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

May 2024
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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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