Link to What's New This Week What's All This About the Social construction of Reality?

Dear Habermas Logo and Link to Site Index A Justice Site



The Thomas Theorem
or The Definition of the Situation

Mirror Sites:
CSUDH - Habermas - UWP - Archives

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Soka University Japan - Transcend Art and Peace
Created: March 10, 2003
Latest Update: March 10, 2003

E-Mail Icon jeannecurran@habermas.org
takata@uwp.edu

W.I. Thomas What's All This About
the Social Construction of Reality?

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, March 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.

On Thursday, March 6, 2003, Rachel Forster wrote:
Hello there!
I am in a first year sociology class at York University in Toronto, and am writing an essay and have to incorporate the W.I. Thomas' idea of definition of the situation, and I was wondering if you could explain it to me? If you could take a few minutes I would greatly appreciate it.

Thank you for your time.
Rachel

On Friday, March 6, 2003, jeanne responded:
Sure. W.I. Thomas said this of situations: "If a man believes the situation to be real, it is real in its consequences." I don't have his quote in front of me, so that's just out of my head. What he means by that is that we act and form beliefs on what we believe to be true with very little regard to alternative possibilities of truth. For example, if I am a Muslim who believes that Allah loves martyrs, I act as though God loves martyrs, and I'm willing to commit suicide because what I believe is "real" to me. If I believe that teachers are the fonts of knowledge, I'm going to accept what they say without questioning, even though teachers are often as limited in their perspectives as their students.

Along the way, when I act on what I believe to be true, others react to my actions, and our whole situation and perceptions of the situation are different from what they might be if we considered other alternatives. If I believe the rapist who tells me he has a knife is telling the truth, my actions are as bound by that belief as they would be if he really did have a knife. In other words, it isn't what he has, or what he can do that matters as much as what I believe he can do.

In law, this is what gave us the "reasonable man" standard. If a reasonable man could have believed what X says he believed, then we accept that belief as real. If a reasonable woman could have believed the rapist had a knife, then her credibility is judged as though he did have a knife.

Does that help? jeanne

I'll put this up on the site later for my own students. good luck.
jeanne

On Saturday, March 8, 2003, Rachel Forster responded:
Jeanne,

Thank you for responding so quickly to my email, it should definitely help me out. But I am a little confused by the quote you gave me for Definition of the situation. In the textbook I have it states that that is the Thomas Theorem, and I am confused as what the difference is between the Thomas Theorm and the definition of the situation. If you had a few minutes to explain that to me, I'd greatly appreciate it. Thanks again for your quick response, I appreciate it.

Cheers,
Rachel

On Monday, March 10, 2003, jeanne responded:

OK, Rachel. Time to put all this up on the site. Look at Robert K. Merton's article on the Thomas Theorem. There you'll find the definition.
"This article can be read from various sociological perspectives? Most specifically, it records an epistolary episode in the sociointellectual history of what has come to be known as “the Thomas theorem”? “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas & Thomas 1928:572).
The way I said it was: "If a man believes the situation to be real, it is real in its consequences." Close enoughm hmm. In the rest of what I wrote, I was trying to put the meaning in context in terms of today's world.

Just in case you want to look at some of the references below, here's an explanation of the Mathhew Effect:

"“The Matthew Effect in Science,” (SCIENCE, 5 January 1968, vol. 159,55-63, as this was slightly amplified when reprinted in my collection of papers, THE SOCIOLOGY OF SCIENCE (University of Chicago Press 1973). By way of orientation, I should report that what I described as ‘the Matthew effect’ (after Matthew 1312 and 25:29)- consists in the accruing of greater recognition by peers for particular scientific or scholarly contributions to scholars of great repute and the withholding of such recognition from [their collaborat- ing] scholars who have not yet made their mark. Here it is being suggested that theMatthew effect might have operated in the very case which is of central interest to us atthe moment." Robert K. Merton, at p. 394 / Social Forces 745 December 1995.

Online References

The Thomas Theorem and The Matthew Effect by Robert K. Merton. (PDF) "This article can be read from various sociological perspectives? Most specifically, it records an epistolary episode in the sociointellectual history of what has come to be known as “the Thomas theorem”? “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas & Thomas 1928:572).

The Meaning and Relevance of the Thomas Theorem by Frank van Dun, Philosophy of Law, Maastricht University. Says the Thomas Theorem amounts to nothing more than "get real." There's a problem with Professor Dun's conclusion, however. When we speak of the social definition of reality, we refer to those things which are, indeed, definied socially, such as race, crime, wealth. We do define that reality by developing normative expectations in these areas, and then acting as though are normative expectations are reality.

For example, if we "know" that blond-haired, blue-eyed males are smarter and more successful than others, we will expect blond-haired, blue-eyed males to perform more effectively, and our expectations will color the results. While it is true that our expectations may not alter the actual persons at all, our expectations do alter the context in which we read the results. This issue comes up a lot with people who are sure the "world and reality are out there." Well, of course, they are, but so are the normative expectations through which we interpret them.