Thomas, William Isaac

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Thomas, William Isaac


Born Aug. 13, 1863, in Russell County, Va.; died Dec. 5,1947, in Berkeley, Calif. American sociologist.

Thomas belonged to the school that applied psychological concepts to sociology. He was professor of sociology at the University of Chicago from 1900 to 1918, and editor of the American Journal of Sociology from 1895 to 1917.

The central concept of Thomas’ theory is the social situation, which he regarded as consisting of three interrelated elements: the objective conditions—that is, social norms and values; the attitudes of the individual and of the group; and the situation as perceived by the subject, or individual actor. In The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (vols. 1–5, 1918–20), which Thomas wrote jointly with F. Znaniecki, it is chiefly the second element that comes under consideration. Discrepancies between the individual’s perception of a situation and group values give birth to conflicts, to social disintegration, and to the many consequent ills of capitalist society.

In his analysis of the causes and motivating forces of social life and of individual human attitudes, Thomas was influenced by psychoanalytic theories. He developed the theory of four basic human wishes—namely, the desire for new experience, for security, for recognition, and for mastery. In the final analysis, according to Thomas, human wants are conditioned by temperament.

Thomas and Znaniecki worked out a personality classification system, based on the criterion of adaptability to the social environment, in which three types of personalities were distinguished: the philistine type, characterized by traditional attitudes; the bohemian type, characterized by unstable and disconnected attitudes and a high degree of adaptability; and the creative type. Thomas claimed that social and cultural advances are solely caused by creative individuals capable of discovery and innovation; in his view, personal psychological qualities, as determined by temperament, are the source of progress.

By making use of personal documents, or “biograms”—such as letters, diaries, and autobiographies—Thomas made a significant contribution to the methodology of sociological research. His works, which signaled the shift toward empirical sociological research in the United States, have been a notable influence in American sociology and social psychology.


Sex and Society. Chicago–London, 1907.
Source Book for Social Origins, 2nd ed. Boston, 1920.
The Unadjusted Girl. Boston, 1923.
The Child in America. New York, 1928. (With D. S. Thomas.)
Primitive Behavior. New York–London, 1937.
Social Behavior and Personality. Edited by E. H. Volkart. New York, 1951.
On Social Organization and Social Personality: Selected Papers. Edited and with an introduction by M. Janowitz. Chicago, 1966.


Young, K. “Contributions of W. I. Thomas to Sociology.” Sociology and Social Research, 1962, vol. 47, no. 1; 1963, vol. 47, nos. 2–4.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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