William Isaac Thomas--FromEthnographer to Social Psychologist


An admiring student, Kimball Young, said in his obituary of W.I. Thomas that he "never regarded himself essentially asa theorist." This was probably so, but he surely was a theoristdespite himself. What is more, he attempted throughout his lifeto gain greater intellectual clarity and analytical depth, ratherthan pursuing a fixed initial line of thought. To follow him onhis intellectual voyage is a moving experience.

Thomas's early writings--for example, his Sex and Society published in 1907--still show heavy traces of the biologisticbiases of the times, even though they also indicate the author'sefforts to free himself from these influences. Only those devoidof a sense of historical context will bridle today at such pronouncementsas, "Morphologically the development of man is more accentuatedthan that of woman. Anthropologists . . . regard women as intermediatebetween the child and the man." Statements such as these,moreover, ought to be read in conjunction with Thomas's ferventpleas in this work for an end to the subjection of women. At thisstage in his thinking he may still have been partly in the throesof sexist reasoning, but he could also write in the same book,". . . When we taken into consideration the superior cunningas well as the superior endurance of women, we may even raisethe question whether their capacity for intellectual work is notunder equal conditions greater than in man." The book endswith a magnificent sentence which should help wash away many ofThomas's early sins: "Certain it is that no civilizationcan remain the highest if another civilization adds to the intelligenceof its men the intelligence of its women." What appliesto his treatment of women also applies, grosso modo, tohis writings on race relations and American Blacks.

Just as the biologistic bias in Thomas's early writings cannotbe ignored, neither can his psychologistic bias. It would be amistake, however, not to recognize that he overcame that biasin his later work. Still, it is surely a bit unsettling to learnfrom the early Thomas that the rules of exogamy "doubtlessoriginate in the restlessness of the male" and his tendency"to seek more unfamiliar women." Many other such naivepsychologistic interpretations of institutional arrangements canbe found in this book. But such gaucheries stand sideby side with little gems of sociological reasoning, such as: "Thedegree to which abstraction is employed in the activities of agroup depends on the complexity of the activities and on the complexityof consciousness in the group."

During the first stages of his career Thomas slowly developedfrom a traditional ethnographer, reared in the German traditionof Voelkerpsychologie, to a sophisticated social psychologistwith a sociologist bent, as evidenced by The Polish Peasant and the works immediately following. His early works must beread as stepping stones on the way. Only a year after the publicationof Sex and Society, Thomas's Source Book for SocialOrigins appeared. A careful reader could already perceivethat the author, while providing a wealth of ethnological dataas source materials and still operating with such psychologicalnotions as "attention," "habit," and the like,was on his way to developing sociological interpretations thatowed relatively little to the biologistic and evolutionary propensitiesof most of his contemporaries.

Thomas's genius came to full flowering in The Polish Peasant,a book free from biologistic and psychologizing biases, as wellas the occasional racist overtones of his early works. In hislater works Thomas continued to develop theoretical leads to socialpsychology first adumbrated in The Polish Peasant.It would seem that by some subconscious division of labor, Znanieckiin his later writings elaborated the notion of social values,which he called "cultural reality," while Thomas's concernswere in the main directed to the social psychological approachcharacterized by the notion of attitudes.

From Coser, 1977:519-520.


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