Thomas, W. I.

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Thomas, W. I.



William Isaac Thomas (1863-1947), American sociologist and social psychologist, was born in Virginia. Little is known about his early years, but he entered the University of Tennessee at the age of 17 and graduated in 1884. He remained at the university for the next four years as an instructor in modern and classical languages, thereby acquiring a linguistic facility that was to prove invaluable in his later work. After marrying Harriet Park in 1888, he spent a year studying in Germany and then joined the faculty of Oberlin College, where he taught English. In 1893, while on leave from Oberlin, he began graduate work in sociology at the University of Chicago and received his doctorate in 1896.

Between 1896 and 1910, when he attained his professorship at the University of Chicago, Thomas published a series of papers on the social psychology of sex (1907) and prepared the Source Book for Social Origins (1909). These early writings reveal an orderly and scholarly mind, a lucid, unpretentious prose style, a grasp of varied but relevant literature, and a flair for interpreting human phenomena. They also contain, in embryonic form, several ideas more fully developed in later works, e.g., the role of attitudes, the “four wishes,” the importance of social science, and the interplay of biological and sociocultural factors in human behavior. (These are reviewed in detail in Young 1963.)

Between 1908 and 1918 Thomas traveled extensively in Europe, with the support of the Helen Culver Fund for Race Psychology, and began to collect materials on Polish society and the migration of the peasants to America. In 1914 he began his collaboration with Florian Znaniecki, which culminated in the monumental The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920). This was not merely a monograph on a particular cultural and political group but a work that contained important theoretical and methodological insights. Included in it were the “Methodological Note”; a lengthy, intensive life history; theories of personality development and of social change; a typology of personalities; an analysis of the salient features of social organization; and the central attitude-value schema. Nearly twenty years later it was selected as one of the most significant volumes in social science and was subjected to a searching reappraisal (see Blumer 1939). During this period Thomas also kept abreast of ideas in a variety of fields, from the newer biology of Jacques Loeb, H. S. Jennings, C. M. Child, and A. J. Carlson to the psychology of Pavlov and J. B. Watson and the psychiatry of Freud, Adolf Meyer, and Harry Stack Sullivan. This intense curiosity about ideas provided a rich intellectual background against which his own creativity could flourish.

In 1918, as a result of a newspaper scandal, Thomas’ appointment at the University of Chicago was terminated, and thereafter his only academic appointments were at the New School for Social Research, from 1923 to 1928, and at Harvard University, in 1936/1937. His later career was maintained through independent research and writing that was often supported by interested individuals, private foundations, or other agencies. With the assistance of Mrs. W. F. Dummer, a Chicago philanthropist, he completed The Unadjusted Girl (1923) and organized an important symposium, later published as The Unconscious (1928). He was in fact the author of Old World

Traits Transplanted (1921), a volume in the Americanization Studies series, supported by the Carnegie Corporation. The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial supported his work, with Dorothy S. Thomas, on approaches to the behavior problems of children, in The Child in America (1928).

As president of the American Sociological Society in 1927, he delivered the address “The Behavior Pattern and the Situation” (1927). In succeeding years he was on the staff of the Social Science Research Council, preparing a lengthy memorandum on research problems in the field of culture and personality (published for the first time in 1951, part 4). In connection with this work he again traveled extensively in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe, reviewing research on crime, personality formation, and population trends.

His first marriage ended in divorce in 1934. His second wife, Dorothy S. Thomas, whom he married in 1935, is an eminent sociologist in her own right and in 1952 was also president of the American Sociological Society. Thomas’ last book, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, was published in 1937, and a year later he took part in a symposium that reviewed the significance of The Polish Peasant (see Blumer 1939). After spending a few years in New Haven, Connecticut, he moved to Berkeley, California, where he died at the age of 84.

In private life Thomas was an urbane, genial, and witty cosmopolitan. He savored good food, good wine, and good companionship. He had a zest for life, an enormous curiosity about all human experience, and a generous capacity for warmth and friendship. Few men have worn the mantle of “gentleman and scholar” so gracefully.

During the more than forty years of his active career, Thomas was author, coauthor, or editor of 7 books and 38 articles, all marked by erudition, imagination, and seminal ideas. Yet he had no formal doctrine or sociological system, nor did he found a school of sociology. Rather, he directed his attention to a variety of empirical areas— including sex differences, migration, delinquency, and social organization—and fashioned methods and concepts that seemed appropriate to the subject at hand. Nevertheless, certain central themes appear and reappear in a number of his works, and together they constitute his essential contributions to the development of social science.

Social behavior . Thomas’ interest in human behavior began with his first publications on the sources and consequences of sex differences. Exploring such subjects as modesty, feminine character, and the sex division of labor, he utilized both biological and sociocultural data, a technique he was to use often. Although he viewed the behavioral differences between the sexes as a function of both internal (organic) and external (sociocultural) conditions, he followed the practice of his time by giving some primacy to the organic factors. That is, he had some tendency toward “reductionism,” but he was not consistent, as the development of the “four wishes” and the situational approach to behavior indicates.

The four wishes were first presented in the paper “The Persistence of Primary-group Norms” (1917). Thomas described them as “interests,” connected with the “desires” for new experience, for mastery, for recognition, and for safety or security. While he did not indicate clearly the precise place of these wishes in the spectrum of motivation, he derived them from “original emotional reactions,” such as fear, rage, and love. Further, he suggested the primacy of biology by the statement that all forms of behavior can ultimately be reduced to two fundamental appetites, food hunger and sex hunger.

In The Polish Peasant, the wishes became in effect synonymous with attitudes and were defined as partly biological and partly social in character. Two of them—the desires for mastery and security —are linked respectively with the “instincts” of hate and fear, but the desires for new experience and for recognition are free of such organic anchorage. Further, Thomas altered the theoretical significance of the wishes: their rationale now is social control rather than reductionism. Society, through suitable appeals to the wishes as well as by punishments and rewards relating to their expression, can achieve effective social control because it is the essence of the wishes that they must be satisfied socially.

The final formulation of the wishes appeared in The Unadjusted Girl, in which Thomas used them to analyze and interpret various forms of female delinquency. Now, however, he dropped the wish for “mastery,” replacing it by the wish for “response,” which is based on the instinct of love. In this version, the wishes for new experience and for security are linked respectively to the instincts of anger and fear; only the wish for recognition appears to be derived completely from social experience. In this work Thomas referred to the wishes as being “forces which impel to action” and as corresponding in general to the “nervous mechanism.”

The wishes, in one form or another, became extremely popular in American sociology; their very simplicity and versatility made them attractive. Yet it would seem that Thomas himself did not attach too much importance to any specific formulation of the wishes; to him they seem to have represented the kind of constructs that might prove useful in the task of ordering and interpreting the infinite complexities of human experience. (For a more detailed analysis of the wishes and their significance, see 1951, part 2, sec. 8.)

During the late 1920s Thomas shifted his emphasis from the conative approach implied by the wishes to a “situational” approach. Now he argued that it is unprofitable to postulate various instincts, needs, wishes, or desires and then to interpret behavior in terms of the postulated entities. Scientific understanding requires that behavior be observed and compared in a number of different situations so as to reveal the relative influence of different sets of determinants on human action. The crying of an infant, for example, may not be wholly a function of organic pain or deprivation; it may also reflect the interactional situation involving the mother or other persons in the environment. Sexual behavior may have elements of interpersonal expectation or obligation as well as being based on simple organic drive. The point of the situational approach was that behavioral determinants must be discovered, not assumed, and that “common sense” explanations may not suffice.

Closely related to this approach is the famous concept of the “definition of the situation” that Thomas used in several different ways. At the group level, the definitions of situations are contained in norms, codes, and laws. That is, all groups have standards of how individuals should or should not behave in life situations, and, at this level, much misunderstanding, confusion, and conflict result from the fact that different groups and subgroups in modern society have come to have different definitions of the situation. Each such group seeks to have new and young members conform to its own standards, and this is achieved so far as possible through the process of socialization. But socialization is never perfect; particular individuals have different experiences and different sequences of experience, so that they develop their own unique definitions that must be understood. In other words, behavior is determined by certain conditions, which comprise the “situation,” including the state of the organism, the objective environment, and the subjective manner in which these are perceived, evaluated, and made conscious. Apart from sheer reflex, human action is preceded by this process of defining the situation, and even though the basis of action is subjective, the results are not. In Thomas’ words, “If men define situations as real they are real in their consequences” (1928, p. 572).

Other sociologists have phrased similar ideas: Robert M. Maclver, “dynamic assessment”; Robert K. Merton, “self-fulfilling prophecy” and Florian Znaniecki, “humanistic coefficient” yet none has proved as durable as Thomas’ “definition of the situation.” His emphasis on a subjective process that intervenes between an objective stimulus and an observable behavior pattern was also a forerunner of such contemporary concerns as the theory of social action, gestaltism, and research in perception and cognition. Implicit in the concept was the idea that human beings are not mere mechanisms. Habit is important, but so are emergent properties. Culture and personality are intimately related, but any given personality is not a mirror image of the culture that produced it.

In an era marked by the confident search for unvarying “laws” of behavior, these ideas were novel. From Thomas’ standpoint, tropism, habit, and the conditioned response cannot supply a full understanding of behavior. Subjective definitions also have to be grasped; hence his emphasis on personal documents, life histories, and other techniques that would permit some assessment of what situations mean to individuals. Social science has both objective and subjective dimensions, which distinguishes it from other sciences but at the same time adds to its complexities.

Cultural evolution and social change . The subject of change was another of Thomas’ major concerns, for several reasons. From his early study of anthropology he had formed ideas of cultural evolution and of the different stages of culture, as pictured in prevailing unilinear theories. At the same time, he was confronted with the far-reaching social changes occurring around him: the rise of urbanism and mass migration and of the scientific and technical revolution that was affecting everything from food to transportation and communication. Both influences underlined the importance of studying the sources, processes, and consequences of change—especially if rational control of change were to become possible.

In an early work (1909) he rejected unilinear theories of cultural evolution as being too mechanical and simple; he also could not accept such particularistic concepts as the “imitation” of Gabriel Tarde or the “consciousness of kind” of Franklin H. Giddings. In their place he proposed more complex schemes, involving concepts of “control,” “habit,” “crisis,” and “attention.” Control is “the object, realized or unrealized, of all purposive activity” (1909, p. 13). Normally control is maintained by habit, but from time to time crises arise in social life, either in the form of completely new situations or of old situations on a different scale. Attention is then directed to alternative patterns and new solutions. Extraordinary individuals, building on existing techniques, become especially important in this process of change through adaptation.

During his study of the Polish peasant, Thomas became interested in the different rates of change manifested in different societies and the consequences thereof. In nonliterate and peasant societies, the slowness of the rate of change permits the incorporation of new elements into the existing cultural fabric, thereby preventing any widespread demoralization among the people. In modern society, however, change seems so rapid and complex that traditional social controls are steadily being weakened. Group solidarity is being fragmented, and behavior is becoming individualized. The primary group is being replaced by a differentiated mass society with different and conflicting definitions of situations.

To deal with these phenomena, Thomas and Znaniecki presented a new model of social change in The Polish Peasant. As a base line, there is an ideal type of “social organization” in which norms and behavior are generally congruent. In every group there are some deviations, either innovative or destructive, from the norms, but as long as these remain few and scattered, the validity of the norms themselves is not questioned; the group can handle the challenge of deviation through a process of “social reorganization,” which is essentially any collective response that reaffirms and reinforces existing norms and values. However, when deviations become frequent and widespread, even reaching the point of rebellion or revolt, the normal process of reorganization is inadequate; “social disorganization” has set in, either through the general acceptance of new norms and values by younger generations or through lack of consensus among adults or through combinations of both. This condition, which reflects a decrease in the influence of social norms, is characteristic of modern complex societies and requires nothing less than “social reconstruction,” or the creation of new codes and institutions better adapted to the changed conditions of life. In this process, creative individuals are once again assigned major leadership roles, to be guided perhaps by the fruits of successful social research.

Since change appeared to sociologists of Thomas’ generation to have gone beyond the point at which such concepts as social organization and reorganization could be effectively applied and since blueprints for a program of social reconstruction did not exist, sociological attention was focused on social disorganization. The phenomena of divorce, crime, delinquency, and mental illness were all studied intensively, and courses in social disorganization became standard offerings in most American colleges and universities. All too often, however, attention was concentrated on the pheno-typic elements, and the underlying genotypic processes of change were ignored. As a result, little progress has been made in recent decades toward more comprehensive theories of deviance or of social disorganization as a phase of massive social change. Thomas’ legacy, then, lies in formulating macro concepts of a distinctively sociological theory of change that may still warrant research which leads to more specific indicators and hypotheses.

Toward a social science . At the beginning of the twentieth century, the idea of a social science was weak and uncertain. Anthropology was largely dominated by concepts borrowed from biology and archeology; psychology was in its infancy; sociology was largely concerned with amelioration of social “problems” or the creation of vast intellectual systems; social psychology was just beginning to be talked about; and psychiatry was preoccupied with nosology and organic approaches to “insanity.” The principal science that seemed to offer any clues to understanding man and his behavior was biology and, understandably enough, many persons found it convenient to “reduce” social phenomena to biological terms. Only a few—Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Sumner, and, to some extent, Spencer—had managed to rise above the major presuppositions of the time. It is against such a background that Thomas’ contributions to the development of a truly social social science must be viewed.

As has been indicated, Thomas thought that the modern world was undergoing such rapid and far-flung change that it was becoming disorganized socially. The mutual dependence of the individual and the group that fostered stability in the primary groups of the past was being shattered by forces and pressures that seemed incomprehensible. “Common sense” explanations of the causes and trends of events were proving inadequate, as was the social control technique of “ordering and forbidding.” Thus, the great need was for a social science that would study, systematically and empirically, large classes of social events, with the intent of achieving explanatory principles that could then be applied to rational social control. This was Thomas’ vision in “The Persistence of Primary-group Norms” (1917) and in the famous “Methodological Note”; of The Polish Peasant (1918-1920).

Clearly, Thomas’ view was similar to the one developed by fimile Durkheim some twenty years earlier, for Durkheim was also concerned with problems of social integration and the development of a sociological science. The “social facts” which were the subject matter of Durkheim’s social science did not, however, include individual consciousness or subjective states, “facts” that Thomas considered to be of great importance. Thus, in The Polish Peasant, the “attitude-value” schema was introduced precisely for the purpose of studying the relationship between objective and subjective factors. The concept of a “value” in the schema is very similar to Durkheim’s concept of a “social fact” in that it is an objective datum. It is also similar to Thomas’ earlier concept of “control” in the sense that it is an object of activity. An “attitude” is a motivational element in individual consciousness, such as one of the postulated four wishes. Thus, Thomas regarded social theory and social science as primarily concerned with the interactions and combinations of social values with individual attitudes, because the “cause” of a social or individual phenomenon is never one of these alone but always a joint product. The intent here was to limit, at least abstractly, the number and kind of phenomena with which social science must deal, in order to increase the possibility of formulating a limited number of sociological laws. Indeed, the laws of “social becoming” can be discovered only by studying the interaction of values and attitudes as it has occurred through time in various societies.

The schema implied an endless series of empirical studies because the number of possible social values and individual attitudes is almost infinite; but such research would presumably result in a limited number of highly abstract laws, a conception that was clearly based upon the model of the more successful physical sciences of the time. In addition, since the greatest strides in these sciences had been made by men who were moved more by theoretical concerns than by the practical problems of the moment, such theoretical concerns should be primary for social scientists. In Thomas’ view, the major weakness of social science was that it lacked theory rooted firmly in systematic data: there was too much aimless empiricism on the one hand and grand conceptualizing on the other, with little relationship between them. Social scientists had to develop methods of investigation comparable to those of the natural sciences, linking concepts and hypotheses with measurable systematic observations and eliminating their reference to a particular social “problem.”

The attitude-value schema is now generally regarded as being oversimplified. Nevertheless, it was important at the time as an illustration of what is involved in theory building and of what social science might become—not only a theoretical science, but also one that in due course might find practical application.

In all his writings Thomas never deviated from his insistence that rigorous method lies at the heart of successful science. But some of his related views on social science were not so consistent. For example, in his later years he began to doubt that social science can discover “laws” in the same sense as physics and chemistry, for these sciences deal with relatively few variables; the properties of their phenomena do not change; and they can operate within closed systems. In social science, on the other hand, the variables are many; the properties of its phenomena (people) do change; and the systems of personality, society, and culture are open-ended. Thus he came to speak of probabilities and inferences rather than laws and at one point remarked that he did not believe in comparisons between physics and sociology. (For the evolution of Thomas’ ideas regarding science and method, see 1951, part 1.)

In his later works Thomas emphasized the advantages to social science that might result from taking a situational approach to behavior: “Individuals differentiated in what ways placed in what situations react in what patterns of behavior, and what behavioral changes follow what changes in situation?” (1951, p. 18). The task of the scientist is to describe the situation as accurately as possible in either experimental or field studies and then to observe the behavior in the situation of persons with specified characteristics. In this way systematic inferences can be drawn regarding the crucial variables intervening between stimulus and response. The use of control groups in research will also be facilitated.

Many of these ideas regarding social science and social research are now so firmly held and practiced that they are commonplace. But in the years between the two great wars, they required a spokesman, an advocate, and a demonstrator— roles that Thomas filled with distinction.

In several ways Thomas was one of the most influential social scientists of the century. During his years at the University of Chicago he helped

to train a number of young sociologists and social psychologists who, in turn, occupied faculty positions in many universities. Together with his colleagues at Chicago he formed a graduate department which, in terms of quantity and quality of graduate students and scholarly production, dominated American sociology for several decades. He helped to lead sociologists out of the armchair and into the field and the laboratory by establishing the tradition of empirical research for doctoral degrees in sociology. The many concepts he fashioned found their way into textbook after textbook and into the classrooms, thereby influencing generations of younger sociologists. His pioneering memorandum on research in culture and personality influenced the later course of the Social Science Research Council and the work of other scholars in the field.

Moreover, he placed social science in the context of modern times, giving due weight to theory and fundamental research but also insisting that the ultimate test of a science must lie in its fruitful application to practical problems. His own keen insights led to a wealth of concepts that not only illuminated specific areas but also possessed more generalized theoretical power. He anticipated and contributed to the formation of a number of current issues in theory and research. His contributions have become a respected part of the culture of modern social science, and we are all, in one way or another, intellectually indebted to him.

E. H. Volkart

[For the historical context of Thomas’ work, see the biographies ofcooley; durkheim; park; sumner; znaniecki. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seecreativity, article onsocial aspects; deviant behavior; observation; values.]


1907 Sex and Society: Studies in the Social Psychology of Sex. Univ. of Chicago Press.

(1909) 1920 Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society. 6th ed. Boston: Badger.

1917 The Persistence of Primary-group Norms in Present-day Society and Their Influence in Our Educational System. Pages 159-197 in Suggestions of Modern Science Concerning Education, by Herbert S. Jennings et al. New York: Macmillan.

(1918-1920) 1958 Thomas, W. I.; and Znaniecki, Flor-IanThe Polish Peasant in Europe and America. 2 vols. 2d ed. New York: Dover.

1921 Old World Traits Transplanted, by Robert E. Park and Herbert A. Miller. New York: Harper. -* Circumstances made it impossible for this work to be published under Thomas’ name.

(1923) 1964 The Unadjusted Girl: With Cases and Standpoint for Behavior Analysis. Boston: Little.

1927 The Behavior Pattern and the Situation. American Sociological Society, Publications 22:1-13.

1928 The Configurations of Personality. Pages 143-177 in The Unconscious: A Symposium, by C. M. Child et al. New York: Knopf.

1928 Thomas, W. I.; and Thomas, Dorothy S. The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs. New York: Knopf.

1937 Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences. New York: McGraw-Hill.

1951 Social Behavior and Personality: Contributions of W. I. Thomas to Theory and Social Research. Edited by Edmund H. Volkart. New York: Social Science Research Council.

On Social Organization and Social Personality: Selected Papers. Edited and with an introduction by Morris Janowitz. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966.


Blumer, Herbert 1939 An Appraisal of Thomas and Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. New York: Social Science Research Council.

Hinkle, Gisela J. 1952 The “Four Wishes” in Thomas’ Theory of Social Change. Social Research 19:464-484.

Janowitz, Morris 1966 Introduction. In W. I. Thomas, W. I. Thomas on Social Organization and Social Personality. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Volkart, E. H. 1953 Aspects of the Theories of W. I. Thomas. Social Research 20:345-357.

Young, Kimball 1963 The Contribution of William Isaac Thomas to Sociology. Unpublished manuscript. -” Distributed by Student Book Exchange, 1737 Sherman Ave., Evanston, Ill.