William Isaac Thomas

National Cyclopedia of American Biography

THOMAS, William Isaac, sociologist and educator, was born in Russell County, Va., Aug. 13, 1863, son of Thaddeus Peter and Sarah Priscilla (Price) Thomas, grandson of Isaac and Rebecca (Barb) Thomas, and great-grandson of Jacob and Elizabeth (——) Thomas. His great-grandfather came to this country from the Rhineland, then a province of Prussia (later part of Germany), and settled in Lancaster, Pa. His father was a businessman and lay Methodist preacher. After receiving his preliminary education at public schools in Virginia and Tennessee, William I. Thomas was graduated B.A. in 1884 at the University of Tennessee and Ph.D. in 1896 at the University of Chicago. Meanwhile, upon graduating from the University of Tennessee, he joined the staff of that institution, serving as instructor in English, Greek and Latin until 1888, when he was promoted to associate professor. In that year he went to Germany for study in philology at the universities of Berlin and Göttingen and in 1889 returned to the United States upon his appointment as professor of English and comparative literature at Oberlin College. While on leave from his duties there, he studied sociology at the University of Chicago and in 1894 was named professor of sociology at Oberlin, but held that post for only three months. Thomas became associated with the staff of the University of Chicago in 1895 as instructor in sociology. Named assistant professor in 1900, he was subsequently promoted to associate professor and in 1910 became professor, serving in that capacity until 1918. In addition he was in charge of the Helen Culver Fund for Race Psychology, Chicago, Ill., from 1908 to 1918. He moved to New York city in 1918 and thereafter devoted much of his time to research and writing. In that city he was lecturer at the New School for Social Research and at Columbia University from 1920 to 1928. He also lectured on sociology at Harvard University in 1936-37. He made the first of seven trips to Sweden in 1930, working there on Swedish materials and lecturing at the University of Stockholm. Thomas was never concerned with sociological theory or system-building. Throughout his career his research and writing dealt with empirical data. He used the case method almost exclusively; quantification was foreign to him. His lack of interest in theory does not mean that he neglected the use of, working hypotheses or that he regarded science as a mere collection of facts. He always maintained that practical social problems were legitimate topics for scientific study but that from the method itself all practical considerations must be excluded. His work fell into four periods. The first maybe designated as "folk sociology' and was concerned with the relation of the individual's development to society and its institutions. In the second, "social psychology and social origins," he departed sharply from then current theories of stage-wise social evolution. He was one of the first sociologists to collect and analyze cross-cultural materials. The next phase of his work. dealt chiefly with problems of ethnic relations and social-cultural assimilation. His exhaustive monograph, "The Polish Peasant in Europe and America" (with Znaniecki, 1918-20), belonged to this period. The fourth and final phase may be termed "the situational approach," and was exemplified in "The Child in America" (with Dorothy Swaine Thomas, 1928). Other writings included: "Sex and Society' (1907), "Source Book for Social Origins" (1909), "Standpoint and Questionnaire for Race Psychology" (1912), "Suggestions of Modern Science Concerning Education" (with others, 1914), "The Unadjusted Girl" (1923), and "Primitive Behavior" (1937). Of inventive mind, he held patents on golf balls and the dead key on the typewriter. He was a member of the American Sociological Society (pres. 1927), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Claremont Country Club, Oakland, Calif., the Stockholm (Sweden) Golf Club, and the Quadrangle Club of the University of Chicago. His recreational interests were tennis, golf, and cabinet making. Thomas was married twice: (1) in Knoxville, Tenn., June 6, 1888, to Harriet, daughter of James Park of that place, a Presbyterian clergyman, and had five children: William Alexander, Edward Brown, Robert (died in childhood), Madeline (died in childhood), and Dorothy (died in childhood); he was divorced from his first wife in 1934; (2) in Harwinton, Conn., Feb. 7, 1935, to Dorothy Swaine, daughter of John Knight Thomas of Baltimore, Md., a salesman. Thomas died in Berkeley, Calif., Dec. 5, 1947.


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