William I. Thomas served as President of the American Sociological Society (later changed to Association) in 1927. His Presidential address delivered at the 1927 Annual Meeting was entitled "The Behavior Pattern and the Situation".
With F. H. Giddings, E. A. Ross, C. H. Cooley, C. A. Ellwood, and Ellsworth Faris, W. I. Thomas, the seventeenth president of the American Sociological Society in 1927, belonged to what was often called the earlier psychological school of sociologists. Faris received his Ph.D. degree at the University of Chicago in psychology. Ross's Social Psychology was the first text published anywhere under that title. Cooley has been commonly credited with much of the beginnings of social psychology in the sociological framework. As one index of how these men were credited with special psychological contributions, Harry Elmer Barnes' chapters on Cooley and Ellwood in his Introduction to the History of Sociology had the respective subtitles of "Pioneer in Psychosociology" and "Founder of Scientific Psychological Sociology." His subtitle for the W. I. Thomas chapter was "The Fusion of Psychological and Cultural Sociology."
Of the earlier pioneers with whom Thomas may be compared in his psychological emphasis, besides Giddings and his consciousness of kind and pluralistic behavior, William Graham Sumner in America and Wilhelm Wundt in Germany were pioneers in cultural psychology, a field long since neglected by the psychologists. Next to Sumner was Ward whose Psychic Factors of Civilization was, in its day, a pioneer work of distinction. Of the later presidents of the American Sociological Society, Emory S. Bogardus as early as 1917 had published his Social Psychology; Bernard in 1924 and 1926 had published his Instinct and his Introduction to Social Psychology, and Kimball Young brought out his Social Psychology in 1930.
Thomas' presidential address was entitled "The Behavior Pattern and the Situation" in which, among other things, he discussed attitudes, values, forms of adaptation, together with the total situation and all their implications. This might well be compared with the development of Gestalt psychology in Germany and was one of the several contributions that led Barnes, in Chapter XI, to say that Thomas was "regarded by many students of sociological theory as the most erudite and creative of American social psychologists. In his later years Thomas extended his conceptions and methods to what might be called a `psycho-cultural' approach to social phenomena. Certainly, no other sociologist excels Thomas in his mastery of the subject or in a firm command of the auxiliary sciences essential to the successful exploitation of the field of ethnic and psychological sociology. Unfortunately, Thomas confined his systematic exposition of psychological sociology to his university lectures, which were never published. His published contributions to the subject are relatively few and fragmentary, woven into extensive documentary studies. But his general position and method can be reconstructed and summarized with relative confidence and accuracy" (page 793).
Few sociologists had such long and varied experiences as did Thomas who, with George E. Vincent, received his doctor's degree in 1896, the second year in which Small's new Department of Sociology founded in 1893 had awarded the Ph.D. degree. So varied and different was his work that it was thirty-one years after receiving his Ph.D. that he was elected president of the American Sociological Society at a time when he was, even while living, almost revered by many of his younger sociologists, following the Chicago influence of both older and younger groups. A measure of the extraordinary esteem in which he was held may be seen from the tributes paid to him by his contemporaries: Faris in The American journal of Sociology for March, 1948, and Sociology and Social Research for the same date; Burgess in Sociology and Social Research for March–April, 1948; Kimball Young in the American Sociological Review for February, 1948; Florian Znaniecki in Sociology and Social Research, March–April, 1948; and others.
Thomas was a fellow at Chicago in 1895, received his degree in 1896, was assistant professor in 1897, associate professor in 1900, and professor from 1910 to 1918 when he went to New York to do research independently of a university. In the light of his Chicago experiences and his powerfully individualistic personality it was perhaps not surprising that he never became identified permanently with any university, although a number of universities were looking for such a distinguished sociologist to head their departments. He was lecturer at the New School for Social Research in New York from 1923 to 1928 and was a guest lecturer, holding a series of seminars, at Harvard in 1936–37. His marriage to Dorothy Swaine Thomas and his collaboration with her led him to spend his final years from 1940 to 1947 at Berkeley, California, where hedied on December 5.
Like many of his contemporary sociologists, Thomas' background and experiences were varied in closely related fields. He came to sociology from the field of language and philosophy, having spent a year at the universities of Berlin and Göttingen after which he taught English for three years at Oberlin. He was an associate editor of The American journal of Sociology from the first issue in 1895 until he left Chicago in 1917. He was later a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was representative for sociology in the Social Science Research Council from 1928 to 1932. and later was secretary of the Committee on Personality and Culture of the Council. He also represented the American Sociological Society on the American Council of Learned Societies.
He had visited Europe after receiving his Ph.D. at Chicago and became interested in folk psychology through Wilhelm Wundt and sought some new methodology of studying nationalities and culture. As early as January, 1896, Thomas had written an article in The American journal of Sociology, page 434 ff., on "The Scope and Method of Folk Psychology." In America it seemed likely that George Mead at Chicago, as well as Cooley, exerted some influence upon him although his was an independent way of doing whatever he did.
His own estimates of what he did and the primary emphasis of his work, prepared for American Sociology up to 1950, reflect a fair and modest appraisal. He reduced his main lines of interest to two: first, "The sociopsychological aspects of culture history, or otherwise stated, social psychology as examined in relation to races, nationalities, classes, interest groups, etc., in different cultural situations and historical epochs; and second, personality development in normal, criminal and psychopathic individuals in relation to cultural situations and particular trains of experience as seen through their life-histories, which may be in the form of autobiographies, case studies, continuous and organized inter-views, etc. (I do not say `psychoanalysis' because of the meaning which this term has acquired)."
Thomas wrote further, "I do not feel that I have been greatly influenced by any of my teachers of sociology. My interests, as I have indicated, were in the marginal fields and not in sociology as it was organized and taught at that time, that is, the historical and methodological approach of Professor Small and the remedial and correctional interests of Professor Henderson."
His principal works were: The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, 1918–21 (with Florian Znaniecki); Primitive Behavior, 1936; Source Book for Social Origins, 1909; Sex and Society, 1907; The Child in America, 1928 (with Dorothy S. Thomas). He also contributed nearly a score of articles to The American Journal of Sociology, a half dozen to the American Magazine, and perhaps a dozen miscellaneous articles elsewhere.