One of the most well-known and utilized theories in sociology, the Thomas theorem argues that individuals make decisions in situations based on their interpretation of the situation, whether that interpretation is correct or not. A brief look at W. I. Thomas's academic career, an overview of symbolic interaction, the sociological perspective within which Thomas' theorem lies, further discussion of the theorem itself and how it emerged out of decades of work is presented. Applications consist of collective and individual perceptions of Canadian bureaucracy, how police define victims of sexual assault based on social assumptions, and how people react to the rhetoric of fear. The main argument against the Thomas theorem is the structural-functionalist assumption that social structures are the bases for why humans react differently to various circumstances and that reality lies in a series of social facts.
Keywords Definition of the Situation; Ethnography; Interactionist Perspective; Participant Observation; Reflexivity; Role-Taking; Self-Fulfilling Prophecy; Social Fact
Day to Day Social Interaction: The Thomas Theorem
"If men define their situations as real, they are real in the consequences." This phrase is known as the Thomas theorem in sociology. It is also called “definition of the situation,” and is one of the best- known concepts in sociology. This famous quote, coined by W. I. Thomas describes how humans understand reality through a complex calculation that relies on the individual's interpretation of the situation. The interpretation may or may not be accurate, yet the individual behaves as though his interpretation is correct. Further, humans have an understanding about what the social expectations are for a situation, and these may or may not coincide with the wishes of the individual. This occurs on all levels of social life for people, according to Thomas. Definition of the situation is the means people use to determine what is expected of them in various situations. The key to the theory, though, is that this assessment is subjective. In other words, people go through life deciding the meaning of situations, and those meanings determine how they behave in the situation, regardless of whether or not the interpretation is accurate. This inventive way of understanding how humans make sense of reality was developed in the 1920s, when the Chicago School of Sociology was emerging as a definitive force in the field.
The Life of W. I. Thomas
American sociologist William Isaac Thomas (1863–1947) is best known for his development of the Thomas theorem. However, he had been engaged in many other intellectual interests before developing this theory. Interestingly, and like many early sociologists, his initial academic focus was not sociology; he studied literature and modern languages and taught classes as diverse as French and natural history. He developed an interest in sociology when he began to read the work of English structural-functionalist Herbert Spencer. The broad background of Thomas, and many other sociologists of his time, reveals the differences between contemporary academia and higher education during its early years.
After teaching literature in the mid-1880s at the University of Tennessee and sociology at Oberlin College in 1894, Thomas was asked to teach at the University of Chicago were he completed his doctorate in anthropology and sociology in 1896. The new sociology department at the University of Chicago was a dynamic place, with new ideas about sociology, social problems, urbanization, industrialization, and deviance bubbling up for decades after its origin. Colleagues of Thomas are also very famous indeed in the sociology field, including George Herbert Mead, Ernest Burgess, Robert Park, Edwin Sutherland, and Louis Wirth (Bulmer, 1984).
Thomas worked at the University of Chicago for twenty years. Some of his early work reveals how contained ideas were in the earliest part of the twentieth century. Thomas's first major work, Sex and Society (1907), the anthropological analysis looked at the difference between sexes in societies and attempted to explain that women should be the central entity between the father and the children. In other words, Thomas argued that there is a biological explanation why women are the key caregivers for children, while men are better suited to other familial tasks. This rather traditional assessment of female and male roles in childrearing was, of course, quite within acceptable terms for the period. In this work, Thomas also argued that men are biologically more motor-oriented, while women are more stationary.
Receiving a grant to study immigrants in American society, Thomas went to Europe to begin his work where he meet Florian Znaniecki, who worked with Thomas on an early sociological classic, published in 1920, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America: Monograph of an Immigrant Group. This is a benchmark study because it identified the effects of immigration on people, including the adjustment period and how norms are retained in the new country, even when they create a disadvantage for immigrants. But chiefly, Thomas formulated a scheme of wishes in the individual that seemed to him to be fundamental, at least, to social behavior. These include the wish for security, safety, and conservation of the old and tried; the wish for novelty, for escape from ennui; the wish for recognition from others, and the desire for prestige; and lastly, the wish for intimate face-to-face response, or the desire for love mates or comrades (Young, 1924). It is out of these findings that Thomas later, in his study of deviant girls in society, develops his famous notion "definition of the situation."
It should be noted that Thomas and Znanieki's work on immigrants was considered one of the first real research done in American sociology. Polish peasants were the focus because Thomas initially had gone to Europe to study various European groups and settled on Poles; further, Poles were the single largest immigrant group in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century, making it an ideal focus of this work. Thomas and Znaniecki analyzed letters sent to and received from Polish immigrants and those remaining in Poland. This use of letters as data was rather uncommon at the time and this method of study is called ethnography, or ethnographic studies, meaning it uses a qualitative analysis of some element of a culture to make inferences about a group. This is a common method used in anthropology, though less so in sociology.
In 1918, W. I. Thomas left Chicago under a cloud of scandal that is poorly documented. He was well known for holding left-wing political ideas and living an unconventional lifestyle. He was also known for having many relationships with women. He was arrested under the Mann Act, a law that is designed to ensure prostitutes cannot be moved across state lines. It is unlikely Thomas had anything to do with prostitution, but the University of Chicago reacted by firing him and refusing to acknowledge his academic contributions and published work Thomas had written under the names of other researchers in the department of sociology. This was not acknowledged until 1951, when the Social Science Research Committee reissued the work under Thomas's name. Thomas emerged in New York City in the early 1920s and by the mid-1920s was able to work with the extraordinarily prominent social scholars from Europe in their establishment of a new type of university, the New School for Social Research. The New School, which at the time was not a well-known school, was progressive, and some might say, radical. But Thomas never had a permanent position again in his teaching career. In 1927, Thomas was made honorary president of the American Sociological Association.
Sociological theory in the early 1900s was dominated by European-based marcosociological theories. Commonly, theorists maintained either a conflict theory approach or a structural-functionalist approach. A social scientist's position was based on his assumptions about the social world. If one assumed the social world was defined by the relationship between the oppressed and oppressor, he or she would hold a conflict theorist approach, which had been defined by both Karl Marx and Max Weber in the late 1800s and early 1900s. If one believed the social world is defined by social order and that order is maintained by shared norms and values, he or she would hold a structural-functionalist perspective, purported principally by Emile Durkheim.
While neither of these approaches worked well to help understand why humans reproduce role expectations, structural-functionalists emerged in the early 1900s as holding the most legitimate explanation for this. Structural-functionalists held that societies have certain needs and those needs will be fulfilled by the existing role expectations. Fulfilling these expectations has little to do with the individual's understanding of the social world; reality exists outside the individual and individuals reproduce the normative structure, for the most part. Naturally, there will always be deviance in societies, since seeing the effects of someone deviating from the norms is one of the ways individuals know how to behave in a society. So, structural-functionalists believed that, since all social systems are striving for social order, the members are likely to behave in ways that are in accord with the dominant social norms.
Structural-functionalism tended to be a rather conservative theoretical position in that it holds that normative structures are neither moral nor immoral; rather they are either functional or dysfunctional. In other words, they either work to support and perpetuate the current social order or they do not. For this reason, any significant deviance against the normative structure would be seen as dysfunctional. Further, when members deviate in large numbers, it reflects what Durkheim called a sense of "anomie," or disconnectedness. This sense of anomie is the result of a lack of common ideas about norms and values in society.
In the 1920s, the Chicago School of sociology had begun to develop different explanations for social behavior. Several theorists, based on the early works of Max Weber, began to suggest that humans tend to have a common understanding of meaning in the social world, or reality, but that this reality is interpreted on an individual basis....
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