William Isaac Thomas: Situational Analysis

Perhaps the highpoint in the development of Thomas's social psychology came with his elaboration of the famous notion of the definition of the situation. The notion is so central that an extended quotation is in order:

". . . the higher animals, and above all man, have the power of refusing to obey a stimulation which they followed at an earlier time. . . . We call this ability the power of inhibition. . . . Preliminary to any self-determined act of behavior there is always a stage of examination and deliberation which we may call the definition of the situation. . . . Not only concrete acts are dependent on the definition of the situation, but gradually a whole life policy and the personality of the individual himself follow from a series of such definitions. But the child is always born into a group of people among whom all the general types of situation which may arise have already been defined and corresponding rules of conduct developed, and where he has not the slightest chance of making his definitions and following his wishes without interference. . . . There is therefore always a rivalry between the spontaneous definition of the situation made by members of an organized society and the definition which his society has provided for him. The individual tends to a hedonistic selection of activity, pleasure first; and society to a utilitarian selection, safety first. . . . It is in this connection that a moral code arises, which is a set of rules of behavior norms regulating the expression of the wishes, and which is built up by successive definitions 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 Thomas with a secure vantage point from which he could criticize all instinctivistic or biologistic interpretations, as well as the crude behaviorism of John B. Watson and his followers. Only close analytical attention to the subjective ways in which human beings filtered the crude data of their senses, only sustained concern with the mediating functions of the human mind could help explain the root fact that though two individuals might be presented with an identical stimulus, they might react to it in utterly different ways. This could be seen in operation both between categories of individuals and between culturally differentiated groups. A well-dressed woman, for example, may be perceived by males in terms of her sexual attractiveness, while women might focus attention on the design of her clothing. A teddy bear might be a protective talisman to a child, but is only a plaything to an adult. A record player may be a means for filling empty leisure time to a jaded city dweller, while it may be the voice of a god to a primitive. Unless analysts attend to these subjective meanings, these definitions of the situation, they will be as unable to understand fellow human beings as they will be incapable of understanding other cultures.

But there is still more. Human actions can make sense to us only if we become aware that all meanings come to be constructed by definitions through which the prism of the mind orders perceptual experience. Ponder carefully the following sentence, the most pregnant sentence that Thomas ever wrote: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."

What Thomas was saying was that people respond not only to the objective features of a situation, but also, and often mainly, to the meaning that situation has for them. And once such meanings have been assigned, their consequent behavior is shaped by the ascribed meaning. If people believe in witches, such beliefs have tangible consequences--they may, for example, kill those persons assumed to be witches. This then is the power the human mind has in transmuting raw sense data into a categorical apparatus that could make murderers of us all. Once a Vietnamese becomes a "gook," or a Black a "nigger," or a Jew a "kike," that human being has been transmuted through the peculiar alchemy of social definition into a wholly "other" who is now a target of prejudice and discrimination, of violence and aggression, and even murder. It stands to reason, of course, that there are benevolent as well as malevolent consequences of such definitions of the situation; peasant girls can become saints and politicians high-minded statesmen. In any case, and regardless of the consequences, definitions always organize experience; they are "equivalents to the determination of the vague." It would be superfluous to adduce the numerous progeny that Thomas's notion has engendered. Anyone, for example, writing on prejudice and 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 concerns with basic motivational structures and wishes. In tune with his fully developed notion of the "definition of the situation," he now concerned himself with what he described as "situational analysis." By this he meant, to quote from his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Society, that "the particular behavior patterns and the total personality are overwhelmingly conditioned by the types of situation and trains of experience encountered by the individual in the course of his life."

In Old World Traits Transplanted (originally published as a work by Robert Park et al., but in fact mainly written by Thomas), in The Unadjusted Girl, The Child in America (with Dorothy S. Thomas) and in Primitive Behavior situational analysis, in which the definition of the situation assumed pride of place, was applied to a diversity of concrete topics. In all of them, Thomas clung to his view that society and individuals should always be conceived of as being involved in reciprocal interaction. As he put it in The Unadjusted Girl, "Society is indispensable to the individual because it possesses at a given moment an accumulation of values, of plans and materials which the child could never accumulate alone. . . . But the individual is also indispensable to society because by his activity and ingenuity he creates all the material values, the whole fund of civilization." Thomas was prepared to subscribe to Cooley's dictum that the individual and society are twin born, but only if he were allowed to specify that they were not identical twins. He was much more aware than Cooley of the crises and dislocations that are bound at times to disrupt the harmonious interplay between them.

Later works also extended Thomas's concern with typologies as in 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 characteristic manner. Typological distinctions, he felt, were most useful in breaking down global categories such as "immigrants" into subcategories, displaying distinctive behaviors in their interaction with the host community. Such typologies were further developed in the work of Florian Znaniecki.


From Coser, 1977:520-523.