Sociological improvisations
the sociology of science (natural & social), and other sociological matters

June 2024
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Further reflections on the Thomas Theorem
Filed under: General
Posted by: Dominic Lusinchi @ 6:33 pm
Last Sunday (01/08/2023), we witnessed, yet again, a tragic illustration of the Thomas Theorem (see my previous post: January 6 and the Thomas Theorem)–this time in Brazil’s capital Brasilia. Sadly, this had all the looks of what occurred in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021: a crowd of people who believe that the presidential contest between right-wing, and sitting president, Bolsonaro and his rival Lula da Silva of the Worker’s Party was stolen from the former. Consequence: mayhem, violence, vandalism, destruction. Lula had been inaugurated as president a week earlier and Bolsonaro was ʻvacationing’ quietly in Florida!

In my previous post (01/06/23), I recommended watching the film The Long Walk Home to illustrate why it is so difficult to give up our beliefs–they are not some abstract topics of debate but they make us part of a larger community, which sustains both both the social as well as the personal sides of our daily lives.

We can also find illustrations of the Thomas Theorem in purely fictional works. There is no better example than a great classic work of European literature: Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. Many readers will remember that at the start of chapter 8, the knight-errant readies himself to battle “thirty monstrous giants” and rid the earth of “so wicked” a scourge. His “good squire,” Sancho Panza, a man of a less adventurous disposition but with his feet firmly planted on the ground, asks in his most disarmingly honest way: “What giants?” And the Don is not a little irritated when Sancho points out that what he sees are windmills, whose sails “whirled about by the wind, make the millstone go.” The “ingenioso hidalgo” cannot believe that his squire can be so dense, and he goes on to define the ʻreal’ situation for Sancho: “they are giants, and, if you are afraid,” says he, “get aside and pray, whilst I engage with them in a fierce and unequal combat.” Sancho’s entreaties that “those [Don Quixote] went to assault were without all doubt, windmills, and not giants,” fall on deaf ears. Poor Rosinante! She didn’t sign up for…the consequences. Don Quixote ran “his lance into the sail, the wind whirled it about with so much violence that it broke [it] to shivers, dragging horse and rider after it, and tumbling them over and over on the plain, in very evil plight.”

Extreme examples are often used to illustrate the Thomas Theorem because they cast it in high relief. In fact, William I. Thomas and Dorothy S. Thomas did just that when they introduced their Theorem. They wrote: “the warden of Dannemora prison recently refused to honor the order of the court to send an inmate outside the prison walls for some specific purpose. He excused himself on the ground that the man was too dangerous. He had killed several persons who had the unfortunate habit of talking to themselves on the street. From the movement of their lips he imagined that they were calling him vile names, and he behaved as if it were true.” (Good thing the man is not around these days with all the individuals on the street seemingly talking to themselves…because they are on their ʻsmart’ phones!)

But the Theorem applies just as well to situations most people take for granted: the mainstream not just the extreme. Although it might be the sociologist’s or social anthropologist’s methodological privilege to suspend judgment in order to understand the workings of a culture, when they put back their hat of citizens of the world, they must decide what reality to adhere to, what belief system to follow–it is the imperative of daily life in society. Are we going to follow Don Quixote and go slay “giants” or shall we go along with Sancho’s, perhaps less exciting, definition of reality? And, surely, there are other alternatives. But whatever option informs our actions, we are forced to select some definition of reality. For centuries, women were defined as being incapable of doing this and that with the real consequence that they were largely relegated to matrimony and motherhood–everything else was controlled by men.

The ability to make the definition stick is a mark of power. Putin defines his invasion of a sovereign country, Ukraine, as a “special military operation.” To define the situation otherwise, if you live in Russia, will land you in jail. That’s a real consequence. Had the MAGA movement been successful on January 6, 2021, the “big lie” would have been swept aside to become the ʻbig truth’–meaning, it would have become the prevailing definition of ʻreality’.

For centuries, homosexuality was defined as a sin, an abomination. Then, somewhere in the late 19th century (I might be off somewhat), it was defined as an illness–and potentially curable. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, homosexuality came to be defined as a sexual orientation, and just as legitimate as its counterpart, heterosexuality. This latter definition has the upper-hand at this time, which does not mean that the other two have come to pass–that is by no means the case. For example, as recently as 2013, the Supreme Court (US v. Windsor) had to declare the so-called Defense of Marriage act unconstitutional–in which marriage was defined as the union between a man and a woman, exclusively. For a long time, reality, in the Western world, was geocentric before becoming, when the balance of power shifted away from the Church, heliocentric.

I’m sure, dear reader, that you can find many more similar examples.

- The quotes from chapter 8 of Don Quixote are taken from the Charles Jarvis translation of the work (pp. 59-60) and published by Oxford University Press (1998).
- The Thomas quote is from The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs, W.I. Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas, p.572, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1928.
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January 6 and the Thomas Theorem
Filed under: General
Posted by: Dominic Lusinchi @ 11:06 pm
Readers who have taken an introductory course in sociology (i.e., Sociology 101) may have been introduced to what has been called the Thomas Theorem, in honor of its originator(s) William I. Thomas (and Dorothy S. Thomas). It has been described as “what is probably the single most consequential sentence ever put in print by an American sociologist.” Robert K. Merton, himself an eminent 20th century American sociologist, was the one who gave it its name and the evaluation just quoted.

So, what does the Thomas Theorem, which dates back to 1928, say? (I modified it slightly to abide by our current sensibilities.)

If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.

Sadly, on its second anniversary, the attack on the US Capitol illustrates vividly the relevance of the Thomas Theorem. Because for those who participated in the assault, and for their supporters, what was defined as real was that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from the sitting president, Donald Trump. His opponent’s victory had been obtained by fraudulent means. The real winner was Trump–period. It didn’t matter that they were told that no evidence existed to indicate the presence of widespread fraud during the election or that court after court (including those presided by Trump-appointed judges) rejected any claims of malfeasance.

If a situation (“stolen” election) has been defined as real then anything that questions this reality can only be a fiction–i.e., unreal. The believers in this “reality” see any attempt to deny it as further “evidence” of the merit of their creed. Attacks on their reality are interpreted as so many ways of deceiving them. The perpetrators of the alleged electoral fraud are simply covering up their evil deeds.

Psychologists, I am told, not being one myself, have an expression for this state of affairs: “belief perseverance.” This occurs when people hold on to their beliefs in the face of evidence contradicting or refuting them. One explanation for holding on strenuously to one’s beliefs is given by the hero of Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse:

Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wangle yourself out another to take its place.

But, aside from this “dizzy business,” why is it so difficult to abandon or renounce one’s beliefs? Why do we ‟hang on so tight” to them? Because…apostasy is a painful business. (More on this shortly.) Beliefs are not simply words organized in a more or less coherent system; they are immaterial things, yes, but they have very material effects: they are the ties that link like-minded individuals into a sort of community. The individual is no longer alone: these beliefs entitles one to be part of something larger than oneself. You and your fellow community members speak the same language; you agree on fundamentals and reinforce each other’s beliefs; beliefs which you share.

In a way, our beliefs and opinions are our most prized possessions. You can repossess my car, you can evict me from my house but, in the normal course of social interaction, you cannot take away my beliefs. Only I have the power to modify them; only I have the ability to discard them altogether–nobody else.

When individuals in this community of thought decide to make this belief commitment more concrete by getting involved in each other’s lives (e.g., socializing in various ways), or when the belief community takes on a more formal character, in an organizational sense (e.g., founding an association), then normative obligations on the part of the individual towards the community arise. The immaterial beliefs become very concrete indeed; each member of the community, within this more formal scheme, is now the embodiment of the community’s belief system. The individual is expected to think and act in certain ways. The community becomes a near vital part of the individual’s life. The community brings emotional sustenance to the individual; it helps to define the individual; it becomes a very large part of that person’s life and makes life meaningful.

So we see what a huge burden it would be for the believer to abandon the creed that has been so central to that individual’s life. Aside from being labeled a traitor by one’s former brethren, ostracized or worse, what constituted the framework of one’s life is now in tatters. Those familiar anchor points that helped one navigate daily life are no longer there; they can no longer be taken for granted. When this happens you find yourself in the wilderness: the ties that bonded you to a community are broken, you are adrift; that community is lost to you and there is nothing at hand to replace it. Nothing can suddenly appear that can provide you the support and solace you need. Thus, the believer has to weigh all of this: is it really worth it to abandon the faith?

A good semi-fictional depiction of such a situation can be found in the film The long walk home (with Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek). It takes place during the Montgomery (AL) bus boycott in the mid-1950s. This was a civil rights protest by the African-American community against segregated seating in public transportation. The maid of a white middle-class family participates in the boycott and has to walk many miles to and from work as a result. The white housewife for whom she works starts to identify with her employee’s plight and begins to question the white supremacist environment she lives in and is part of. This occasions the ire of her husband. He is concerned about the family’s standing within the (white) community. A wife who is a n…-lover: nobody will stand for that. It is a foundational breach of the white supremacist system. Thus, what this white woman is facing as a result of her actions is loss of friends, loss of family, loss of all of the communal linkages that make up her daily life; in other words, isolation and loneliness. That is the price she will have to pay for rejecting the white supremacist creed: a system of beliefs that defines as real the superiority of whites and the inferiority of blacks and all the consequences that derive from such a “reality.”

In the case of those who have defined as real the story that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, the consequences of this definition are indeed very real as we all witnessed on January 6, 2020: violence, death, mayhem, and destruction. The Thomas Theorem seems as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago. Its embodiment can be seen in so many of the events that we witness every day.

- What came to be called the Thomas Theorem was stated on page 572 of a book authored by William I. Thomas and Dorothy S. Thomas, The child in America: behavior problems and programs (New York, A. A. Knopf, 1928). William and Dorothy were not related, they just happened to share the same last name. The parentheses around her name at the beginning of this post is supposed to reflect the fact that she told Merton (as reported by him) that William had authored the “theorem.” Yet she is a co-author…
- The Merton quote is on page 174 of his book: Sociological Ambivalence & Other Essays (The Free Press, 1976). Merton mentions the Thomas Theorem as early as 1938 in “Science and the Social Order,” Philosophy of Science, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Jul., 1938), p. 331-32.
- Hammett’s hero’s monologue can be found in chapter XIX of The Dain Curse.
- The Long Walk Home should be required watching in any sociology course that covers belief systems, social movements, political sociology, etc.
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