William Isaac Thomas: A Typology of Human Actors
In an effort to explore further the interplay between social organization and individual attitude, between social constraint and individual response Thomas and Znaniecki developed a suggestive typology of human actors, distinguishing three typical cases in terms of the variant responses of people to cultural demands. This typology, it should be noted, as distinct from their abortive attempt to delimit basic wishes, has had a considerable influence on the subsequent typologies of David Riesman and other current scholars.
Thomas and Znaniecki first describe the Philistine who is "always a conformist, usually accepting social tradition in its most stable elements. . . . Every important and unexpected change in the condition of life results for such an individual in a disorganization of activity." His type of adjustment has become so rigid as to preclude the development of any new attitudes except through the slow changes brought about by age in the individual and by time in his social milieu. The polar opposite of this type is the Bohemian, "whose possibilities of evolution are not closed, simply because his character remains unformed." In this type, "we find an undetermined variation of schemes." He may be highly inconsistent, "but on the other hand he shows a degree of adaptability to new conditions quite in contrast to the Philistine." While the first type is a conformist and the second a rebel, the creative man is an innovator adaptable to new conditions, displaying variegated interests. These are "compatible with a consistency of activity superior to that which tradition can give if the individual builds his life-organization not upon the presumption of the immutability of his sphere of social values, but upon the tendency to modify and to enlarge it according to some definite aim." The creative man does not simply act within the grooves of tradition, nor is he indiscriminately rebellious when it comes to societal requirements; rather, with a judicious blend of innovation and tradition he clears a new path through the forest of the customary and can hence be a creative guide in efforts to bring about social change.
Thomas and Znaniecki made it clear that what they were delineating here were ideal types, never fully realized in any particular personality. As they put it, "None of these forms is ever completely and absolutely realized by a human individual in all lines of activity; there is no Philistine who lacks completely Bohemian tendencies, no Bohemian who is not a Philistine in certain respects, no creative man who is fully and exclusively creative. . . ." They were aware that these general types "include . . . an indefinite number of variations." But, like the more elaborate and sophisticated ideal types depicted by Max Weber, these general types may well serve as rough guides in efforts to classify the immense variety of human personalities along a continuum based on their variant orientations to the requirements of social living. It is important to note that at a time when John B. Watson and others conceived human beings as infinitely manipulable by their social environment, Thomas and Znaniecki insisted that though Philistines were all around and Bohemians might exhaust themselves in futile rebellion, there also existed innovative and creative people who attempted, while acknowledging limits, to transcend them in the image of their desire.
The range of subjects touched upon in The Polish Peasant is wide indeed. Its authors displayed a sympathetic interest in the huge diversity of personalities, cultural patterns, and institutional arrangements they encountered in their research on both the old continent and the new. In America they dealt with city politics and prostitution, the press and the dance hall, family quarrels and nostalgic longings for a lost home--all discussed against the backdrop of conditions in Poland. And while engaged in sociological investigation of typical behaviors, they always displayed a loving concern for the varied ways unique persons came to terms with their predicaments. And yet, despite this diversity of topics, there was a strong unity in their work. They were concerned throughout to document and analyze the impact of urbanization, industrialization, and modernization in the modern world. They showed how the traditional forms of social control were replaced by the looser and more tenuous controls that attempt to guide the conduct of modern men and women. They documented the sea change from a kin-dominated culture to one based on urban associations or loose neighborhood ties. Although they appear at times to be lost in a welter of details, their work is marked throughout by concerns very similar to those that moved most of the other masters of modern sociology, from Marx to Mannheim.
What is more, like many of their intellectual forbears and contemporaries, they saw in sociology not only an analytical discipline but one capable of providing guidance to social policy. They were convinced that common-sense knowledge, on which humankind had relied through the millennia, is no longer an adequate basis for social control. They believed that the systematic knowledge they aimed to provide would furnish the rudiments of a science of purposeful social intervention and rational control. They even went so far as to state, ". . . It is always the question of an ultimate practical applicability which . . . will constitute the criterion--the only secure and intrinsic criterion--of a science."
At first blush, Thomas and Znaniecki's stress on rational control and social techniques might suggest that they were seduced by some technocratic ideal of overall planning. But such was emphatically not the case. To the contrary, they emphasized that their analyses and findings were in the first place meant to increase the awareness and knowledge possessed by the individual subjects they studied. In a passage that could as well have been written by a contemporary sociologist such as Jurgen Habermas, they stated that, "it is desirable to develop in the individuals the ability to control spontaneously their own activities by conscious reflection." It was to such an increase in the conscious awareness of their subjects that they dedicated their work. "While in earlier stages," they argued, "the society itself provided a rigoristic and particularistic set of definitions in the form of 'customs' or 'mores', the tendency to advance is associated with the liberty of the individual to make his own definition." The sociological analyses they provided were intended to further that development.
The subtleties of the theorizing in The Polish Peasant should not blind us to some of its deficiencies. Too often, conceptual distinctions that appear clearcut in the methodological discussion become blurred in concrete exposition. Even such key concepts as attitude and values, as the authors were later to acknowledge, often come to be used almost interchangeably. At times it is difficult to disentangle subjective factors and their objective correlates, precisely because the objective world is always dealt with only to the extent that it enters subjective experience. Such methodological criticisms were elaborated in detail in Herbert Blumer's exhaustive critique of the work. Nevertheless, despite the fact also emphasized by Blumer, that there are considerable discrepancies between the theoretical guidelines and the substantive contributions, The Polish Peasant has aged very well indeed. It remains one of the great landmarks of American sociological investigation, and, despite its flaws, its theoretical framework may still inspire emulation by those who possess more developed theoretical tools.
From Coser, 1977:516-518.