William I. Thomas 1863 - 1947

Kimball Young

William I. Thomas died in Berkeley, California, December 5, 1947. He was born August 13, 1863 on a farm in Russell County, Virginia. His father, Thaddeus Peter Thomas, combined preaching and farming for a livelihood. His mother was Sarah Price Thomas. He entered the University of Tennessee at the age of seventeen and majored in language and literature. After his graduation in 1884, he remained at Tennessee for four years as an instructor in Greek and modern languages. He spent the year 1888-1889 doing graduate work at Berlin and Göttingen. Upon his return he became professor of English at Oberlin College.

His interests, however, began to turn to sociology and psychology and during the academic year, 1893-1894, Thomas spent two quarters on a fellowship in the newly founded department of sociology at the University of Chicago, studying with Albion W. Small and Charles R. Henderson. Although he continued at Oberlin on a half-year basis till 1895, in 1894 he began giving courses there in sociology. In 1895 he accepted an instructorship in sociology at Chicago and in the year following completed his doctorate. Shortly thereafter he was appointed assistant professor. His promotion to an associate professorship came in 1900, and his full professorship a decade later.

Thomas' first professional writing had to do with sex differences, especially role and status, as affected by custom and institution. His various papers on the topic comprise the content of his first published work, Sex and Society, 1907. His second volume, Source Book for Social Origins, 1909, was an outgrowth of his increasing interest in ethnology. While many of the papers there reprinted have only historical significance for the theorist in anthropology today, Thomas' "Introductory" section and his comments at the close of each of the seven "Parts" of this volume remain classics. He was among the first sociologists in this country to sense the significance for all social science of the historical but non-evolutionary standpoint of Franz Boas, George Dorsey, and other anthropologists then

( 102) going into the field for their data. It was Thomas, in fact, who first began to bridge the gap between empirically founded cultural anthropology and sociology.

In 1908, Thomas became director of the Helen Culver Fund for race psychology. His paper in 1912, "Race Psychology: Standpoint and Questionnaire with Particular Reference to the Immigrant and the Negro" was one of the first projections of scientific method into the field of assimilation or acculturation. During the next ten years he concentrated his attention particularly upon the culture of the Polish peasant both in Europe and as it was modified as the Polish immigrant adjusted himself to American life. It was in connection with this investigation that he first began to make extensive use of the personal document as a form of basic data. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, in five volumes (1918-1921), produced in collaboration with Florian Znaniecki, was the product of these researches. This work marked an important step forward in empirical study in sociology. It was at once a contribution to method, to research findings, to systematic theory and to practical programs for dealing with problems of acculturation.

Soon after the United States entered World War I, Thomas and Robert E. Park were engaged by "The Americanization Study"-an organization sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation to study assimilation of immigrants-to prepare research memoranda and to aid in a series of publications which would help Americans the better to handle their immigration problems.

Following the war, Thomas undertook an extensive investigation of delinquency among young women, under a subvention of Mrs. W. F. Dummer. The Unadjusted Girl, 1923, reports his findings. He was president of the American Sociological Society for the year 1927 and his presidential address, "The Behavior Pattern and the Situation," summarizes what has been called "the situational approach"-a standpoint which he had been developing for some time, in contrast to his earlier motivational approach based on the "four wishes," as he called them. The Child in America (with Dorothy Swaine Thomas) was the result of over two years of review and comparative analysis of the research in, and applications of, child psychology and child sociology in this country.

Thomas served as one of the representatives for sociology on the Social Science Research Council, 1928-1932. In September of the latter year he resigned as representative for sociology in order to serve as staff secretary of the committee on Personality and Culture of the S.S.R.C. Later, he did considerable work for the Council in evaluating various research projects in criminology. During this period, also, he gave a good deal of attention to the possible contribution of psychiatry to sociology and helped initiate this interest among members of the American Sociological Society. In the mid-thirties Thomas became concerned with a project to study Swedish immigration to the United States and in connection with the same made several extended trips to Sweden.

Although Thomas had worked many valuable veins in sociology and social psychology in the thirty years since his Source Book, he never lost his earlier concern with the relations of social psychology to ethnology, and in 1937 published his Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences. He thought of this work as "a study in culture history from the sociopsychological standpoint." It represents a wide knowledge of the literature of cultural anthropology and the interpretative standpoint is in line with his social behaviorism.

From 1918 on, when Thomas moved to New York City, he devoted most of his time to research and writing. However, from 1923 to 1928 he was lecturer at the New School for Social Research and for a few years following that period taught an occasional course at Columbia University. He was a guest professor at Harvard University in 1936-1937. In 1940 he took up his residence in Berkeley.

Looking back over his career in sociology, one may note four major periods of interest and work: first, that of "folk psychology," with particular reference to sex differences as influenced by society and culture. In this work he was an important predecessor to those now concerned with the interrelations of culture and personality. Second was the interest in linking together cultural anthropology and sociology. Third, he became concerned with what may be called the social psychology of culture with particular reference to matters of bi-racial and intercultural adjustment, as witnessed by his studies of Negro-white relations, and especially by The Polish Peasant. It was in connection with this period that he developed his theory of motivation. The fourth phase may be called his social behaviorism, which stressed situation and response rather than motivation. This standpoint is most clearly evident in his last two books. On the side of method, he was a pioneer

( 104) in the use of the personal document. He saw in it a useful body of material from which to explain the close interplay of personality, society, and culture.

While Thomas never regarded himself essentially a theorist, his empirical researches represented a definite shift in sociology from armchair philosophizing toward a formulation of sociology based on concrete research, the findings of which must in time be adequately systemitized into a comprehensive theory.

Northwestern University



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