W. I. Thomas and Social Origins

Emory S. Bogardus
University of Southern California

From the standpoint of the history of sociological thought in the United States, I have made a sampling of my notes taken in the class in Social Origins given by William I. Thomas at the University of Chicago during the academic year of 1909-10. This paper is no attempt to repeat those notes either in whole or in part except to illustrate the general trend of the lecturer's thinking regarding social origins.

Thomas' former students know that he rarely indulged in statistics, but sought to present the inner meanings of events from the standpoint of the participants in these events as disclosed by the participants' behavior. He perceived evolutionary trends in the development of culture and in the ability of primitive people to develop step by step, building new behavior patterns on the basis of antecedent patterns and insights. The method could be called sociopsychological. There was some organization around specific subtopics of "social origins," but no general system of thought was attempted.

There was, however, a definite point of view or approach, which might be labeled socioevolutionary. There was a comparative method, comparing what was with what later developed. There was a type of case analysis of one social situation after another, drawn from a large amount of data which Thomas was in a continual process of accumulating and having typed on slips of paper of different colors about four by six inches in size (these slips of paper were cut in terms of centimeters and were carried in a wallet of appropriate size). He continually referred to this storehouse of materials which he could easily organize and reorganize, for he recorded only one item on each slip of paper.

The notes on which this article is based were taken in long hand and hence are not always complete, even though the lecturer spoke slowly (in contrast with the rapid-fire method of George E. Vincent, who was also a member at that time of the sociology staff of the University of Chicago). Some of the ideas which are quoted here are extracted from what is at times an extended context, but the writer has been careful to quote only those ideas which can stand by themselves without being misunderstood by thoughtful readers.

An appropriate and available context for the ideas quoted in this paper is Thomas' Source Book for Social Origins, [1] published in the fall of

( 366) 1909 when the course was being given. During this time the writer's notes were taken. On the title page of this 932-page book on social origins appears a significant quotation: "In good faith my masters, this is no door. Yet it is a little window that looketh upon a great world" (quoted in Risley, The People of India, title page). Through little windows that Thomas opened four days a week, his students, who in the particular course given in 1909-10 included, besides the writer, Ernest IV. Burgess, Luther L. Bernard, and others, obtained meaningful glimpses of the world of primitive men and women.

The socioevolutionary view was presented at the very beginning of the course of study. It was explained that there are three stages involved in this view, namely, the prehuman, the postanimal and prewhite civilization, and the civilization stages. Although the discussion of social origins centered in the prewhite civilization stage, references were made from time to time related to prehuman origins and also to current expressions of the prewhite civilization culture patterns.

It was noted, for example, that animals post sentinels and have leaders, usually the best and strongest fighters. They drive the ill-dispositioned members out of the group and maintain a kind of "group morality." Warm-blooded animals with lungs develop squeak-squeak sounds, the predecessors of vocal language. Chicks learn to run from shadows, and thus the survival of the fittest runners begins. Animals have no conception of danger but are "built up to avoid it."

The subject of social origins was related chiefly to living and extinct primitive peoples. The former were described as a kind of "delayed ancestors," or people who have not had the same opportunities as other people to develop. The chief difference between primitives and civilized peoples is "cultural, not biological." However, Thomas pointed out that social origins are not confined to the lives of primitive people. They occur at every stage of social life and they are occurring today.

Social change is and has been going on continually since the advent of man on earth. To primitive people change seemed to be beyond their control. It vas inevitable. It was very real and the problem was how to meet it. Wherever it ran counter to established habits of the individuals, "change was met by a maximum of resistance." When times were bad, change was welcome. Hence primitive people on the one hand "were afraid of change" (because of its defiance of habit), and on the other hand they "prized it highly" (when it might bring better times). Even today great change takes place from generation to generation, for "the books of your father you keep for affection."

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A few glimpses will now be given of Thomas' approach to such topics as origins of intelligence, of invention, of language, of emotions, of personal control, and of social control.

Origins of Intelligence. A few examples of Thomas' interpretation of how intelligence began and developed as a result of various kinds of stimuli will indicate his unique way of interpreting social origins. Since these statements are largely self-explanatory, they will not be prefaced or followed by comments:

The head of an animal goes first, not because it is the head, but because that which started first became the head. It got a head start.

The head got heavy and so man stood up; this rising to stand was man's grandest stand in life. It released his fore feet for all kinds of useful activities.

The erect posture came rather late, for nature didn't think of it at first.

The revolution of the seasons develops a series of pushes to get things done.

Mind is made up of pursuing and escaping. You can't have a high state of mind in a low state of society.

Occupations represent the modes in which mind expresses itself. Specialization of occupation is an important mode of developing mind.

Primitive religion illustrates the logical process of mind working illogically.

Of Invention. The origins of invention are aspects of intelligence. Thomas had a great deal to suggest on this theme, and his incisive observations had a far-reaching significance for social evolution. He often left his students to furnish connecting links in their thinking about evolutionary processes.

Invention starts from an accidental discovery and involves abstraction.

The sword is a long, piercing tooth.

The spear is a longer, piercing tooth.

The arrow (and bow) is a still longer, piercing tooth. The rifle pierces much farther.

Explosives multiply the piercing process at multiplied distances.

Man has kept adding handles to the killing instruments. In that way he has secured greater force. At the same time he has been able to kill at greater and greater distances.

Specialization may stimulate invention or it may deaden invention, especially when it takes nine men to make a pin, for the making of one ninth of a pin is not very stimulating.

Invention is a pacemaker—everyone catches up after a time.

Of Language. Thomas recognized the role of language as an expression of intelligence, as consisting of inventions, and as a form of communication. He pointed out some of the origins of meaning that are found in behavior and in gestures which may be "truncated acts" (Mead).

Bowing the head is a diminished approach.

"Yes" involves shaking the head, and rigidity.

Tithes developed by counting on the hands.

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Group life is regulated by signals.

In certain remote regions distance is signified by two "whoops" and a "holler" (half a "whoop").

Language is a social control instrument, for through it traditions, knowledge, standpoints are passed along and increased.

Of Emotions. The origins of emotions are deep-seated and difficult to locate. They are related to favorable and unfavorable environmental experiences. They are widespread uniformities in their origins relating to the individual's gains and losses or anticipated gains and losses or imagined gains and losses.

The yelp of a dog at not being allowed to join in a hunt indicates a breaking of the emotions.

Primitive man away from home may die of homesickness because of the disrupting of so many of his habits.

Romantic affection is based partly on newness.

Temperament varies more than mind; emotionally you are not separable from your surroundings.

Primitive man's literature emphasizes emotions, not intelligence. Emotions are bases of religion and the arts.

Of Races. The inherited mind of the different races is about the same. Racial differences, according to Thomas, are largely related to culture differences. The differences between the members of a race may be greater than differences between races. Racial prejudices are acquired or learned by each individual in his lifetime.

Our ancestors were once "savages."

The African black thinks that the first white man that he sees is frightfully anemic and to be pitied.

The favored color by primitive colored people is a chocolate brown.

The native African prefers a snug well-fitting nose. He deplores a beaklike projecting nose.

No Negro has ever been raised from birth as a white child in a white family.

The Oriental is more filial than the Occidental.

The time may come when all the world may be of a chocolate color, but what difference will that make?

Of Personal Control. Personal control begins in the arousing of inner processes by stimuli from surroundings. It has emotional aspects and is represented in habits. It is motivated by attention. It is broken in crises and made over by crises.

The control of life is a matter of personal attention.

Attention is both inhibited and freed by habit.

Attention is aroused by crises.

Animals bave no conception of danger except as they are built up by experience to avoid it.

A trained tiger has a terrible history, for he has been trained to inhibit by punishment.

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Ornaments were worn first, then clothing, that is, you get something on that will attract attention to yourself.

It is dangerous suddenly to break habits without first having developed a technique of inner control.

The "gaming instinct" means that everything takes on a plan of personal pursuit. Obtaining personal control is the object of actions that have a purpose.

Of Social Control. While social control and personal control are partially inseparable, the former reaches into the field of social justice, morality, and religion. It includes a responsibility for social well-being and it may reach beyond mundane forces. It has many practical facets; in fact, social control among primitives arose out of personal and group needs.

Among primitives one may not marry inside certain limits (the clan), and one must marry inside certain larger limits (the race).

In primitive times a man was forced to settle in his wife's home; a woman was not allowed to follow a man and settle in his home. Mind is the only instrument necessary to control the world.

The problem of society is how to get the individual to assume responsibility for the welfare of others as well as for his own. If all persons were Jane Addamses, then there would be no need for government's heavy hand in social control.

"Justice" is often a case of clever lawyers (you never can tell what will be sprung in a given legal case).

Nobody gets up a code of morals; codes grow out of the stresses of group life; morality is a growth; morality grows out of social activities.

Cannibalism was rooted out because groups could not afford to lose their members. Religion among primitive people was an attempt at control by making alliances with superhuman spirits, who must exist because things happen which no man does; in seeking causes primitive man was forced to believe in other spirits.

In conclusion, a reference may be made to Thomas' subtle sense of humor which cropped out in class lectures most unexpectedly. It was friendly, never sarcastic. It was pointed, but never punishing. It was polite, but its meaning was clear, e.g., "I courteously assume that most of you know all about the theory of evolution, but I presume that most of you do not," or "I don't let anyone sleep in this class except visitors." He often put over his point by startling and sweeping contrasts in ideas: "I'll think of the answer to your question in a moment, but in the meanwhile I don't know anything either."


  1. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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