Sociology and Anthropology Monday: William I. (Isaac) Thomas and Florian W. (Witold) Znaniecki

William I ThomasFlorian W. Zaniecki

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Sociology and Anthropology Monday
William I. (Isaac) Thomas (13 August 1863 – 5 December 1947) and Florian W. (Witold) Znaniecki (15 January 1882 – 23 March 1958)

It is fitting that Thomas and Znaniecki be treated together since their collaborative work The Polish Present in Europe and America represents the first major in-depth study of emigration and the establishment of an immigrant population in the United States. A classic of sociology, its methodology was largely dependent on the data provided by the emigrants themselves in the form of letters, diaries and other autobiographies, newspaper reports, etc. in which the subjective experiences are treated as series data for an objective study.

W. I. Thomas studied English and Classics at the University of Tennessee and continued his studies in classics and developed his interest in modern languages at the Universities of Berlin and Göttingen. Returning to the United States he taught English and later Sociology at Oberlin College (where George Herbert Mead’s father had been a professor of homiletics – on Mead see this blog February 10, 2014) and in 1895 joined the sociology faculty at the University of Chicago (a year after the same George Herbert Mead was appointed to that department).

Out of his growing interest in cultural history as it development within specific racial, ethnic and religious communities, Thomas decided to do an empirical study of the Polish immigrant community in Chicago. To this end he learned Polish and made several trips to that country. There he met the philosopher-sociologist, Florian Znaniecki, who joined Thomas as his research assistant and subsequent co-author of their 5 volume work: The Polish Peasant in Europe and America.

Florian Znaniecki, considered the father of Polish sociology, having founded the first Polish department of sociology at the Mickiewicz University in Poznan where he taught as a professor from 1920 to 1939. But he also had a distinguished career as a sociologist at the University of Chicago, Columbia University (where a former student from Poland, Theodore Abel, was also on the faculty) and the University of Illinois. Znaniecki also served as President of the American Sociological Association in 1947. He championed a humanistic approach to sociology and, like his friend and colleague, Thomas, believed that the accent in research should be put on culture and the individual in their reciprocal interaction. Like his teacher, Emile Durkheim, whose lectures he attended at the Sorbonne (1908-09), he wrestled with the problem of sociology as a science which included the semantic dimension as an integral part of its subject matter. Znaniecki, like Thomas, was a forerunner of the symbolic interactionist movement which was to become a leading element at the University of Chicago with the important groundwork of George Herbert Mead and, after Mead’s death, of Herbert Blumer and other of Mead’s students.

In their justly celebrated work The Polish Peasant, in the long methodological note in Volume One, they wrestled with the problem of sociology as a science that encompassed both the centrality of meaning while developing a nomothetic approach to the data. They wrote: “…social theory…must include both kinds of data…namely, the objective cultural elements of social life and the subjective characteristics of the members of the social group…” (Volume One, p. 20) They refer to these two elements as “social values” and “attitudes” respectively. In a later passage they write: “…a social cause cannot be simple, like a physical cause, but is compound, and must include both an objective and a subjective element, a value and an attitude.” And, affirming the nomothetic character of sociology, still later they write: “The cause of a social or individual phenomenon is never another social or individual phenomenon alone, but always a combination of a social and an individual phenomenon.
Or, in more exact terms:
The cause of a value or of an attitude is never an attitude of a value alone, but always a combination of an attitude and a value.” (op. cit., page 44 italics in the original)

In addition to his work on The Polish Peasant, is remembered and acclaimed for developing the concept of the ‘definition of the situation. Although he introduced the term in his 1923 book, The Unadjusted Girl, he first gave a full description by means of an example in his co-authored (with Dorothy Swaine Thomas) 1928 book The Child in America as follows:

“To take an extreme example, the warden of Dannemora prison recently refused to honor the order of the court to send an inmate outside the prison walls for some specific purpose. He excused himself on the ground that the man was too dangerous. He had killed several persons who had the unfortunate habit of talking to themselves on the street. From the movement of their lips he imagined that they were calling him vile names, and he behaved as if this were true. If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” (Thomas and Thomas: 1928, 572)

In 1918 Thomas was arrested by the FBI for allegedly violating the Mann Act which made it a crime to transport a female across state lines for immoral purposes. Commentators observed that Thomas was being persecuted for his progressive views and unconventional lifestyle. He was found innocent of the charges in court. But he was summarily dismissed from the University of Chicago and, although he was able to find academic employment at the newly created New School for Social Research, he was never again to regain his old status as a tenured professor.

The political nature of the attack on Thomas by the Federal authorities as well as by the conservative administration at the University of Chicago was understood by the younger generation of sociologists who expressed their support for the beleaguered and now ‘defrocked’ professor by electing him honorary President of the American Sociological Association in 1927.

Martin Bulmer 1986. The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity, and the Rise of Sociological Research. University of Chicago Press.

W. I. Thomas. 1923. The Unadjusted Girl. Boston: Little Brown.

W. I. Thomas & Dorothy Swaine Thomas. 1928. The Child in America. Alfred Knopf. New York.

W. I. Thomas & Florian Znaniecki. 1958. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. Dover Publications. New York.

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