, never fully realized in any particular personality. As they put it, "None of these forms is ever completely and absolutely realized by a human individual in all lines of activity; there is no Philistine who lacks completely Bohemian tendencies, no Bohemian who is not a Philistine in certain respects, no creative man who is fully and exclusively creative. . . ." They were aware that these general types "include . . . an indefinite number of variations." But, like the more elaborate and sophisticated ideal types depicted by Max Weber, these general types may well serve as rough guides in efforts to classify the immense variety of human personalities along a continuum based on their variant orientations to the requirements of social living. It is important to note that at a time when John B. Watson and others conceived human beings as infinitely manipulable by their social environment, Thomas and Znaniecki insisted that though Philistines were all around and Bohemians might exhaust themselves in futile rebellion, there also existed innovative and creative people who attempted, while acknowledging limits, to transcend them in the image of their desire.

The range of subjects touched upon in The Polish Peasant is wide indeed. Its authors displayed a sympathetic interest in the huge diversity of personalities, cultural patterns, and institutional arrangements they encountered in their research on both the old continent and the new. In America they dealt with city politics and prostitution, the press and the dance hall, family quarrels and nostalgic longings for a lost home--all discussed against the backdrop of conditions in Poland. And while engaged in sociological investigation of typical behaviors, they always displayed a loving concern for the varied ways unique persons came to terms with their predicaments. And yet, despite this diversity of topics, there was a strong unity in their work. They were concerned throughout to document and analyze the impact of urbanization, industrialization, and modernization in the modern world. They showed how the traditional forms of social control were replaced by the looser and more tenuous controls that attempt to guide the conduct of modern men and women. They documented the sea change from a kin-dominated culture to one based on urban associations or loose neighborhood ties. Although they appear at times to be lost in a welter of details, their work is marked throughout by concerns very similar to those that moved most of the other masters of modern sociology, from Marx to Mannheim.

What is more, like many of their intellectual forbears and contemporaries, they saw in sociology not only an analytical discipline but one capable of providing guidance to social policy. They were convinced that common-sense knowledge, on which humankind had relied through the millennia, is no longer an adequate basis for social control. They believed that the systematic knowledge they aimed to provide would furnish the rudiments of a science of purposeful social intervention and rational control. They even went so far as to state, ". . . It is always the question of an ultimate practical applicability which . . . will constitute the criterion--the only secure and intrinsic criterion--of a science."

At first blush, Thomas and Znaniecki's stress on rational control and social techniques might suggest that they were seduced by some technocratic ideal of overall planning. But such was emphatically not the case. To the contrary, they emphasized that their analyses and findings were in the first place meant to increase the awareness and knowledge possessed by the individual subjects they studied. In a passage that could as well have been written by a contemporary sociologist such as Jurgen Habermas, they stated that, "it is desirable to develop in the individuals the ability to control spontaneously their own activities by conscious reflection." It was to such an increase in the conscious awareness of their subjects that they dedicated their work. "While in earlier stages," they argued, "the society itself provided a rigoristic and particularistic set of definitions in the form of 'customs' or 'mores', the tendency to advance is associated with the liberty of the individual to make his own definition." The sociological analyses they provided were intended to further that development.

The subtleties of the theorizing in The Polish Peasant should not blind us to some of its deficiencies. Too often, conceptual distinctions that appear clearcut in the methodological discussion become blurred in concrete exposition. Even such key concepts as attitude and values, as the authors were later to acknowledge, often come to be used almost interchangeably. At times it is difficult to disentangle subjective factors and their objective correlates, precisely because the objective world is always dealt with only to the extent that it enters subjective experience. Such methodological criticisms were elaborated in detail in Herbert Blumer's exhaustive critique of the work. Nevertheless, despite the fact also emphasized by Blumer, that there are considerable discrepancies between the theoretical guidelines and the substantive contributions, The Polish Peasant has aged very well indeed. It remains one of the great landmarks of American sociological investigation, and, despite its flaws, its theoretical framework may still inspire emulation by those who possess more developed theoretical tools.

From Coser, 1977:516-518.

William Isaac Thomas--From Ethnographer to Social Psychologist

An admiring student, Kimball Young, said in his obituary of W. I. Thomas that he "never regarded himself essentially as a theorist." This was probably so, but he surely was a theorist despite himself. What is more, he attempted throughout his life to gain greater intellectual clarity and analytical depth, rather than pursuing a fixed initial line of thought. To follow him on his intellectual voyage is a moving experience.

Thomas's early writings--for example, his Sex and Society published in 1907--still show heavy traces of the biologistic biases of the times, even though they also indicate the author's efforts to free himself from these influences. Only those devoid of a sense of historical context will bridle today at such pronouncements as, "Morphologically the development of man is more accentuated than that of woman. Anthropologists . . . regard women as intermediate between the child and the man." Statements such as these, moreover, ought to be read in conjunction with Thomas's fervent pleas in this work for an end to the subjection of women. At this stage in his thinking he may still have been partly in the throes of sexist reasoning, but he could also write in the same book, ". . . When we taken into consideration the superior cunning as well as the superior endurance of women, we may even raise the question whether their capacity for intellectual work is not under equal conditions greater than in man." The book ends with a magnificent sentence which should help wash away many of Thomas's early sins: "Certain it is that no civilization can remain the highest if another civilization adds to the intelligence of its men the intelligence of its women." What applies to his treatment of women also applies, grosso modo, to his writings on race relations and American Blacks.

Just as the biologistic bias in Thomas's early writings cannot be ignored, neither can his psychologistic bias. It would be a mistake, however, not to recognize that he overcame that bias in his later work. Still, it is surely a bit unsettling to learn from the early Thomas that the rules of exogamy "doubtless originate in the restlessness of the male" and his tendency "to seek more unfamiliar women." Many other such naive psychologistic interpretations of institutional arrangements can be found in this book. But such gaucheries stand side by side with little gems of sociological reasoning, such as: "The degree to which abstraction is employed in the activities of a group depends on the complexity of the activities and on the complexity of consciousness in the group."

During the first stages of his career Thomas slowly developed from a traditional ethnographer, reared in the German tradition of Voelkerpsychologie, to a sophisticated social psychologist with a sociologist bent, as evidenced by The Polish Peasant and the works immediately following. His early works must be read as stepping stones on the way. Only a year after the publication of Sex and Society, Thomas's Source Book for Social Origins appeared. A careful reader could already perceive that the author, while providing a wealth of ethnological data as source materials and still operating with such psychological notions as "attention," "habit," and the like, was on his way to developing sociological interpretations that owed relatively little to the biologistic and evolutionary propensities of most of his contemporaries.

Thomas's genius came to full flowering in The Polish Peasant, a book free from biologistic and psychologizing biases, as well as the occasional racist overtones of his early works. In his later works Thomas continued to develop theoretical leads to social psychology first adumbrated in The Polish Peasant. It would seem that by some subconscious division of labor, Znaniecki in his later writings elaborated the notion of social values, which he called "cultural reality," while Thomas's concerns were in the main directed to the social psychological approach characterized by the notion of attitudes.

From Coser, 1977:519-520.

Thomas's Situational Analysis

Perhaps the highpoint in the development of Thomas's social psychology came with his elaboration of the famous notion of the definition of the situation. The notion is so central that an extended quotation is in order:

". . . the higher animals, and above all man, have the power of refusing to obey a stimulation which they followed at an earlier time. . . . We call this ability the power of inhibition. . . . Preliminary to any self-determined act of behavior there is always a stage of examination and deliberation which we may call the definition of the situation. . . . Not only concrete acts are dependent on the definition of the situation, but gradually a whole life policy and the personality of the individual himself follow from a series of such definitions. But the child is always born into a group of people among whom all the general types of situation which may arise have already been defined and corresponding rules of conduct developed, and where he has not the slightest chance of making his definitions and following his wishes without interference. . . . There is therefore always a rivalry between the spontaneous definition of the situation made by members of an organized society and the definition which his society has provided for him. The individual tends to a hedonistic selection of activity, pleasure first; and society to a utilitarian selection, safety first. . . . It is in this connection that a moral code arises, which is a set of rules of behavior norms regulating the expression of the wishes, and which is built up by successive definitions of the situation. In practice the abuse arises first, and the rule is meant to prevent its recurrence."

The notion of the definition of the situation provided Thomas with a secure vantage point from which he could criticize all instinctivistic or biologistic interpretations, as well as the crude behaviorism of John B. Watson and his followers. Only close analytical attention to the subjective ways in which human beings filtered the crude data of their senses, only sustained concern with the mediating functions of the human mind could help explain the root fact that though two individuals might be presented with an identical stimulus, they might react to it in utterly different ways. This could be seen in operation both between categories of individuals and between culturally differentiated groups. A well-dressed woman, for example, may be perceived by males in terms of her sexual attractiveness, while women might focus attention on the design of her clothing. A teddy bear might be a protective talisman to a child, but is only a plaything to an adult. A record player may be a means for filling empty leisure time to a jaded city dweller, while it may be the voice of a god to a primitive. Unless analysts attend to these subjective meanings, these definitions of the situation, they will be as unable to understand fellow human beings as they will be incapable of understanding other cultures.

But there is still more. Human actions can make sense to us only if we become aware that all meanings come to be constructed by definitions through which the prism of the mind orders perceptual experience. Ponder carefully the following sentence, the most pregnant sentence that Thomas ever wrote: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."

What Thomas was saying was that people respond not only to the objective features of a situation, but also, and often mainly, to the meaning that situation has for them. And once such meanings have been assigned, their consequent behavior is shaped by the ascribed meaning. If people believe in witches, such beliefs have tangible consequences--they may, for example, kill those persons assumed to be witches. This then is the power the human mind has in transmuting raw sense data into a categorical apparatus that could make murderers of us all. Once a Vietnamese becomes a "gook," or a Black a "nigger," or a Jew a "kike," that human being has been transmuted through the peculiar alchemy of social definition into a wholly "other" who is now a target of prejudice and discrimination, of violence and aggression, and even murder. It stands to reason, of course, that there are benevolent as well as malevolent consequences of such definitions of the situation; peasant girls can become saints and politicians high-minded statesmen. In any case, and regardless of the consequences, definitions always organize experience; they are "equivalents to the determination of the vague." It would be superfluous to adduce the numerous progeny that Thomas's notion has engendered. Anyone, for example, writing on prejudice and discrimination can ill afford to neglect it.

During the nineteen twenties and in the last stages of his career, Thomas's thought moved increasingly away from his previous concerns with basic motivational structures and wishes. In tune with his fully developed notion of the "definition of the situation," he now concerned himself with what he described as "situational analysis." By this he meant, to quote from his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Society, that "the particular behavior patterns and the total personality are overwhelmingly conditioned by the types of situation and trains of experience encountered by the individual in the course of his life."

In Old World Traits Transplanted (originally published as a work by Robert Park et al., but in fact mainly written by Thomas), in The Unadjusted Girl, The Child in America (with Dorothy S. Thomas) and in Primitive Behavior situational analysis, in which the definition of the situation assumed pride of place, was applied to a diversity of concrete topics. In all of them, Thomas clung to his view that society and individuals should always be conceived of as being involved in reciprocal interaction. As he put it in The Unadjusted Girl, "Society is indispensable to the individual because it possesses at a given moment an accumulation of values, of plans and materials which the child could never accumulate alone. . . . But the individual is also indispensable to society because by his activity and ingenuity he creates all the material values, the whole fund of civilization." Thomas was prepared to subscribe to Cooley's dictum that the individual and society are twin born, but only if he were allowed to specify that they were not identical twins. He was much more aware than Cooley of the crises and dislocations that are bound at times to disrupt the harmonious interplay between them.

Later works also extended Thomas's concern with typologies as in the suggestive chapter of Old World Traits Transplanted, in which he distinguishes among the following immigrant types: The Settler, The Colonist, The Political Idealist, The Allrightnik, The Cafone, and The Intellectual. Each of these types, he suggested, reacted to the immigrant experience in a distinctive and characteristic manner. Typological distinctions, he felt, were most useful in breaking down global categories such as "immigrants" into subcategories, displaying distinctive behaviors in their interaction with the host community. Such typologies were further developed in the work of Florian Znaniecki.

From Coser, 1977:520-523.

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