william i. thomas

W. I. Thomas

[tom-uhs for 1, 2, 4–14; taw-mah for 3]
William Isaac Thomas (b. Russell County, Virginia, 13 August 1863, d. Berkeley, California, 5 December 1947), was an American sociologist. He is noted for his pioneering work on the sociology of migration on which he co-operated with Florian Znaniecki, and for his formulation of what became known as the Thomas theorem, a fundamental law of sociology: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences". [Thomas, William I.; Thomas, Dorothy: The Child in America (Alfred Knopf, 1929, 2nd ed., p. 572)]

Early life, education, and academic career

Thomas was born in Russell County in 1863, the son of a farmer and Methodist minister of Pennsylvania Dutch descent. His family moved to Knoxville, home of the University of Tennessee, when he was a boy, because his father wanted to improve the educational prospects of his seven children.

From 1880, Thomas studied literature and classics at the University of Tennessee, where he obtained a B.A. degree in 1884 and became Adjunct Professor in English and Modern Languages. While at Knoxville, Thomas also taught courses in Greek, Latin, French, German, and, interestingly, natural history. At the same time, he developed an interest in ethnology and social science after reading Herbert Spencer's Principles of Sociology. In 1888, Thomas married the first of his two wives, Harriet Park.

In 1888/1889, he attended the German universities of Berlin and Göttingen to pursue studies of classic and modern languages. During his time in Germany, he also furthered his interest in ethnology and sociology under the influence of German scholars such as Wilhelm Wundt.

Upon his return to the United States in 1889, Thomas taught as a professor of English and, after 1894, professor of sociology at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.

In 1894, Thomas was invited to teach a class in sociology at the University of Chicago. The following year, he moved there permanently to pursue graduate studies in sociology and anthropology in the university's new department of sociology, where he finished a Ph.D. thesis On a Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes in 1896. After that, he returned to Europe to conduct field studies in various ethnic and cultural problems in preparation for the writing of a comparative work on European nationalities that he never completed.

For the next nearly 25 years, Thomas taught sociology and anthropology at the University of Chicago, becoming instructor in 1895, assistant professor in 1896, associate professor in 1900, and professor in 1910. From 1895 until 1917, he also co-edited the American Journal of Sociology.

1907 saw the publication of Thomas's first major work, Sex and Society. Despite a biological bias that would today be considered sexist ("Anthropologists ... regard women as intermediate between the child and the man"), the book was progressive for its time, speculating, for example, that women's intellect might actually be superior to men's "due to their superior cunning" and "superior endurance".

Thomas as a pioneer of the biographical approach in social research and migration studies

In 1908, Thomas received a substantial grant from Helen Culver to finance research on the life and culture of immigrants to the U.S. Managing the Helen Culver Fund for Race Psychology for ten years until 1918 enabled him to undertake several journeys to Europe in order to study the background of East European immigrant groups. Initially planning to study several nationalities, he narrowed his topic down to immigrants from Poland, who formed the largest and most visible ethnic community in Chicago. Toward this end Thomas studied the Polish language, interviewed members of Chicago's Polish community, and undertook field trips to Poland.

Initially Thomas employed methods of field observation that ethnographers had previously developed to study non-literate societies. According to an anecdote told by Thomas himself, it was an accident that inspired him to use personal written material as primary ethnographic sources and to develop the biographical approach to sociology that would make his lasting reputation in the field: While walking down a street near his home, Thomas was nearly hit by a garbage bag that had been thrown out of a window. The bag burst open on the sidewalk. Then, Thomas discovered a letter in it that had been written by a Polish immigrant.

He spent the next several years collecting oral and written reports from Chicago's Polish community as well as from Poles in their native land. He utilized newspaper reports, archives of organizations, personal letters, and diaries, which he acquired by placing advertisements in Chicago's Polish-language press, offering, for example, 10 or 20 cents for each mailed letter collected from Poland.

Cooperation with Florian Znaniecki on The Polish Peasant in Europe and America

In 1913 on one of his journeys to Poland, Thomas met the Polish sociologist Florian Witold Znaniecki, who at that time was editing the journal Wychodźca polski ("The Polish Emigrant") and directing an organization representing Polish emigrants in Warsaw. Znaniecki assisted Thomas in his studies of organisations, which proved to be a valuable resource. When World War I broke out the following year, Znaniecki himself left Poland, which had been partitioned between three of the warring parties and now became a theatre of war, and traveled to Chicago, where he met up with Thomas. Whether Thomas had formally invited Znaniecki or not remains unclear. In all events, Thomas immediately took on Znaniecki as his research assistant, and Znaniecki eventually became Thomas's co-author on their monumental work The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920), which Lewis Coser called "the earliest major landmark of American sociological research". In it, Thomas and Znaniecki put forward a biographical approach to understanding culture in general that remains influential today, as well as an approach to understanding ethnicity in particular that in many respects was ahead of its time and is currently being rediscovered in the context of transnational studies in migration.

The "Scandal of 1918"

In spite of, or because of, the prominence gained through The Polish Peasant, Thomas's standing both inside and outside academe proved precarious. For a number of reasons, he was subject to critical attention from the conservative Chicago establishment. First, he was known for left-wing political views and on the etiology of crime. Studying the problem of delinquency in Chicago's Polish immigrant community, he adopted a pragmatic approach to the problem rather than a moral one. Secondly, he led a "bohemian" life, was often visible in the Chicago art scene, and made no secret of his attraction to a variety of women. His lifestyle did not conform with the contemporary image of a respectable professor and made him a controversial figure among his colleagues.

Disaster struck when the FBI arrested Thomas under the Mann Act, which prohibits "interstate transport of females for immoral purposes", while in the company of one Mrs Granger, the wife of an army officer with the American forces in France. Some speculate that Thomas's arrest was arranged by the FBI, which at the time was monitoring the pacifist activities of his wife Harriet. Although Thomas was acquitted of the charges in court, his career was irreversibly damaged by the negative publicity, especially from the Chicago Tribune. The university dismissed him without awaiting the outcome of his trial and without any protest from his colleagues. The University of Chicago Press, which already had published the first two volumes of The Polish Peasant, quit its contract with him, so that the work's remaining three volumes had to be published in Boston by Richard G. Badger. The Carnegie Corporation of New York, which had previously commissioned Thomas to write a volume for its "Americanization" series, refused to publish it under the author's own name. Thus in 1921, Old World Traits Transplanted appeared under authors Robert E. Park and Herbert A. Miller, who had contributed only minor parts to the book, and it was not until 1951 that the book's authorship by Thomas was restored by a committee of the Social Science Research Council and reissued under its author's actual name.

Later years

After the scandal, Thomas withdrew to New York. He never obtained a tenured position again. From 1923 to 1928, he lectured at the New School for Social Research, a progressive but marginally significant academic institution in that era. Thorstein Veblen, who had co-founded the school in 1919, had fallen from academic grace for similar reasons, and the school was therefore sympathetic to Thomas's plight. But in 1927, he was made honorary president of the American Sociological Association, thanks to the support of a younger generation of scholars, and against tough opposition from the establishment.

Thomas continued his research thanks to the support of philanthropists and institutions. Most importantly, in The Unadjusted Girl (1923) he developed on the concept of the "definition of the situation": "Preliminary to any self-determined act of behavior, there is always a stage of examination and deliberation which we may call the definition of the situation..." The individual's definition of the situation is always subject to "a rivalry between the spontaneous definition of the situation made by members of an organized society and the definition which his society has provided for him. The individual tends to a hedonistic selection of activity, pleasure first; and society to a utilitarian selection, safety first." Along with the ideas of George Herbert Mead, Thomas's concept of the definition of the situation later proved to be an important starting point for the rebellion of symbolic interactionism against structural functionalism.

A 1928 book called The Child in America, co-authored with his research assistant, Dorothy Swaine, includes the sentence that has become a fundamental law of sociology and known as the Thomas theorem: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" (Thomas&Thomas 1928: 572).

In 1935, after his divorce from Harriet Park, Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas, 36 years his junior, were married. In 1936, Pitirim A. Sorokin, chairman of the department of sociology at Harvard University, invited Thomas to become visiting lecturer (until 1937). After leaving Harvard, Thomas gradually withdrew into retirement, spending time in New York City, New Haven, and Berkeley, California, where he died in 1947.


  • "It is not important whether or not the interpretation is correct--if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." - Thomas theorem
  • "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences"" - Thomas theorem
  • "If people view somebody as great, then he is" - another, more specific version of the Thomas theorem


  • 1903 (as editor): Minnesota stories: A collection of twenty stories of college life. Collected and arranged by Charles F[lint] McClumpha and W.I. Thomas. Minneapolis, Minn.: Wilson.
  • 1903: The relation of the medicine-man to the origin of the professional occupations. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
  • 1907: Sex and society: Studies in the social psychology of sex. Chicago, Ill., London: University of Chicago Press / Unwin.
  • 1909: (as editor): Source book for social origins. Ethnological materials, psychological standpoint, classified and annotated bibliographies for the interpretation of savage society. Chicago, Ill., London: University of Chicago Press / Unwin 1909.
  • 1917: (with Herbert S. Jennings, John B. Watson, and Adolf Meyer): Suggestions of modern science concerning education. New York, N.Y.: Macmillan (includes Thomas's essay "The persistence of primary-group norms in present-day society: Their influence in our educational system").
  • 1918-1920 (with Florian W. Znaniecki): The Polish peasant in Europe and America. Monograph of an immigrant group.
    • 1918: Volume 1: Primary-group organization. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
    • 1918: Volume 2: Primary-group organization. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
    • 1919: Volume 3: Life record of an immigrant. Boston, Mass.: Badger.
    • 1920: Volume 4: Disorganization and reorganization in Poland. Boston, Mass.: Badger.
    • 1920: Volume 5: Organization and disorganization in America. Boston, Mass.: Badger.
  • 1921 (with Robert E. Park and Herbert A. Miller as main authors): Old world traits transplanted. New York, London: Harper. (= Americanization studies.) In the aftermath of the 1918 "scandal", the book could not be published under Thomas's name, so his collaborators Park and Miller featured on the cover until a posthumous 1951 re-issue.
  • 1923: The unadjusted girl. With cases and standpoint for behavior analysis. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown 1923 (= Criminal science monograph 4.)
  • 1928: (with Dorothy Swaine Thomas): The child in America: Behavior problems and programs. New York: Knopf.
  • 1937: ''Primitive behavior: An introduction to the social sciences. New York, London: McGraw-Hill (= McGraw-Hill publications in sociology)
  • 1951 (edited by Edmund H. Volkart): Social behavior and personality. Contributions of W.I. Thomas to theory and social research. New York: Social Science Research Council 1951.
  • 1966: (edited by Morris Janowitz): W.I. Thomas on social organization and social personality. Selected papers. Edited and with an introduction by Morris Janowitz. Chicago, Ill., London: University of Chicago Press 1966 (= The heritage of sociology.)

Further reading

  • Lewis A. Coser: Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich.

External links

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