In Memoriam: William Isaac Thomas, 1863-1947

Ellsworth Faris

W. I. Thomas died at Berkeley, California, on December 5, 1947, in his eighty-fifth year. He was among the very first to receive a doctorate in sociology and so, though he was not one of the founders of our science, he was easily chief among the epigones. Men like Ward and Small had to fight for recognition and a place in the sun; Thomas could devote his energies to creative work instead of combat.

And few have left more to show for their efforts. He wrote The Unadjusted Girl, a model study of an age-old social problem, scientific and objective, based, as was all his work, on verified facts, in contrast to the usual sentimental and reformist treatment. In The Child in America he gave us a definitive inventory of the agencies, organizations, and institutions that are set up to guide and to correct our youth, a study based on firsthand investigation, admirable in its inclusiveness and objectively frank in revealing the need for more scientific procedures-a need that still exists. His Primitive Behavior is a comprehensive study of preliterate life in those aspects whose comparative differences are significant and fruitful to study, revealing much useful knowledge about human nature. Thomas did no field work but he laid under tribute a truly vast literature, requiring years of patient and expert work in the great libraries.

He made numerous other contributions, but the magnum opus was, of course, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, credit for which he generously shared with Znaniecki. The work involved prodigious labor, its method was rigorous and exact, and its contributions to theory give it a place among the few outstanding products of American sociology now numbered among our classics.

Of the many useful concepts-useful because fruitful in further research-one thinks of "crisis," “life-organization," "definition of the situation," the "four wishes," and several more. But his conception of "social attitudes" not only has been indispensable to social psychologists but has been the occasion of some of the most significant developments in recent years in the study of human nature. Thomas did not coin the word "attitude"---indeed he scorned neologisms---nor was he the first to speak of the "attitude" of a man; but to him belongs the credit of making the term a scientific tool. He had no mathematics, but the expert statisticians discovered that attitudes could be counted, then that they could be measured, even that they could be deliberately changed into units, such as a regiment of soldiers, and that the change could, in turn, be proved and measured. At present, attitude research occupies the energies of some of our most gifted men.

Thomas came into sociology from literature and, throughout, displayed many of the qualities of the artist. He was a great favorite as a lecturer, was a brilliant conversationalist, and had a large circle of devoted friends.

He loved to work with his hands, and his hobbies were something out of the ordinary. Dissatisfied with the finish of a dining table, he contrived a better furniture polish. Finding his golf ball inferior, he invented an improved one. He had a zest for life and was never bored. He had learned, no matter what he was doing, to have a good time doing it.

It is good for American sociology that he was allowed to live out a full span of years. He has set a high mark and inspired many to emulation. To him were given the ten talents, and to these he faithfully added other ten. And, since the students, in the long run, sit in judgment on the teachers, we all say: Well done.



No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2