William Thomas and the Growth of American Sociology between the 19th and 20th Century

By Rauty, Raffaele | Italian Sociological Review, May 1, 2020 | Go to article overview

William Thomas and the Growth of American Sociology between the 19th and 20th Century


Rauty, Raffaele, Italian Sociological Review


Keywords: American sociology, University of Chicago, Thomas' research.

1. Introduction: the emergence of social analysis in America

The Polish Peasant in Europe and America by William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki (1918-1920) is certainly the first great classic of American sociology. It was produced at the University of Chicago, which has often led to the assumption - reinforced by the subsequent centrality of the Department of Sociology in those years - that the discipline itself developed simultaneously with the construction and success of the university in those years between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The majority of theorists in the sociological tradition, view that department as a theoretical and empirical garrison in the History of Sociology. This status did not come without significant reservations, progressive contrasts and a myriad of interpretations over time. Here we will try to summarize two distant but complementary assumptions:

The first social research techniques, as well as the bulk of empirical social research up to the war were conducted mostly outside the universities by social workers, philanthropists, public health and charity workers, journalists and reformers, and some academic social pathologists, all of them loosely allied in the social survey movement (Oberschall, 1972: 215-6, our bolditalics)

a position expressed for some time, but often ignored or not evaluated in relation to its' consequences. To this we add a more recent and equally emblematic example:

Sociology developed in the context of dramatic social change and widespread debates over the constituted progress and how progress could be attained more surely and rapidly [...] nineteenth-century social science engaged intellectual advocates and administrators on the basis of a broadly shared concern with social problems and social change (Calhoun, 2007: 10, our bolditalics).

The passages of Oberschall and Calhoun are undoubtedly expressive of an articulated, if not critical position, compared to traditional evaluations. They - at least partially - capture a complex process which is coherent, even if not directly correlated, with the migratory dynamics that brought millions of immigrants to America in the 19th century; men and women who directly contributed to the development of the country. The mass arriving towards the end of the century undoubtedly distorted individual and collective structures, influencing the whole of society in a diffusion of wealth and poverty, autonomy and segregation, gender, generation, and ethnicity, as indicated by the investigations carried out in the necessary training processes, and by advanced reflections, on the various analytical categories used. Brief indications of this are attested to on one hand by the objections and reservations of Alan Sica (1990; 1993) and Jan Fritz (1990), those carried out on the the University of Kansas' centennial (Blackmar, 1890); and on the other by the emblematic investigations and methodological choices of Jacob Riis in New York (Riis, 1890; 1894), and the settlements in Chicago (Residents of Hull-House, 1895) and further, by the philanthropic-religious options present more generally in many parts of the country (Addams, 1889; Du Bois, 1899; Henderson, 1896; 1897).

Alan Sica's questions the historical priority of the presence of sociology in Chicago, by considering some gaps contained in Faris' classic volume on the anticipation of sociology's development there in comparison to other sites (Faris, 1967: 11). This critical thesis was taken up by Jan Fritz (1990), who compared the statements of Albion Small (Small, 1916/1949: 186), and Howard Odum (1951). Other research volumes indicate many anticipations that could question the interpretation that the development of sociology was an academically central process.

It is important to consider in depth, the intensity and progressiveness of the migratory processes referred to as a premise for understanding some research dynamics. …

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