Thomas's Situational Analysis


Perhaps the highpoint in the development of Thomas's social psychologycame with his elaboration of the famous notion of the definitionof the situation. The notion is so central that an extendedquotation is in order:

". . . the higher animals, and above all man, have the powerof refusing to obey a stimulation which they followed at an earliertime. . . . We call this ability the power of inhibition. . .. Preliminary to any self-determined act of behavior there isalways a stage of examination and deliberation which we may callthe definition of the situation. . . . Not only concreteacts are dependent on the definition of the situation, but graduallya whole life policy and the personality of the individual himselffollow from a series of such definitions. But the child is alwaysborn into a group of people among whom all the general types ofsituation which may arise have already been defined and correspondingrules of conduct developed, and where he has not the slightestchance of making his definitions and following his wishes withoutinterference. . . . There is therefore always a rivalry betweenthe spontaneous definition of the situation made by members ofan organized society and the definition which his society hasprovided for him. The individual tends to a hedonistic selectionof activity, pleasure first; and society to a utilitarian selection,safety first. . . . It is in this connection that a moral codearises, which is a set of rules of behavior norms regulating theexpression of the wishes, and which is built up by successivedefinitions of the situation. In practice the abuse arises first,and the rule is meant to prevent its recurrence."

The notion of the definition of the situation provided Thomaswith a secure vantage point from which he could criticize allinstinctivistic or biologistic interpretations, as well as thecrude behaviorism of John B. Watson and his followers. Only closeanalytical attention to the subjective ways in which human beingsfiltered the crude data of their senses, only sustained concernwith the mediating functions of the human mind could help explainthe root fact that though two individuals might be presented withan identical stimulus, they might react to it in utterly differentways. This could be seen in operation both between categoriesof individuals and between culturally differentiated groups. Awell-dressed woman, for example, may be perceived by males interms of her sexual attractiveness, while women might focus attentionon the design of her clothing. A teddy bear might be a protectivetalisman to a child, but is only a plaything to an adult. A recordplayer may be a means for filling empty leisure time to a jadedcity dweller, while it may be the voice of a god to a primitive.Unless analysts attend to these subjective meanings, these definitionsof the situation, they will be as unable to understand fellowhuman beings as they will be incapable of understanding othercultures.

But there is still more. Human actions can make sense to us onlyif we become aware that all meanings come to be constructed bydefinitions through which the prism of the mind orders perceptualexperience. Ponder carefully the following sentence, the mostpregnant sentence that Thomas ever wrote: "If men definesituations as real, they are real in their consequences."

What Thomas was saying was that people respond not only to theobjective features of a situation, but also, and often mainly,to the meaning that situation has for them. And once such meaningshave been assigned, their consequent behavior is shaped by theascribed meaning. If people believe in witches, such beliefshave tangible consequences--they may, for example, kill thosepersons assumed to be witches. This then is the power the humanmind has in transmuting raw sense data into a categorical apparatusthat could make murderers of us all. Once a Vietnamese becomesa "gook," or a Black a "nigger," or a Jewa "kike," that human being has been transmuted throughthe peculiar alchemy of social definition into a wholly "other"who is now a target of prejudice and discrimination, of violenceand aggression, and even murder. It stands to reason, of course,that there are benevolent as well as malevolent consequences ofsuch definitions of the situation; peasant girls can become saintsand politicians high-minded statesmen. In any case, and regardlessof the consequences, definitions always organize experience; theyare "equivalents to the determination of the vague."It would be superfluous to adduce the numerous progeny that Thomas'snotion has engendered. Anyone, for example, writing on prejudiceand discrimination can ill afford to neglect it.

During the nineteen twenties and in the last stages of his career,Thomas's thought moved increasingly away from his previous concernswith basic motivational structures and wishes. In tune with hisfully developed notion of the "definition of the situation,"he now concerned himself with what he described as "situationalanalysis." By this he meant, to quote from his PresidentialAddress to the American Sociological Society, that "the particularbehavior patterns and the total personality are overwhelminglyconditioned by the types of situation and trains of experienceencountered by the individual in the course of his life."

In Old World Traits Transplanted (originally publishedas a work by Robert Park et al., but in fact mainly writtenby Thomas), in The Unadjusted Girl, The Child in America (with Dorothy S. Thomas) and in Primitive Behavior situationalanalysis, in which the definition of the situation assumed prideof place, was applied to a diversity of concrete topics. In allof them, Thomas clung to his view that society and individualsshould always be conceived of as being involved in reciprocalinteraction. As he put it in The Unadjusted Girl, "Societyis indispensable to the individual because it possesses at a givenmoment an accumulation of values, of plans and materials whichthe child could never accumulate alone. . . . But the individualis also indispensable to society because by his activity and ingenuityhe creates all the material values, the whole fund of civilization."Thomas was prepared to subscribe to Cooley's dictum that the individualand society are twin born, but only if he were allowed to specifythat they were not identical twins. He was much more aware thanCooley of the crises and dislocations that are bound at timesto disrupt the harmonious interplay between them.

Later works also extended Thomas's concern with typologies asin the suggestive chapter of Old World Traits Transplanted,in which he distinguishes among the following immigrant types:The Settler, The Colonist, The Political Idealist, The Allrightnik,The Cafone, and The Intellectual. Each of these types, he suggested,reacted to the immigrant experience in a distinctive and characteristicmanner. Typological distinctions, he felt, were most useful inbreaking down global categories such as "immigrants"into subcategories, displaying distinctive behaviors in theirinteraction with the host community. Such typologies were furtherdeveloped in the work of Florian Znaniecki.

From Coser, 1977:520-523.


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