Review of W. I. Thomas on Social Organization and Social Personality by Morris Janowitz

Herbert Blumer
University of California, Berkeley

W. I. Thomas on Social Organization and Social Personality, edited by MORRIS JANOWITZ. Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press, 1966. 311 pp. Clothbound, $7.50. Paperbound, $2.95.

W. I. Thomas is justly regarded as one of the grand figures in the history of sociology, yet his work and thought have not received the kind of study they deserve. His writings have been perused but not pondered, i.e., they have been read to get his definitions and the outline of his ideas, but not to reflect on the major problem of trying to apply them to a recalcitrant subject matter. This restricted sensitivity has curtailed the significant benefits that can be reaped from a studious examination of his writings. The present volume by Janowitz should be welcomed in the hope that it will stimulate renewed interest in the examination of an inadequately mined body of sociological thought.

Janowitz has brought together sixteen selections from Thomas' writings and has prefaced them with a lengthy introductory essay of his own. The sixteen selections are excellent. They give a good picture of the range of Thomas' thought and the major matter of his scholarly concern. Readers who lack time or facilities to consult the bulk of Thomas' original writings will find this a very usable account of their essential nature.

My interest lies in Janowitz' Introduction. It contains an informative biographical sketch of Thomas, a short section on his intellectual development, and an extended critical evaluation of Thomas' thought. Janowitz gives his interpretation and appraisal of Thomas' views on sociology and social psychology, social organization, social personality, social change, and methodology and methods of study. This depiction of Thomas' thought is ably done and the critical comments are reasonable. It is true that Janowitz eyes Thomas' thought from a conventional current perspective some three decades removed from the man and his thought. This leads to occasional questionable interpretations, such as the assertion that Thomas "posed evaluative questions concerning social organization and social personality for social research . . . in a fashion which is completely compatible with contemporary functional analysis" (p. xxxiv). But such dubious interpretations are of minor significance.

The major misgiving I have regarding Janowitz' treatment is his failure to discern and discuss the central dilemma that runs as a continuous strand through the work of Thomas, namely, how to nail down the respective natures of social organization and personal organization and to establish their relationship. Thomas recognized correctly that this is the central theoretical task of sociology and was continuously pre-occupied with its execution. More than any other sociologist I know of, he sought to grapple with the problem by close and studious examination of intimate accounts of human experience and group action—the only points at which social

(551) organization and personal organization come together in direct empirical expression. Yet, de-spite his extensive and excellent empirical observations, his superb social insight, and his fecundity in reflection, he was never able to achieve a satisfactory solution to the problem and wavered back and forth from one mode of attack to another in the course of his studies and his writings. This shifting of posture can be seen in a number of ways. At times Thomas located social organization in social rules or social values; at other times, especially in the later part of his career, he placed it in situational components. On some occasions he lodged social personality in basic wishes; on other occasions in schemes of life organization and types of character. Above all, he was never able to resolve the problem of the relation between social organization and personal organization, irrespective of his definition of each at a given time. In the main, he, like the bulk of contemporary sociologists, treated social organization and personal organization as disparate items involved in interaction, as is seen in his rather fantastic effort to develop laws of social be-coming out of the interaction of attitudes and values. In turn, this approach was pushed aside by his highly fertile notion that the "definition of the situation" constitutes the crucial process in social action. This process of defining the situation could not be squeezed into either personal organization or social organization, or into any combination of the two; it stands apart from a treatment of personal organization and social organization as two separate variables.

One misses the significance of Thomas' work if one ignores this shifting of the way Thomas viewed social organization and social personality and their interrelation. The shifting should not be regarded as mere intellectual inconsistency or, what is worse, taken as grounds for treating Thomas' thought lightly. To the contrary, the shifting should be seen as the outcome of the honest efforts of a highly gifted and sensitive research scholar to come to theoretical grips with the naturalistic world of human experience and group action—an empirical world which Thomas studied with an intensity and care far beyond that of any other sociologist. Sociologists should ask why Thomas was led to shift his scheme of social organization and personal organization as he addressed one or another area of group life, and why he was never able to settle on an ultimate and consistent scheme. The study and pondering of this question, using the abundant empirical data contained in Thomas' writings, would lead sociologists to the theoretical heart of their enterprise. It would force them to come to terms with the nature of social action, which is the only place where valid conceptions of social organization and personal organization can be reached. It is unfortunate that Janowitz—in his otherwise able, if conventional, treatment—has failed to perceive this dimension of value in Thomas' thought.


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