Review of Primitive Behavior by W. I. Thomas

Robert E. Park

Primitive Behavior. An Introduction to the Social Sciences. By WILLIAM I. THOMAS. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1936. Pp. i+847. $5.00.

It is now nearly thirty years, twenty-eight to be exact, since the publication of W. I. Thomas' Source Book for Social Origins first called the attention of students of human nature and society to the importance of the researches of ethnology and anthropology, "those sciences which," as the author remarks, "stand between biology and civilization." Much water has run under the bridge since that time. The perspective of ethnological investigation has widened. New points of view have emerged. The age of ethnological exploration has come to an end. Anthropological research is no longer as exclusively as it once was a search for museum pieces. The emphasis has shifted from artefacts to institutions and from description to insight. To know that here and there, in remote corners of the world, hu-

(287) -man creatures continue to maintain quaint customs is still interesting. On the other hand, the need to understand what these customs mean to the people who practice them, how they function in the life of the individual and the society of which these individuals are a part, has assumed new importance.

There is another respect in which the attitude and emphasis of students of anthropology has changed in recent years. Having studied primitive peoples disinterestedly, and with no practical or political bias, anthropology has begun to turn its attention to civilized peoples. A few anthropologists have even gone so far as to be interested in problems—problems of colonial administration for example. Vide the recent volume Anthropology in Action, describing a recent experiment designed "to discover to what extent anthropological knowledge can be made applicable to the problems surrounding the administration of an African tribe."[1]

Meanwhile sociology, which had its origin in politics and at one time, not so long ago, was described as "the science of reform," has begun to look at civilized man with something of the same detachment and intellectual curiosity with which anthropologists have studied primitive peoples. Anthropology, in so far as it has learned to see the world from the point of view of aliens and savages, has enabled students of contemporary civilization to see civilized life as it actually is; to see, for one thing, how fantastic it is in many of its manifestations and, at the same time, how human and inevitable. All of which has tended to temper the political and reform motive inherent in the sociological tradition.

It is now less than ever before possible to distinguish the boundaries that divide the social sciences or the divergent points of view from which sociology and social anthropology view their different subject matters. All these changes in the posture and relative positions of the different social sciences are reflected in the contents, as well as in the title, of the volume Primitive Behavior, with which this review is concerned. They are not only reflected but announced in the subtitle, "An Introduction to the Social Sciences," which seems intended to advertise the fact that a knowledge of primitive man will henceforth be regarded as an indispensable approach to studies in social psychology, history, politics, criminology, psychopathology, and education—all of them subjects in which the author of this volume has had something more than a passing acquaintance.

Primitive Behavior was probably undertaken as a revision of the earlier Social Origins. It has turned out to be something more and different. It is no longer a source book merely. It is rather a source book which in the course of its evolution has assumed the character of an independent treatise. It covers, as a matter of fact, a much wider range of ethnological literature than Social Origins, and only in one or two instances does it contain excerpts from or references to the materials of the earlier publication. From his wide reading in the widely scattered literature of ethnology and social anthropology the author has brought together, within the limits of a single

(288) volume, a body of materials which offers the student what is probably the most complete picture of primitive customs and institutions that has thus far been published.

The most entertaining as well as instructive chapter in the volume discusses the relative endowment of races. As evidence that the natives are not lacking in logical acumen, when they are arguing from premises that are valid within the limits of their own universe, the author quotes the record of an argument between David Livingstone and a South African rainmaker. In their discussion (p. 782), Livingstone and the rainmaker both assumed that rain may be secured by supplicating a supernatural being. In that case, as the author points out, and the report of the discussion indicates, "the white man got the worst of the argument."

The most imposing, if not the most important, chapter in the book is that which deals with the subject of diffusion. Here, as elsewhere, the author has attempted less to discuss the theoretic aspects of the problem than to illustrate, by detailed description, the manner in which diffusion has actually taken place.

The subject of cultural diffusion is intimately bound up with the related processes of acculturation by which traits of one culture are assimilated to, and incorporated in, another and different culture. The conditions under which cultural diffusion and acculturation have taken place throw an interesting light on the problems of native government and education—problems which have arisen wherever European expansion has imposed European civilization upon primitive peoples.

From the point of view of theory and method, the most interesting chapters in this volume are those in which the author defines the factors and tendencies upon which he has relied to explain the evolution of culture and human nature. There is, he says, in human behavior an arbitrary factor which makes any such uniform course of "cultural and behavioral evolution," as students have invariably sought for but never found, quite out of the question. Notably: theories which seek to explain the differing cultures of races and peoples as due to differing degrees of mental endowment and inborn racial "psyches" have not been sustained. In any case "such differences (of mental endowment) as may possibly exist have not," he believes; "played a noticeable role in the development of behavior and culture," and group psyches where they obviously exist "are not inborn but developed through experience and habit systems." On the contrary social change and the "advance to the cultural level termed `civilization' " are the effects of migration, commerce, and communication rather than biological inbreeding and inheritance.

The central problem of "those sciences which stand between biology and civilization" is, then, how, when, and under what conditions has man developed the capacity for abstract thought, the ability to recognize the ideal and typical in the individual and particular? Under what conditions, in short, has man become the discursive, analytical, dialectical and civilized creature he conceives himself to be, and more or less s?

"It is a frequent experience," says the author, "that the problems of a

(289) given situation are soluble only by going outside the situation." In accordance with this principle he has sought an explanation for (1) rationality in man, and (2) the diversities of culture and the irregular course of its evolution, in the instinctive behavior of animals and in the non-rational behavior of human beings.

Custom and habit in man perform the same function and arise in much the same way as instincts in animals. Both can be understood if they are approached and interpreted in terms of "the definition of the situation." All forms of behavior may be construed in terms of adjustment: "an adjustment of any kind," however, "is preceded by a decision to act or not along a given line, and the decision itself is preceded by a definition of the situation, that is to say, an interpretation, or point of view, and eventually a policy.... "

"On the social level these definitions and the patterns they initiate are represented by moral and legal codes, political policies, organizations, institutions, etc.; they originate in adjustive reactions, are developed through language, gossip, argument, and conflict; there appear special definers of situations—medicine men, prophets, lawgivers, judges, politicians, scientists; culture epochs and mass conversions (Christianity, Mohammedanism, the German Reformation, the French Revolution, popular government, fascism, communism, prohibition, etc.) are inaugurated by the propaganda of definitions of situations."

Definitions of the situation may arise—do arise, in fact—on the subhuman level. In that case "definitions of the situation are implicit in the nature of the organism." Such, for example, are reactions of the sort called, instincts, unlearned behavior, because "they function without experience." ... However, they are "learned phylogenetically," that is, "during the life of the species, not the life of the individual."

The definition of the situation on the social, as distinguished from the biological, level occurs when, for reasons often obscure, a cultural pattern turns out to be peculiarly stimulating, and for that reason arouses an interest that is contagious. The typical instance is the introduction of a new fashion. Eventually the fashion becomes fixed in habit and is transmitted by custom.

There is, however, a tendency in human beings—obvious in fashion—to which the author applies the term "perseveration." Once a fashion gets established it tends not merely to persist, but to evolve along the line and in the direction of its original definition or bias. There is a tendency, as the author says, "to step up patterns to unanticipated extremes."

Thus the tendency of the organism and of society to select and give attention to certain aspects of its environment and to neglect others—in short, to define the situation—is supplemented by the tendency to perseverate, to respond consistently to selected factors in the environment; namely, to a situation as defined. The effect is that different societies respond in diametrically opposite ways to the same situation; and that all societies tend to step up, often to what seem like fantastic extremes, every custom and every fashion which they adopt.


It is out of the interaction of these two tendencies, which express themselves first of all on the biological level, that the kinds of behavior which on the social level we describe as human and rational seem to arise.

Selective attention and the disposition to act consistently—and eventually according to some formal rule or code—seem to be the fundamental traits that distinguish human beings from the lower animals, and, perhaps, primitive from civilized man.

University of Chicago


  1. Brown, G. Gordon and Hutt, A. McD. Bruce, Aпthropology in Action.

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