W. I. Thomas

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W. I. Thomas
Portrait of William Isaac Thomas.jpg
American sociologist and educator
BornWilliam Isaac Thomas
(1863-08-13)13 August 1863
Russell County, Virginia, United States
Died5 December 1947(1947-12-05) (aged 84)
Berkeley, California
Resting place"Old Gray Cemetery" in Knoxville, Tennessee
EducationUniversity of Tennessee
University of Chicago
Known forThomas theorem
AwardsHighest oratory honors of the University of Tennessee
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Tennessee, Oberlin College, University of Chicago
Doctoral advisorAlbion W. Small and Charles A. Henderson
InfluencesGabriel Tarde
InfluencedHerbert Blumer

William Isaac Thomas (August 13, 1863 – December 5, 1947) was an American sociologist.[1] With the help of Polish sociologist Florian Znaniecki, W.I. Thomas developed innovative work on the sociology of migration. Thomas then went on to formulate a fundamental principle of sociology, known as the Thomas theorem. Through his theorem, Thomas contended that, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences".[2]


Thomas was born on a farm in the Elk Garden section[3] of Russell County, Virginia on August 13th, 1863, to his mother Sarah Price Thomas and his father Thaddeus Peter Thomas, a [4]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 opportunities of his children.

Beginning in 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 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. During 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 at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio from 1889 to 1895 as a professor of English and then sociology.[5]

In 1894, Thomas was invited to teach a class in sociology at the University of Chicago. The next year, he relocated to the University of Chicago permanently in order to pursue graduate studies in sociology and anthropology in the university's new department of sociology, where he finished his Ph.D. thesis, On a Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes, in 1896. The University of Chicago's sociology department is seen as the founding location of the discipline in the United States.[6]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 nearly the next 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 nowadays be considered sexist by many ("Anthropologists ... regard women as intermediate between the child and the man"), the book was progressive for its time. In "Sex and Society", Thomas speculated that women's intellect might actually be superior to men's "due to their superior cunning" and "superior endurance".

In 1927, Thomas was elected president of the American Sociological Society. He belonged to a group often referred to as the earlier psychological school of sociologists along with Franklin Henry Giddings, E.A. Ross, Charles Cooley, and Ellsworth Faris. Thomas never published any material on the subject, but did use it as lecture material.[7]

When discussing his interests, Thomas writes "The sociopsychological aspects of culture history, or otherwise stated, social psychology as examined in relation to races, nationalities, classes, interest groups, etc., in different cultural situations and historical epochs; and second, personality development in normal, criminal and psychopathic individuals in relation to cultural situations and particular trains of experience as seen through their life-histories, which may be in the form of autobiographies, case studies, continuous and organized inter-views, etc. (I do not say `psychoanalysis' because of the meaning which this term has acquired)." Furthermore, when explaining about sociologists whom influenced him, Thomas writes "I do not feel that I have been greatly influenced by any of my teachers of sociology. My interests, as I have indicated, were in the marginal fields and not in sociology as it was organized and taught at that time, that is, the historical and methodological approach of Professor Small and the remedial and correctional interests of Professor Henderson."[2b 1]

  1. ^ "William Isaac Thomas". American Sociological Association. Archived from the original on 2010-07-10. Retrieved 2012-10-05.

Contribution to social research and migration studies[edit]

In 1908, Thomas received a substantial grant from Helen Culver through the Helen Culver Fund for Race Psychology. The grant was to be used to finance research on the life and culture of immigrants for ten years. Until 1918, Thomas utilized the grant 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. For this purpose Thomas studied the Polish language, interviewed members of Chicago's Polish community, and made field trips to Poland.

Considered a pioneer of the biographical approach in social research and migration studies, Thomas employed methods of field observation that ethnographers had developed previously 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. According to Thomas' anecdote, while he was 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. Thomas 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.

Further, Thomas introduced the important concept of the 'definition of the situation', which was later referred to as the Thomas theorem. An example of this major contribution is if James is convinced that George hates him then he will act towards George in a way that will sour their relationship, regardless if George's hatred is real or imagined. What really counts is the way the actor defines the meaning of the symbol, not what the symbol may mean to the sociologist investigating the actor's actions.[3 1]

  1. ^ Mann, Douglas (2008). A Survey of Modern Social Theory. Canada: Oxford University Press. pp. 181–182. ISBN 978-0-19-542184-2.

The Polish Peasant in Europe and America[edit]

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 organizations, 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. Znanieck decided to travel to Chicago. Here he met up with Thomas, however whether or not Thomas had formally invited Znaniecki or not remains unclear. In all events, Thomas immediately employed Znaniecki as his research assistant. Znaniecki eventually became Thomas's co-author on their monumental work The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918–1919),[6] which Lewis Coser called "the earliest major landmark of American sociological research". In it, Thomas and Znaniecki used a biographical approach to understanding culture in general. Furthermore, Thomas and Znaniecki's work developed an approach to understanding ethnicity in particular, which in many respects was ahead of its time and is currently being rediscovered in the context of transnational studies in migration.

The downfall of Thomas' reputation[edit]

Despite the prominence gained through The Polish Peasant, Thomas's reputation, both academic and non-academic, proved precarious. For a number of reasons, he was subject to critical attention from the conservative Chicago establishment.[8] One of the reasons was his left-wing political opinions on the etiology of crime.[citation needed] Studying the problem of delinquency in Chicago's Polish immigrant community, he adopted a pragmatic attitude to the problem rather than a moral one.[citation needed] Second, some of his research on topics, such as sexual behavior, were considered controversial. Yet, Thomas continued to be outspoken about his research and related topics. Thus, he was required by the university to issue clarifying statements and apologies to the press on at least one occasion.[8][9] Third, he led a "bohemian" life.[8] His lifestyle was unconventional and did not conform with the contemporary image of a respectable professor and made him controversial among his colleagues.[9]

In 1918, 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.[8] It has been suggested that Thomas's arrest was meant to discredit his wife, who at the time was a pacifist activist.[8][9][10] Although Thomas was acquitted of the charges in court, his career was damaged irreversibly by the negative publicity.[8][9][10] The university, under conservative Harry Pratt Judson, dismissed him without awaiting the outcome of his trial and with little protest from his colleagues.[8][9] The University of Chicago Press, which already had published the first two volumes of The Polish Peasant, released its contract with him, so that the work's remaining three volumes had to be published in Boston by Richard G. Badger.[8] The Carnegie Corporation of New York, which had previously commissioned Thomas to write a volume for its "Americanization" series, refused to publish it in Thomas' name. Thus, in 1921, Old World Traits Transplanted appeared by authors Robert E. Park and Herbert A. Miller, who had contributed only minor parts to the book. It was not until 1951 that the book's authorship was re-credited to Thomas by a committee of the Social Science Research Council and reissued with its author's actual name.[9][10][11]

Later years[edit]

After the scandal, Thomas relocated to New York City. He never again obtained a tenured position. From 1923 to 1928, he lectured at the New School for Social Research, a progressive but marginally influential academic institution at that time. 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' plight. Thomas continued his research thanks to the support of philanthropists and institutions.

One of Thomas' greatest contributions to the study of sociology was presented in his highly acclaimed work, The Unadjusted Girl (1923).[12] It is in The Unadjusted Girl, that Thomas introduced and developed the influential concept of the "definition of the situation".[12] According to Thomas' "definition of the situation", prior to making a decision, people "generally examine and deliberate about occurrences before acting".[12] Along with the ideas of George Herbert Mead, Thomas's concept of the "definition of the situation" later proved to be an important part of the rebellion of symbolic interactionism against structural functionalism.

In 1927, thanks to the support of a younger generation of scholars and against opposition from the establishment, Thomas was made honorary president of the American Sociological Society .

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

In 1935, after his divorce from Harriet Park, Thomas married Dorothy Swaine Thomas, 36 years his junior.

In 1936, Pitirim A. Sorokin, chairman of the sociology department at Harvard University, invited Thomas to become a visiting lecturer. Thomas accepted the invitation and remained in Harvard until 1937.[5]


After leaving Harvard, Thomas gradually withdrew into retirement. Thomas spent his time in New York City, New Haven. He died in Berkeley, California, on 5 December 1947.[1]


  • "It is not important whether or not the interpretation is correct — if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." — the 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 Flint, 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. complete 5 vol online free
    • 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. 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
  • 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
  • 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


  1. ^ a b "William Thomas, Sociologist, Dies. Former Member of University of Chicago Faculty Lectured Here and at Harvard". New York Times. December 7, 1947.
  2. ^ Thomas, William I.; Thomas, Dorothy: The Child in America (Alfred Knopf, 1929, 2nd ed., p. 572)
  3. ^ "W. I. Thomas". www.rootsweb.ancestry.com. Retrieved 2016-10-19.
  4. ^ Janowitz, Morris (1996). W.I. Thomas On Social Organization and Social Personality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. pp. XI.
  5. ^ a b Sica, Alan. 2005. "W.I. Thomas" Pp.406-410 in "Social Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Present". Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
  6. ^ a b Lemert, C. 2010. “William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki (1918-1920)”. Pp.251-257 in “Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classical Readings”. 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  7. ^ "William Isaac Thomas". American Sociological Group. Archived from the original on 10 July 2010. Retrieved 5 October 2012.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Martin Bulmer (15 August 1986). The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity, and the Rise of Sociological Research. University of Chicago Press. pp. 59–60. ISBN 978-0-226-08005-5.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Robert M. Crunden (1984). Ministers of Reform: The Progressives' Achievement in American Civilization, 1889-1920. University of Illinois Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-0-252-01167-2.
  10. ^ a b c Mary Jo Deegan (1988). Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892-1918. Transaction Publishers. p. 140. ISBN 978-1-4128-2681-5.
  11. ^ Mary Jo Deegan (1988). Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892-1918. Transaction Publishers. p. 184. ISBN 978-1-4128-2681-5.
  12. ^ a b c Sands, Roberta G. 2014. “William I. Thomas, The unadjusted girl”. Qualitative Social Work, 13:725-728. Retrieved November 2, 2014 (http://qsw.sagepub.com/content/13/5/725).

Further reading[edit]

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

External links[edit]