The Thomas Theorem of Sociology Explained with Examples (2023)

The Thomas Theorem of Sociology Explained with Examples (1)

Being one of the most respected and influential theories of sociology, the Thomas theorem helps us understand why certain actions were taken in certain situations, and if they were baseless or not. It was formulated by the American sociologist, William Isaac Thomas. Read on for an explanation of the Thomas theorem, along with some examples.

Did You Know?
Despite his popularity as a sociologist, in the early years of his career, William Isaac Thomas taught English literature, German, Greek, Latin, and Natural History, before he became interested in sociology.

As many of us might know, sociology is an interesting science that studies and analyzes social behavior, social institutions, social norms, and development in the greatest possible detail. It is a relatively newer field of study, and is rapidly expanding by the day. Several esteemed sociologists have formulated theories that help us understand why society reacts the way it does to certain situations, and the amount of influence society has on its members. One such theory is the Thomas theorem.

What Is The Thomas Theorem?

Formulated in 1928, the Thomas theorem is a sociological theory formulated by William Isaac Thomas, and his wife, Dorothy Thomas. The Thomas theorem states that, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.

(Video) Lecture 6.7: Thomas Theorem

Basically, it means that the outcome of a situation depends upon an individual’s perception of it, and not on the situation by itself. This theory, which has influenced several other sociological theories, was first suggested by the Thomas couple in their book, The Child in America, in 1928.

The Thomas theorem is based upon an observation made during a case study of a mentally ill prisoner. The prisoner violently attacked his fellow prisoners when he saw them talking, as he believed that they were verbally abusing him and calling him names. It did not matter that the other prisoners were doing nothing of the sort, but were merely talking. As the mentally ill prisoner saw their lips move, the belief was etched in his mind that they were insulting him. He did not bother confirming if it was true or not― he based his attack on his individual perception of the situation.

The Thomas theorem actually provides an explanation for the norms and values that society strictly adheres to. Superstitions, actions based upon religious beliefs, recognizing a leader in the crowd, panicking to baseless rumors― all these are instances of the Thomas theorem.

Examples Of The Thomas Theorem

There are many examples of the Thomas theorem that we can spot in our daily lives. The simple statement that ‘if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.’ holds true in several instances, some of which whose outcomes have shocked all those who have heard of them.

Example 1


This example is given by most sociology professors― the example of the infamous killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch coordinator (George Zimmerman) in Florida, on the grounds that he “looked suspicious and up to no good.” The truth was that Martin was just heading home from the nearby store after having bought something, and was completely unarmed. Zimmerman had already perceived that the 17-year-old kid was a threat to the neighborhood, and shot him without actually assessing the whole situation as it really was. He based his action on his individual perception of Martin, and not on the reality. Thus, he defined that situation as a threatening one, and reacted accordingly, which had severe consequences.

Example 2

A child who is told by someone that monsters live in the dark, or under his bed, will actually begin to fear whatever it is that exists under his bed or in the dark. It won’t matter that the “monsters” don’t really exist, and that there is nothing under his bed in reality. The child’s mind strongly believes that he has something to fear in the dark, that something is waiting to harm him, and hence, really begins to fear the dark or his bed. Thus, the situation is defined real only for him, and the consequences of it too are real only for him. The child will continue to get scared of whatever he feels lives under his bed, regardless of the truth.

Example 3

A teenager might be a little different from the rest― let us assume that he prefers skateboarding to math, and cuts classes a lot to spend time with his skateboard. Society doesn’t approve, for he isn’t the conventional kind of teenager. Slowly, he begins to be classed apart as a rebel, and a deviant. For a long time, the teenager tries to fight the label. However, eventually he begins to act like a rebel and a deviant, as he bases his actions on his belief and perception of himself. He, along with the society, perceive his image as rebellious, and his actions begin to become rebellious in nature, too, though in reality, he isn’t a deviant. He is just different.

(Video) Lecture 7.6: Revisiting the Thomas Theorem

Example 4

Another very popular example of the Thomas theorem is the oil shortage of 1973, and the toilet paper shortage that followed. A rumor began to circulate among people― that a toilet paper shortage was expected soon. Panic spread, and everyone started stocking up on toilet paper to be well-prepared when the shortage arrived. The demand for toilet paper actually became much greater than the supply, leading to a real shortage as stocks ran out. The rumor wasn’t true, and a shortage of toilet paper wasn’t expected. However, people’s perception of the rumor was enough to cause the consequences.

Example 5

Racial discrimination is a man-made phenomenon. Excepting physical appearances, human beings are really not different from one another. So where does the concept of racial discrimination even come from? However, as history has painfully told us, racial discrimination has been experienced in its worst forms all over the world. It was man who decided that one color of the skin was better than the rest, or that one color of the skin had to be deemed lower than the rest. Thus, discrimination began to take its ugly form. Racial discrimination is actually a consequence of a perception of something that isn’t even true. Yet, the consequences of that perception have been existing since centuries.

The aforementioned examples explain how the perception of a situation has dramatic consequences, regardless of the actual nature of that situation. The Thomas theorem is also closely related to the social construction of reality, and the self-fulfilling prophecy, as we will see in the next sections.

(Video) Begriff des Tages: Thomas Theorem

What is the Social Construction of Reality?

What is reality, really? There can be no concrete answer to this, as reality too depends upon individual situations. What may be the reality for one person may not necessarily be the reality for someone else. Social construction of reality thus says that individual perception of reality is based upon individual beliefs, individual backgrounds, and individual experiences. Sociologists feel that what an individual perceives to be ‘reality’ is based upon individual experiences and individual beliefs, as well as the culture norms that individual was raised with. However, it is also true that an individual’s construction of reality agrees with the society’s construction of reality― in short, it is acceptable by the society.

For instance, a rich man hires a chauffeur to drive him around whenever he has to go anywhere. The chauffeur is a poor man who has to work hard in order to give his family a decent life. The rich man’s extravagant spending may make him happy, and may be to him his idea of reality. The chauffeur is jealous of the economic gap between the two of them, and cannot believe how much the rich man spends on silly things. For the chauffeur, the rich man’s spending is unrealistic. These two constructions of reality are also acceptable to the society, as there indeed is a divide between the rich and the poor. Thus, social construction of reality does depend upon each individual situation.

What is the Self Fulfilling Prophecy?

Theself-fulfilling prophecy has originated from the Thomas theorem. As the term itself suggests, a self-fulfilling prophecy is actually a prediction that comes true due to a strong and intense belief about its validity, in some way or the other. As the Thomas theorem states, if a person believes a situation is real, the consequences of that perceived situation are also equally real. Similarly, a self-fulfilling prophecy comes true because the belief in the prediction is so strong, that actions based on the prophecy are taken unknowingly, thus causing the prediction to come true.

The Thomas theorem can help us understand clearly how so many aspects of our lives are nothing but social constructions. It helps sociologists understand certain aspects of social behavior like bias, prejudice, and discrimination and while it certainly does not justify these aspects, it does help us to get a clear, rational perspective so that we don’t easily base our reactions on individual bias or prejudice and don’t react in a way that might hurt someone unnecessarily.

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(Video) Thomas and his theorem(not the engine)


What is the Thomas theorem examples? ›

The Thomas Theorem

In other words, our behavior depends not on the objective reality of a situation but on our subjective interpretation of reality. The consequences and results of behavior make it real. For example, a teenager who is defined as deviant might begin to act deviant. He makes his label real.

What is the Thomas theorem explained? ›

The Thomas theorem is a theory of sociology which was formulated in 1928 by William Isaac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas: If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. In other words, the interpretation of a situation causes the action. This interpretation is not objective.

Why is Thomas theorem important? ›

The Importance of Thomas Theorem in Business

The main point of Thomas Theorem in business is that consequences are more typical than truth. In this respect, the interpretation of knowledge about reality by managers – their behavior – is more important than scientific facts about nature.

What is the Thomas theorem in sociology quizlet? ›

The Thomas Theorem explains that if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. If you believe something to be true, then you will behave according to your belief (your reality).

What are some examples of social construction of reality? ›

For example, your school exists as a school and not just as a building because you and others agree that it is a school. If your school is older than you are, it was created by the agreement of others before you. In a sense, it exists by consensus, both prior and current.

What is the Thomas effect? ›

Thomson effect, the evolution or absorption of heat when electric current passes through a circuit composed of a single material that has a temperature difference along its length. This transfer of heat is superimposed on the common production of heat associated with the electrical resistance to currents in conductors.

Who made the Thomas theorem? ›

A concept formulated by the American sociologist William Isaac Thomas (1863–1967) that '“*facts” do not have a uniform existence apart from the persons who observe and interpret them.

What is I and me in sociology? ›

The terms refer to the psychology of the individual, where in Mead's understanding, the "me" is the socialized aspect of the person, and the "I" is the active aspect of the person.

How do you cite Thomas theorem? ›

The well-known “Thomas theorem” in sociology is defined as follows: “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas, The child in America, Knopf, Oxford, 1928, p. 572).

What is the definition of the situation in sociology? ›

The definition of "the situation" is what people use to know what is expected of them and what is expected of others in any given situation. Through the definition of the situation, people obtain a sense of the statuses and roles of those involved in the situation so that they know how to behave.

Which of the following is an example of a total institution? ›

Boarding schools, orphanages, military branches, juvenile detention, and prisons are examples of total institutions.

What does the concept presentation of self mean? ›

What does the term "presentation of self" mean? efforts to create impressions in the minds of others.

What is an important clue to deception by another person? ›

Identifying emotional leakage

Deception clues or leakage may be shown in a change in the expression on the face, a movement of the body, an inflection to the voice, a swallowing in the throat, a very deep or shallow breath, long pauses between words, a slip of the tongue, a micro facial expression, a gestural slip.

Is losing your virginity a social construct? ›

Sexuality is shaped (constructed) by social processes at the cultural and individual levels; thus virginity is socially constructed.

What is social reality in sociology? ›

the consensus of attitudes, opinions, and beliefs held by members of a group or society.

What does it mean to say that we socially construct the world around us provide examples of this process? ›

One way humans create social constructs is by structuring what they see and experience into categories. For example, they see people with different skin colors and other physical features and create the social construct of race.

What is positive Thomson effect? ›

When current flows through the bar from end A and B, then it is found that the heat is absorbed at end A and is absorbed at the end B. Thus there is a transfer of heat due to the current in the direction of the current. This is called the positive Thomson effect.

What is the cause of Thomson effect? ›

Cause of Thomson's Effect. When two ends of a conductor are kept at different temperatures, the number of free electrons in the higher temperature region will have higher than those in the lower region.

Which one of the following summarizes the Thomas theorem group of answer choices? ›

Which of the following statements summarizes the Thomas theorem? If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.

Who was William Thomas? ›

William Thomas, also called Islwyn, (born April 3, 1832, Ynysddu, Monmouthshire [now in Caerphilly], Wales—died November 20, 1878, Mynyddislwyn, Monmouthshire), clergyman and poet, considered the only successful practitioner of the long Welsh poem in the 19th century.

What's an example of sociology? ›

Sociology is the study of the human behavior within society and the consequences of those behaviors. Some examples of sociology include studying racial issues, gender dynamics, phenomena and feelings around entertainment, the structure of different social institutions, and the development of different social movements.

What is I and me understanding the self example? ›

According to him, 'I' is the one who knows how something feels; 'Me' is that feeling itself. I know I am hurt when I am cheated; I (i.e., 'Me' or my social self) get hurt because I have learned (from society) that when cheated, one must feel hurt. Thus - 'I' is the self as subject; 'Me' is the self as object.

Who is the founder of sociology? ›

Auguste Comte, in full Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier Comte, (born January 19, 1798, Montpellier, France—died September 5, 1857, Paris), French philosopher known as the founder of sociology and of positivism. Comte gave the science of sociology its name and established the new subject in a systematic fashion.

What is W. I. Thomas contribution to symbolic interaction? ›

Thomas went on to formulate a fundamental principle of sociology, known as the Thomas theorem (aka Thomas dictum), whereby he would contend that "if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." This microsociological concept served as a theoretical foundation for the field of symbolic ...

How is the Thomas theorem used in law enforcement? ›

The Thomas Theorem is a fundamental law of sociology that can assist law enforcement personnel in their interactions with subjects experiencing excited delirium as well as mental illness.

What does it mean to say that reality is socially constructed? ›

Sociologists understand that reality is socially constructed, meaning that people shape their experiences through social interaction. In 1966 sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote a book called The Social Construction of Reality.

What is the Thomas theorem MCAT Reddit? ›

Thomas theorem: our beliefs become real in our behavior. THUS IF I BELIEVE I AM CONFIDENT, I will behave confidently. If I have high self-efficacy, then I am manifesting my self-efficacy in a positive way- thus behavior is fulfilling my beliefs.


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