On Sexism And Sociology: Who Is Dorothy Swaine Thomas?

Most sociologists know the adage that is fundamental to (much of) sociological thought — “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” — the Thomas theorem.  It is so widely known and used that few actually cite the original source, noting simply, “according to W. I. Thomas…”

I looked to formally cite this notion in my dissertation, which meant having to search for the source.  So easily found: The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs (1928) by William Issac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas.

Who Is Dorothy Swaine Thomas?

Wait – what?  Never in my life had I heard of Dorothy Swaine Thomas.  It seemed odd that the second of only two others is rarely, if ever, cited when referencing the Thomas theorem.  Is it really that hard to say “Thomas and Thomas” or “Thomas et al.” or “the Thomases”?  I figured the mystery surrounding author number two had something to do with her being a woman academic in the early twentieth century.

I decided to do some digging to see who Dorothy Swaine Thomas is, and whether others had taken note on the conspicuous absence of her contribution to this important sociological theorem.  I thought others may have been wary of her contribution because she was seen as an assisting author, particularly as William’s wife, than a “legitimate” co-author.  Maybe she is otherwise irrelevant in terms of sociological research, theory, and knowledge.

Simply clicking her name on the Amazon page for The Child in America, I saw that she published upwards to 30 books.  Okay, so she is hardly irrelevant, even by the least generous standards.  (By all means, even co-publishing one pivotal book counts as relevant in my mind, but others may have higher standards of “relevance” to the discipline.)

Digging deeper, I saw that she was actually quite influential in sociology, as well as demography.  She began publishing research as early as age 22, and had her PhD by age 25.  She was the first woman professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  And, she served as the first woman President (and, earlier, Vice President) of the American Sociological Association, and also served as President of the Population Association of American.

Let’s call it what it is: she was an academic badass.  Of special personal interest: “Although Thomas considered herself a social activist, [her adviser William] Ogburn persuaded her to become a ‘scientist,’ which in sociology meant a quantitative, preferably statistical approach to social issues” (from the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology online).

So, I am left wondering why I had never heard or read about Thomas prior to my own search.  Especially because:

Thomas’s contributions to sociology were nonetheless substantial. Her high standards and clear thinking helped professionalize a discipline criticized for its armchair theorizing, jargon, and do-goodism. Despite the controversy that surrounded the Evacuation and Resettlement study, the Supreme Court later accepted it as a major resource in documenting a national wrong perpetrated by the government against its citizens.

The quantitative work Thomas pioneered helped gain sociology foundation support and provided a beachhead for women who might otherwise have been excluded from university positions. For her contributions to demography the University of Pennsylvania awarded Thomas an honorary degree in 1970 (from Blackwell).

On Sexism And Sociology

A good guess would be sexism.  Though she was successful, her career was not without the constraints of sexism:

Job prospects were also not encouraging. Although women of Thomas’s generation were earning doctorates in sociology in increasing, if still relatively small numbers through the late 1920s, these graduates were effectively excluded from jobs in university sociology departments through a pattern of formal rules and informal understandings.

Unfortunately, some of her success came with the dilemma that many women scholars continue to face – the tension between authenticity and success/relevance:

Thomas experienced the pressures of being scrutinized by members of an overwhelming majority, however kindly disposed. As a result, she not only shared the outlook, the professional ethos, and the passion for objectivity of Ogburn and other male objectivists, but was one of the most ardent practitioners of their brand of sociology. Otherwise, she would almost certainly not have realized the success she did.

At the same time, had she not had so constantly to prove her professionalism and objectivity, she might not have remained wedded to so narrow a conception of her discipline, might have produced richer and more valuable insights into human behavior and perhaps even a body of theoretical work more to modern taste. Viewed in this way, Thomas’s sex exacted a toll for the very reasons that she was so eminently successful in overcoming the limitations it imposed.

The Erasure Of Thomas’s Contributions

These constraints aside — blocked job opportunities, and the way “trading power for patronage” shaped her career — there appears to be some erasure of Thomas’s contribution to sociology.  In a review 244 introductory sociology textbooks (1945-1994) to assess citations of The Child in America, particularly for the Thomas’ theorem, R. S. Smith (1995) noted:

There  I was surprised to discover that W. I. Thomas was not the sole author of [The Child in America]; rather it was co-authored by Dorothy Swaine Thomas..  It was this experience that started me thinking about all the times I had seen [the theorem] quoted but had never once come across Dorothy Swaine Thomas’s name (p12-3).

Most of the textbooks that cited the “Thomas theorem” merely credited W. I. Thomas.  So, why is Dorothy’s work ignored?  Apparently, she was primarily responsible for the book’s data collection and analyses.  But, those parts are central to the book.  While she later penned a letter that suggested William was the “brains” behind the theorem, the letter’s 1991 publication in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences fails to explain why she was rarely credited for the theorem from 1928 through the mid-1970s.

Unfortunately, the erasure of her contributions, as well as those of other women scholars, has a “ripple effect.”  I seriously doubt that my professors fail to credit Dorothy Swaine Thomas intentionally; rather, they failed to teach me about her because they never learned about her.  Her invisibility is further spread through introductory textbooks.  If it were not for accidentally “discovering” her, I, too, would likely perpetuate her erasure by overlooking her work in my classes.

A(nother) Call For The Sociology of Sociology

As I have written in earlier posts, sociology, and academia in general, is not immune to the biases of society.  But, what may have been intentional exclusion or erasure nearly a century ago (and, to be honest, even more recently) continues on as innocent ignorance.  This is inexcusable.

The erasure of “people like us” does marginalized scholars a disservice because it paints the picture that we have had little role in shaping academia and knowledge.  And, many of the names and legacies that have survived efforts to exclude and erase, as well as innocent “amnesia,” are often stripped of personhood.  For example, some sociological “greats” like W. E. B. DuBois are stripped of their activism and radical politics, characterized, instead, as cooperative, mainstream (apolitical) sociologists.

But, for all of academia, this supposed “amnesia” seems like a detriment to the advancement of knowledge.  Whole scholarly contributions have either been outright blocked, or eventually lost over time.  Who knows whether we are “reinventing the wheel,” missing crucial insights that had once been put forth and lost?

Again, I call for a sociology of sociology, where we turn our critical lens back on our field.  In many ways, exclusion and discrimination are still at play.  And, there are whole careers and specific studies, theories, and insights that are lost in the past.  Besides liberating these scholars and their work from academic “amnesia,” it may also be worth revisiting other “classic” work through a contemporary lens.  (Full disclosure, I remain wary of giving full credit to handful of dead middle-class white men to pen the theories of society.)

To be fair, this line of work would still be a bit too “navel-gazey” for my tastes to pursue as my primary research.  But, I remain intrigued enough to do my own homework in my free time (and, obviously blog about it).  If anything, I would like to know the herstory of the field I love, with specific attention to the stories that are not told, and to those scholars who are not celebrated as the “fathers of sociology.”

I certainly encourage others to reflect more on the past (and present) of our discipline and the academy as a whole.  At a minimum, I hope others take from this inspiration to credit the other Thomas (i.e., Dorothy Swaine) for the Thomas theorem.