Contributions of William Isaac Thomas to Sociology I


Kimball Young
Northwestern University



The contribution of W. I. Thomas to sociology was broad and significant. Essentially an empiricist rather than theorist, Thomas first tackled some topics in folk psychology. Most of the papers in this period (1896-1907) were later reprinted as chapters in his first book, Sex and Society (1907). The central theme of the second period (1908-1910) concerns the social psychology of cultural (institutional) origins. The basic analytical concepts were control, attention, habit, and crisis and the principal publication was his Source Book for Social Origins (1909)-a large 'collection of papers from sociology and anthropology. Thomas here puts himself on record against the easy evolutionism of Spencer which had been widely accepted by American sociologists. The third period (1911-1926) focuses, first, on the completion and publication of his magnum opus, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920). The Unadjusted Girl (1923) followed much the same method and serves as a bridge to the fourth period (1927-1936). The central work is The Child in America (1928), an incisive critique of the then current research and publication on child behavior. The fifth and final period (1937-1947) centers on his last book, Primitive Behavior. This was an extensive collection of sociological and anthropological materials on nonliterate societies. In a way it was a successor or continuation, if you will, of his Social Origins.

The paper will be published serially in this journal. In the current issue the first period is covered, including a bibliography of Thomas's publications. The final article will contain a summary and brief evaluation of the place of W. I. Thomas in the history of modern sociology. He has a firm and lasting status.

William I. Thomas never looked upon himself as a theorist. His contribution to systematic sociology was the outcome of a series of researches into various aspects of sociological and social psychological data, often without much reference to their place in any systematic schema. Yet no man can undertake research without some tentative hypotheses. Thomas must have had some premises from which to approach his data, and he usually arrived at reasonably sound conclusions.


William Isaac Thomas was born August 13, 1863, on a farm in Russell County, Virginia. His father, Thaddeus Peter Thomas, combined preaching and farming for a livelihood. His mother was Sarah Price Thomas.

In 1880 Thomas entered the University of Tennessee, doing his major work in literature and the classics. He graduated in 1884, but remained at his alma mater as instructor in Greek and modern languages until

( 4) 1888. The year 1888-1889 was spent abroad doing graduate work at Berlin and Gttingen, after which he returned to the United States to accept a professorship of English at Oberlin College. This chair he held until 1894.

During his years at Oberlin, Thomas became increasingly interested in the social sciences, especially in sociology, then just emerging as a distinct discipline. At the newly established University of Chicago, sociology had found sympathetic approval. During the academic year 1893-1894 Thomas spent two quarters at Chicago as a fellow in sociology, working under Albion W. Small and Charles R. Henderson. In 1895 he became instructor in sociology at the University of Chicago and in the following year, having completed his doctorate, he became an assistant professor there. In 1900 he was promoted to the rank of associate professor, and in 1910 he received his full professorship.

Thomas's first interests were in what was then called folk psychology, now social psychology. In 1907 he published his first book, Sex and Society, made up of certain earlier articles from periodicals, considerably revised and rewritten. His second book, Source Book for Social Origins, published in 1909, was an outgrowth of his increasing interest in ethnology. In 1908 Thomas became director of the Helen Culver fund for race psychology, which made possible his investigation of the assimilation of the Polish peasant in America. As a result of ten years of patient labor, the first volumes of the five-volume work, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, appeared in 1918. Its publication was completed by 1921.

In 1918 Thomas moved to New York City. Soon after the United States entered World War I, the Carnegie Corporation set up an organization called "The Americanization Study" for the purpose of investigating the processes of assimilation. Thomas and Robert E. Park both worked on this project.

At the completion of the work for "The Americanization Study", Thomas continued certain studies of his own in the field of social psychology until 1920, when he undertook an investigation of delinquency under a subvention provided by Mrs. W. F. Dummer of Chicago. The results of this study were published in 1923 in the book, The Unadjusted Girl. During this same year he lectured at the New School for Social Research in New York City. At the New York session of the American Sociological Society in December, 1925, he was elected second vice-president of the Society, and a year later, at St. Louis, he was honored with the presidency of that organization.

( 5) His presidential address at the 1927 meeting of the American Sociological Society under the title "The Behavior Pattern and the Situation" gives essentially his standpoint in the final years of his career. For two years or more previous to this time, he had been at work collecting materials bearing on the field of child study as it had been developed in this country. This material forms the basis of The Child in America (1928).

During the 1930's Thomas taught occasionally at Columbia and Harvard Universities but gave his principal attention to an investigation of Swedish immigration to this country and to completing an extensive work entitled, Primitive Behavior, which appeared in 1937. In 1942 he moved to Berkeley where he died December 6, 1947.


What was the world of sociology into which W. I. Thomas was precipitated when he gave up a career as a scholar in English literature to go into the newest of the social sciences? Frank W. Blackmar, Franklin H. Giddings, and Albion W. Small had only recently initiated departments of sociology at Kansas, Columbia, and Chicago respectively. In 1894 C. H. Cooley offered his first course in sociology at Michigan.' Lester F. Ward had just published The Psychic Factors of Civilization (1893). Herbert Spencer was still vigorously producing sociological volumes bearing on his larger synthetic philosophy, and in 1896, the year in which Thomas took his Ph.D. degree, the third volume of Spencer's Principles of Sociology came off the press. Moreover, the establishment in 1895 of the American Journal of Sociology gave a professional medium for scholars in the new field. Gidding's Principles of Sociology was issued in 1896, and E. A. Ross, who was teaching both economics and sociology at Stanford, began publishing in the American Journal of Sociology the first draft of what became his Social Control (1901) .

In psychology, William James, G. Stanley Hall, and J. Mark Baldwin were leading figures in this country. James's writings on habit formation and on the consciousness of self revealed a considerable appreciation of the place of what we now call cultural learning in the rise of personality. Hall, a strong sponsor of the doctrine of recapitulation, was carrying on extensive questionnaire researches in genetic psychology with a good deal of emphasis on the social influences in child development. Baldwin, however, more than Hall or James, was directly concerned with the rise of personality in its social milieu. His Mental Development in the Child and in the Race (1896) were widely read.

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At the University of Chicago itself, John Dewey and George Herbert Mead were beginning their brilliant contributions to the philosophical and psychological interpretations of social behavior, the rise of personality and social attitudes, and the relation of these to social control.

In anthropology the theoretical work of Herbert Spencer, J. H. Morgan, and E. B. Tylor had had widespread effects. The doctrine of universal unilinear social evolution was rather generally accepted. Nevertheless, signs of a new analysis of ethnological materials were appearing. In Germany, Wundt was already using a social psychological as well as an evolutionary approach in his folk psychology. In this country, A. F. Chamberlain at Clark University was giving courses in anthropology with Franz Boas as his assistant. The latter already had made important contributions to ethnology. In the middle 1880's Boas had made his first field studies of the culture of whole tribes of nonliterate peoples rather than devoting himself piecemeal to specialized comparative investigations. Although evolutionary and comparative anthropology was still generally accepted, at the turn of the century significant changes were already apparent. These were to have their effects on W. I. Thomas even if other sociologists such as F. H. Giddings and C. A. Ellwood were long to continue to accept the older, armchair theories of unilinear social evolution.

Through Thomas's writings one may trace the clear thread of intellectual maturation and healthy modification of standpoint as new vistas of material and new principles of analysis influenced him. Although he began with a definite bent toward biochemical and biological interpretations of social behavior, especially in its origins, he gradually developed, through the material of historical ethnology and current materials on races and immigrant peoples, a particularly profitable social psychological standpoint with emphasis upon wishes, attitudes, and values as keys to social behavior. From this standpoint-held in the 1910's and 1920's---he passed into still another, and to him more profitable interpretation, of social behavior through an analysis of the social situation.

During his first years at Chicago he read widely in folk psychology, ethnology, and sociology. He knew the important continental European literature as well as that in English. From the beginning he was a careful collector. Statistical reports, case histories, folklore, descriptions of primitive life, illustrative quotations from literary works, and observations of his own were set down for future use. His main concern was to bring some scientific order out of these materials; mere theorizing, especially on scanty data, or worse still, on no data whatsoever, seemed to him futile and misleading.[2]

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In his first paper, "The Scope and Method of Folk-psychology," Thomas stated the problem of this field to be "the determination of the developmental relation of individual to race consciousness, and the relation of both to accompanying institutions and usage'."[3] He agreed with Baldwin and Wundt that the topic is one which can not be dealt with in the laboratory but only in the wider reaches of child study and ethnology. Physical anthropology, which at the time was given much weight in these matters, Thomas dismissed as quite inadequate for his purposes. So, too, any attempt to uncover the fundamentals of the social evolutionary process in terms of mere external stimuli or "purely mechanical" energy changes was equally useless. Rather man is no longer a harp played upon by natural forces, but in a far greater degree by social `forces: words, ideas and sentiments are substituted for light, gravity, and acid."[4]

In keeping with the atomism of nineteenth-century physics, chemistry, and biology, Thomas held that in folk psychology the smallest unit, the individual, must be the object of study. Over against the individual we must set "the variables which condition his action." The order in which one may consider these variables is of little consequence, "since they coexist in varying proportions at every stage" of development. Still Thomas saw that we must not neglect to see the individual in the proper historical setting of time and place. However, he was wary of assuming a definite parallelism between primitive peoples and our own particular past.[5]

As a working basis for further studies as well as to delimit the scope of folk psychology, Thomas laid down the following outline of material to be covered by this field:[6]

"1. Habitat. Food-conditions. Anthropo-geography (conditioning temperament and aptitude).
2. Somatic anthropology: laws of growth and variation; effects of crossing and interbreeding; heredity, atavism, etc.
3. Reproductive life; love and marriage; the psychology of sex; sex as a social stimulus.
4. Technology: the useful arts; science.
5. Aesthetic.
6. Animism (religion, myth, superstition).
7. Jurisprudence, politics (formal control)."

Clearly Thomas was finding his way toward a method and standpoint which would take into account bio psychological factors, social organization, and cultural patterns. This field he called "folk-psychology."

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The first concrete application in this field was devoted to the "social psychology of sex." He undertook to study the relation of sexual differences to the mentality of men and women and the relation of these differences to interaction as they expressed themselves in social organization. He wished to interpret the position of women in our society with the scientific tools of his day and within the framework of his conception of folk psychology. He drew heavily upon his background materials but ultimately brought his discussion into relation with contemporary society, not only in his scientific papers and books, but in his more popular articles published in various magazines of the day.

Sexual difference was held to be the expression of deep-seated differences in the biochemistry of the male and the female. The male animal was thought to be essentially katabolic; the female, more related to the plant world, was anabolic. And sexual divergence was said to rest upon the organism's reaction to food. Thomas put it thus:

"Reproduction, a utilization of surplus nutrition, is also obviously the closest possible relation with food, and the evidence here detailed is designed to show that the determination of sex is a chemical matter, maleness and femaleness being solely expressions of a difference of attitude toward food. If such a connection can be traced between sex and nutrition, it will afford a starting point for a study of the comparative psychology of the two sexes and for the investigation of the social meaning of sex."[7]

On the basis of these metabolic differences, men were said to be built for action, women for reproduction and a sedentary existence. Moreover, males are much more variable than females. Thomas drew on practically all the significant literature of biology and sociology of his time to defend this difference in the variability of the sexes. Defectiveness and genius are both more prevalent in the male than in the female. The male has more anatomic anomalies, such as supernumerary digits and nipples. Even Lombroso, whom Thomas criticizes severely elsewhere for his theory of original types,[8] is cited as evidence that "congenital criminals are more frequently male than female."

Associated with this energy-storing process it was said that women suffer less from loss of sleep, have a greater capacity to bear pain, more resistance to many, if not all, diseases, and show less likelihood to suicide from physically painful causes. Women also live longer than men, and although they expend much energy in reproduction and nursing, they show marked superiority in resistance to katabolic forces both in infancy and in old age, when the mortality of males is much higher.

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In contrast to this, men far exceed women in their use of energy. They are stronger physically as measured by tests of various sorts. In all physical types of activity men are superior to women.[9]

The fundamental postulate is summed up in these words: "Organic development in general, and social structure and function in particular, are conditioned by this fundamental contrast in the metabolism of the sexes."[10] Although Thomas greatly modified this viewpoint later, and finally gave it up, he was still disposed as late as 1907 to interpret social organization in terms of the biology of the sexes.[11] In the "Author's Note" to Sex and Society, he stated his general thesis that "the differences in bodily habit between men and women, particularly the greater strength, restlessness, and motor aptitude of men, and the more stationary condition of women, have had an important influence on social forms and activities, and on the character and mind of the two sexes."[12]

Social organization and the inception of culture itself are held to be directly related to these sexual differences. The social order is not an outgrowth of any social instinct as such. Only the crudest forms of social interaction arc found at the lowest levels of food-getting. The basic struggle for food is really "anti-social, or at best, unsocial in its beginning."[13] Even in organized society, food-getting "is a civilized bellum omnium inter omnes." The origins of sociability and higher forms of social interaction are held to depend upon the extension of the reproductive and child-rearing functions of the female.[14]

The dependency of the young child upon the mother furnishes the natural matrix for the rise of sympathy. There is a "physiological predisposition of woman to feeling" which is expressed in love of offspring and in ties of blood. The first social unit is not the family but the mother and her children. The tribe itself is "an aggregation of those related by blood to a group of females." Thus "both social feeling and social organization" and the sympathetic emotions are primarily feminine in origin, related, in turn, to woman's anabolic nature. Thomas held further that natural selection doubtless operated to preserve those groups where the offspring were given the best care. And following this assumption one might contend that monogamy rather than other forms of marriage was most effective in preserving the species.

This matter of social origins as an outgrowth of basic biochemical sex differences leads naturally to the question of social evolution. Just as Thomas was impressed by contemporary biochemistry and biology, he was, in spite of certain critical attitudes, influenced by the current dogmas of societal evolution. Thomas believed that his conception of sex

( 10) differences must be linked up with this theory. In his first general paper defining his early field, he had written: "Every community, as far as it rises toward a culture condition, seems to take the same steps as every other community rising to the same level of culture ; whether these steps are taken invariably in the same order, folk-psychologists are not yet able to say.[15]

Moreover, in dealing with the fundamental relation of the sexes to social origins, Thomas largely accepted Morgan's theory that the first social organization was predominantly matriarchal .[16]

In defense of this viewpoint, in which there is confusion of material on matrilocal and matriarchal systems with those on matrilineal descent, Thomas cites a wide range of authorities of the period.[17] He answers the opponents of the matrilineal theory with a number of arguments. Not only is the theory supported by what seems a correct inference of primitive promiscuity, but also even more adequately by the "larger social fact, including this biological one (of uncertain paternity), that the bond between the mother and child is closest in nature, and that the group grew up about the more stationary female." Hence "we may safely conclude that the so-called 'mother-right' has everywhere preceded 'father-right', and was the fund from which the latter was evolved."[18]

The family, then, according to Thomas, grew up around the mother-child contact rather than out of the more strictly sexual association of the male and female. In the anabolic, reproductive nature of the latter, there exists an organic basis for sociality which the more restless, katabolic male does not possess. "The woman was the social nucleus, the point to which he returned from his wanderings."[19] Or, as Thomas puts it in another article, "The germ of social organization was, indeed, the woman and her children and her children's children. The old women were the heads of civil society ..."[20]

Curiously enough, in deference to the data of ethnology, Thomas was obliged to posit a prematriarchal stage of social evolution "from the fact that ideas of kinship are so feeble that not extensive social filiation is effected through this principle, in consequence of which the group has not reached the tribal stage of organization on the basis of kinship, but remains in the primitive biological relation of male, female, and offspring."[21] Various nonliterate peoples are cited as examples: the Botocudos, Fuegians, Eskimos, West Australians, Bushmen, and Veddahs. Thomas assumes their level of culture and of social organization to be so low that the maternal system had not yet evolved.

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He admits, however, that in all stages---prematernal, maternal, and patriarchal---"male force" was present, though in the second stage this force was veiled "under female nomenclature" and the matriarchal organization. For example, even among the Iroquois, the men retained a good deal of social power, especially in times of crisis, such as war.

Had he not been overimpressed by the biological factors of sex divergence, perhaps Thomas would even then have seen the difficulty in assuming such unilinear, universal schema of social-cultural evolution. Certainly present-day anthropology would scarcely grant his contention that the Botocudos, Bushmen, Veddahs, and Eskimos are peoples without culture and social organization. All these groups possess diversified cultures and social organization, and are not merely living in "the primitive biological relations of male, female, and offspring."

Thomas held further that as social evolution proceeds, the male comes more and more to dominate the female. The evolution of social organization itself rests essentially on the unfolding of male traits. That is to say, the male comes to realize that he does not count sufficiently in the world of female control, and he gradually acquires more and more power in the social organization. "Blood-brotherhood, blood-vengeance, secret societies, tribal marks (totemism, circumcision, tatooing, scarification), and religious dedication, are devices by which, consciously or unconsciously, men escape from the tyranny of the maternal system." So, too, masculine pubertal ceremonies mark a release of the young male from female domination and his attachment thereafter to his father's group. All such practices help "synthesize the male forces" of the community, and in time tend to break down feminine control.[22]

In a similar fashion mobility of population, which is assumed to depend upon the katabolic character of the male, and the conquest of neighboring groups and the securing of new territory through warfare enhance the power of the male and lead to political organization. Warfare becomes a characteristic means by which the male asserts his dominance, and determines, in time, the formation of castes, slavery, the submission of women, and the whole system of social hierarchies.

In short, as the kinship group spread outward, kinship, as such, came to have less place, and more complex tribal organization, ruled by the males, came into being. Thomas attempts to account for these social changes in terms of biological and psychological differences in men and women.

The more restless and sexually agressive nature of the male also expresses itself in the development of various systems of wife-getting.

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The moot problem of exogamy Thomas explains in terms of his familiar thesis of fundamental divergences in sexual trends and in terms of "the laws of habit and attention." In human evolution whenever man's needs of food were satisfied, he turned his excess energy in the direction of play activities, including among the latter his sexual outlets. Because of the excess of energy and the absence of "considerably developed social institutions or altruistic sentiments," the older and stronger men had the advantage over the younger both as to food-getting and sexual expression. Taking his evidence largely from Australian data, Thomas constructs a theory of exogamy. Since the old men monopolize the women of a tribe, the young men are forced to go outside their native groups to find mates. He also draws supporting evidence from the higher animals, among which "the more vigorous males try to monopolize the females." Moreover, the lack of knowledge women from outside groups stimulated masculine interest and thus lessened the strain of the taboo on women of one's own group. In this manner, then, the system of exogamy arose, and "exogamy is one expression of the more restless and energetic habit of the male.[23]

On the basis of the conceptions of biochemical differences in the sexes, and of a matrilineal theory of social origins, Thomas discusses a number of other aspects of nonliterate culture, attempting to trace the roots of the division of labor, morality, the position of women in society, female modesty, clothes, and esthetics.

The division of labor between the sexes rests upon the basic metabolic differences. Women, being anabolic and reproductive in function, take naturally to more sedentary occupations. Men, being katabolic, take to more violent and active behavior. Women do best at tasks demanding drudgery and constant attention. Men do best where there is vigorous exertion but more latitude for fluctuation of attention. As game became scarcer and the increasing population diminished the food supply, a crisis arose and agriculture and manufacturing became more important to survival. It was only then that the male took over and expanded many of these originally female activities and turned his attention and mechanical ability into new channels.[24]

Morality may be defined as the means of regulating activities in associated life. It can not be thought of aside from the physical force which a group may exert over an individual; hence, it also is greatly affected by these basic sex differences. Following his thesis, the "motor male" and the "more stationary female" have different relations to the development of the moral code.

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Approval and disapproval are the two methods of enforcing morality. The motor activities of the male, being more obvious, call for attention; hence, the prevalence of prestige-getting devices among nonliterates wherein such behavior as killing enemies, thievery, and assuming great risks gained social approbation. Approval, moreover, is emotionally expansive. It leads to pleasant feelings. Society rewards those traits which show skill and fortitude in crises. Disapproval, in contrast, is inhibitory and unpleasant. Yet the latter method is the more frequent check on untoward behavior.

This motor theory of morality is made to fit into the concept of intrinsic sexual differences. Thomas explains:

"On our assumption that morality is dependent on strains, and that its development is due to the advantage of regulating these strains, we may readily understand why most of the canons of morality are functions of the katabolic male activity. Theft, arson, rape, murder, burglary, highway robbery, treason, and the like, are natural accompaniments of the more aggressive male disposition ; the male is par excellence both the hero and the criminal."[25]

If, according to Thomas, the morality of man is peculiarly related to prowess and contact, especially toward "society at large" and "more particularly to the activities of the male members of society," woman's morality is more personal in character, is to a larger degree "a morality of bodily habits" because "child-bearing is a large factor in determining sexual morality", and because of male jealousy which arises from "the adjustment of her person to men."[26]

Yet as Thomas worked over additional materials, he became more and more convinced that the differences between the position of men and women in society rested upon historical and psychological rather than upon biochemical foundations. This is apparent in his paper, "The Adventitious Character of Women."[27] But, even so, he emphasized the female biological function of reproduction as probably more basic to the founding of early society than was the male. The male came upon the scene as a more significant actor only after the beginnings of society had been made. ". . . Nature obviously started out on the plan of having woman the dominant force, with man as an aid; but after a certain time there was a reversal of plan, and man became dominant, and woman dropped back into a somewhat unstable and adventitious relation to the social process. "[28] " This change in social role, forcing her to "adjust to man," has profoundly affected almost every aspect of woman's life. As she became more and more dependent upon man, she was reduced to artifice, pettiness, and unserviceableness except as the object of sexual gratification and as an adjunct to the man's personality.

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This position of inferiority, then, is rather an accident of history than something inherent in the nature of the female. In the 1890's, under the aegis of biology and psychology, there was much current talk of this inferiority resting on genuine organic variability.[29] It was not uncommon to compare the mind of women with that of living nonliterate man. It was commonly assumed that there were marked differences among the races in mental capacity, and many writers attempted to show that all native races and even white women were inferior to the white males of Western Europe and America.

Thomas in his first paper on folk psychology had already severely criticized all efforts to study the mental and social evolution of the individual or the race by means of physical differences.[30] Later, in a more popular paper, "Is the Human Brain Stationary?"[31] he carried this analysis further, showing the absurdity of assuming fundamental biological differences among the races. Brain type has remained relatively constant for thousands of years. Moreover, the average intelligence has not changed in historical times, and improvement accrues only in the accumulated knowledge, not in changes in biologically inheritable characteristics. There is, moreover, no evidence of the theory of recapitulation applied to race differences. Divergences are cultural in character rather than biological or psychological.

This notion Thomas further attacked in a brilliant paper, "The Mind of Woman and the Lower Races," published early in 1907.[32] He shows that lack of opportunity, low cultural standards, and isolation must be taken into account in treating this complex problem. "White effectiveness is probably due to the superior technique acting in connection with a superior body of knowledge and sentiment . . . The real variable is the individual, not the race."[33] In like manner the position of woman in society results from much the same set of causes. Lack of opportunity, failure of man to permit her to participate whole-heartedly in the culture, and isolation prevent women from developing their normal capacities. The lower economic classes generally are likewise in this situation. "The savage, the peasant, the poor man, and woman are not what we call intellectual, because they are not taught to know and manipulate the materials of knowledge."[34]

In discussing the rise of modesty, Thomas did not draw upon his thesis of anabolic versus katabolic behavior. but rather upon the psychological phases of sex differences. "Organic hesitancy" or female coyness, plus the social stimulation of sex itself, is the basis of what we now call the ambivalence between sexual attraction and sexual disgust.

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The origin of clothes must be found in a multiple set of factors. In many cases, clothes have served as protective devices. Clothes were also associated with sexual functioning, especially with the periodicity of women. Ethnological data seem to indicate that often "there is a beginning of clothing without a beginning of modesty." Furthermore, the desire to exhibit oneself, "the showing-off instinct," as Thomas called it, has had much to do with the use of clothes and bodily ornamentation. Obviously, clothes and personal adornment become associated with sexuality. Therefore, once dress or ornamentation became imbedded in the culture, any removal of these would break up fixed habits and stimulate attention to the exposed parts of the body.[35]

Associated with Thomas's treatment of sex differences and folk psychology are three concepts which require brief mention. They are the idea of "psychic unity" among the races, the hunting or combat theory of mind, and the relation of sexuality to general sensibility to stimulation.

The first of these deals with the principle that mental processes and mental growth are everywhere the same among all races. As Thomas puts it: "Ethnology and the kindred sciences have . . . established the fact that human nature, the external world, and the fundamental needs of life are everywhere much alike ..."[36]

The second matter relates to what might be called the fighting or conflict theory of mind. Thomas remarks: 

"The human mind was formed and fixed once and for all in very early times, through a life of action and emergency, when the species was fighting, contriving, and inventing its way up from the subhuman condition; and the ground-patterns of interest have never been, and probably never will be, fundamentally changed."[37]

This point of view Thomas had expressed in earlier papers, and doubtless it was reinforced by his acquaintance with the varied materials of ethnology. Moreover, John Dewey had set his approval on this sane notion in a stimulating paper written in 1902, entitled, "Interpretation of Savage Mind," in which he had pointed out that in the evolutionary process the "hunting psychosis" or hunting type of mind had come to dominate behavior, but that the higher societal forms and the more sedentary life have produced a need for "the reconstruction and overlaying of the original hunting schema" by diverting its interest to higher and more ethical pursuits-"the hunt for truth, beauty, virtue, wealth, social well-being, and even for heaven and for God.[38]

This hunting pattern of mind, then, fitted neatly into Thomas's theory of the katabolic, restless, destructive male, but it left something to be desired in explaining female characteristics. But as Thomas abandoned

( 16) his particularistic biochemical thesis and rested his case for social origins on more solid ground of original instincts, emotions, attention, and habit-formation, the theory of the hunting type of mind acquired a stronger position.

This shift in emphasis is well illustrated by the paper on gambling, published in 1901.[39] He takes his cue from the concept of the "conflict type of activity." When man "was in the stage of nature, following his instincts, roving, fighting, hunting, wooing, contriving, he was happy, or, at least, his activities were spontaneous and not irksome." But as game and other natural 'food disappeared with an increase in population, sedentary occupations such as agriculture had to be taken up.

These new methods of getting a living produced a strain within the organism. Labor and drudgery, though necessary for survival, were unpleasant. The products of labor, however, "represented satisfactions, and the habits of the race adjusted themselves to what was from the standpoint of the emotions a bad situation." In this emergency, the human capacity for substitute reactions came to the rescue, and man found various devices to "live through, in imitation or imagination, the instinctive, motor-conflict life of prehistoric times." Among these were organized conflicts and play activities, both reinstating in other forms emotionally pleasant and exciting primitive activities. Thus war, feuds, and various sporting activities such as gladiatorial games, bear-baiting, bull-fighting, prize-fighting, and the competitive games of our own day came to fulfill these needs for conflict. Even such rivalries as song contests among the Eskimo or Arabs reveal this conflict pattern, and art and literature everywhere reflect conflict as a Leitmotiv. Besides these redirections of conflict, gambling came into existence. This exemplified in stock market speculations, in risk--taking as an entrepreneur, or even in the competitive struggles of vocational life. Wealth-getting represents for many persons an attempt to become free from the onus of labor so that one may indulge in the more basic interests of conflict and adventure.

We cannot, says Thomas, question the existence of such a tendency, which he calls "the gaming instinct" ; we can only "discriminate between its applications." In certain forms of business and recreation gambling is morally approved because it is thought to produce some positive social values. But gambling itself is parasitical because it "creates no values" and is "a disorganizer of the habits" of its participants. All through society we find persons who try to escape from irksome and disagreeable labor whenever possible, and the gambler simply represents "a class of men who have not been weaned from their instincts."

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The third of the fundamental mental processes relates to the influence of sexuality on the general sensitivity of the organism to stimuli. This factor is discussed in a brief paper, "The Sexual Element in Sensibility," published in 1904.[40] In the process of socialization the "quality of suggestibility to social influence" is affected by two fundamental factors, the urge for food and the urge for sexual satisfaction. That is to say, not only is consciousness of others connected with food-getting and "with the conflict side of life", but also with the fact of sexuality as well. Thomas remarks: "It seems, therefore, that we are justified in concluding that our vanity and susceptibility . . . to the opinion of others and our dependence on their good will are genetically referable to sexual life."[41]

The sympathetic reactions are more closely bound up with the sexual aspects of sensitivity than with the conflict aspects of the struggle for food. This sexual sensitivity has played a large part in the evolution of the gentler, more kindly features of social life.

"This sex-susceptibility, which was originally developed as an accessory of reproduction and had no social meaning whatever, has thus, in the struggle of society to obtain a hold on the individual, become a social factor of great importance, and together with another product of sexual life---the love of offspring---it is, I suspect the most immediate source of our sympathetic attitudes in general, and an important force in the development of the ideal, moral, and aesthetic sides of life."[42]

It is even suggested by Thomas that the difference between egoism and altruism is perhaps "a natural result of the contrast in character between the states of consciousness originating in the struggle for food and those orginating in courtship."

This sexual feature of sensitivity reaches into non-sexual areas of behavior such as religious experiences. Again certain parallels to Freud's theory of the relation of sexuality to social organization are apparent, and certainly Thomas seems to anticipate Freud's discussion of the relation of sexual behavior to leadership as exemplified in religious organization

"The appeal made during a religious revival to an unconverted person has psychologically some resemblance to the attempt of the male to overcome the hesitancy of the female. In each case the will has to be set aside, and strong suggestive means are used; and in both cases the appeal is not of the conflict type, but of an intimate, sympathetic, and pleading kind."[43]

Although Thomas was never particularly concerned with the practical applications of his work, his early papers on the sociology of sex indicated his awareness of the problem of the place of woman in modern society.

( 18) The matter became centered in such public issues as woman suffrage, the position of women in industry and the professions, equality of educational opportunity, and rights before the law. Naturally Thomas's discussion of the problems of sex and women had a timely bearing. So much rationalization was everywhere evident in the discussions of sex differences as they related to social organization and culture that the inferior social position of women furnished an excellent subject for careful analysis.

Therefore, not only his more technical papers brought him attention, but he was led to discuss some of these same matters in periodicals of wider circulation. In April, 1907, there appeared an article, "The Real Nature of Woman's Inferiority to Man,"[44] reporting Thomas's standpoint on the physiological and cultural differences between men and women, going back to earliest times. The next year Thomas published under his own name, an article, "The Psychology of Woman's Dress,"[45] popularizing ideas brought out in his earlier paper, "The Psychology of Modesty and Clothing," showing how fashion keeps women helpless and dependent on men and prevents them from developing more mature facets of character. The article, "The Mind of Woman"[46] gave in more popular form ideas which he had published in the American Journal of Sociology and in Sex and Society, showing the social-cultural foundations of woman's inferiority to man. In like vein were other articles the next year, one dealing with marriage problems, another with the whole conservative opposition to woman suffrage. A third paper, "Woman and the Occupations," showed further that not only the ballot, but freedom of opportunity in the economic field was necessary for the emancipation of women from the thralldom of romanticism and felt inferiority to men.[47]

In the same year he also published his only paper dealing with a much-discussed subject, eugenics.[48] Aside from his earliest adherence to the notion of biological differences in the metabolism of the sexes, Thomas had never shown any inclination toward the view that heredity was more important than environment. And in this paper, he expressed hope for a more intelligent practice in human mating, but throughout cautioned the reader not to expect too much from any eugenic scheme, except in the possible elimination of the lowest grades of mentality.

While somewhat unlike these other popular papers, mention may here be made of another popular article of this same period: "Psychology of the Yellow journal," published in 1908.[49]

Except for this article, Thomas has never, except in connection with documents more strictly relating to personality, dealt with the newspaper. He contended that the appeal in "yellow" journalism is to man's infantile and primitive interest

( 19) in fighting, hatred, sexual adventure, and disaster to others, and that the "hunting pattern of interest" lies at the root of this appeal. Hence it is not surprising that we should discover a tremendous stimulus value in yellow journalism, especially among a large section of our population, who, though they have learned to read, have not advanced very far from primitive forms of thinking.[50]

Before passing on to discuss the second stage of Thomas's work, one or two comments may be made. There is throughout his earlier writing, at least, a certain failure to catch John Dewey's point of view in regard to the social nature of mind. After all, Thomas seems to believe that society or the group is out to capture the individual and to hold him with its rules, rather than to see that the personality, as Dewey and especially George H. Mead and Charles H. Cooley have so well shown, is but the product of group interaction.[51] In this interplay of person on person, sympathetic and conflicting interactions are both essential to the building of the personality. One is not first a separate unit and then later a member of a group, as Thomas in certain places seems to imply.

In his early papers, also, Thomas made something of the then current biological theories of tropisms and instincts in relation to society, although he early seems to have neglected the former as not very important.[52] He never developed any neat system of instincts as the psychologist, William McDougall, was about to do.[53] Thomas did assume, however, a solid instinctive, innate foundation for behavior, but he was peculiarly skeptical about specific social instincts as such, but accounted for "socialization" on other grounds .[54]

Although in regard to the idea of prematriarchal, matriarchal, and patriarchal stages he followed the social evolutionary theory rather closely, Thomas both in his papers and reviews was certainly cautious about the evolutionary and comparative methods of anthropology. His strictures upon Herbert Spencer's method, for example, are nicely brought out in one of his earliest book reviews. In discussing Rudolph S. Steinmetz's Endokannibalismus Thomas says:

"This paper is valuable even more from the methodological standpoint than as a contribution to folk-psychology. The data of ethnology are singularly difficult of management, because of the unreliability of sources and the vastness of the material; and many writers who, like Herbert Spencer, have attempted to handle these materials comparatively, have, like him, exhibited, in the main, only the facts corroborative of their own opinions,-in this respect falling into a worse error than those editors of the last generation who, when they found a manuscript, changed it to the best of their knowledge and ability before giving it to the public."[55]

( 20)

Today the notion of sharp biochemical differences in male and female metabolism has been definitely recast. Likewise the idea of innate capacity of the female to care for her offspring has been largely abandoned. So, too, the easy and simple doctrine of universal, unilinear social evolution has been generally given up by anthropology in view of the large number of more careful ethnographic studies of more or less complete cultures.

Again, while we may grant that woman's reproductive function naturally restricted the range of her activities in simpler societies, the extension of woman's world in other directions in the face of modern reduction of the birth rate shows that the biological argument for the division of labor rests on rather dubious ground. Even the assumption of marked differences in mental variability seems unsound. With increased social opportunities for the female, the dogmatism on sex differences is being abandoned.

The whole shift of emphasis toward an environmental determinism of many traits once thought purely hereditary, including the importance of early emotional and intellectual training, has greatly changed our interpretation of sexual differences. No one realized this more than Thomas, and it would be most unfair to judge his later standpoint by what he wrote in the late 1890's. We have already noted that before his papers were collected to form the book, Sex and Society, he had given up many of his extreme ideas. And even in the early papers, in spite of his biological bias regarding fundamental sex differences, Thomas pointed out the importance of habits, emotions, and attention as they were built up in social interaction. Although his earlier papers would now be open to considerable criticism, he was already developing a social psychological interpretation of primitive and contemporary behavior of great importance to social theory.


1 A good idea of the place of sociology in American colleges and universities in the middle 1890's may be had by examining the list of sociology courses compiled from catalogs of the day printed in American Journal of Sociology, 1 (September, 1895), 233-36.

2 This early appreciation for careful treatment of adequate data and a parallel disregard for the "philosophical" theorist were evident in Thomas's earliest book reviews published in the American Journal of Sociology. In the very number, that for January, 1896, in which Thomas's first article appeared, there was also printed his review of E. J. Simcox's Primitive Civilizations, in which Thomas highly commends the use of full and concrete historical evidence in contrast to the polemical method of Westermarck or Spencer's comparative evolutionary method. The latter, Thomas says "is boundlessly suggestive, but frequently tangential and sometimes preposterous, limiting himself neither geographically nor chronologically in his search for materials to illustrate his views of the interworking of social forces in the aggregate" (Ibid., 504). See also

( 21) Thomas's review of Henry Rutgers Marshall's Instinct and Reason (1898) in the American Journal of Sociology, 4 (March, 1899), 685-87, where he notes the author's failure to present concrete evidence from ethnology or child development for his contentions regarding the relation of instinct to reason.

3 American Journal of Sociology, 1 (January, 1896), 435.

4 Ibid., 443.

5 See ibid., 441. In his Source Book for Social Origins, (1909), Thomas restated this point of view more fully.

6 Ibid., 444-45. Compare this outline with the nine-fold list of major culture fields made by Clark Wissler, Man and Culture (New York: Thos. Y. Crowell, 1924), 74. Thomas omits property, war and language. Otherwise the two lists overlap in a rather suggestive fashion.

7 On a Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes," American Journal of Sociology, 3 (July, 1897), 31. This statement is omitted from the corresponding chapter in Sex and Society published ten years later.

8 See "Scope and Method of Folk-Psychology," op. cit., 438, where he cites Baer's study approvingly.

9 See "On a Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes," op. cit., 47, on athletic prowess. One should compare these records with those today, which show how much both men and women have improved in athletic performance. Women seem, however to have made relatively greater progress in breaking athletic records.

10 Ibid., 59.

11 See Sex and Society, (1907), 51.

12 Ibid., v.

13 Thomas here and elsewhere uses the term "social" in a narrow sense of sympathetic cooperative relations, not in the sense of interaction whether antagonistic or sympathetic.

14 See "The Relation of Sex to Primitive Social Control," American Journal of Sociology, 3 (May, 1898), 754.

15 "Scope and Method of Folk-Psychology," op. cit., 440.

is See "The Relation of Sex to Primitive Social Control," op. cit., 756.

17 See R. H. Lowie, Primitive Society (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), especially Chaps. 4, 7, and 8 for an excellent discussion of woman's place in primitive social organization and the variations in the form of her relationship to the male. Cf. also W. I. Thomas, Primitive Behavior, (1937), 198-99.

is "The Relation of Sex to Primitive Social Control," op. cit., 761. Also in Sex and Society, (1907), 67.

19 Ibid., 755.

20 "The Adventitious Character of Woman," American Journal of Sociology, 12 (July, 1906), 35.

21 "The Relation of Sex to Primitive Social Control," op. cit., 762. Also in Sex and Society, 68.

22 See ibid., 774-75. It is interesting to compare this view with Freud"s thesis of the blood brotherhood or young male groupings of the primitive group. See Sigmund Freud, Totem and Tabu (London: International Psychoanalytical Press, 1914), and also his Group Psychology and an Analysis of the Ego (London: International Psychoanalytical Press, 1921).

23 The original article, "Der Ursprung der Exogamie," appeared in the Zeitschrift fr Socialwissenschaft, 5 (1902), 1-18. The quotations here cited are from the chapter "The Psychology of Exogamy," in Sex and Society, (1907), 175-97.
It is interesting to note the parallels in Thomas's and Freud's theses of exogamy. Freud, following the discussion of J. G. Frazer, also draws his data largely from the Australian tribes. See Sigmund Freud, Totem and Tabu, 1914. Cf. Thomas, Primitive Behavior, (1937), 183-93, 196-97. The Thomas-Freud parallelism here is also interesting because Thomas had no use for Freudian psychology.

24 See "Sex in Primitive Industry," American Journal of Sociology, 4 (January, 1899), 487; and "On a Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes," op. cit., 62-63.

( 22)

25 "Sex in Primitive Morality," American Journal of Sociology, 4 (May, 1899), 764-. Also in Sex and Society, 167-68. See also on this same page, Thomas's attempt to psychologize the rise of taboos on poisoning and sorcery, which taboos are set up because "the organism which has developed structure and function through action is unsatisfied by an un-motor mode of decision" implied in such foul play where the element of a fighting chance is eliminated!

26 See ibid., 787, and also "The Psychology of Modesty and Clothing," American Journal of Sociology, 5 (September, 1899), 251.

27 American Journal of Sociology, 12 (July, 1906), 32-44.

28 Ibid., 32.

29 To note only one example, see Lester F. Ward, Psychic Factors in Civilization (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1892), Chap. 26.

30 See "Scope and Method of Folk-Psychology," op. cit., 438. 

31 Forum, 36 (October, 1904) 305-20.

32 American Journal of Sociology, 12 (January, 1907), 435-69. 

33 Ibid., 455-56. See his Primitive Behavior, Chap. 18. 

34 Ibid., 465.

35 See "The Psychology of Modesty and Clothing," op. cit., 24-6-62.

36 "The Province of Social Psychology," American Journal of Sociology, 10 (January, 1905), 450. See also "The Gaming Instinct," ibid., 6 (May, 1901), 751. 

37 "The Adventitious Character of Woman," op. cit., 43. Also in Sex and Society, 243.

38 See Psychological Review, 9 (May, 1902), 217-30. Thomas reprinted this paper in his Source Book for Social Origins, (1909), 173-86. 

39 "The Gaming Instinct," op. cit., 751.

40 Psychological Review, 11 (January, 1904), 61-67. This paper was incorporated into one of the chapters in Sex and Society.

41 Ibid., 63. Also in Sex and Society, 113. This notion reminds one of Freud. 

42 Ibid., 66-67. Also in Sex and Society, 119-20. See footnote 43 below.

43 Ibid., 64. Also in Sex and Society, 115. For Freud's discussion of this with reference to hypnotic and sexual features, see his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, (1921).

44 Current Literature, 42 (April, 1907), 445-47. This article was not written by Thomas but presented his views.

45 American Magazine, 47 (November, 1908), 66-72.

46 American Magazine, 4-7 (December, 1908), 146-52.

4' See "Older and Newer Ideals of Marriage," American Magazine, 47 (April, 1909), 548-52; "Votes for Women," American Magazine, 47 (July, 1909), 292-301; and "Woman and the Occupations," American Magazine, 48 (September, 1909), 4-63-70.

48 "Eugenics: The Science of Breeding Men," American Magazine, 48 (June, 1909) , 190-97.

49 American Magazine, 45 (March, 1908), 491-96.

50 These popular articles represent the only period in which Thomas made any gesture toward reaching a wider and more diversified reading public. All of his popular writing falls in the years 1904-1909.

51 See John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1922) ; Charles H. Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order (New York: Scribner, 1902) ; and George H. Mead, Mind, Self and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934).

12 See "A Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes," American Journal of Sociology, 3 (July, 1897), 60; and Sex and Society, 103-104.

53 William McDougall, An Introduction to Social Psychology (1st edition; New York: J. W. Luce & Company, 1909).

54 See "A Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes," op. cit., 59-60.

55 American Journal of Sociology, 2 (January, 1897), 611.




1. "The Scope and Method of Folk-Psychology," American Journal of Sociology, 1 (January, 1896), 434-45.

2. "On a Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes," American Journal of Sociology, 3 (July, 1897), 31-63.

3. "The Relation of Sex to Primitive Social Control," American Journal of Sociology, 3 (May, 1898), 754-76.

4. "Sex in Primitive Industry," American Journal of Sociology, 4 (January, 1899), 474-88.

5. "Sex in Primitive Morality," American Journal of Sociology, 4 (May, 1899), 77,t-87.

6. "The Psychology of Modesty and Clothing," American Journal of Sociology, 5 (September, 1899), 246-62.

7. "The Gaming Instinct," American Journal of Sociology, 6 (May, 1901), 750-63.

8. "Der Ursprung der Exogamie," Zeitschrift fr Socialwissenschaft, 5 (1902), 1-18.

'9. "The Relation of the Medicine-man to the Origin of the Professional Occupations," Decennial Publications of the University of Chicago, First Series, 4 (1903), 239-56.

10. "The Sexual Element in Sensibility," Psychological Review, 11 (January, 1904), 61-67.

11. "The Psychology of Race Prejudice," American Journal of Sociology, 9 (March, 1904), 593-611.

12. "Is the Human Brain Stationary?" Forum, 36 (October, 1904), 305-20.

13. "The Province of Social Psychology," American Journal of Sociology, 10 (January, 1905), 445-55.

14. "The Adventitious Character of Women," American Journal of Sociology, 12 (July, 1906), 32-44.

15. "The Mind of Woman and the Lower Races," American Journal of Sociology, 12 (January, 1907), 435-69.

16. "The Real Nature of Woman's Inferiority to Man," Current Literature, 42 (April, 1907), 445-47 (editorial account of Thomas's views).

17. "The Psychology of the Yellow Journal," American Magazine, 65 (March, 1908), 491-96.

18. "The Significance of the Orient for the Occident," American Journal of Sociology, 13 (May, 1908), 729-42, 754-55; also in Publications of the American Sociological Society, 2 (1908), 111-24, 136-37.

19. "The Psychology of Woman's Dress," American Magazine, 67 (November, 1908), 66-72.

20. "The Mind of Woman," American Magazine, 67 (1908), 146-52.

21. "Older and Newer Ideals of Marriage," American Magazine, 67 (April, 1909), 548-52.

22. "Eugenics: The Science of Breeding Men," American Magazine, 68 (June, 1909), 190-97.

23. "Votes for Women," American Magazine, 68 (July, 1909) 292-301.

24. "Woman and the Occupations," American Magazine, 68 (September, 1909), 463-70.

25. "Standpoint for the Interpretation of Savage Society," American Journal of Sociology, 15 (September, 1909), 145-63.

26. "Race Psychology: Standpoint and Questionnaire, with Particular Reference to the Immigrant and the Negro," American Journal of Sociology, 17 (May, 1912), 725-77.

27. "The Prussian-Polish Situation: An Experiment in Assimilation," American Journal of Sociology, 19 (March, 1914), 624-39; also in Publications of the American Sociological Society, 8 (1914), 84-99.

28. "The Problem of Personality in the Urban Environment," Publications of the American Sociological Society, Part 2, 20 (1926), printed as American Journal of Sociology, 32 (July, 1926), 30-39.

( 24)

29. "The Behavior Pattern and the Situation," Publications of the American Sociological Society, 22 (1928), 1-13.

30. "The Comparative Study of Cultures," American Journal of Sociology, 42 (September, 1936), 177-85.


1. Sex and Society: Studies in the Social Psychology of Sex (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1907).

2. Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1909).

3. "The Persistence of Primary-Group Norms in Present-Day Society and Their Influence on Our Education System," in a symposium volume, Suggestions of Modern Science Concerning Education (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1917).

4. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (with Florian Znaniecki), 5 volumes, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1918-1920). Later, Boston: R. G. Badger, 1918-1920). Second edition in 2 volumes (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927).

5. The Unadjusted Girl: With Cases and Standpoint for Behavior Analysis. Criminal Science Monographs, No. 4. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1923).

6. "The Configurations of Personality," chap. VI, pp. 143-177 in the volume The Unconscious: A Symposium (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927).

7. The Child in America; Behavior Problems and Programs (with Dorothy Swaine Thomas) New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928).

8. "The Relation of Research to the Social Process," in Essays on Research in the Social Sciences (Washington, D. C.: The Brookings Institution, 1931), 175-194.

9. Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1937).


see above

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