Contributions of William Isaac Thomas to Sociology IV


Kimball Young
Northwestern University



The final phase of Thomas' career was marked by a distinctive shift in standpoint and method. The subjective dimensions of attitudes and values are redefined in relation to a situation al-behavioristic approach. The chief publication of the fourth period was The Child in America (1928), with Dorothy Swaine Thomas as co-author. The fifth section centers on Thomas' last book, Primitive Behavior (1937), consisting chiefly of papers from cultural anthropology. In concluding the series of articles an attempt is made to present a brief interpretation of the total contribution of W. I. Thomas to sociology.


In 1927, as president of the American Sociological Society, Thomas delivered an address, "The Behavior Pattern and the Situation,"[1] which represents a direct transition from the use of concepts of wishes, attitudes, and values to the standpoint in the volume The Child in America, which he was writing at that time. He states:

"In approaching the problems of behavior it is possible to emphasize---to have in the focus of attention for working purposes-either the attitude, the value, or the situation. The attitude is the tendency to act, representing the drive, the affective states, the wishes. The value represents the object or goal desired, and the situation represents the configuration of the factors conditioning the behavior reaction. It is also possible to work from the standpoint of adaption---that is, how are attitudes and values modified according to the demands of given situations."[2]

As a method, the situational approach seems to give much promise to behavior studies. It has been developed by the physiologist and the psychologist in particular. This method possesses something of the experimental objectivity desirable in science since the "situations are planned and the behavior reactions observed, or advantage is taken of existing situations to study the reactions of individuals comparatively."

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It is not to be thought that the situational approach ignores or obscures factors such as wishes, attitudes, and values; "on the contrary, it reveals them". Referring to the research in animal behavior which has used the situational method, Thomas remarks, "A complete study of situations would give a complete account of the rat's attitudes, values, and intelligence." And by implication, a complete study of situations of the human being would likewise give a complete picture of a person's attitudes, values, and intelligence.

Just what this means may be a bit difficult to state. Evidently such a complete situational analysis would involve both subjective and objective situations, although apparently Thomas is here speaking of objective situations only. If he means the latter, then such a statement could only mean that "attitudes, values, and intelligence" could be completely understood as situational correlates. One might legitimately raise the question whether this standpoint does not depart from that given in the "Methodological Note" of the Polish study, in which the two factors, attitude and value, are related together, one as subjective, the other as objective variable. We shall discuss this problem below in connection with


This latter volume appeared in the autumn of 1928. The purpose of the study was first to survey the many methods of research and various practical programs which had been developed, in child study and, second, to give them a social psychological and sociological appraisal "as a means of prediction and control" of behavior. The collection of the basic material for this volume was largely done by Thomas himself. In working up certain aspects of the material, and in dealing with methodological problems, particularly on the statistical side, he was aided by Dorothy Swaine Thomas, whose name appears as collaborator in the published volume.

The book is organized into three sections. Part I, "Varieties of Maladjustment," contains but one chapter, which reports forty-six illustrations of various sorts, of organic peculiarities, and physical, mental, and emotional difficulties related to divergent habits and attitudes indicative of social maladjustment.

Part II, "Practical Programs," reviews in six chapters the most striking efforts of educators, juvenile court authorities, psychiatrists, and social workers to develop methods of dealing with behavior problems of children. In all these social programs the principal attention has been put upon remedy rather than upon research, although naturally a great deal of research material has turned up, some valid, some doubtful.

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Part III, "Research Programs", contains six chapters dealing with more strictly scientific methods of investigating child behavior. The first of these is the psychometric technique, more commonly called the intelligence measurement method. The second is that of "personality testing," in which attention is directed to the nonintellectual, that is, emotional and social traits. The method of psychiatry is given a chapter with reference to both the neurological and the so-called functional approaches. Psychoanalysis is completely ignored. There is also a chapter devoted to the "physiological-morphological" method of studying behavior. In this chapter the authors review the work of the biochemists, the endocrinologists, the anatomists, and the students of morphology, like Kretschmer, who are interested in the relation of physique to personality. The final chapter in this section deals with what the authors call "the sociological approach". The work of the Pavlov school on conditioning is introduced, followed by comments on research in child behavior by Esther L. Richards, Charlotte Bühler, John E. Anderson, Mary T. Woolley, J. J. Piaget, and others. Also reference is made to the work of Burgess, Shaw, and others in juvenile delinquency, especially as related to the ecology of the community.

Although there are data in all the chapters of this book which warrant critical comment, for our purpose we shall confine ourselves to the material in the final chapter, "The Methodology of Behavior Study", since it represents the fundamental standpoint and discussion of method.

The authors assume that the aim of scientific behavior studies is prediction and control. In getting at causation, leading to the formulation of laws, selection of pertinent factors is important. A "complete causal explanation of any phenomenon" is impossible. Even in the exact sciences the "laws" apply only within definite limits laid down in the logical premises and in the controlled situation. In the field of human behavior, with so many variables everywhere apparent, we have to deal with probability predictions rather than with precise or exact predictions. This may lead not to a complete but to an "adequate causal explanation of behavior," which is all we may ask.

With this point of view, how does one attack the matter of behavior-? On the one hand we have the organism, on the other the environment, or situation, as Thomas prefers to call it. One might approach the organism from the angle of the wants, wishes, needs, instincts, or tendencies couched in physiological or psychological terms. These wants themselves arise out of changes in the internal physiological environment "in which the organism lives." But, according to Thomas, for behavior study we must

( 384) know also the other set of variables, namely the "world of outer space in which the organism behaves." As he puts it: ". . . . While the organism lives in the inner environment its behavior takes place in, and is provoked and conditioned by, the outer environment."[3]

For the sociologist and social psychologist, nothing is gained by attempting to deal with this "internal environment" or with its manifestations in the field of wants, and their "preformed tendencies" to act in specific ways. To discuss complex social behavior of the individual in terms of internal tendencies leads almost always to an intellectual and logical cul de sac from which we can not extricate ourselves. The authors suggest another approach. They say:

"The traditional interpretations of behavior have worked from this approach and with these data. Focusing on ‘instincts,' 'consciousness,' ‘original nature,' they attempted to explain why the organism behaves in given ways in view of its internal nature and structure, and the attempt has led to a great deal of controversy and much confusion. On the contrary, we find that all the programs which we outlined in the preceding chapter are behavioristic. They ignore largely questions of the organic causation of behavior, the `why' of behavior reactions and limit themselves to the observation, measurement and comparison of behavior manifestations---how the individual behaves in specific situations. This is precisely what the scientist does. He has learned to limit his problems to conditions which he can measure. He does not inquire why his materials behave in given ways but how they behave in given situations."[4]

In other words, the authors are convinced that the only satisfactory way to measure behavior must be concerned with "behavior expression," not with "behavior mechanisms." Not only must we neglect instincts, reflexes, or original traits, but talk of causation in categories, such as inferiority complexes, tantrums, obstinacy, or truancy, is meaningless unless it is checked against the differentials of the situation in which they occur. While in the case of the very young child the concept "original nature" and the concept "situation" may be used together, as soon as learning gets under way, the attempt to deal with "original nature" leads to all kinds of methodological difficulties. The more adequate approach is through the situation, which they regard as "the only one capable of giving a rational basis for the control of behavior.[5]

The situational standpoint permits the use of both statistical and case study methods, and one method may serve as a check against the other. Such recognition of the statistical method is new to the work of W. I. Thomas. Up to this time, his method and standpoint had dealt largely

( 385) with the historico-genetic or "behavior document" materials. Out of his contact with the wealth of data from practical programs and research investigations in the field of child behavior, he became aware of the importance of the statistical method. Moreover, he evidently convinced himself that the "only" sound method in behavior studies is the situational, in which both the statistical and case study methods may be used.

The existence of a set of complex variables is self-evident in behavior studies. In social and human material we can not control these variables in any truly experimental way. Certain methods such as the morphological, physiological, and psychometric have isolated certain variables from the totality of behavior. Such an isolated factor as hydrogen ion concentration in the saliva may be simple to measure. Or some physical trait or special mental function may also be measured with considerable accuracy. But as Thomas says, the relationship of such a variable "to other behavior variables" is a very complicated matter. Still we may hope for aid by statistical techniques:

"Although it is impossible to set up real control for the solution of a problem, if groups of individuals roughly similar in a large number of attributes can be studied in varying situations the specific type of behavior resulting may be compared, statistically, for the different situations and inferences drawn as to the relative effects of the situations on the behavior."[6]

The statistical method, therefore, may be used, but it must be used intelligently. It is not a substitute for strict experimentation, and we must not be misled by an appearance of accuracy and completeness. Often enough the relation of certain variables may be determined statistically, but it may be quite likely that we are at the same time ignoring other and perhaps more significant variables simply because we can not yet state them in quantitative form.[7]

True enough, statistics have often been employed in a way to give a false appearance of accuracy and dependability. The authors discuss the weakness of most rating schemes, the inadequacies of such methods as June Downey's will-temperament test, where there is an assumption that a habit like speed of handwriting may be the clue to such complex social behavior as "speed of decision," or of such a study as G. J. Rich's, in which very accurate biochemical measurements are correlated with a crude rating of ill-defined character traits, or again of various psychometric measurements made on the assumption that they were measuring directly inherited traits or capacities. In the same way various personality

( 386) tests and psychiatric methods have tried to deal with behavior from the inside, that is, in terms of inner drives, instincts, and emotions, rather than by studying behavior under carefully controlled situational differentials and from this basis making whatever inferences seemed necessary about the whys of behavior. Only in this way shall we be able to develop adequate controls. When these situational differentials are well set up, statistical devices may be and have been used effectively.

There are, then, many limitations to the statistical method. While valid for verification of relationships, there has been a great deal of statistical manipulation of data which did not warrant such treatment. To work out precise measures on inexact data is one of the major vices of many persons now using this method. No statistical manipulations can improve the quality of the basic data, nor should the interpretations ever go beyond "the assumptions on which the methods were based" in mathematical logic.

When statistics are properly controlled, however, they are of great importance. They aid us in forming our inferences about motivations of conduct and give a clue as to which sets of behavior factors to anticipate in our prediction of probabilities. It is here that the "behavior document" -the case record, life story, psychiatric report-becomes important. These documents represent a continuity in behavior situations; they represent the time series which is so difficult to get at statistically in dealing with human materials. As the authors put it:

"In a good record of this kind we are able to view the behavior reactions in the various situations, the emergence of personality traits, the determination of concrete acts and the formation of life policies, in their evolution. Perhaps the greatest importance of the behavior document is the opportunity it affords to observe the attitudes of other persons as behavior-forming influences, since the most important situations in the development of personality are the attitudes and values of other persons... .

"There may be, and is, doubt as to the objectivity and veracity of the record, but even the highly subjective record has a value for behavior study. 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 terns of objective reality or in terms of a subjective appreciation-'as if' it were so."[8]

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The recognition that the beliefs, fictions, myths, and legends which men accept are important in behavior analysis is absolutely necessary if we are to understand their definitions of behavior. As Thomas puts it, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."

The behavior document, itself, however, must be used with caution. There has been an undue tendency to generalize about behavior on the basis of case records. The weighting of various factors is difficult. Moreover, comparison with a wide sample of cases is not always possible. In this matter both the case method and the statistical method have been open to criticism. In getting at causation of behavior, it has been common to generalize on the basis of facts discovered about the abnormal and the anti-social persons, without checking the existence of such facts, be they traits, habits, or acts, among the so-called "normal" and "socialized" sections of the population. Although Charles Goring long ago showed the absurdity of many of Lombroso's claims regarding criminality, we have continued to make similar misjudgments in accounting for divergent forms of conduct without knowing if the attributed causes of such conduct were genuine or not. We have an unscientific practice of studying social phenomena from the angle of the "abnormal," which is considered "bad" per se, and ipso facto in need of reform. As the authors put it:

"How can we call certain experiences `causative factors' in a delinquent group when we do not know the frequency of the same factors in a non-delinquent group? In order to determine the relation of a given experience to delinquency it would be necessary to compare the frequency of the sane experience in the delinquent group and in a group representing the general non-delinquent population. It is obviously absurd to claim that feeblemindedness or psychopathic disposition is the cause of crime so long as we have no idea of the prevalence of these traits in the general population."[9]

Thus the situational approach, if properly used, takes into account, first the matter of sampling and of control groups; second, the determination, within the limits of one's best judgment, of statistically reliable variables of conduct; and third, the use, at all points, of the behavior documents of the individuals studied in order to check the inferences made from the statistical findings and constantly to suggest new sets of variables in overt behavior which may be studied by quantitative methods[10]

In the concluding paragraphs of their chapter on methodology, the authors express the hope that out of the more adequate "studies of the various behavior-forming situations" now going forward, we may in time develop a method by which to "approach the still more obscure problem

( 388) of mass behavior" such as fashion, "mob action, war hysteria, gang spirit," advertising influences, and even those intangible matters which make up "the distinctive character of communities, nationalities, and races." Thus, characteristically, does Thomas, in closing this important contribution to sociology and social psychology, suggest other lines of research not yet undertaken.


For many years---often interrupted by other obligations---Thomas had been preparing a volume dealing with primitive culture, to supplement and bring down to date his Source Book for Social Origins. This book appeared in January, 1937, under the title Primitive Behavior." Since 1909, when the Source Book was published, considerable advancement has been made in cultural anthropology and in social psychology. In this latest work Thomas has attempted to analyze a vast quantity of data on primitive peoples in terms of variations in the definitions of situations. He states his aim thus:

"The present volume is presented as a study in culture history from the sociopsychological standpoint. Its general objective is an examination of the varieties of human response to the stimuli of various cultural situations and the exemplification of the degree of adaptability of the human organism as shown in individual and organizational behavior reactions and the resultant group habits and social codes.[12]

In the opening chapter Thomas notes three well-known methods of interpreting primitive behavior: (1) that all societies and races pass through regular and similar stages of development, illustrated by the familiar theory of unilinear cultural evolution developed by Herbert Spencer, L. H. Morgan, and E. B. Tylor ; (2) that "the higher cultures are the result of superior inborn mental endowment" among the various races ; and (3) that different rates of advancement and the levels of culture depend upon the "more or less favorable geographic positions and economic conditions" in which different tribes or nations find themselves. Rejecting all three of these outmoded views, Thomas states the following assumptions:

... Diversities in behavior and culture are the result of different interpretations of experience, resulting in characteristic behavior reactions and habit system, and that a uniform course of cultural and behavioral evolution is consequently out of the question.

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". . . . Theories of difference in degrees of mental endowment among races and populations and of inborn racial `psyches' have not been sustained; that such differences as may possibly exist have not played a noticeable role in the development of behavior and culture, and that the manifest group psyches are not inborn but developed through experience and habit systems... .

".... Emphasis should be placed on the culture area rather than the natural environment. In their adjustive strivings territorially isolated groups develop, through their specific experiences, characteristic values and habits, some of them unique, and the circulation of these traits, their migration from area to area, and the borrowing back and forth, represents a sort of social inheritance, and is perhaps the main basis of social change and of advance to the cultural level termed `civilization."[13]

The fundamental concepts which Thomas uses are not very different from those which he used in his The Child in America, although he does use the case study rather than the statistical method which he considered so vital in that volume. Here he applies his standpoint without much modification to various aspects of primitive culture. Rather than to adopt the historical method of describing more or less completely total culture areas (in spite of his statement that he will emphasize the "culture area" rather than the "natural environment"), he selects his illustrative materials from the whole range of primitive societies, except for one chapter on a single Bantu tribe. In addition he has at times taken historical data from China, India, and Egypt and other societies of the "fertile crescent" where he wishes to illustrate some particular point.

The major portion of his work is presented in a series of chapters containing extensive selections and the accompanying comments. For instance, he discusses in separate chapters the place of language, of kinship systems, and the relations of residence and lineage, in which latter he brings new material to bear upon the problems of the relations of maternal and paternal lineage in tracing descent, the location of households, and some features of social control. The place of taboo in societal relations is treated in particular with reference to incest and to other patterns of avoidance. lie discusses status changes within the group or tribe. There are also long chapters on "Sexual Behavior", on "Puberty Ceremonies", and on "Patterns of Distinction", that is, on forms of prestige and caste or class organization. Religion and magic are treated in a chapter entitled, "Spiritual Intimacies and Avoidances". There are two chapters on political organization, one on primitive government, the other entitled "Primitive Law". The latter might better have been

( 390) entitled, "Forms and Functions of Social Control" since it covers much more material than what are ordinarily considered as legalistic controls. There is also a chapter on diffusion of culture with ample illustrations, and a chapter giving a picture of certain cultural patterns of the Chagga tribe of Africa, drawn largely from Gutmann.[14] The volume closes with an excellent chapter, "The Relative Mental Endowment of Races", although unfortunately it does not make use of some of the important research material on this problem from T. R. Garth, Otto Klineberg, and Mandel Sherman.[15]

At the close of the volume there is an extensive bibliography of 1,664 titles covering not only the major topics of the various chapters, but also giving references to papers and books on primitive peoples classified under the various continental divisions of the world. Without a doubt this bibliography in connection with the older and even longer one in the Source Book for Social Origins constitutes an invaluable guide in cultural anthropology.[16]

Limitations of space prevent any adequate review of the separate chapters, but we may summarize the essential standpoint used in the interpretation under the following headings: (1) Great diversities in behavior and hence in culture patterns are found in various societies. These Thomas considers in terms of generally accepted definitions of situations. (2) The basic motivations of behavior follow the hunting pattern of life which Thomas had discussed much earlier in his Source Book. This leads to a certain combination of competition, conflict, rivalry, and also of mutual aid in bringing about adaptation of the individual and his group to the world around them. Thomas does not employ the concepts of the four wishes in any systematic way, but in his interpretations lie does use the concepts of desire for security and safety and of the desire for recognition as two fundamental motivations that develop in the individual in society. (3) The most distinctive feature of his entire treatment is his psychologizing of the varieties of culture found in primitive societies. Without giving them any systematic or general theoretical bearing he employs such terms now current in sociology and cultural anthropology as "social distance," "personality," "inhibition," "habit systems," "rationalization," "diffusion," "borrowing," and "independent invention." He indicates the role of the dominant person, of the various levels of adaptation which are in use in different cultural groups, and the manner in which a settled and accepted culture pattern tends to channelize the culture of a given area or society and thus perhaps inhibit the development of other forms of activity, that is, other definitions of the

( 391) situation. (4) Finally, not committing himself to the historical school of ethnology, to the functionalists, or to the evolutionists certainly, he does use a modified form of the older comparative method. In reading through this vast collection of interesting and often entertaining material, one can not but be reminded if not of Herbert Spencer and Sir James G. Frazer certainly of William Graham Sumner. True, Thomas uses much more extensive and complete selections from the literature of history and selections from the literature of history and anthropology; true, he recognizes the important interrelations of various culture patterns, as between kinship and formal government, or between sexual behavior and various systems of taboo, or between lineage and the legal forms of property. Nevertheless he does place in juxtaposition examples from widely separated areas of the world and attempts to examine them with his particular social psychological tools.

One of the most pressing problems before the social sciences today is a certain synthesis among the separate disciplines. And their unification can perhaps only be made through some more general field such as social psychology. Truly Primitive Behavior represents a stimulating first approximation to a much-needed psychology of culture. However, one finishes reading Thomas's discussions time and again with a wish that the author had carried his analysis further. It is to be regretted that he (lid not put his material into a larger systematic and theoretic framework. Already R. H. Lowie, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead had addressed themselves to some features of this larger task, but they lack the social psychological perspective which Thomas might have offered.[17] For instance, we need someone courageous enough to undertake a general characterization in terms of similarities and differences of such widely divergent culture groups as are found in Africa, Polynesia, Melanesia, and America. Such matters as forms of the family, of religion and magic, of economic organization, of distinction, and of the political order might serve as tentative bases of comparison and generalization. Perhaps we are not ready for any such wider synthesis of social psychology and cultural anthropology and the other social sciences, but certainly Thomas has set us forward on this road.[18]


The work of W. I. Thomas represents a more or less continual growth. There are really no sharp divisions in its development. It was only for the sake of presentation that we divided it into five major periods.


From the angle of social psychology, Thomas began with a dependence upon biochemistry and physiology, but moved over to a psychology of attention, habit, and crisis. From this he developed an even more dynamic psychology in terms of wishes, which organize themselves into attitudes directed toward social objects or values. Feeling in time that even these failed to give him the picture of social behavior which he desired, he adopted the view that the analysis of the overt response as correlated with the external situation will give us a more objective and scientific understanding of man's behavior.

How may we characterize Thomas's work in the field of sociology and social psychology? In the first place, he never very carefully distinguished between sociology and social psychology, except in collaboration with Znaniecki when in the "'Methodological Note" in the Polish monograph he restricts the former to the field of social control and social organization. So far as basic interest goes lie has always been concerned with the individual in his social interaction with his fellows rather than in the group as such. In this sense he has been a social psychologist rather than a sociologist, if we think of the latter as fundamentally concerned with group life and culture. Yet Thomas always had a profound understanding of the cultural and group effects upon the individual and he never fell into the easy assumption that so-called "social traits" come into being purely as the result of social stimulation unrelated to the cultural heritage.

If one looks over the whole range of Thomas's contributions one is struck by the evidences of steady and continued development of standpoint and method. Although his academic training fell in what might, paraphrasing Comte, be called the "metaphysical" stage of sociology, from the outset his own work was directed to investigations of social behavior rather than to systematic formulations of principles or laws. He felt convinced that only by a concrete analysis of life as it is found around us, may we build up a science of social behavior.

One's method can not be disentangled from one's standpoint. His wide reading of ethnological and historical literature gave Thomas a firm foundation on which to build. At the outset, he began the collection of typical cases to illustrate and demonstrate his standpoint. He felt that one must use the typical case in which as full a picture as possible of the behavior and the situation could be portrayed. On such a basis only might we use comparison and thus come to formulate, if not laws, at least tentative hypotheses about social becoming.

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His adoption of a situational standpoint represents a departure from the earlier attention to the internal and subjective factors in social behavior. Thomas remarks

"As it becomes possible to transmute more and more data to a quantitative form and apply statistical methods, our inferences will become more probable and have a sounder basis. But the statistical results must always be interpreted in the configuration of the as-yet unmeasured factors and the hypotheses emerging from the study of cases must, whenever possible, be verified statistically."[19]

This position strikes one as rather radical in contrast to the views expressed in The Polish Peasant and in The Unadjusted Girl, where the interplay of subjective, internal motivations and external behavior in the social situation is made the basic approach. Moreover, it is interesting to contrast this view with that of C. H. Cooley, who long maintained that the full understanding of social behavior could not be attained from a purely behavioristic, external approach.[20] So, too, R. M. MacIver in his volume Society: Its Structure and Changes (1931) takes the position that the use of statistical method is distinctly limited in sociology and social psychology, simply because it fails to take into account the qualitative and creative aspects of social life.[21] Likewise Ellsworth Faris and Robert E. Park in their discussions of attitudes took the stand that we can and must deal directly with attitudes and the subjective factors in behavior if we are to comprehend fully the meaning of the social act .[22] The essence of Thomas' criticism of this viewpoint is that we can not get at the inside, at the internal motivations of social behavior, except as inferences on data revealed by a behavioristic method.

It seems to me that perhaps the statement of Thomas quoted above does not quite do justice to the standpoint he held in the final years of his life. Certainly it does not represent his earlier point of view. Ills continued use of behavior documents, his willingness to deal in concepts such as attitudes, values, and personalities, shows that he was not entirely given over to a strict behavioristic standpoint. So, too, his admirable appreciation of the as ifs, the fictions of belief and behavior, indicate that the subjective and internal factors had a place in his thinking. He felt that we shall be on sounder ground if we keep in mind the relation of overt expression to the social situation. To limit ourselves to the how of behavior will give us more light in the end on the why of behavior. For the present at least, with inadequate tools to examine the latter, we shall have to be satisfied with the study of the former. In the interpretation of

( 394) the how we must have recourse to hypotheses in terms of internal mechanisms, but these, he said, are "heuristic devices employed in the search for meaning-to be abandoned if the data do not provide a sufficient number of corroborations."'[23]

Thomas certainly did social psychology and sociology a great service by his insistence on limiting the field of study to behavior in a situation, by his insistence on the need of sound statistical analysis of our data, by his insistence on the careful circumscribing of causations to probabilities, and that with regard to drawing inference, the behavior document and other qualitative material continue to be thoroughly essential. Furthermore, the life history documents, descriptions of culture patterns, and other qualitative materials will always open up fields for more careful quantitative research.

In an interpretation of such work, it is but natural to ask what Thomas' influence has been on American social psychology and sociology. To answer this fully would lead us far afield. Naturally his standpoint and method have affected his many students. These men are scattered throughout the country and have made many contributions themselves which reflect in part their training with Thomas.[24]

In conclusion, it must be re-emphasized that Thomas was never a maker of sociological systems ; rather he remained concerned with research on concrete materials. In fact, he was always suspicious of system-making and felt that more rapid advance in social theory could be made if we continued to investigate contemporary social life. This negative attitude toward systematic theory does not mean that we should neglect hypotheses nor that a theory of societal behavior will not be forthcoming. It is rather that for the present he believed it best to hold to the immediate task of research. Working hypotheses, of course, are necessary. No one understood better than Thomas that science is more than a mere collection of facts. Throughout all his work Thomas remained flexible in his hypotheses, ready to give them up when they proved inadequate, and to adopt new ones which seemed more promising. It is only in this spirit that he came to his final behavioristic standpoint.

It might be said that had Thomas been more inclined to theoretical formulations, certain incidental inconsistencies in his work might not have appeared. But when one realizes that although earlier he did use such a term as "instinct" rather loosely or that he was not always quite consistent in his notions of social evolution, or that later he used the terms "attitude" and "value" in somewhat different ways than he had originally in the Polish monograph, still these minor changes in usage are

( 395) purely fortuitous and beside the main issue. His flexibility of view and persistent concern with concrete research problems far offset any slight illogicalities in his use of certain concepts.

In his criticisms of other viewpoints, Thomas was always tolerant. Even in regard to psychoanalysis, which receives a rather negative comment in some of his writings, he was critical only because to him the theoretical interpretations put upon the findings of psychoanalysis seemed far-fetched and fictitious. So too in regard to psychiatric studies, he believed that they represented an approach to the data of internal life which can not be adequately controlled. His strictures in regard to mental testing of classes and races likewise arose out of the interpretations which the more dogmatic testers made of their data than in respect to the method itself.

As to the application of sociological findings to practical programs, Thomas expressed himself on several occasions. He always maintained that the practical problems of social life were quite legitimate objects of scientific study, but that "from the method of study itself all practical considerations must be excluded if we want the results to be valid.”[25] He puts the problem admirably before us in the following paragraph

"The point is that we have not got a method in the social world. The primary group norms are breaking down, mainly owing to the facilitated communication gained through discoveries in the natural sciences and their practical application. The very disharmony of the social world is largely due to the disproportionate rate of advance in the mechanical world. We live in an entirely new world, unique, without parallel in history. History has not helped us. It cannot help us because we do not understand it; we do not even understand an election. We must first understand the past from the present. We must view the present as behavior. We must establish by scientific procedure the laws of behavior and then the past will have its meaning and make its contribution. If we learn the laws of human behavior as we have learned the laws of mathematics, physics, and chemistry, if we establish what are the fundamental human attitudes, how they can be converted into other and more socially desirable attitudes, how the world of values is created and modified by the operation of these attitudes, then we can establish any attitudes and values whatever."[26]

His own studies amply show this position to be sound. His early papers on the role of women in our society doubtless further aided in the emancipation of women during the late nineties and the early decades of the present century. Certainly no reformer's document on problems of

( 396) immigration has thrown so much light on the social process of disorganization and consequent assimilation as has the Polish monograph. And his later studies in juvenile delinquency, the searching critique both of practical and research programs in regard to child behavior and his interpretations of primitive behavior contributed largely to a further understanding of these matters and left the way open for more practical handling of problems.

Finally, a word should be said about Thomas' reaction to his own work. He was always well balanced in regard to his own standpoint, free from bias, and even at times indifferent toward what others thought of his work. He was always deeply interested in some particular piece of research, but he was never so emotionally bound to it that he lost his sense of proportion. As a personality trait this was doubtless one of the factors which made his contributions outstanding in the short history of sociology and social psychology in America.[27]


This is the fourth installment of a series of articles on W. I. Thomas; Vol. 47, No. 1 (October, 1962), No. 2 (January, 1963), No. 3 (April, 1963), and No. 4 (July, 1963).

  1. Printed in the Publication of the American Sociological Society, 22 (1928), 1-13.
  2. Ibid., 1.
  3. The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928), 504.
  4. Ibid., 557-58.
  5. Ibid., 561. Italics not in the original.
  6. Ibid., 565.
  7. Ibid., 567.
  8. Ibid., 571-72.
  9. Ibid., 573.
  10. Cf. W. I. Thomas, "The Relation of Research to the Social Process," in Essays on Research in the Social Sciences (Washington, D.C.,: The Brookings Institution, 1931), 175-94, for another statement on the situational standpoint in relation to statistical and case study methods.
  11. Published by McGraw-Hill Book Company of New York.
  12. Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1937), v.
  13. Ibid., 7.
  14. Bruno Gutmann, Das Recht der Tschagga (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1926)
  15. See T. R. Garth, Race Psychology (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1931) ; Otto Klineberg, Race Differences (New York: Harper and Brother, 1935) ; and Mandel Sherman and Cora B. Key, "The Intelligence of Isolated Mountain Children," Child Development, 3 (December, 1932), 279-90. Although the last-named deals with our Appalachian mountain whites rather than with the colored races, it supports so adequately Thomas' contention that reference to it would have further strengthened his case.
  16. There are some duplications in the bibliographies of the two books, but the one in Primitive Behavior contains chiefly publications which appeared between 1909 and 1937.
  17. See, for example, R.H. Lowie, Culture and Ethnology (New York: P. S. Smith, 1917), also certain sections of his Primitive Society (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920) and of his Primitive Religion (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1924) ; Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1934) ; Margaret Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (New York: Morrow, 1935), and her Cooperation and Competition in Primitive Societies---containing a collection of papers (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1936). The past two decades have seen a spate of articles, monographs, and books dealing with such topics under the rubric of personality and culture. See, among others, Yehudi A. Cohen, Social Structure and Personality, A Casebook (New York: holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1961) ; Francis L. K. Hsu, ed., Aspects of Culture and Personality (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1954), also Hsu, ed, Psychological Anthropology (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1962) ; Abram Kardiner, The Psychological Frontiers of Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1945) ; Clyde Kluckhohn and 11. A. Murray, eds., Personality in Nature, Society, and Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953) ; Ralph Linton, The Cultural Background of Personality (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1945) ; S. S. Sargent and M. W. Smith, eds., Culture and Personality (New York: Viking Press, 1949).
  18. From the angle of cultural anthropology the most important contribution linking_ that field with social psychology is Ralph Linton, The Study of Man (New York: Appleton-Century, 1936).
  19. The Child in America, op. cit., 571.
  20. See C. H. Cooley, "The Roots of Social Knowledge, "American Journal of Sociology, 32 (July, 1926), 57-79, reprinted as chapter 9 in Cooley, Sociological Theory and Social Research (New York: Henry Holt, 1930).
  21. Published by R. Long and R. R. Smith in New York. Later by Farrar, still later by Macmillan.
  22. See Ellsworth Faris, "The Concept of Social Attitudes,", and Robert E. Park, "Human Nature, Attitudes, and the Mores" in Social Attitudes (New York: Henry Holt, 1931) for a discussion of some of these matters. (This book is dedicated to W. I. Thomas and edited by the present writer.)
  23. The Child in America, op. cit., 558.
  24. The so-called "Chicago School of Sociology" definitely reflected, over the years, many of Thomas' ideas and attitudes. This was particularly true of Robert E. Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and Ellsworth Faris. See their papers in Social Attitudes, op. cit.
  25. The Polish Peasant, op. cit., 1:7.
  26. From his chapter in Suggestions of Modern Science Concerning Education (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1917), 195-96.
  27. For a good evaluation of the work of Thomas, see the recently published The Origins of Scientific Sociology by John Madge (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, a division of The Macmillan Company of the Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, 1962).

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