Delve into the life and intellectual journey of William Isaac Thomas, the American sociologist who shaped symbolic interactionism. Uncover his impact on sociology, challenges faced, and enduring legacy.
William Isaac Thomas (August 13, 1863 – December 5, 1947) was a prominent American sociologist, widely recognized as a key figure in the development of the theory of symbolic interactionism.
In collaboration with Polish sociologist Florian Znaniecki, Thomas played a crucial role in advancing the use of empirical methodologies in sociological research. Their collaborative efforts also yielded significant contributions to the sociology of migration. Thomas went on to articulate a fundamental principle in sociology, now known as the Thomas theorem (or Thomas dictum). According to this principle, he argued that “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” This microsociological concept laid the groundwork for the field of symbolic interactionism, which was further developed by Thomas’s younger peers, primarily at the University of Chicago. His lasting impact on sociological thought continues to influence the study of human interaction and social behavior.
Personal Life: William Isaac Thomas was born on a farm in the Elk Garden section of Russell County, Virginia, on August 13, 1863. His parents were Thaddeus Peter Thomas, a Methodist minister of Pennsylvania Dutch descent, and Sarah Price Thomas. Seeking better educational opportunities, Thomas’s father relocated the family to Knoxville, the home of the University of Tennessee, during Thomas’s childhood.
In 1888, Thomas entered into his first marriage with Harriet Park. After their divorce in 1935, he married Dorothy Swaine Thomas, who was 36 years his junior. Dorothy not only served as his research assistant and co-author but also went on to become the first woman president of the American Sociological Association in 1952, following William’s presidency in 1927.
After concluding his tenure as a lecturer at Harvard, Thomas gradually embraced retirement, spending his time in New York City and New Haven. He passed away on December 5, 1947, at the age of 84 in Berkeley, California. His final resting place is at Old Gray Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Education: William Isaac Thomas commenced his academic journey in 1880, studying literature and classics at the University of Tennessee, where he earned a B.A. degree in 1884. He became an Adjunct Professor in English and Modern Languages. During this period, Thomas taught various courses in Greek, Latin, French, German, and Natural history. His interest in ethnology and social science grew after reading Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Sociology.
From 1888 to 1889, Thomas pursued studies in classic and modern languages at the German universities of Berlin and Göttingen. His time in Germany deepened his interest in ethnology and sociology, influenced by scholars like Wilhelm Wundt.
Upon returning to the United States in 1889, Thomas taught at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, from 1889 to 1895, initially as a professor of English and later in sociology.
In 1894, he was invited to teach sociology at the University of Chicago, known for its pioneering sociology department. Thomas permanently relocated to the University of Chicago the following year, engaging in graduate studies in sociology and anthropology. He completed his Ph.D. thesis, “On a Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes,” in 1896. Subsequently, Thomas returned to Europe to conduct field studies on various ethnic and cultural problems, although he never completed his planned comparative work on European nationalities.
University of Chicago: William Isaac Thomas dedicated nearly 25 years to teaching sociology and anthropology at the University of Chicago, progressing from instructor in 1895 to assistant professor in 1896, associate professor in 1900, and ultimately achieving the position of professor in 1910. During the period from 1895 to 1917, he co-edited the American Journal of Sociology.
In 1907, Thomas made a significant contribution with his book “Sex and Society.” While the work exhibited a biological bias that may be viewed as sexist today, it was considered progressive for its time. Thomas speculated on the potential intellectual superiority of women, attributing it to their “superior cunning” and “superior endurance.”
From 1908 to 1918, Thomas conducted research and initiated collaboration with Florian Znaniecki in 1913 on “The Polish Peasant in Europe and America.” This groundbreaking work employed an empirical methodological framework and introduced concepts like Social Organization/Disorganization.
However, in 1918, Thomas faced scandal and arrest due to his involvement with the wife of a U.S. army officer. Although charges under the Mann Act were dropped, the incident tarnished his moral and academic reputation. The University of Chicago dismissed him before the trial reached a verdict.
Post-Scandal: Following the scandal, Thomas relocated to New York City and struggled to secure a tenured position. From 1923 to 1928, he lectured at the New School for Social Research, an institution sympathetic to individuals facing academic challenges, having been co-founded by Thorstein Veblen, who faced similar issues.
In 1923, Thomas published “The Unadjusted Girl,” his first work under his name since the scandal. The book examined female delinquency, emphasizing transactional and casual sex, through the lens of socialization and the impact of societal influences on behavior, introducing an early application of the Thomas theorem.
Elected president of the American Sociological Society (now the American Sociological Association) in 1927, Thomas was part of the earlier psychological school of sociologists. In 1928, he co-authored “The Child in America” with research assistant Dorothy Swaine Thomas, exploring how communal expectations influenced children’s behavior. This marked the first verbatim use of the Thomas theorem.
In 1936, Pitirim A. Sorokin, chair of the sociology department at Harvard University, invited Thomas to be a visiting lecturer, a position he held until 1937.
Theory and Research
Career and Research Focus:
Although William Isaac Thomas initially concentrated on ethnography and macro-sociological studies, his career trajectory led him to delve deeper into micro-sociology. In articulating his interests, Thomas highlighted the sociopsychological aspects of culture history, emphasizing social psychology concerning races, nationalities, classes, and interest groups. His focus extended to personality development in normal, criminal, and psychopathic individuals within cultural contexts. Expressing dissatisfaction with conventional sociology teachings, Thomas cited marginal fields as his primary interest, deviating from the historical and methodological approach prevalent at the time.
Social Research and Migration Studies:
In 1908, Thomas received a substantial grant from the Helen Culver Fund for Race Psychology, propelling him into extensive research on the life and culture of immigrants. Over the next decade, he undertook journeys to Europe, concentrating on East European immigrant groups, particularly those from Poland in Chicago. Considered a pioneer in the biographical approach to social research and migration studies, Thomas collected oral and written reports, employing personal materials as primary ethnographic sources. This innovative empirical approach marked an early application of ethnography in sociology.
The Polish Peasant in Europe and America:
During his travels to Poland in 1913, Thomas collaborated with Polish sociologist Florian Witold Znaniecki, resulting in their seminal work, “The Polish Peasant in Europe and America” (1918–1919). This monumental contribution employed a biographical approach to understand culture and ethnicity, offering insights ahead of its time. Their analysis revealed conclusions now considered common knowledge, such as the impact of urbanization on shared fate and the creation of new identities.
Thomas Theorem and Definition of the Situation:
Thomas’s enduring influence on sociology is encapsulated in the Thomas theorem, famously stated as: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” This concept emerged in his 1928 book, “The Child in America,” co-authored with Dorothy Swaine Thomas. The work explored how communal expectations influenced children’s behavior and introduced the concept of the definition of the situation. According to this idea, individuals interpret and deliberate on occurrences before acting, and their subjective definitions dictate their behavior and consequences. This concept became integral to social constructionism and symbolic interactionism, challenging structural functionalism.
Thomas acknowledged the role of societal institutions, such as the family, in shaping personal definitions. Additionally, he proposed the notion of “spontaneous” changes in personal definitions through negotiation and context. This idea faced contention from some sociologists who argued for the role of obedience to evolving rules and expectations in driving shifts in personal definitions over time.
Despite the acclaim garnered from “The Polish Peasant,” William Isaac Thomas faced significant challenges to both his academic and non-academic reputation, particularly within the conservative Chicago establishment.
1. Left-wing Political Opinions:
Thomas’s left-wing political views on the causes of crime drew critical attention. In his study of delinquency in Chicago’s Polish immigrant community, he approached the issue pragmatically rather than morally. This departure from conventional perspectives raised eyebrows and attracted scrutiny from conservative circles.
2. Controversial Research Topics:
Certain topics in Thomas’s research, notably sexual behavior, were considered controversial for the time. Thomas remained outspoken about his research, prompting the university to demand clarifications and apologies to the press. His unapologetic approach to sensitive subjects further contributed to the precarious nature of his reputation.
3. Unconventional Lifestyle:
Thomas led an individualistic and unconventional lifestyle, challenging the norms of his era. His lifestyle did not align with the prevailing image of a respectable professor, leading to questions about his morals and sparking controversy among his colleagues.
Legal Troubles and Repercussions:
In 1918, the FBI arrested Thomas under the Mann Act, which prohibits the “interstate transport of females for immoral purposes.” The arrest occurred while he was in the company of Mrs. Granger, the wife of an army officer. Some suggest that the arrest was orchestrated to discredit Thomas’s wife, a pacifist activist. Although the case was dismissed, Thomas’s career suffered irreparable damage. The conservative leadership, headed by Harry Pratt Judson, at the University of Chicago dismissed him without waiting for the trial’s outcome, and little protest came from his colleagues.
Following his dismissal, the University of Chicago Press, acting under Judson’s orders, terminated its contract with Thomas, including ceasing distribution of the first two volumes of “The Polish Peasant.” Thomas managed to publish the entire work in Boston through Richard G. Badger. The Carnegie Corporation of New York, which had commissioned Thomas to write a volume for its “Americanization” series, refused to publish it under his name. Instead, in 1921, “Old World Traits Transplanted” appeared under the names of Robert E. Park and Herbert A. Miller. The true authorship was not officially credited to Thomas until 1951, when a committee of the Social Science Research Council rectified the attribution and reissued the book under Thomas’s actual name.