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

April 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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