A Typology of Human Actors


In an effort to explore further the interplay between social organizationand individual attitude, between social constraint and individualresponse Thomas and Znaniecki developed a suggestive typologyof human actors, distinguishing three typical cases in terms ofthe variant responses of people to cultural demands. This typology,it should be noted, as distinct from their abortive attempt todelimit basic wishes, has had a considerable influence on thesubsequent typologies of David Riesman and other current scholars.

Thomas and Znaniecki first describe the Philistine whois "always a conformist, usually accepting social traditionin its most stable elements. . . . Every important and unexpectedchange in the condition of life results for such an individualin a disorganization of activity." His type of adjustmenthas become so rigid as to preclude the development of any newattitudes except through the slow changes brought about by agein the individual and by time in his social milieu. The polaropposite of this type is the Bohemian, "whose possibilitiesof evolution are not closed, simply because his character remainsunformed." In this type, "we find an undetermined variationof schemes." He may be highly inconsistent, "but onthe other hand he shows a degree of adaptability to new conditionsquite in contrast to the Philistine." While the first typeis a conformist and the second a rebel, the creative man is an innovator adaptable to new conditions, displaying variegatedinterests. These are "compatible with a consistency of activitysuperior to that which tradition can give if the individual buildshis life-organization not upon the presumption of the immutabilityof his sphere of social values, but upon the tendency to modifyand to enlarge it according to some definite aim." The creativeman does not simply act within the grooves of tradition,nor is he indiscriminately rebellious when it comes to societalrequirements; rather, with a judicious blend of innovation andtradition he clears a new path through the forest of the customaryand can hence be a creative guide in efforts to bring about socialchange.

Thomas and Znaniecki made it clear that what they were delineatinghere were ideal types, never fully realized in any particularpersonality. As they put it, "None of these forms is evercompletely and absolutely realized by a human individual in alllines of activity; there is no Philistine who lacks completelyBohemian tendencies, no Bohemian who is not aPhilistine in certain respects, no creative man who is fully and exclusively creative. . . ." They wereaware that these general types "include . . . an indefinitenumber of variations." But, like the more elaborate andsophisticated ideal types depicted by Max Weber, these generaltypes may well serve as rough guides in efforts to classify theimmense variety of human personalities along a continuum basedon their variant orientations to the requirements of social living.It is important to note that at a time when John B. Watson andothers conceived human beings as infinitely manipulable by theirsocial environment, Thomas and Znaniecki insisted that thoughPhilistines were all around and Bohemians mightexhaust themselves in futile rebellion, there also existed innovativeand creative people who attempted, while acknowledging limits,to transcend them in the image of their desire.

The range of subjects touched upon in The Polish Peasant is wide indeed. Its authors displayed a sympathetic interestin the huge diversity of personalities, cultural patterns, andinstitutional arrangements they encountered in their researchon both the old continent and the new. In America they dealt withcity politics and prostitution, the press and the dance hall,family quarrels and nostalgic longings for a lost home--all discussedagainst the backdrop of conditions in Poland. And while engagedin sociological investigation of typical behaviors, they alwaysdisplayed a loving concern for the varied ways unique personscame to terms with their predicaments. And yet, despite this diversityof topics, there was a strong unity in their work. They were concernedthroughout to document and analyze the impact of urbanization,industrialization, and modernization in the modern world. Theyshowed how the traditional forms of social control were replacedby the looser and more tenuous controls that attempt to guidethe conduct of modern men and women. They documented the seachange from a kin-dominated culture to one based on urban associationsor loose neighborhood ties. Although they appear at times to belost in a welter of details, their work is marked throughout byconcerns very similar to those that moved most of the other mastersof modern sociology, from Marx to Mannheim.

What is more, like many of their intellectual forbears and contemporaries,they saw in sociology not only an analytical discipline but onecapable of providing guidance to social policy. They were convincedthat common-sense knowledge, on which humankind had relied throughthe millennia, is no longer an adequate basis for social control.They believed that the systematic knowledge they aimed to providewould furnish the rudiments of a science of purposeful socialintervention and rational control. They even went so far as tostate, ". . . It is always the question of an ultimate practicalapplicability which . . . will constitute the criterion--the onlysecure and intrinsic criterion--of a science."

At first blush, Thomas and Znaniecki's stress on rational controland social techniques might suggest that they were seduced bysome technocratic ideal of overall planning. But such was emphaticallynot the case. To the contrary, they emphasized that their analysesand findings were in the first place meant to increase the awarenessand knowledge possessed by the individual subjects they studied.In a passage that could as well have been written by a contemporarysociologist such as Jurgen Habermas, they stated that, "itis desirable to develop in the individuals the ability to controlspontaneously their own activities by conscious reflection."It was to such an increase in the conscious awareness of theirsubjects that they dedicated their work. "While in earlierstages," they argued, "the society itself provided arigoristic and particularistic set of definitions in the formof 'customs' or 'mores', the tendency to advance is associatedwith the liberty of the individual to make his own definition." The sociological analyses they provided were intended to furtherthat development.

The subtleties of the theorizing in The Polish Peasant should not blind us to some of its deficiencies. Too often, conceptualdistinctions that appear clearcut in the methodological discussionbecome blurred in concrete exposition. Even such key conceptsas attitude and values, as the authors were later to acknowledge,often come to be used almost interchangeably. At times it is difficultto disentangle subjective factors and their objective correlates,precisely because the objective world is always dealt with onlyto the extent that it enters subjective experience. Such methodologicalcriticisms were elaborated in detail in Herbert Blumer's exhaustivecritique of the work. Nevertheless, despite the fact also emphasizedby Blumer, that there are considerable discrepancies between thetheoretical guidelines and the substantive contributions, ThePolish Peasant has aged very well indeed. It remains oneof the great landmarks of American sociological investigation,and, despite its flaws, its theoretical framework may still inspireemulation by those who possess more developed theoretical tools.

From Coser, 1977:516-518.


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