William Isaac Thomas (1863-1947) was an American sociologist and educator. He was a pioneer in the scientific use of personal documents and in pointing to the interplay between personality and culture.
On Aug. 13, 1863, W. I. Thomas was born in Russell County, Va. He majored in literature and languages at the University of Tennessee, where in 1886 he received the first doctoral degree granted by that institution. After a brief teaching stint in natural history and Greek at the University of Tennessee, he developed an interest in anthropology and sociology at the universities of Göttingen and Berlin. However, he returned to teaching at Oberlin College and then began advanced work in sociology at the University of Chicago.
From 1894 to 1918 Thomas was with the department of sociology at the University of Chicago, having received his second doctorate there in 1896. With the support of the Helen Culver Fund for Race Psychology, he initiated the study of migrant adjustment that was published as The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (with Florian Znaniecki, 5 vols., 1918-1921). In 1918 Thomas left Chicago to work on studies of Americanization for the Carnegie Foundation and lectured at the New School for Social Research (1923-1928). He was elected president of the American Sociological Society in 1927. Thereafter, he concentrated on research in crime and youth, in New York City, Sweden, New Haven, Conn., and California. On Dec. 5, 1947, he died in Berkeley, Calif.
After an initial interest in cultural evolution and the use of comparative materials—best represented in his early Source Book for Social Origins (1908)—Thomas began a sustained focus on analyses of social motivations in various situations of crisis. The major study of his career—The Polish Peasant—applied this interest to the adjustments of immigrants. But Thomas tried to show that adjustment was explainable by personal perception and evaluation (definition of the situation) and by socially derived differences in personality.
In The Unadjusted Girl (1923), a study of delinquents, Thomas interpreted deviant acts as experimental responses to vague social cues and to practically meaningless traditional codes. With further investigation, Thomas gave increasing emphasis to observing and theorizing on the realistic situations in which persons function. In The Child in America (1927) and several manuscripts dated from 1927 to 1933, he sought a flexible method of studying social situations through adequately detailed case histories of changes in attitudes—through letters and autobiographical accounts. One key statement has been widely quoted: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."
Though Thomas is sometimes remembered for his early (and subsequently discarded) conception of the "four wishes, " or types of social motivation, his primary contributions were more varied. First, he helped to establish a needed empirical base for American sociology. Second, by specifying the study of social change as experienced by individuals in a series of situations, he initiated the study of "culture and personality." Third, he provided one of the earliest objective (rather than moralistic) approaches to various forms of social deviance (crime, delinquency), thereby promoting the view that deviation is a normal prelude to, or accompaniment of, social reorganization and change.
Further Reading on William Isaac Thomas
A long biographical sketch and many selections from Thomas's books are in Morris Janowitz, W. I. Thomas on Social Organization and Social Personality (1966). The best review of Thomas's work, with excerpts, is Edmund H. Volkart, Social Behavior and Personality (1951). Another capable review is the chapter "William Isaac Thomas: The Fusion of Psychological and Cultural Sociology" in Harry Elmer Barnes, An Introduction to the History of Sociology (1948).