Social Science Builds a Monument
THE POLISH PEASANT IN EUROPE AND AMERICA, by William L Thomas and Florian Znaniecki. Knopf. Two volumes. 2230 pp. Price $10.00 postpaid of The Survey.
THE republication of this monumental work in two volumes, 1 instead of five in the original edition, without abridgement and at a price about one-third of the original, is an event of significance in American social science, and incidentally in American book manufacturing. In the decade passed, nothing has challenged its right to first place in the growing list of scientific monographs on peoples and cultures.
Not intended primarily as an ethnographic study of the Polish peasant—although it has become the standard reference work—it is rather an experiment in the application of the sociological method to the problems of social life. The methodological note of 86 pages, and the introduction of 216 pages, are regarded by competent sociologists as the most comprehensive, the most fundamental, and the most analytical exposition of scientific method in the social sciences in existence. Here is set forth the theory underlying the attempt to apply to social reality a procedure analogous to the rational technique which has yielded such amazing results from material reality.
That such a technique would revolutionize our control over the crises that constantly arise in social life, is scarcely open to doubt. The need for some such method is indicated by the fact that the "ordering-and-forbidding" technique, i.e., meeting a social problem "by an arbitrary act of will decreeing the disappearance of the undesirable or the appearance of the desirable phenomena, and using arbitrary physical action to enforce the decree," is still characteristic of much of our present-day education and social work, and of almost all our legislative procedure and political action.
This method, Thomas points out, is equivalent to the magical stage in the development of natural science. While the method of common sense may be considered an advance over this magical procedure, it is still essentially primitive when contrasted with the method of science.
The Polish Peasant offers next, the first exhaustive study of what happens to an immigrant group in the process of adjustment to a new culture. To present a full view, the authors have studied their group not merely in America but in their European habitat.
The obvious, but often neglected truth is that the immigrant is not an individual who comes from a vacuum and enters another vacuum, but rather that he emerges from a peasant community that has already been more or less disorganized and enters a new village community of his countrymen in the midst of a large city, where his old values are subjected to strain that often reaches the breaking point. He does not cease to play a role in and-be a part of his old-world community, but his experiences reverberate back upon the group from which he came, thus accelerating the process of disorganization there.
Not the least important aspect of The Polish Peasant, for the student of human behavior, is the method of collecting and treating. source materials. The first volume consists almost entirely of immigrant-letters collected in Europe and America. The value of letters and similar personal documents has, as a result of this study, risen considerably in the eyes of sociologists and social workers. Similarly, the vividly detailed, annotated Life-Record of an Immigrant, which takes up about a third of the second volume, has stimulated our appreciation of autobiographical materials in the analysis and treatment of behavior problems.
LOUIS WIRTH The University of Chicago