W I Thomas

"The Polish Peasant"with Znaniecki,

Another member of the 1860 crowd (1863-1947).

Son of a rural preacher. Grew up “in the 18th century” he used to say. “Decided” between sophomore and junior year to “go in for scholarship.” Went on to further study and dreamed of going to study at a German university. Did so in 1888. Influenced by German psychologists, especially, Wundt. Later a student of Small and Henderson at Chicago.

Associated with the University of Chicago from 1897-1918. Fired in 1918 under quirky circumstances. He was a bit of a loose cannon, very “alternative minded” and not a stuffy staid professor. Scandal involved FBI, suspicions and smearing, etc. Never held a tenured post after that but recognized as leader in the field by appointments at New School for Social Research in NY and at Harvard. Elected president of ASA in 1927.

Early researcher on race and ethnicity and the immigrant experience. Started with a grant from founder of Hull House. Was going to study all Eastern European immigrant groups, but focused instead on the Poles, the largest and most visible ethnic group in Chicago, who seemed to be beset by a number of social problems, from family disorganization to crime.

  • used anthropological field methods
  • mastered the Polish language
  • contacts with the Polish community in Chicago
  • field trips to Poland

One morning, finds a letter in Polish by a girl taking a training course in a hospital written to her father and hits on the idea of using documents to do “life history”

  • Final work
  • 2,244 pages
  • used 754 letters (obtained by offering 10-20 cents per letter)
  • 8,000 documents bought from the archives of a Polish newspaper
  • data and documents from Polish parish histories in Chicago
  • from immigrant organizations
  • from the files of charitable and legal aid associations
  • and from diaries of Polish immigrants (for which he paid the authors).

Met Znaniecki in Poland in 1913. A year later Znaniecki shows up in Chicago. Thomas asked him to join project as a researcher. Znaniecki became his co-author.

Main Concepts

Thomas Theorem: (which should, perhaps, following Merton (“The Thomas Theorem and The Matthew Effect” Social Forces, 74(2): 379-424, December 1995), be known as the Thomas and Thomas Theorem) “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

Definition of the situation. Three elements we need to consider to understand behavior. (1) objective conditions, (2) attitudes (DJR: preferences? Utility functions? Wants and desires?), and (3) situation = a social construction of “what is going on here” – we decide which of many possible spins to put on a set of facts, which facts count. Compare Zerubavel on lumping and splitting, on figure and ground. Goffman on framing. How objective elements are interpreted and how attitudes are processed depends on the definition of the situation:

Goffman: man gets on bus looking disoriented and slovenly and smelling of alcohol. Throws up. They throw him off the bus. He dies of diabetic shock.

Thomas is implicitly writing against crude behaviorists here. Perspective includes idea that humans are interpretive creatures not just reactors to stimuli.

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