William I. Thomas as a Collaborator

Florian Znaniecki

I first met Thomas in 1913, in Warsaw, when he visited me in the office of the Society for Protection of Emigrants. I learned that he intended to obtain concrete, factual material about the sociocultural background of various immigrant groups in the United States from Central and Eastern Europe-Poles, Russians, Rumanians, Czechs, Hungarians, Jews. Since the vast majority of these immigrants belonged to the peasant class and lower city classes, he needed primarily data about these classes, especially about the peasants with their traditional cultures and primary-group type of social organization. He visited the Polish intellectuals who had practical connections with peasants or had done some research : heads of agricultural associations, editors of newspapers or periodicals, economists, ethnologists. He collected a vast amount of published material and some monographs. I gave him some unpublished material which I had previously gathered for my study of emigration. By the end of his travels in Europe, he already had more data about the Poles than about any other ethnic group. This was largely due to the fact that during that period when Poland was still divided between Russia, Germany, and Austria, Polish intellectuals were unusually concerned about peasant problems, since they knew that the survival of the Polish nationality depended mainly on the peasants, who formed 60 per cent of the population.

During our conferences Thomas suggested that I should come to Chicago and help him translate and edit his material, perhaps collect some more material from the Poles in this country. I was very willing, not because I was particularly interested in his work, but because I wanted an academic career in philosophy, in which I had specialized since my high school days. There was no opportunity for such a career in Poland under foreign domination, and I hoped that there might be more chance in the United States.

I came here in September 1914. For nearly a year and a half I was William's assistant, while continuing my work in philosophy during my free hours. During this time we collected the family letters which constituted the main part of the first two volumes of the Polish Peasant, and found that a large amount of data had still to be gathered about Polish communities in this country. Thus, it became obvious that to complete an adequate study of this group would take several years. This explains why

(766) Thomas did not continue his study of other immigrant groups at that time. Only a brief outline of their European background was published later.[1]

The work as originally planned was to contain mainly documentary material, with some explanations and comments. But we decided that a general historico-ethnological introduction on Polish peasant culture and social organization was needed. I offered to write this introduction under my own name. After I had written it, Thomas offered me partnership in the whole work and asked me to devote to it most of my time and thought. A year earlier I would have refused. As a philosopher trying to develop my own system, I wanted to generalize, not to become absorbed in the study of particular concrete data. Even sociology was to me then only a part of an inclusive philosophy of culture. What made me change my attitude was the fascinating influence of Thomas.

Never have I known, heard, or read about anybody with such a wide, sympathetic interest in the vast diversity of sociocultural patterns and such a genius for understanding the uniqueness of every human personality. The famous statement of Terence, "I am a man and nothing human seems alien to me," expresses an ideal which few men have ever realized as fully as Thomas.

This is what led him to his first, selective survey of anthropological literature in Social Origins and his later survey on a broader scale in Primitive Behavior. It made him start a firsthand investigation of immigrant communities, European peasants, all kinds of nonconformist personalities, and finally children. It explains his interest in sex, absurdly exaggerated and maliciously publicized in 1918.

Our collaboration was very harmonious personally and intellectually. In 1916, when I married Eileen Markley (M.A. in history, J.D. in law, and a trained secretary), Thomas enlisted her help in preparing our work for publication. Our divergent intellectual interests never conflicted. While I learned to appreciate more and more the importance of his emphasis on concrete data and empirical evidence, he appreciated my theorizing, provided it was not too abstract or difficult to understand. To him, however, theories were mere intellectual instruments, valuable in so far as they helped discover, analyze, and interpret sociopsychological phenomena. This is why in the course of his life he used several different research approaches. His concept of attitude proved most productive of all. The theory of crisis was useful heuristically, though it did not become

(767) so popular. When I tried to synthesize --- not very successfully --- his theory of attitudes with my theory of values (which I had previously developed in my Polish works), he agreed, but did not find much use for the latter in his subsequent sociopsychological research. Soon after we had formulated (I believe mostly on his initiative) the theory of the four main desires which motivate individual participation in primary groups, he suddenly became interested in "the Freudian wish," as it was called at that time by some American followers of Freud. He did not accept the libido, but changed our term desire to wish and applied "the four wishes" in the analysis of unadjusted personalities in a way somewhat analogous to the Freudian analysis. Later, in the Child in America, he apparently did not mind sharing with Dorothy some behavioristic conceptions or her use of statistical methods. In Primitive Behavior, the concept of "definition of the situation" was the main analytic instrument.

This certainly was not eclecticism. I should characterize it rather as creative intellectual experimentation. For he always was a creative experimentator, even in his hobbies.

I did not see Thomas between 1920 and 1931 and only occasionally corresponded with him. But I saw him quite often between 1931 and 1933, and I remember especially a meeting at Yale of the International Seminar of Rockefeller scholars on the impact of culture on personality. He presided and his ability to stimulate mutual understanding between representatives of diverse cultures was as unusual as ever.

The last letter I had from him was four years ago. He wrote that he was learning Yiddish so as to edit and publish some material that he had collected. And in a postscript he mentioned, "Yesterday I made a hole in one."


  1. R. E. Park and H. A. Miller, Immigrant Heritages, 1919. The main author was Thomas, but his name was omitted because he was then "in disgrace."

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