William Isaac Thomas (August 13, 1863 – December 5, 1947), was an American sociologist, noted for his pioneering work on the sociology of human migration with his studies of Polish immigrants in Chicago. His fields of study included personality development and cultural change, providing the foundation for cultural psychology.
He co-operated with Florian Znaniecki on the formulation of what became known as the Thomas theorem, a fundamental law of sociology, namely that "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." He was also instrumental, with Znaniecki, in introducing the use of written biographical material as the source of data for sociological study. While his personal life caused him difficulties, and loss of recognition and position in the academic community, his work remains his lasting legacy and a valuable contribution to the social sciences and our understanding of culture and ethnicity.
William Isaac Thomas was born on August 13, 1863 in Russell County, Virginia, the son of a Methodist minister of Pennsylvania Dutch descent. His family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, the seat of the University of Tennessee, when he was a boy, because his father wanted to improve the educational prospects for his seven children.
From 1880, Thomas studied literature and classics at the University of Tennessee, where he obtained a B.A. degree in 1884. He became adjunct professor in English and Modern Languages there. He also taught courses in Greek, Latin, French, German, and natural history. At the same time, he developed an interest in ethnology and social science, reading Herbert Spencer's Principles of Sociology. In 1888, Thomas married Harriet Park.
In 1888/1889, Thomas went to Germany to further his studies. He attended Humboldt University in Berlin and Georg August University of Göttingen. There he also furthered his interest in ethnology and sociology under the influence of German scholars such as Wilhelm Wundt.
Upon his return to the United States in 1889, he taught as professor of English and, from 1894, professor of sociology at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Having been invited to teach a class in sociology at the University of Chicago in 1894, he moved there permanently the following year and pursued graduate studies in sociology and anthropology at the newly-founded department of sociology. He obtained his Ph.D. in 1896, with a dissertation entitled On a Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes.
For the next almost 25 years, Thomas taught sociology and, to a lesser extent, anthropology at the University of Chicago, becoming instructor in 1895, assistant professor in 1896, associate professor in 1900, and eventually full professor in 1910. From 1895 until 1917, he also co-edited the American Journal of Sociology.
In 1908, he received a substantial grant from Helen Culver to finance his research on the life and culture of immigrants to the U.S. Managing the Helen Culver fund until 1918 enabled him to undertake several journeys to Europe in order to study the background of East European immigrant groups.
Thomas led a "bohemian" life, was often seen in the Chicago art scene, and made no secret to his being attracted to women. His lifestyle did not conform to the image of a respectable professor and made him a controversial figure among his colleagues. In 1918, the FBI arrested Thomas under the Mann Act, which prohibits "interstate transport of females for immoral purposes," while in the company of one Mrs. Granger, the wife of an army officer with the American forces in France. Some speculate that Thomas' arrest was an intrigue schemed by the FBI, which at that time was observing his wife Harriet for her pacifist activities. Although Thomas was acquitted of the charge in court, his career was irreversibly damaged. The university immediately dismissed him, and the Chicago University Press, which had already published the first two volumes of his The Polish Peasant, quit the contract, so that the remaining three volumes had to be published by a Boston publisher.
After the scandal, Thomas withdrew to New York City. He never managed to obtain a tenured position again. From 1923 to 1928, he lectured at the New School for Social Research. Incidentally, Thorstein Veblen, who had co-founded the school in 1919, had fallen from grace with the academic establishment for similar reasons. In 1927, Thomas was made president of the American Sociological Association, thanks to the support of a younger generation of scholars. This was, however, a purely honorary position for one year which did not restore Thomas' official career.
In 1935, after his divorce from Harriet Park, Thomas married Dorothy Swaine, 36 years his junior. In 1936, Pitirim A. Sorokin, chairman of the department of sociology at Harvard University, invited Thomas as visiting lecturer, and Thomas lectured there until 1937. After that, Thomas gradually withdrew into retirement in New Haven, then New York, and finally Berkeley, California, where he died in 1947.
In 1907, Thomas published his first major work, Sex and Society. In spite of showing biological bias that would today be considered sexist (such as "Anthropologists ... regard women as intermediate between the child and the man") it was a progressive publication considering the intellectual setting of its time. In particular, he fervently called for an end the subjection of women in society, speculating that whether women's "capacity for intellectual work is not under equal conditions greater than in man" due to the "superior cunning" and "superior endurance of women."
Thomas remains famous for his research on immigrants. At the time, considerable attention was given to the problem of immigrant assimilation, and Thomas received a grant from Helen Culver to study the background of this problem. Initially planning to study several nationalities, he stripped his research project down to Polish immigrants, who formed the most visible ethnic community in Chicago. For this purpose, he studied the Polish language, established contacts within Chicago's Polish community, and undertook field trips to Poland.
At first, Thomas employed methods of field observation that ethnographers had originally developed to study non-literal societies. According to an anecdote told by Thomas himself, it was a complete accident that inspired him to use personal written material as an ethnographic source and to develop the biographic approach, which would later establish his lasting reputation in sociology. While walking down a street near his home in Chicago, Thomas was almost hit by a garbage bag which had been thrown out of a window. The bag burst open and Thomas discovered a letter in it, which he picked up to discover it was written by a Polish woman immigrant.
He spent the next years collecting both oral reports and written materials in the Chicago Polish community and its country of origin. He utilized a variety of documents ranging from newspaper reports, archives of organizations, to personal letters and diaries, which he acquired by placing advertisements in the Chicago Polish-language press—offering 10 to 20 cents per letter sent from Poland.
In 1913, during one of his journeys to Poland, Thomas met the Polish sociologist Florian Znaniecki, who became Thomas's co-author on their monumental work The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920). Lewis Coser called this "the earliest major landmark of American sociological research." In it, Thomas and Znaniecki put forward a biographical approach to understanding culture in general which remained influential until this day, as well as an approach to understanding ethnicity in particular. In many respects this work was ahead of its time, but it is currently being rediscovered in the context of transnational studies in migration.
In The Polish Peasant, Thomas described the difficult situation in Poland, and the reasons why many immigrants decide to come to America. As families try to adjust to a new life, they encounter numerous problems. Among others, the immigrants face new values, with individualism as the most exalted one. The clash soon arises between parents, who try to keep their traditional values and close family ties, and their children who grow up in a new environment. “Children brought with the family or added to it in America do not acquire the traditional attitude of familial solidarity, but rather American individualistic ideals, while the parents remain unchanged” (Thomas and Znaniecki 1958, 104).
In The Unadjusted Girl (1923) Thomas developed the concept of the "definition of the situation":
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. ... [This is always subject to] 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 (Thomas 1923).
In another words, people do not respond always to a situation based on objective features of the situation, but also based on the subjective meaning that situation has for them. Once they assign certain meaning to the situation, all their following behaviors are shaped by that meaning.
A 1928 book on The Child in America, co-authored with his research assistant Dorothy Swaine (later his wife), contains the sentence which—although some consider it a truism—would go on to become famous as the Thomas theorem:
If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences (Thomas and Thomas 1928, 572).
Thomas was a pioneer of a psychological approach to social phenomena, and thus can be regarded, together with William Graham Sumner and Wilhelm Wundt, as a forerunner of cultural psychology. His The Polish Peasant was an important landmark in American sociological research. He used biographic data—personal letters, autobiographies, diaries, and other personal documents—developing the life-history method for which he became famous.
Along with the ideas of George Herbert Mead, Thomas' concept of the "definition of the situation" later proved to be an important starting point for the revolution of symbolic interactionism against structural functionalism.
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