Comment on Blumer's Appraisal of Thomas and Znaniecki's 'The Polish Peasant in Europe and America
COMMENT BY W. I. THOMAS
I find that Blumer's analysis of The Polish Peasant is a very profound, able, and salutary piece of work. Directed toward a study of considerable magnitude and rather extensive pretentions which represents, in my opinion, a fundamentally superior approach, the criticism shows the shortcomings and at the same time the merits of this work and prepares the way for improved procedure in future studies of social processes. It is my hope that this criticism will be published, for, while it is directed toward a specific performance, it has a general application and impresses me, in fact, as the best methodological contribution which has appeared in the field of social psychology.
Twenty years have passed since the publication of The Polish Peasant and in the meantime my views have naturally undergone considerable change and I know that the same is true of Znaniecki. As soon as I viewed the work as completed in print, and even before that point, I was considerably dissatisfied with it. I have since made a rather thoroughgoing criticism of it from my present standpoint in my seminary at Harvard and much of my criticism corresponds with that
( 83) of Blumer. I will briefly indicate my present position on certain points.
It is true that the concrete materials of the volume are not adequately correlated with the methodological scheme. It is a fact that the methodological note in Volume One was prepared just before the first two volumes went to press. It was a combination of assumptions which I had made for several years in a course on "Social Attitudes" and some standpoints developed by Znaniecki in a volume in Polish on "Values." It was in the nature of an essay. It was influenced by our investigation but was not altogether the result of it and its claims were not systematically exemplified by the materials. It was as if we had done what we could with the present materials and then, or in the meantime, elaborated a series of hypotheses to be tested in further studies of nationalities and cultures.
In all scientific investigation, it is almost the rule that a promising initial undertaking is incorrect and incomplete at points but may open the way to the participation and corrective contributions of a considerable interest-group, as in the case of The Polish Peasant.
I approve our separation of attitudes and values, or psychological sets and tendencies to act, on the one hand, and the external stimuli to action on the other, and of our general description of the interaction of these factors, but I think we went too far in our confident assumption that we shall be able to lay bare the complete and invariable nature of this interaction and thus determine the laws of "social becoming."
In this connection, social scientists have been influenced by the history of the physical sciences where it has been possible to determine laws because the materials are stable. But human material is never stable. Individuals differ in their
( 84) physiological constitutions and learned attitudes and the same individual differs at different moments. We have recognized this in a passage quoted by Blumer:
A social value, acting upon individual members of the group, produces a more or less different effect upon every one of them; and even when acting upon the same individual at various moments it does not influence him uniformly.
Nevertheless, there are certain general correspondences in human nature to begin with, and society by its institutions, teachings, rules, rewards, and penalties does establish a degree of regularity and probability. It is able to condition its material to a certain degree and secure, on the whole, expected behavior. We should therefore not speak of social laws but seek to establish high degrees of probability in the interaction of attitudes and values.
Blumer here, and others elsewhere, have criticized the "human document" as incomplete and unreliable, and this is correct in the sense that all human testimony and communication tend to be reserved, biased, and directed toward the production of desired attitudes in others. It is known also that even the most conscientious court testimony is often incomplete and unreliable because perception and memory do not register the data adequately.
Nevertheless, in every day life in forming decisions and regulating social interaction, we are forced to utilize the testimony of others, their representations of reality, just as the courts are forced to use sworn testimony. In spite of the fact that the representations are not completely reliable, they are indispensable. A social psychology without records of experience would be like a court without testimony.
The behavior document, whether autobiography, case record, or psychoanalytic exploration, is a more or less systematic record of individual experience, and the claim for the doc-
( 85) -ument is that the extensive record of experience will reveal the general schematization of individual life. In a record of this kind, we are able to view, in their evolution, the behavior reactions in the various situations and crises, the emergence of personality traits, the determination of concrete acts, and the formation of life policies. A series of such records taken comparatively reveal certain regularities, sequences, and probabilities when taken in connection with specific experiences in specific situations.
Moreover, even a highly subjective, delusional, or fabricated document has significance, since it represents attitudes which may pass into action. I quote what I said in this connection in a later volume:
A document prepared by one compensating for a feeling of inferiority or elaborating a delusion of persecution is as far as possible from objective reality, but the subject's view of the situation, how he regards it, may be the most important element for interpretation. For his immediate behavior is closely related to his definition of the situation, which may be in terms of objective reality or in terms of a subjective appreciation—'as if' it were so. Very often it is the wide discrepancy between the situation as it seems to others and the situation as it seems to the individual that brings about the overt behavior. To take an extreme example, the warden of a New York prison recently refused to honor the order of the court to send an inmate outside the prison walls for some specific purpose. He excused himself on the ground that the man was too dangerous. He had killed more than one person who had the unfortunate habit of talking to himself on the street. From the movement of their lips, he imagined they were calling him vile names, and he behaved as if this were true. If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.
Now the behavior record may be viewed and applied in several ways. In The Polish Peasant, the main line of inquiry was concerned with the problem of immigration and the changing attitudes and values in the movement of hundreds of thousands of the members of one cultural group into another cultural group, viewed in terms of individual and group organization and disorganization. At the same time,
( 86) we had in mind the bearing of the results of this specific investigation on social problems in general. In this connection, an uncritical use of copious documents was sufficient to reach certain important results. For example, we used letters exchanged between immigrants in America and their families in Poland, some of them in series extending over twenty years, and while there was much fabrication in the correspondence, it revealed striking changes in attitudes and values.
That is to say, our procedure and materials were relatively adequate for the determination of lines of social change in a block of population in transition from an agrarian to an industrial phase and from one milieu to another, but in other connections, and especially in the treatment of behavior irregularities as shown in delinquency, crime, and psychopathic trends, it is important to have, in addition to the narrative of the subject, the testimony of family members, teachers, neighbors, etc. Thus, the behavior records of the child clinics are contributing important data by including the child's account of the difficult situation, the often conflicting definition of this situation given by parents, teachers, etc., and the recording of such facts as can be verified about the situation by disinterested investigators. The criminological and psychopathic records in Sweden are particularly good because the state is able, so to speak, to compel the participation of outsiders, including employers, and the narrative of the subject is obtained more than once and at different times by different persons.
In our study, we did not associate statistical methods and controls with our documents. This would have been difficult in view of the character of the materials, which for the most part were found ready made and were not systematically prepared. But this was a defect of our method and materials
( 87) and it is evident that what is needed in the study of social change and of individual adjustment and maladjustment is both the continued collection of the life records of normal, pathological, criminal, inferior, and superior individuals in our own and other nationalities and cultures and the application of appropriate statistical studies as a basis for the inferences drawn. And these inferences in turn must be continually subjected to further statistical analysis as it becomes possible to transmute more factors into quantitative form. Statistics become, then, the continuous process of verification and of hypothesis formation.
In the same connection, it is evident that statistical studies of the behavior of populations will have a limited meaning so long as the statistical data are not supplemented by individual case histories.