Contributions of William Isaac Thomas to Sociology II


Kimball Young
Northwestern University

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The first article (Vol. 47, No. 1, October, 1962, pp. 3-24) described the life of W. I. Thomas, the development of his sociological thought, and the first period (1896-1907) of his writings. During this time he tackled mainly some of the topics of folk psychology. The bibliography of Thomas' publications was included, to which references are made in the series of articles. The major contribution of Thomas to sociology during the second period (1908-1910) are discussed in the present article. The central theme of this period concerns the social psychology of cultural (institutional) origins. The basic analytical concepts were control, attention, habit, and crisis. The principal publication was his Source Book for Social Origins (1909), a large collection of papers on sociology and anthropology. The third, fourth, fifth, and final periods will be described in subsequent articles.


There are really no sharp divisions in the development of Thomas's sociological thinking. Rather there is everywhere evidence of a growing and changing conception of his field of interest. Yet considering the whole range of his work, although it is difficult to set a date to the close of one period and the beginning of another, there are certain turning points. If we think of the first period of interest as that of folk psychology with particular reference to the sociology of sexual differences, we may say that by 1904 he had shifted away from notions of social evolution and of possible psychological foundations of sex differences as fundamental to social interaction, to an emphasis on the dynamics of social behavior and social organization in terms of emotions and habits as they are related to crises, on the one hand, and to changes in culture and social organization, on the other. His paper, "The Province of Social Psychology," read before the International Congress of Arts and Sciences, Department of Sociology, at St. Louis in September, 1904,' in a sense closes this first cycle and opens up another, which was to be given over largely to the consideration of social origins and race problems from the angle of social psychology.

In his earlier papers Thomas had avoided the use of the term "social psychology," which was being used in sociology freely enough by C. A. Ellwood and E. A. Ross. During the first decade of the present

( 124) century, however, Thomas himself began to use the expression and at the same time to abandon the term "folk psychology."

Thomas defined social psychology as the study of "individual mental processes in so far as they are conditioned by society, and the social processes in so far as they are conditioned by states of consciousness." There is in this definition, as we noted above in another connection, the general acceptance of states of "individual consciousness" and of something set off against this called "society." Although one may well call into question this sharp dichotomy between the individual mind and something societal outside it, in the actual discussion of social interaction Thomas's paper raises some fundamental problems for social psychology.

One of the first of these is the relation of crises to group life. A crisis, or set of novel stimuli, gives rise to "changed conditions of consciousness" which break down old habits and form new ones. In these periods, invention, imitation, and suggestion play a fuller role in producing novel adjustments. It is out of crises, in fact, that the so-called culture complexes of morality, religion, social control, art, and material well-being arise. In these critical periods, moreover, leadership and the development of special classes are stimulated because of the need for more adequate adaptation.

Although the data of sociology are basically social organization and social processes, these same factors in terms of "attention and habit" are the subject-matter of social psychology. From the angle of the individual, social control, ritual, delimitations of conflict, race or class contacts, attitudes toward the sexes and toward property serve for social psychological analysis.

In this paper Thomas raised a number of pertinent problems: What of the comparative mental differences in races? How much capacity for inhibition and abstraction have various races? What relation have such deviations to inherent nature, and how much is due to variation in stimulation and opportunity from the state of culture? Since we accept the doctrine of "psychic unity" of all races and the universality of the fundamental needs of human beings, the matter of mental differences must be dealt with in terms other than the simple theories of biological inheritance. Thomas suggests that, after all, temperamental divergences may be more significant than brain capacity "in fixing the characteristic lines of development followed by a group". But we must be cautious not to assume that heredity alone determines deviations in temperament. Thomas does not deny organic variability, but warns us to be careful at all times to take the "state of culture" into account.

( 125) Finally in this same paper Thomas enters a further critical note regarding the theories of cultural stages of evolution and the attendant doctrine of recapitulation. Even at the time this paper was written these two theories still dominated a good deal of sociological and educational theory.' But Thomas' severe strictures of the now completely abandoned theory of individual and cultural recapitulation was further evidence of his sound and critical insight.[3]

During the ten years previously Thomas had been reading steadily the publications in ethnology and without doubt the emergence of what was once called "The School of Historical Ethnology" under the leadership of Franz Boas profoundly influenced Thomas's views. Of particular pertinence was Boas' paper, "The Mind of Primitive Man", published in 1901.[4] Thomas was the first sociologist in this country to understand and appreciate the close relation between ethnology and sociology both as to materials and standpoint. Not until about 1920 did the majority of American sociologists begin to discover the importance of this relationship which Thomas had indicated more than ten years earlier.

During the years 1904-1909, Thomas's attention was directed toward completing the cycle of papers on the social psychology of sex already referred to, and toward the further collection and annotation of racial and cultural materials which he intended to re-interpret from the standpoint of social psychology. In the paper "The Psychology of Race Prejudice", published in 1904, Thomas examined the roots of prejudice and its various forms in primitive and other societies.' At the time this paper was written, using the term "instinct" in a broad and general way, he defined race prejudice as "an instinct originating in the tribal stage of society, when solidarity in feeling and action were essential to the preservation of the group." The term "instinct" should be translated into the term "attitude", as this latter term was later used by Thomas. The roots of prejudice rest on a natural antipathy which is common to "unaccommodated" man, particularly in regard to the basic struggle for survival. Kindlier and more sympathetic reactions are correlated, as Thomas held in earlier papers, with love-making, the reproductive activities, and in the subsequent relations of mother and child. Interestingly enough Thomas seems to have abandoned his thesis of the "lone wolf" man because he points out that in food-getting the higher animals, including man, do assist each other. Moreover, there is "among mammalian forms . . . an instinctive, if not reflective, appreciation of the presence and personality of others." This comes as close to assuming a gregarious or social instinct as one finds anywhere in Thomas's writings.

( 126) Out of this cooperation a community of interest arises which counteracts antipathy and hostility. The latter, however, continue to operate where groups express opposition to strangers or outsiders. Without adopting Sumner's categories of in-group and out-group, Thomas states the essential features of this contrast in attitude:

"If it is assumed, then, that the group comes to have a quasipersonality, and that, like the individual, it has an attitude of suspicion and hostility toward the outside world, and that like the individual also, it has a feeling of intimacy with itself, it follows that the signs of unlikeness in another group are regarded with prejudice''.

A second paper dealing with race problems, entitled "The Significance of the Orient for the Occident",' was given at the American Sociological Society meetings in December, 1907. In this paper prejudice toward outsiders is described as "an organic attitude common not only to mankind but to all animal forms possessing a certain degree of memory, emotion, and gregariousness". This feeling is connected with the struggle for existence and is "primarily based on the instinct of fear". Yet in the relations of the Orient to the Occident, in which prejudice is everywhere evident, the roots of this misunderstanding are to be traced to fundamental differences in culture.

Out of the crisis set up by the contact of the Orient and Occident, significant changes should come through the rise of new leadership, the development of new inventions, and the release of new energies made possible by interstimulation. Both social relations and biological mixture of the races will doubtless contribute to this; and while there has been much talk of our Western influences on the East, the Orient, in turn, may well have a marked effect upon Western civilization.

These two papers, however, are incidental to the principal contribution of this second period, which vas the Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, published in 1909.[8] This volume characterizes most clearly the second stage of his writing. The standpoint was that laid down in his 1904 paper, "The Province of Social Psychology". The volume is more than a mere collection of papers from ethnology and related subjects. It represents an attempt to examine the data on social-cultural origins. Each section of the book closes with a pertinent "comment" by Thomas on the selections therein. Extensive annotated bibliographies representing years of patient reading comprise no small part of the work.

( 127)

The theoretical "Introduction" to this volume is highly important in the whole development of sociological theory.[9] Thomas points out that although the implication of the doctrine of biological evolution for the social sciences is well recognized, the social scientists have tended to ignore the importance of the rich materials of anthropology in getting a proper standpoint in regard to contemporary social life. Moreover, the social scientists have failed "to regard human life and human history as a whole", so concerned have they been in their specialties. To illustrate and support his standpoint, Thomas quotes several pages from James Harvey Robinson's "brilliant essay on History." In this paper Robinson made a plea for the standpoint sometimes known as "The New History" in which attention is given to pre-history, anthropology, and to the whole cultural development of a total civilization in preference to highly specialized, partial pictures of political or economic events.

When we wish to get at general principles of social change, therefore, as Thomas goes on to say, we may even find some of the material of primitive people more valuable than the narrative of events in recorded history. On the analogy of the importance of animal behavior for the understanding of human psychology, Thomas points out that the study of savage society has much to teach us. After all the savage "in his physical and mental make-up and in the forms of his social life" is close to us indeed. "Tribal society is virtually delayed civilization, and the savages are a sort of contemporaneous ancestry".

Systematically considered, the most important feature of Thomas's standpoint in his "Introduction" concerns an elaboration of the four concepts that he had used in his paper, "The Province of Social Psychology". These are control, attention, habit, and crisis. Control may be thought to be the fundamental end of all social interaction. "Control is not a social force, but is the object, realized or unrealized, of all purposive activity.10For the individual, however, attention is equally important. Control "is the end to be secured" by attention. The latter is but the subjective aspect of the former. Attention, moreover, "does not operate alone"; it is associated with habit and with crisis. When habits are working smoothly, attention is relaxed. Crisis, which "is simply a disturbance of habit", reinstates attention and forces a reorganization of habits to meet the new situation.

The concept of crisis needs further elucidation. Thomas points out that the "run of crises" differs among various individuals and races. This fact will, in part, account for differentials in the rate of social change, since "the same crisis will not produce the same effect uniformly".

( 128)

This leads directly to a consideration of the relation of attention and crisis to three important matters: "(1) the presence of extraordinary individuals in the group, (2) the level of culture of the group, and (3) the character of the ideas by which the group-mind is prepossessed".[11]

This recognition of individual differences means that Thomas gives an important place to leadership in his analysis of social change. Over and over again superior persons have marked the character of entire civilizations: Moses, Christ, Mohammed, Confucius.

And yet the level of culture delimits the ability of the person to meet a crisis and to make a new adjustment. As Thomas puts it:

"If the amount of general knowledge is small and the material resources scanty, the mind may find no way out of an emergency which under different conditions would be only the occasion for further progress.... The individual mind cannot rise much above the level of the group-mind, and the group-mind will be simple if the outside environmental conditions and the antecedent racial experiences are simple. On this account it is just to attribute important movements and inventions to individuals only in a qualified sense. The extraordinary individual works on the material and psychic fund already present, and if the situation is not ripe neither is he ripe. From this standpoint we can understand why it is almost never possible to attribute any great modern invention to any single person. When the state of science and the social need reach a certain point a number of persons are likely to solve the same problem."[12]

The third factor, although related closely to the second, deserves further mention. Adaptation to the crisis will itself be determined by the nature of the earlier accommodations. Old habits work more or less automatically, and there is always tremendous conservatism and a "determined resistance to change." This fosters readjustment upon habitual foundations; that is, "attention to crisis is conditioned by the ideas which prepossess the mind". Among savage peoples this condition is peculiarly evident since they have not been trained to scientific, objective forms of thought and they lack the requisite information on which to predicate reorganization of their lives along any radically new lines.

In short, Thomas makes out a case for the study of cultural origins and social development in terms of a dynamic social psychology in which such variables as attention, habit-formation, purpose, and control represent the most significant. Added to this is the concept of crisis or novel situation which forces alterations in the attention and habit-levels of the members of a society. There is here a framework for a psychology of culture. The contemporary technical critic may object to some of the

( 129) concepts, such as the use of the terms "group-mind" or folk-mind", but since it is everywhere clearly evident that these are at best descriptive metaphors for what we should call "culture", and that they are not used for classification or explanation, the weight of such criticism falls to the ground.

In order to guard himself and his readers against some of the then current fallacies of sociology and social psychology, Thomas in the third and final section of his "Introduction" takes up three familiar errors of the time: particularism, unilinear evolution, and recapitulation.

By particularism Thomas refers to the tendency to employ some single item in a social situation as the sole cause.

"The error of the particularistic method lies in overlooking the fact that the mind employs the principle of abstraction-sees general principles behind details and that the precise detail with which the process of abstraction begins cannot in all cases be posited or determined.”[13]

As we have already noted, the idea of unilinear social-cultural evolution was generally accepted at that period, and Thomas was among the first American sociologists to give up his former qualified use of the concept and to see what the new materials and method in ethnology mean for the study of social processes and social change. He writes:

"Neither can we look too curiously into the order of emergence of inventions nor assume a straight and uniform line of development among all the races ....

The attempt to classify culture by epochs is similarly doomed to failure when made too absolutely. The frugivorous, the hunting, the pastoral, and the agricultural are the stages usually assumed. But the Indian was a hunter, while his squaw was an agriculturist ... . Different groups take steps in culture in a different order, and the order depends on the general environmental situation, the nature of the crises arising, and the operation of the attention".[14]

Related to the notion of unilinear evolution was that of recapitulation, that is, that the child repeats the biological and cultural history of the race in a series of well-marked stages, and that moreover the primitive man today represents a kind of child-race and child-culture, which is but a vestigial hangover of this social evolution. We have already noted Thomas's reaction to these ideas.

In the light of the amazing hold which such errors of particularism as race differences, "geographical determinism", recapitulation, and

( 130) evolutionism have played and continue to play in sociology, it will be well to trace rather briefly Thomas's treatment of the various facets of primitive culture and note especially his critical comments. This will serve to give a better idea of the content of his Source Book, and will enable us to see in more detail how he applied his point of view. We shall for convenience follow the author's own organization of material.

Part I, "The Relation of Society to Geography and Economic Environment" contains eight papers, by Ellen C. Semple, W. J. McGee, Otis T. Mason, Frederic Ratzel, H. Ling Roth, William J. Sumner, and Karl Bücher. In his critical "Comment" Thomas points out that in one sense the relation of culture to geographical environment "can hardly be exaggerated", but that in another sense it may be greatly overdone".

"... After all, culture is more fundamentally connected with the operations of the human mind than with the aspects of nature. Nature may affect the rate and particular form of progress and limit its degree, but human society takes the same general pattern everywhere ....

 It is plain also that the force of climate and geography is greater in the lower stages of culture and that ideas play an increasing role".[15]

Part II, "Mental Life and Education", presents ten papers. The first three of these, by Franz Boas, John Dewey, and Thomas himself, represent a "sound standpoint" and are the clue to the interpretation of all the papers in the volume which follow. Other papers in this section are by Herbert Spencer, A. W. Howitt, B. Spencer, F. J. Gillen, and by Thomas; and a paper by Boas on "The Growth of Indian Mythologies" which "touches on the question of the parallel development of ideas in different geographical areas, as compared with the spread of ideas from one area to another". This is one of the classic papers on cultural diffusion.

Part III, "Invention and Technology", deals with materials on tools, primitive mechanical devices used in war and elsewhere, the origin of navigation, of the plough, of the wheeled carriage, and a general discussion of invention and discovery in relation to environment and the limitations of cultural isolation rather than to lack of "mental organization" in primitive man. These papers are from the writing of Otis T. Mason, A. L. Pitt-Rivers, E. B. Tylor, and F. Ratzel.

In Part IV, "Sex and Marriage", there are two selections from E. Westermarck, one by B. Spencer and F. J. Gillen on Australian

( 131) marriage, one by W.H.R. Rivers on polyandry, one by Herbert Spencer on monogamy, and a concluding paper by E. Crawley on sex taboos.

While appreciative of Westermarek's great contribution, Thomas made a number of incisive criticisms of his theory of primitive, instinctive monogamy, showing that the Australian marriage systems might be cited in contradiction ; and that had Rivers wished, he could from his data on the Todas have made out a good case for polyandry as the most primitive marriage form. Rather than confuse ourselves with attempting to force such data into any rigid scheme, Thomas recognizes that these variations in systems of marriage themselves, like food regulations and other items in a culture, are "particular experiences and acts of attention of a particular people", and not vestigial remains of a necessarily universal condition of extreme primitivity. In the same way Thomas criticizes Westermarck's theory of marriage by purchase as a kind of sublimation or substitution of earlier and universal marriage by capture. So, too, Herbert Spencer's discussion of monogamy is filled with "fanciful inferences" which we should today call rationalizations of his own culture rather than a careful analysis of the cultures of others.

Part V, "Art, Ornamentation, and Decoration", is made up of selections from the work of A. C. Haddon on primitive art, F. Ratzel on clothing and ornamentation, W. H. Holmes on ceramic art, E. Grosse on dancing, R. Wallascheck on primitive dramatics, and Yrjö Hirn on the relation of art to social control. For Thomas "both religion and art are characterized by high states of emotion, resulting in change of habit," and in this way art is quite as important a key to many aspects of primitive life as would be written records for more advanced peoples.

Part VI, "Magic, Religion, Myth", contains papers by J. G. Frazer, A. W. Howitt, William Jones, E. B. Tylor, and Herbert Spencer. Of Spencer's paper defending ancestor-worship as the original form of religion, although it has some good illustrative material, "has nothing in its favor except its admirable ingenuity".

There has long been and still is a great dispute regarding the relation of religion and magic. Efforts have been made to establish the priority of one over the other in time, or to separate them sharply as to function. The following comment by Thomas shows a balanced point of view on this topic:

"Both magic and religion are expressions of the logical faculty of a mind working unscientifically.

But while theoretically separable, magic, religion, belief in ghosts, and belief in nature-spirits practically run into one another and

(132)    become inextricably mingled. It is idle also to attempt to establish a priority in favor of any one of these elements. They are all expressions of the human mind, as soon as there is such a mind, and the dominance of one element or another is determined by the incidents of life and the operation of the attention".[16]

The final division of the volume, Part VII, has to do with "Social Organization, Morals, the State". There are excellent papers by F. Ratzel on the state, by H. W. Hewitt and by B. Spencer and F. J. Gillen on the methods of control in Australia, by L. H. Morgan on the Iroquois and on customs of hospitality among the American Indians, by Hutton Webster on secret societies, and by J. W. Powell on Wyandot government.

As Thomas indicated in various commentaries, religion, magic, myth, education, art, and even the economic order all relate to social organization and moral control, and several papers in earlier sections bear equally on the subject-matter of other sections. In fact, it is necessary to see the interrelation of various features of a given culture. The final comment is an incisive critique of the comparative, evolutionary method in anthropology. The following quotation admirably sums up Thomas's views on the problem as it related to his social psychological analysis of primitive life:

"No object can be completely understood when separated front the whole culture of which it is a part, and no culture can be understood when its fragments are dislocated. On the other hand, when cultures are displayed by regions and understood as wholes, it is still possible to compare the different regions and the different cultural elements in the different regions ...

It is a noticeable defect in the work of the type of Westermarck and Herbert Spencer that the writers cannot reconcile with their theories all the ethnological statements which their collect and present. When the fragments are counted and compared there always remain sonic exceptions, which are treated as exceptions and counted as negligible. The explanation of all the facts can be effected. If at all, only through the regional study of cultures and the application of the standpoint of attention, habit, and crisis".[17]

The psychological framework which Thomas erected was simple and direct. He did not introduce a large number of complicating terms into his standpoint, but found that "attention", "habit", "purpose", and "crisis" served sufficiently. These concepts were for Thomas objective and convenient categories for description and explanation.


The anthropological background against which Thomas projected his social psychological analyses was most advanced for its time. He avoided unilinear evolutionism and recapitulation, and saw the folly of other particularistic explanations. He used the comparative method, but recognized the need to study any particular culture as a totality in its time and place. He realized, too, the importance in social change of inventive leadership. The one item in present American ethnological theory which he (lid not fully appreciate at the time was diffusionism. Although he quoted with approval sections of Boas's paper on the diffusion of the raven myth among the Northwest Coast Indians, in which the problem of parallelism and diffusionism are discussed, Thomas evidently did not catch the full implication of this viewpoint for any systematic study of ,social-cultural origins and development. He rested his case, from the anthropologist's point of view, too strongly on geographical and psychological determinism. The addition of the concept of diffusionism to his idea of the place of leadership and invention would have distinctly strengthened his social psychological and cultural analysis.

With his work on the sociology of sex and on social origins more or less out of the way, during the next ten years Thomas spent most of his time investigating cultural assimilation, especially of the Polish immigrant in this country. As lie worked over the whole field of contemporary culture groups, he developed a rather elaborate statement of standpoint and method which was published in 1912 under the title "Race Psychology: Standpoint and Questionnaire, with Particular Reference to the Immigrant and the Negro".[18] This paper marks the transition from the period of social origins to that represented by his great contribution oil the Polish peasant. Again there is continuity of growth rather than a sharp break in standpoint or method, and certain features of the 1912 paper bring out this very development.

As Thomas put it, this paper is "not a contribution to theory, but .. . a tool", that is, a body of important concepts about social life and the individual to be used in research. Nevertheless, method does influence social theory, since the means of treating one's data will, in the end, affect one's interpretation of these data.

In his standpoint toward racial, immigrant, or other groups of divergent culture levels, Thomas follows rather definitely the point of view laid down in his earlier papers on prejudice and on social psychology and in Source Book for Social Origins. He re-states and elaborates this viewpoint as follows:

( 134)

"Without ignoring economic determinism or denying the importance of specific race characters, I have assumed that individual variation is of more importance than racial difference, and that the main factors in social change are attention, interest, stimulation, imitation, occupational differentiation, mental attitude, and accessibility to opportunity and copies".[19]

On this foundation Thomas discusses various important categories. There are seventeen of these, some of which are really subordinate to others. Of these, five are more strictly speaking, psychological ; twelve are more distinctly sociological. And vet all of his material is approached from the angle of social psychology, that is to say, how does the individual affect the social groups in which he lives and how do the groups, in turn, influence the individual?

The five more strictly psychological headings are "mental faculties" attention habit "crisis", and "imitation". In regard to the first, Thomas elaborates his earlier discussion, pointing out that all races possess the same fundamental psychological powers "such as memory, inhibition, abstraction, logical ability", and that often even the grossest superstitions show "a careful and consistent logical process based on premises which we reject". It is the difference of culture, not of mental ability per se, which largely determines the levels of mind.

The treatment of attention, habit, and crisis simply elaborates what he had discussed elsewhere, but with pertinent notations of the processes as related to the Negro and immigrant. Under crisis he makes the particularly good point that the "pace" or rate of energy consumption of a group has much to do with its success or failure and that, moreover, the introduction of a person from an alien society into ours, where there is a distinctly higher pace of life, constitutes a terrific crisis which requires re-adaptation or failure.

The concept imitation had not hitherto had much place in Thomas's social psychology, but he believed the concept valuable in treating the rate of diffusion of various practices among people, although, as noted above, he does not employ the term diffusion. On the other hand, he does point out the opposite principle to imitation, namely, parallelism of invention, which operates in certain cases of tribes quite remote from each other. Furthermore, he indicates that parallelism is apparently more likely to arise in "primary social expressions"-approval of bravery, censure of treachery, property rights, tribal organization, feud, simple mechanical inventions, magic, the representative arts, and some "shalt nots"-while "secondary and specialized attitudes, like representative

( 135) government, free schools, scientific experimentation, and the equal recognition of women, originate slowly or not at all, but are imitated with extreme facility when conditions are favorable.”[20]

Many anthropologists might object to this separation of primary and secondary social or cultural factors in terms of possible independent invention or diffusion. But it is a distinctly original idea and shows that Thomas was not unaware of the problem of handling cultural data from the angle of diffusion and invention.

The importance of leadership and special talent in setting the patterns for imitation is stressed, since the place of the divergent individual is highly important in breaking down the resistance to change fostered by the mores.

Of the more strictly sociological concepts Thomas stresses isolation. Both the Negro and the immigrant are handicapped in their social participation by the fact of cultural, if not geographical, isolation, and from this standpoint race prejudice "may be regarded as a form of isolation". The change from one community to another for immigrant or Negro does not eliminate isolation and prejudice. Actually it may enhance them.

Thomas further points out that economic conditions, occupational and class status, and level of knowledge and skill go far in determining many of the major features of personal life organization. In these, prejudice and status make assimilation difficult.[21]

It is also necessary to pay attention to the various facets of social organization found in the family, the community, and such specialized groupings as gangs, voluntary associations, and clubs. The deep influence of the primary group contacts is particularly noteworthy. But secondary groups also affect the person's behavior in a variety of ways.

The discussion of art and play is a follow-up of his earlier thesis, related to Dewey's standpoint, that "the human mind is constructed on the “hunting pattern." The role of art and play cannot be ignored, writes Thomas, because they originated as a substitute for or escape from such unpleasant conditions as work and drudgery. As he puts it, "the primary function of art, as of recreation, is to rehearse situations of stress and strain in the humdrum intervals of life."[22]

The treatment of magic and religion, of the position of women, and of moral ideas is merely an application of his earlier standpoint to the problem of the immigrant and the Negro. At the close of the paper there is a discussion of methods of work and a tentative questionnaire to be used as a guide for the collection of data.

( 136)

For his purpose materials for the interpretation "of the mental life of a race" or other group "may be assembled on three principles-from personal observation, from undesigned, and from designed records." In regard to the first, Thomas says that living among the group, "preferably in a family", is highly important in order to "get the context of the group life." One must, however, be peculiarly careful not to generalize from exceptional cases. "Be suspicious of striking cases ; they may be as surprising to the people among whom they occur as they are to you". One should record the rare case but as an exception. So too, one must be cautious of misunderstandings because of lack of full knowledge of the language, both denotations as well as connotations. Thomas is skeptical of the interview unless carefully controlled. The ordinary member of a tribe or group has a singular capacity to mislead the outsider about features of his behavior. Interviews with public and semi-public officials, ministers, editors, teachers, doctors, and others may be used. "Designed" records are those from historical, ethnological, and folk-lore sources, which though not written from the social psychological standpoint, offer valuable material. Among "undesigned" records of importance are "letters, diaries, newspapers, records of court, church and club, sermons, addresses, school curricula, and even handbills and almanacs." Thomas illustrates his point by reference to the letters of the immigrant to those at home and theirs to him, which particular material he was at the time collecting for his study of the Polish peasant.

This paper, in short, presents Thomas's standpoint and method in collecting his research materials. It is really the sociologist's adaptation and combination of the field method of the ethnologist with the case-study method of the social worker. In the history of American sociology, it represents one of the first systematic attempts to formulate a program of research from this angle. That it has had a profound effect is evident today.[23]


  1. American Journal of Sociology, 10 (Jan., 1905), 445-55.
  2. In 1904, the very year that Thomas read his paper on social psychology at St. Louis, President G. Stanley Hall of Clark University published in two volumes his magnum opus, Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education (New York: Appleton, 1904). This extensive work was the high-water mark of the whole school of genetic psychology in this country who followed Hall in his thesis of recapitulation of culture stages within the individual. The sociologists pretty thoroughly accepted the Spencer-Morgan theories of unilinear social evolution, although they might be critical of recapitulation. See F.H. Giddings, Principles of Sociology, (New York: Macmillan, 1896), as a case in point.
  3. See "The Province of Social Psychology," op. cit., pp. 454-55 for an excellent statement on the fallacy of recapitulation.
  4. Journal of American Folk-Lore, 14 (1901), 1-11. Reprinted in Thomas's Source Book for Social Origins, pp. 143-55.
  5. American Journal of Sociology, 9 (March, 1904), 593-611.
  6. Ibid., 601. In his earlier paper, "Sex in Primitive Morality," op. cit., 774-87, Thomas had implied Sumner's in-group versus out-group contrast in discussing the evolution of morality.
  7. American Journal of Sociology, 13 (May, 1908), 729-42; 754-55; also in Publications of the American Sociological Society, 2 (1908), 111-24, 136-37.
  8. Issued originally by the University of Chicago Press. Later published by R. G. Badger Co., Boston.
  9. This introduction appeared separately as a paper, "Standpoint for the Interpretation of Savage Society," in American Journal of Sociology, 15 September 1909), 145-63. References will be -to the Source Book for Social Origins.
  10. Source Book for Social Origins, 14.
  11. Ibid., 18-19.
  12. Ibid., 20. On the last point raised by Thomas, see IV. F. Ogburn's discussion on this problem in his Social Change (New York: The Viking Press, 1922)80-102.
  13. Ibid., 24. The reader of pages 14 to 16 only of the Source Book might believe that Thomas himself had fallen into a peculiarly serious particularistic fallacy. Speaking of "control" as an "elemental or dominant" social force, lie says that it is a "useful concept" into which all activity can be translated, or to which it can at least be related." And the wide application of the concept in the accompanying examples might easily confirm one's suspicion if he read no further.
  14. Ibid., 25-26.
  15. Ibid., 130.
  16. Ibid., 733-34.
  17. Ibid., 857-58. Italics not in the original.
  18. American Journal of Sociology, 17 (May, 1912), 725-75. 
  19. Ibid., 726.
  20. Ibid., 741-42.
  21. Thomas does not use this term here, but does so in later writing. 22 Ibid., 758.
  22. See the contribution to these problems in John Dollard, Criteria for the Life History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935).

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