William Isaac Thomas

Ellsworth Faris

William Isaac Thomas was born in a rural county of Virginia on August 13, 1863. He was a student at the University of Tennessee, receiving the bachelor's degree in 1884, and was an instructor in English and modern languages at that institution for four years, after which he spent a year in Germany at the universities of Berlin and Göttingen. In 1889 he became professor of English at Oberlin College, where he remained for six years. In 1896 he received his doctor's degree in sociology at the University of Chicago, was appointed instructor in 1897, and advanced through the academic ranks to professor from 1910 to 1918. He was also lecturer in the New School for Social Research from 1923 to 1928, and at Harvard University for the academic year of 1936-37. He was in charge of the Helen Culver fund for the study of race psychology from 1908 to 1918. He was a member of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences and was president of the American Sociological Society in 1927. He wrote the following books: Sex and Society, 1907; Social Origins, 1909; Standpoint for Race Psychology, 1912; an important chapter in a cooperative volume: Suggestions of Modern Science Concerning Education, 1914; The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (with Znaniecki, 1918-21) ; The Unadjusted Girl, 1923; The Child in America, 1928; Primitive Behavior, 1936.

The above facts, taken from the sketch he wrote for Who's Who in America, show that his activities were entirely in the field of teaching and scholarly production. There was one more book on which he had been working for years, about which he spoke to me when he and Mrs. Thomas were week-end guests at my home during his last visit to Chicago. It was to be a book on the Jew, a subject which rarely receives objective treatment. He had been disappointed at the refusal of the editors of the New York Yiddish paper Forward to allow him access to the files for the purpose of gathering material. He referred to this refusal without resentment,

( 755) understanding the real reasons for the action. But had he lived to complete that book he would probably have started work on another one, and it would have been coincidental had his life and his book been finished at the same time. He died on December 5, 1947, in the eighty-fifth year of his life.

Thomas was not one of the founders of American sociology. He belonged to the second generation, but of these he was almost the first born. The founding fathers men like Ward, Sumner, Small, and Giddings --- had to dig the foundations ; it was the more congenial task of Thomas and his contemporaries to hew the stones and lay them on the walls of the structure.

These first American sociologists had written philosophical tomes and made extravagant claims which aroused no little resentment in their colleagues and which were toned down in the course of time, from the claim that sociology was the queen of the sciences to the admission that it was only one of the younger sisters.

When Thomas began his productive work, it was apparent that it was no longer profitable to continue the logomachies by making more and more abstract generalizations taking issue with the generalizations of others. The need now was for a program of empirical investigation of the concrete facts of human life, in the expectation that synthesis and generalization, when they did appear, would be more firmly grounded. The facts were not to be mere collections like those of the ant, but organized into a creative structure, following the example of the bee, as Bacon had advised.

Sex and Society, his first book, was based on a soon-to-be discredited theory and was promptly forgotten, but two years later Social Origins was published. And this was a notable contribution, providing at an opportune time a satisfying answer to an important and insistent question. The theory of specific human instincts which had held the field for thirty years had broken down, and John Dewey had eventually given it the coup de grace, showing that, instead of the instincts giving rise to the institutions of society, the opposite is true, and that it is the institutions which give rise to whatever we like to call instincts. The army makes soldiers, the Methodist church makes Methodists, Mohammedanism creates Mohammedans, morals arise from customs that are non-moral and art from activities that are not-art.

At this point the bright student on the second row raises his hand to ask, "If the institutions of men produce our so-called instincts, what causes the institutions?" The point is well taken and the question is in order. The

( 757) answer was in the book on Social Origins. Relying on historical documents and accounts of the life of aboriginal tribes, Thomas explored the origin of Morals, of Art, the Family, Religion, the State, and the rest. It was not possible to find accurate conclusions concerning the ultimate origin of all or even most of these, but it became clear that the answers could be found if only we had access to all the facts we desired. It was less important to find the exact origin of one or the other institution than to realize that such a beginning did exist and that much of the development can he traced.

When I succeeded to the chair that Thomas had occupied, one of the courses I continued was this one on Social Origins, and it was largely attended for the whole of my twenty years. I know of no better way to break through the provincialism and ethnocentric narrowness of the undergraduate student than to expose him to this material. A detached, objective, unemotional, scientific attitude is essential for the successful study of human behavior, and Thomas did much to bring this about.

Thomas' main interest was in racial psychology, and few men anywhere had a wider knowledge of the literature or a more adequate understanding of the subject, but I shall speak of his contributions to social psychology, my own field of concentration. His work was vastly different from the older orthodox systems of psychology, though the avowed objects were the same.

For years orthodox psychologists were concerned with relating human consciousness to particular elements and segments of the nervous system. They even sent us into the medical school to dissect the brains of dog, fish, sheep, and man, but the results were not very rewarding. The brain of my subject, an unclaimed pauper, was essentially like that of a captain of industry, so far as our microscopes could reveal. Moreover, the discussions of the conscious life seemed almost to be confined to a description of the average normal civilized adult considered as a mechanized organism, and the effects of social contacts were treated with a fine disregard, as if all men were as Melchizedek---without beginning of days or end of life.

Social psychology, in which field Thomas was indeed a pioneer, sought, on the other hand, for the answer to the question of why some men conform and others rebel ; they were interested in why some boys go wrong and some girls go astray.

Thomas gathered, during the course of his life work, personal documents, life histories, and intimate family letters by the tens of thousands, and from the classification and analysis of these he was able to make lasting contributions to the understanding of human nature. He did make some false starts, as when he tried to form a theory of personality on the basis

( 758) that all activities could be interpreted as expressions of sex or the food impulse, but this was abandoned for something better.

Our debt to him is greatest for his work in the Polish Peasant. Dr. Znaniecki, the co-author, will tell of some of the chief contributions of that monument of American sociology. I limit myself to one, the theory of social attitudes.

After showing that the old problem of the relation of the individual to society is no problem at all, that society and the individual are but different facets of an indivisible whole like the musician and the orchestra the concept of social attitudes is set forth as a tendency toward a generalized mode of action, never an individual affair, since every attitude is toward what Thomas called a social value. Not only are our attitudes formed in the give-and-take of social life but our objects also appear in our lives, one by one like stars in an evening sky.

The graduate course on Social Attitudes, which I inherited also from Thomas, was given throughout my score of years in the department. It was very profitable to me and my debt to Thomas is very great. Thomas, did not coin the word attitude, nor was he the first to speak of the attitude of a man toward an object. The words came out of the vernacular, but it is my opinion that it is to him we owe the scientific concept of social attitudes which has been found in my own experience to be of the greatest value. By taking the concrete act as the unit of human conduct and by assuming that attitudes and objects are twin born as a result of the way the act is defined in retrospect, it has been possible to form a conceptual scheme of human nature which promises greater control over our problems than we have had hitherto.

But the concept of social attitudes proved also to be highly practical when, through the labors of Thurstone, Stouffer, and their co-workers, it was found that attitudes can be measured and the measurements proved accurate by statistical methods. And this is true both of individuals and of groups. Sociologists were enlisted as such during the war, and their services in the field of attitude measurement produced astonishingly successful results.

It became possible for a sociologist to go to a training camp and to discover the extent of a certain prejudice or the state of morale in a given unit. Even more valuable was the work they did in taking means to change the attitudes or to heighten the morale. And this having been done, it was possible to measure the success of their efforts and to prove that the desired change had taken place.

This development was not foreseen by Thomas, nor did he participate in it. He had no mathematics and was allergic to statistics. But it is safe

( 759) to say that the historian of our science will record that it is to him that credit is due for the accurate setting forth of the connotation of the concept. Not that Thomas ever manifested any great desire for such credit; he laid the stones on the walls of the uncompleted structure, having in mind how incomplete it still is.

Thomas was an academic lecturer of extraordinary power to attract and hold large audiences. He lacked the brilliant wit and delightful quips of his classmate George Vincent but relied on facts and interesting concrete accounts to illustrate and enforce his presentation. I recall a lecture of his that was announced for Harper Assembly Hall, which has a capacity of some 250 seats. There was such a throng attempting to get in that it was announced that the lecture would be repeated on the following day. He gave it, almost word for word (for I heard him both times) in Mandel Hall, which seats 1,200, and persons were standing around the room. He introduced the taking of notes on small slips of paper, a device that Robert Park once declared to be an invention comparable to movable type. An industrious student traced the method through Beatrice Webb back to Walter Pater, though the insistence on small-sized slips may have been due to Thomas. Full use has not been made of this device, containing, as it does, important implications for aiding thought and making cooperation between fellow workers possible.

My words have been limited to the scientific work of Thomas and to only a very partial and limited mention, at that. Of his personal life others will no doubt write. I would only like to add that I knew him as a witty conversationalist, a raconteur, a valued counselor, and a sympathetic friend. And I was his friend for 38 years. I like to recall that I was his friend as one who takes the marriage vows and repeats "for better, for worse." It is good to be a friend in bright days and in dark; even better when the days are dark, for then a friend is most needed and most esteemed.


  1. This and the two following articles constitute a group of three reports given at a memorial meeting by the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago in December 1947.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2