Review of Social Behavior and Personality edited by E.H. Volkart
In 1931 some sixteen colleagues and former students of W. I. Thomas published a volume in his honor, under the editorship of Kimball Young, entitled Social Attitudes. Beyond acknowledgment of our common debt to Thomas there was no account of the work of the man we sought to honor. The volume under review, as Donald Young explains in a foreword, grew out of an offer of Mrs. Thomas to the Social Science Research Council of all the rights to the publications and manuscripts of Thomas. The offer was eagerly accepted and the present book is an attempt to present a systematic account of the theoretical system of Thomas by means of brief selections from his writings. There is an introduction by the editor and a brief explanatory comment at the head of each of the seventeen selections which comprise the book.
The editor seems to have accomplished his task as well as could be expected, for his was a difficult assignment. Few men have exceeded Thomas in years of service for he was actively engaged in sociological work for fifty-three years, The presentation might have been by periods but the editor elected to present the contribution of his author as a system. Certain terms became obsolete with time and these puzzle the editor on occasion, as when an article on "The Interpretation of Savage Society" is referred to with: "a more misleading title would be hard to find." It was not misleading at all; Dewey and many others used the same words, for "savage" was denotative and not descriptive. The word preliterate had not been coined.
Most of the books of Thomas were attacks
( 856) on specific problems and for each there was, of course, a conceptual apparatus; but he did not write a book on systematic social psychology nor was he greatly interested in systems and methodology. Odum in American Sociology quotes Thomas as saying: "I do not feel that I have been greatly influenced by any of my teachers in sociology. My interests were in the marginal fields and not in sociology as it was organized and taught at that time." Park used to say of Thomas that he was essentially an artist. He came into sociology after teaching literature and he had little interest in fine distinctions and rigorous definitions. When asked why he set forth four wishes in the first part of the Polish Peasant and then, without a word of explanation changed the list, he only smiled and said that he had really forgotten that he had done it! His lively sense of humor prevented his taking seriously the hair-splitting arguments of some of the systematizers. This accounts for the freedom with which he employed some of his concepts. The editor of this volume gives major emphasis to the notion of the Definition of the Situation but the cavalier way in which Thomas employed it disturbs him. In the introduction he writes :
Yet for all the value which the situational concept seems to possess, some questions remain. It may be said that Thomas, despite the various definitions and illustrations he gave to the notion, seems curiously vague about it. At times the situation seems synonymous with a social institution, neighborhood, or group, but at others it seems to mean an event, an individual experience, or even a complete illusion. Moreover, in its social sense the situation seems to have no limits, or at least they are hard to define. Any single situation is so inextricably merged with others that it often appears to be a very dubious kind of abstraction with which to work.
Similarly the concept of Social Attitudes, which some of us have found to be the most useful of his conceptions, is defined by Thomas in a way that would allow any given person to have only one attitude at a time, since attitude is a process of individual consciousness. Those who worked intensively at attitude research came to define the term as a residual tendency toward a generalized mode of activity, thus allowing for an indefinite number of attitudes or tendencies including all the realm of bias, prejudice, allegiance, preference and the rest of them, and all existing simultaneously.
The "Methodological Note" in the Polish Peasant is, perhaps, the nearest approach to a systematic presentation. But on analysis it turns out to be a collaboration with statements resulting from a compromise. Znaniecki, a philosopher, was keen on values in which Thomas had little interest; and Thomas liked the word attitude to which his colleague had objections. They decided to use both. The "Note" is a kind of double star, difficult to separate into components. Some light is thrown by comparing the subsequent writings of the two gifted authors. In a book published shortly afterwards, Znaniecki argued against the concept of attitude—too static, he said—and chose another word. The Polish Peasant comes out strongly for the formulation of laws of social psychology which Thomas afterwards claimed were beyond us, while Znaniecki wrote a book on the subject and set forth a baker's dozen of laws. They attracted little attention and the following formulation of the first law will perhaps explain why.
Law I. If in the course of an unstabilized activity the new experiences which this activity produces appear to form a negatively axiological scale in such a way that every subsequent experience assumes the character of a relatively negative value as compared with the preceding experiences, there develops a desire for stability in the given line of behavior.
Some graduate student with abundant leisure and unlimited curiosity may one day ferret out the specifically Thomas contribution in the Polish Peasant, but it is not a matter of great importance to us now.
For the contribution of Thomas to his disciples consisted not in a system to be learned but in a program of action by which investigations could be made and knowledge extended. The Polish Peasant was co-incident with the beginning of the period of empirical research. At the University of Chicago the courses of Thomas were offered in the autumn of 1919 by his successor after an interval of two years. In the decade following there was a notable increase of graduate students and at Chicago the group was notably gifted. I am moved to name names. They included, among others, such men as McCormick, House, Dawson, Gettys, Redfield, Wirth, Blumer, Quinn, Hughes, Krueger, Reckless, Stephan, Stouffer, Herskovits, Fay Karpf, Ruth Cavan, Simpson, Kincheloe, Pearson, Frazer, Johnson, Thrasher, Hiller, Becker.
The Polish Peasant was just published and in the seminar the work of Thomas was the core of our discussions. We took his concepts un-
( 857) -critically at first but modified and restated them with complete freedom when necessary, Thomas became not a doctrine to be learned but a method to be applied, and we took his tools, sharpened them when necessary, reforged them when they needed it; but we worked with them and the productive output of that group of the disciples of Thomas seems to be the best proof of their loyalty to him.
The editor has done well to try to set forth, as completely as possible, a systematic statement. The reader can judge how well he has succeeded but nothing can detract from the powerful impetus which Thomas has given to the students of this generation. One minor point: the editor goes out of his way to reject a statement of mine to the effect that personality is the subjective aspect of culture, I took it from a statement of Thomas in the "Note" that social psychology is the "science of the subjective side of culture." Since social psychology is the science of personality, I can't retract.
The editor gives less prominence to the concept of Social Attitudes than some students of Thomas would prefer. When Stouffer began to treat attitudes statistically and when Thurstone wrote a notable article, "Attitudes can be Measured," the way was opened for studies which are the concern of large numbers of sociologists. The American Soldier is an eloquent testimony to the value of the notion. Not that Thomas ever measured attitudes. He had no mathematics and came into contact with statistics through marriage. But only because of the work of Thomas did this development take place.
Every sociologist is indebted to Dorothy Thomas, to the Social Science Research Council, and to the editor of this book for a valuable statement of the work of one of our illustrious scholars whose influence is stronger today than ever before.
Lake Forest, Illinois.