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William I. Thomas

William I. Thomas - The Work

by Lewis A. Coser

 

Introduction
The Polish Peasant - A Landmark
The Polish Peasant - Its Theoretical Underpinnings
From Ethnographer to Social Psychologist
Thomas’s Situational Analysis

From: Lewis A. Coser [1977] Masters of Sociological Thought:
Ideas in Historical and Social Context
New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovitch. pp. 511-23.

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Introduction
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.

Index


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 be; 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.

Index


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 Parkand 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:

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.

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 micro-sociological 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 kin groups 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.

Index


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 take 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 Völkerpsychologie, 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.

Index


Thomas’s Situational Analysis
Perhaps the high point 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 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.

Index


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Created September, 1995
Last modified 21st January, 2017