Development of Sociology
Chapter 24: The Polish Peasant

Floyd Nelson House

An American sociologist who ranks second only to Sumner, and in some respects excels him, for his use of ethnological materials and his development of a "cultural" point of view is William I. Thomas. In collaboration with Florian Znaniecki, in The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, he took the significant step of applying the general viewpoint of ethnology to the study of the customs, traditions, and social organization of contemporary peoples living at a comparatively advanced stage of civilization. Anthropologists have almost invariably defined their science in such a way that it includes the study of the culture of civilized peoples, but in practice they have been reluctant to enter this field of research. In The Polish Peasant, Thomas and Znaniecki undertook an investigation of the culture of Polish peasants quite comparable to that which a sophisticated ethnographer would make of the culture of a savage tribe. Like the later American anthropologists of the "historical school," they avoided the weakness commonly charged against the exponents of the "comparative method," viz., that of losing the significance of culture traits by abstracting them too casually from their context. For these reasons, and for the important contributions to sociological theory which it includes, The Polish Peasant marks an epoch in the development of sociological thought and research in the United States.

William Isaac Thomas was born in Russell County, Virginia, in 1863. He was graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1884 and served as instructor in English and modern languages in that institution from 1884 to 1888. In 1888-1889, he studied at the universities of Berlin and Göttingen; then he served on the faculty of Oberlin College, as professor of English, 1889-1894, and as professor of sociology, 1894-1895. He was instructor in sociology at the University of Chicago in 1895-1896, when the new university and its department of sociology were just getting

( 284) underway; and in 1896, he became the fourth person to receive the doctorate  in sociology from that institution. He was immediately appointed to the regular faculty of the University of Chicago, where he was assistant professor of sociology, in 1900; associate professor, 1900-1910; and professor, 1910-191 Since leaving the University of Chicago in 1918, he was connected for a time with the New School of Social Research as lecturer but has been chiefly occupied in research. He was president of the American Sociological Society in 1927.[1]

Even less than Sumner has Thomas given us, in his published writings, anything that even approximates the character of s general treatise on sociology. Furthermore, he seems to have modified his ideas substantially during his productive career. The concepts relating to culture and the interpretations of ethnological materials found in his Sourcebook for Social Origins (1909) are not the same as those in The Polish Peasant; and he has modified his views noticeably since publishing The Unadjusted Girl. Accordingly, one can scarcely attribute a system of sociological theory to him without running the risk of misinterpreting his intentions. The difficulty of identifying his most fundamental contributions is rendered the greater by the fact that The Polish Peasant, in which many of them occur, the product of a collaboration.[2] In any case, however, certain ideas that were first set forth in The Polish Peasant ought to be noted in a study of the development of sociology, for they have had a considerable influence upon recent trends of sociological thought and research in the United States.

The most conspicuous characteristic of this massive publication is its use of "personal documents," a feature so novel when the

( 285) work was first published that it earned for Thomas and Znaniecki the credit of giving to the established historiographic method of "documentation" a new sociological application. To the professional historians, and to a degree only slightly less to the economists and political scientists, the documents that have seemed valuable for research purposes have been, almost exclusively, official documents—preferably governmental, but at any rate documents officially issued or filed by some formally organized association. In The Polish Peasant, Thomas and Znaniecki placed in exhibition series of personal letters, exchanged between the members of Polish peasant families, and an extended and very candid autobiography written by a Polish immigrant in the United States. From these documents they were able to demonstrate a good many significant facts about the cultural patterns of Polish peasant life in its original setting, the modifications that they undergo as the result of urbanization in Poland or immigration into the United States, and the way in which they determine wishes and attitudes, on the part of the Polish people, which are only with difficulty intelligible to those whose cultural background is quite different. This work, of over two thousand pages, was the most illuminating example of disinterested but penetrating analysis of a set of interrelated cultural phenomena that had been published in any language up to that time. Anthropologists had been content, for the most part, simply to record facts about the cultures of different peoples; and, while Durkheim, Jane Harrison, and other students of the history of Greece, Rome, and the Near East had accomplished brilliant feats of interpretation of cultures more or less different from their own, it seems safe to say that none of these earlier writers succeeded so well as Thomas and Znaniecki did in making human behavior intelligible in terms of its cultural determination.

The Polish Peasant is notable for several other things besides its contribution to the study of culture. It contains important contributions to social psychology and to the general logic and methodology of social science. In the Methodological Note with which volume I begins, and in the Introduction to the "Life Record of an Immigrant,"[3] there are thought-provoking

( 286) discussions of the general viewpoint and objectives of social science, the distinctions between sociology and social psychοlοgy. and the relations between social science and practical sοcial problems. In these passages occur also the discussions of attitudes, values, and wishes and the fourfold classification of human wishes, which have become classical. The most important: hypothesis that is presented in these passages is, perhaps, that human behavior cannot be adequately explained either in exclusively social, i.e., cultural, terms or  in exclusively individual terms; every conscious act may be conceived to have two components: an attitude (subjective) and a value (objective). One's behavior  in a given case depends both upon his previously exist ing attitudes (his tendencies to act in certain ways with reference to particular kinds of objects) and upon his conception of the object or situation with reference to which he is acting. An object that has a meaning to some one is, for him, a "value." Values are, in general, cultural; they are determined for the individual by the tradition of some group of which he is or has been a part. In other words, values may be regarded as the social components of behavior. Attitudes are primarily individual and subjective. Every attitude, however, is the product of the interaction of an attitude and a value; and every value, as it exists at a time for some person, is likewise the product of the interaction of an attitude and a value.[4] This doctrine seems to most people rather abstruse; and it has been sharply criticized by Ellsworth Faris, who is, on the whole, an admirer and follower of Thomas.[5] It was sufficiently novel and stimulating when first published, however, to attract a great deal of attention.

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A number of other interesting and significant theoretic points are developed in the two long passages of The Polish Peasant that have been cited; space limits preclude our reviewing them all here. The other feature that has attracted widest attention is the list of four fundamental desires, or fourfold classification of human wishes: desire for new experience, desire for stability, desire for response, desire for recogn ition.[6] Practically everyone who has written at length on social psychology in the United States in the period following the publication of The Polish Peasant has felt compelled to refer to this classification, even though he did not agree with it or did not believe that any such list of fundamental human motives was of value for scientific purposes.

From the comparative evidence afforded in Thomas' The Unadjusted Girl (1923) and Znaniecki's Laws of Social Psychology (1925), there is reason to believe that the theory of attitudes and values set forth in The Polish Peasant is due mainly to Znaniecki, while the four desires were Thomas' contribution. In The Unadjusted Girl, the entire first chapter is devoted to "The Wishes," i.e., to the formulation and definition of the four categories of desires named above, illustrated from concrete cases; while Chap. II continues the theme under the title "The Regulation of the Wishes." Another idea that looms large in Thomas' later writings is indicated by the terms "situation" and "definition of the situation." These concepts occur in The Polish Peasant and in Znanieck i's Laws of Social Psychology, but in these works the emphasis seems to be chiefly subjective and individual or even metaphysical; while in The Unadjusted Girl and later publications, Thomas emphasizes the definition of the situation in which one is placed at a time, not so much by him, subjectively, though that is of course involved, but for him, by the culture of his group. It is significant that the third chapter of The Unadjusted Girl, following that in which Thomas discusses the definition of the situation, is entitled "The Individualization of Behavior." The implication of this sequence of topics is that, in a stable social environment, individual behavior is shaped objectively, so to speak; it is almost mechanical, because

( 288) all the situations that commonly occur are defined for the individual by the culture of his group. Individualization, i.e definition of the situation and consequent determination of behavior by a private, subjective process comes later, in a social environment in which different cultures have become mixed together, and the individual, perhaps after a period of personal confusion and demoralization, has the opportunity of choosing among alternative courses of action.[7] What has come to be termed "the situational approach" in sociology and social psychology, a viewpoint briefly sketched in the foregoing sentences, has engaged Thomas' attention further in recent years; he made it the subject of his presidential address before the American Sociological Society in 1927.[2]

Thomas and Znaniecki made still another important contribution to the theory of culture and social organization, by their treatment of social disorganization. It is implied in the foregoing summaries of other aspects of their thought but merits separate mention. As has been noted in previous chapters, sociological thought and research in the United States had their origins, in considerable part, in the effort to contribute something to the understanding of those features of the life of society commonly regarded as "problems," or as pathological. Great difficulty had been experienced, however, in defining or identifying pathological social phenomena objectively. Thoughtful students of the matter saw the tendency to classify as abnormal or pathological all those forms of human behavior of which society does not approve, in other words, those which do not conform to the mores of the group with which we identify ourselves. Various solutions of the methodological problem thus posed were attempted by American sociologists in the early years of the twentieth century; for example, it was held by a number of writers, expressly or by implication, that we may

( 289) regard as abnormal or pathological any social conditions, and any behavior of individual members of society, in which individuals are prevented from attaining outlet or expression in some form for their fundamental desires. This criterion of social abnormality, however, did not prove to be one which could be used with any great degree of objectivity; practically, it did not as a rule involve much more than the definition of abnormality by the test of one's own mores. Many writers on social problems evaded the question by proceeding in their discussion of social problems from some enumeration of existing social conditions which it was assumed that everyone would concede to be undesirable and hence abnormal or pathological.

In this dilemma, Thomas and Znaniecki came forward with a new concept, obviously relevant to the study of social conditions which would ordinarily be regarded as abnormal, viz., the concept "social disorganization."[9] Using the term to refer primarily to a process rather than to a state or condition, they defined social disorganization as "a decrease of the influence of existing social rules of behavior upon the individual members of the group." Restated so that it will connote a state rather than a process, and modified to bring out some of its implications more clearly, this definition would read as follows: Social disorganization is that state of affairs in a society that  is characterized by the relative lack of social rules, customs, traditions, or evaluations which are recognized and accepted by all members of the society, and which tend to define the situation in every contingency and prescribe what shall be done or what attitude shall be taken. Reflection will show that this concept affords a point of view from which the whole range of social phenomena that attract attention as abnormal, pathological, or maladjusted can be studied; it offers the opportunity for a relatively objective identification of such phenomena. So long as one classifies social conditions and personal behavior as pathological simply by the test of their nonconformity to the customs or traditions of one's own society, nearly the whole world must seem out of joint. Thomas and Znaniecki's concept of social disorganization posits a quite different criterion, viz., conformity to the customs, mores, and institutions of the group to which the individual or subgroup in question belongs. A society, thought of as the environment of the indi-

( 290) -v iduals, families, and other part-groups within it, is conceived from this point of view as more or less well organized according as it functions with greater or less efficiency as a set of instrumentalities for the satisfaction of the wishes of its members The disintegration of such a society is a fact that can be judged by different observers with relative consistency. This concept is not one of ethical evaluation primarily; as its authors have pointed out, a society may maintain its stability largely at the cost of the self-realization of its members, by confining their activities within very narrow channels. But, at any rate, social. disorganization as here defined can be studied; and the concept promises to function increasingly, as time goes on, to unify and objectify our knowledge of phenomena hitherto regarded as socially pathological but explained only within the limitations of subjective bias.[10}

Since The Polish Peasant and Old World Traits Transplanted, Thomas has not published any works that deal primarily with culture. The Unadjusted Girl (1923) may be described as an application of the concept of social disorganization to a particular problem, while The Child in America (in collaboration with Dorothy Swaine Thomas, 1928) is essentially a survey and critical interpretation of recent research in the field of child study. In recent years, Thomas has devoted considerable time to researches in the Scandinavian countries, and it is to be hoped that he will embody the results in a series of volumes comparable to The Polish Peasant. To a large degree, his later research efforts have been exerted in the field of social psychology, which is largely represented by The Child in America, and which furnished the theme for his presidential address before the American Sociological Society in Washington in 1927.


  1. Besides a number of significant shorter publications, Thomas is author of the following books: Sex and Society, 1907; Source-book for Social Origins. 1909; Standpoint and Questionnaire for Race Psychology, 1912; with Florian Znanieck i, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, 1st ed., 5 vols., 1918-1921, 2d ed., 2 vols., 1927; The Unadjusted Girl, 1923; with Dorothy Swaine Thomas, The Child in America, 1928. It is an open secret that Old World Traits Transplanted, published in 1921 over the signatures of Robert E. Park and H. A. Miller, was the product, chiefly, of the work of Thomas.
  2. Znaniecki has published systematic presentations of his own theories in English in The Laws of Social Psychology, Chicago, 1925; "The Object-matter of Sociology," American Journal of Sociology, vol. 32, pp. 529-584, 1927; The Method of Sociology, New York, 1934.
  3. "The Life Record of an Immigrant" forms the entire third volume of the original 5-vol. ed.; in the 2-vol. reprint of 1927, in which the order of the parts is changed and the pagination differs accordingly from that of the first edition, it forms the concluding part of vol. II. The 2-vol. edition has been used for the page citations given here.
  4. Op. cit., vol. I, pp. 38-68, 1927; vol. II, pp. 1831-1850 et passim to p. 1907. The reasoning summarized above occurs most explicitly in the earlier passage cited (in the Methodological Note in vol. I); however, it is necessary to compare the Introduction to "The Life Record of an Immigrant" in vol. II, for the sake of certain modifications in the theory which are stated there, the later passage first published (in vol. III of the 5-vol. ed.) some time after the Methodological Note.
  5. "Attitudes and Behavior," American Journal of Sociology, vol. 34. pp. 271-281, 1928. See also Ellsworth Faris, "The Concept of Social Attitudes," and Robert E. Park, "Human Nature, Attitudes, and the Mores," (Chaps. I, II, respectively), in Kimball Young, ed., Social Attitudes, New York, 1931.
  6. Op. cit., vol. II, pp. 1859, 1882. This is the later formulation of the list; a somewhat different formulation occurs in the Methodological Note, vol. I.
  7. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, vol. I, p. 68, vol. II, pp. 1847 $., 1859, 1874-1875. Florian Znanieck i, Laws of Social Psychology, pp. 79$. William I. Thomas, The Unadjusted Girl, Chaps. I, II, III as indicated above; see especially pp. 42$. (Chap. II).
  8. William I. Thomas, "The Behavior Pattern and the Situation," presidential address, Publication of the American Sociological Society (proceedings of annual meeting of December, 1927), vol. 22, pp. 1-13, 1928. See also W. I. Thomas and D. S. Thomas, The Child in America, passim, especially p. 561, New York, 1928.
  9. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, vol. II, pp. 1127-1134.
  10. In their Social Pathology, New York, 1925, Stuart Α. Queen and Delbert Μ. Mann have made some effort to survey the field of social problems from the point of view afforded by Thomas and Znaniecki's concept of social disorganization. More recently, the same effort has been made by Elliott and Merrill in Social Disorganization, New York, 1934, and Queen, Bodenhafer, and Harper in Social Organization and Disorganization, New York, 1935.

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