Dorothy Swain Thomas :

The Hard Way in the Profession.

Robert C. Bannister

Swarthmore College

Published originally as : "Dorothy Swain Thomas: Soziologischer Objectivismus: Der harte Weg in die Profession," in Frauen in der Soziologie, ed. Claudia Honegger und Teresa Wobbe (Oscar Beck, Munchen 1998), pp. 226-57. Copyright C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1998). Footnotes omitted.

By most measures, Dorothy Swaine Thomas (1899-1977) was the most successful woman sociologist of her generation. At age twenty-two she co-authored two scholarly articles with William Fielding Ogburn, her undergraduate professor at Barnard. At twenty-five she completed her doctorate at the London School of Economics, published as Social Aspects of Business Cycles (1925). At twenty-seven she collaborated on The Child in America (1928) with William I. Thomas, the most distinguished of the surviving founders of American sociology. Even before their marriage in 1935, Thomas and Thomas made annual pilgrimages to Sweden where their associates included Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, that nation’s best-known social scientists. By the end of her career, Thomas had written or co-authored ten books, including The Spoilage (1946) and The Salvage (1952), pioneering studies of the forced evacuation and detention of West Coast Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Professional recognition followed. After working as research associate at Columbia’s Teachers College (1927-30), Thomas joined Yale University’s Institute of Human Relations in 1930, later serving as director of Social Statistics (1935-39). In 1941 she was appointed professor of rural sociology at Berkeley, and seven years later was the first women to attain a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. In the mid-1930s, she was the sole women included in the Sociological Research Association, an elite group within the American Sociological Society (later Association). During these years she was the first woman board-member of Social Science Research Council, which she later directed. In 1952 she also became the first woman to be elected president of the A.S.A. Other professional honors included the presidency of the Population Association of America (1958-59) and vice-presidency of the American Statistical Association.

A generation younger than Jane Addams, Thomas personified the many differences between woman professionals of the interwar years and the settlement workers and reformers who embraced sociology before the war. In place of floor-length dresses and tightly-bound hair, she sported a "bob," cigarette in a long holder, and tailored clothes. Whereas many educated women of the prewar generation remained single, secure in a network of female associates, Thomas depended upon male mentors, one of whom she married, a pattern common among academic women of her generation.

These differences reflected significant changes in the opportunities and prospects for college educated women in the 1920s. Between 1870 and 1920 the number of American women attending college increased dramatically from 11,000 to 283,000 (0.7% of the female population aged 18-21 to 7.6%) to constitute 47.3% of a still-elite total undergraduate population. But expansion also had a price. The modernizing of American higher education saw the emergence of a new monolithic standard for all colleges and universities, based not on the classics (before 1875), but on the generation of new knowledge through objective research, replacing a diversity that had thrived from 1870 to the mid-1920s in a heterogeneous mix of normal schools, community and religious-based private colleges, and universities founded with quite different missions. Just as the period of diversity was one of advance for women so the acceptance of a single, more distinctly "masculine" standard was a more serious challenge to women than for men.

Although Thomas’s "flapper image" (as a friend described it) symbolized new social and sexual freedom for women on and off campus, this change was also not cost-free. Despite the fact that women’s place as undergraduates was now secure, the flapper stereotype, like the willowy, athletic "Gibson girl" ideal of the progressive era, betrayed society’s continuing ambivalence toward college women, in effect defining the terms on which being a "coed" was acceptable. The emergence of a heterosocial culture of flirting, dating, and marriage placed women in competition with one another, often complicated relations between female students and their male professors, and eventually created a couples-oriented social life--eroding the homosocial world of Addams’ generation.

The situation was doubly complicated for women who aspired to careers in the professions. Here the picture again appeared to be one of increasing opportunity. From 1900 to 1930, the percentage of employed women classified as professional rose from 8.2% to 14.2%. The group of "professional and kindred" workers was 40% female when the total work force was only 20% female. But three-fourths of the increase in female professionals before 1920 was the result of the expansion of school teaching, nursing, and social work. The traditional male professions witnessed set-backs for women in varying proportions. In academia, for example, women made up 30% of college faculties by the 1910s (many, of course, in women's colleges). But by the late 1920s, virtually every index of female participation was declining: the proportion of women students, of Ph.D.s, and of faculty members. By the early 1930s, when many of Thomas’s generation were launching their careers, journalists were sounding an obituary for the "vanishing race of pioneer women" of the prewar years.

Negotiating these crosscurrents was not easy. While the undergraduate ideal was the vivacious, fun-loving coed, graduate study demanded an austere objectivity and open-ended commitment to work--a demand all the more pressing for women forced to prove themselves. So long as relatively few women challenged male dominance, those willing to play the game could achieve considerable success. But the result was often a disjuncture between the professional and private self, as evidenced in Thomas’s resolutely "objective" sociology on the one hand, and, on the other, her bobbed hair, cigarette smoking, and enigmatic relation with a still-married man twice more than twice her age--a situation (at least in the years before their marriage) that almost certainly would have raised eyebrows a generation earlier.

Thomas’s sociology reflected this generational difference. Whereas Addams practiced an "interpretive sociology" (in Dorothy Ross’s term), and emphasized the "subjective’" roots of social science, Thomas viewed "observer bias" to be an even greater enemy of "experimental sociology" than flaws in the data .Social problems that once inspired social activism--pauperism, prostitution, alcoholism, divorce--became grist for a statistical mill wherein "correlation" described the impersonal workings of economic forces apparently beyond the control of human agency.

After her death in 1977, Thomas, not surprisingly, presented something of problem to younger sociologists. Although she could be included in the ranks of feminists in the limited sense that she instinctively assumed that men and women are equals, her quantitative, behavioral approach appeared to challenge feminist arguments that a passion for statistics and control is "agentic"(and therefore male), rather than "communal" (and female). In the agentic-communal scenario, Dorothy should have persuaded W.I. of the benefits of "life histories" over statistical analysis. To the extent they influenced one another, it was the other way around. Her work was "communal" primarily in the sense that she worked with others on projects that garnered often-lavish foundation support.

Assessment of her work differed accordingly. One sympathetic biographer stressed her increasing skepticism toward quantification and economic determinism, while at the same time praising her for making sociology more "scientific." Critics meanwhile revived charges that had surfaced in reviews of her work, while adding some of their own. A Japanese-American anthropologist alleged that the excessive demands Thomas placed on research assistants in the evacuation project, and her failure to correct resulting bias in field reports, produced unbalanced, incomplete studies that stressed the sensational over the norm. Participants in that study faulted her for failing to provide "theoretical guidance." Thomas’s "vacuum cleaner" approach to data collection, one historian observed, produced more data that she knew how to use. Rather than building on WI’s "life history" approach, both Thomases effectively abandoned it and by the late 1930s were "resolute behaviorists."

These differing assessments raise a number of questions. What factors shaped Thomas’s early embrace of statistics, her near-obsession with observer reliability, and her de facto embrace of a neo-positivist, "value-free" sociology? Did she successfully transcend the "statistics " versus "case study" debate of the twenties? Or was her mature work a flawed contribution to a sterile chapter in the history of American sociology? What role if any did gender play in her sociology and her career?

These questions are not easy to answer. The same forces that inspired Thomas’s life-long crusade against subjectivity and personal bias also kept her a very private person. On one of the rare occasions in which she offered a glimpse at her past, in a festschrift for econometrician Herman Wold, she excused personal reminiscences by explaining that "research" had been so important a part of her "whole life pattern" that biographical details were relevant to Wold’s interest in the "‘personal and milieu factors’" that shape human activity. This impersonal way of thinking and talking about herself, as will appear, was one aspect of a complex, often enigmatic personality.


Born in Baltimore, Maryland , Dorothy Thomas knew first-hand the economic vicissitudes that became the focus of her studies of the "pulls" and "pushes "in human migration. Her paternal grandfather, a prosperous wholesale china merchant, retired in middle-age to devote his energies ("and his fortune," Thomas noted ruefully) to the promotion of the Methodist faith. Her Yorkshire-born maternal grandfather came to the United States as an infant, with parents and other relatives. Although the Thomas family lived with her these maternal grandparents until she was four, she knew little more about their roots than that her grandfather "made and then lost an appreciable amount of money" in the grain elevator business. Thomas’s father, a traveling salesman, was rarely home, had a hard time holding jobs, and finally abandoned the family when Dorothy was thirteen. Although well-educated, neither parent was "intellectual."

Both sides of the family fell on hard times after the turn of the century. Her father’s economic problems ("aggravated by personal difficulties," Thomas added opaquely) meant life for several years in boarding houses in small Virginia towns as the salesman sought an elusive southern "territory" before leaving the family altogether for Kansas. About age thirteen Thomas went to live with a younger female cousin whose athletic inclinations contrasted with her own bookish ways, and a paternal uncle who teased his niece unmercifully about the "heroes" in her favorite books. "I did not like him at all," Thomas noted, in a rare display of personal feeling, adding "but I respected him for the way in which he built up a new career, as an accountant after bankruptcy." Dorothy’s mother meanwhile eked out a living as companion to "several genteel old ladies" during their terminal illnesses.

A bit of luck extricated Thomas from this economically insecure, socially marginal childhood. Although a model student, she inadvertently violated a school rule at the end of her senior year, then compounded the infraction by talking back to the teacher who reprimanded her. Temporarily denied graduation and a scholarship to a local college, she finally apologized, then accidentally saw an announcement for a tuition scholarship at Barnard College on the way from the principal’s office. In September 1918, successful in the competition, she was off to New York.

These childhood experiences left their mark in various ways. The family’s ups and downs nurtured a predilection for the "normal," a grudging admiration of those who succeeded, and little of Jane Addams’ concern for the less fortunate. Absent too were the social conventions and religious impulses with which many women in an earlier generation struggled, whether the Victorian cult of domesticity or the emotional promptings that inspired Addams’s essay on "The Subjective Necessity of Social Settlements." In their place were distrust of " feeling" no less than of traditional authority; an uneasy sense of the role of chance and contingency in human affairs; and, given her father’s desertion and her mother’s financial struggles, the conviction that a woman had best rely on her own resources.


By the 1920s, Barnard was perhaps the best women’s college in the country for the social sciences despite the moribund state of sociology at neighboring Columbia. Although Thomas began in English literature, she eventually studied with the distinguished members of the combined Departments of Economics and Sociology: Frank Ross and Robert Chaddock, (and later, Wesley Mitchell) in statistics; William Ogburn in sociology; and Franz Boas in anthropology. Although anthropology attracted more women than sociology, Thomas turned to Ogburn rather than to Boas. "A dynamic and charming liberal," as she remembered him, Ogburn was sympathetic and supportive toward his women students-- "the idol of the girls at Barnard," as Chicago sociologist Helen McGill Hughes later put it. In addition to co-authoring articles with Thomas, Ogburn appointed Margaret Mead as his assistant in editing the Journal of the American Statistical Association, and wrote strong letters of support for women graduate students. For their two articles, Ogburn insisted on joint attribution, departing from the common professorial practice of using the "meat of student paper as footnotes in their own publications."

Although possibly unknown to Thomas, Ogburn had a youth similar to her own: a Georgia upbringing in an even more provincial South than Baltimore and Virginia; memories of forebears who had known better days; a hand-to-mouth existence as his widowed mother attempted to cling to respectability by taking in boarders; and salvation by financial aid as he made his way on a scholarship to graduate study at Columbia. For Ogburn as for Thomas, "science" provided an anchor in a fast-changing world.

A new breed of professional, both developed quite separate public and private selves, symptomatic of the growing division between work and leisure in the consumer-oriented 1920s. In Ogburn’s case, the austere, detached, workaholic found emotional release in exotic travel, poetry writing, and a passion for sports. For Thomas, the relation between work and play was even more convoluted. Her "research," she explained years later, was typically interspersed with reading detective stories, playing golf, taking coffee-breaks, listening to music, and eventually, watching television, indeed almost any "distraction " to postpone writing. But then she tended "to feel guilty" until a solution emerged and writing resumed, at which time she could enjoy her recreational activities guilt-free.

Politically, Thomas also underwent a truncated version of Ogburn’s earlier evolution from academic socialist to chief advocate of a statistical, value-free sociology. By the early 1920s, her dislike of religion and authority--earlier evident in her attitude toward her paternal relatives and her run-in with high school officials--produced "an impelling social conscience" and a reputation as a "young radical." But Ogburn had already learned better. When Thomas informed him that she wished to do research on "Socialism, " he demanded to know whether she planned to be a "scientist" or an "actionist"? Although she resented the implication of possible bias, the question set her straight: she would be a "scientist, " albeit doing research on "socially significant" problems.

She subsequently adopted Ogburn’s agenda more or less wholesale. A central concern was the role of technology in social change, the title of Ogburn’s best-known work. Another was the primacy of economic factors in human affairs, not "economic determinism" of a sort that yields cocksure certainty, but rather a tentative sense of probabilities in a world in which nothing is finally certain. Ogburn’s favorite phrases were "My guess would be..." "We may expect to see." So also, Thomas insisted that "concomitant variations in economic and social fluctuations" do not "necessarily prove a causal influence," although it took her most of her career to realize the full implications of this statement. A final legacy was the methodological question for which Ogburn was famous: "how do you know it?" combined, initially at least, with his faith in statistics.


In Social Aspects of Business Cycles this faith ran at high tide. After graduation from Barnard (B.A. 1922), Thomas set off for a year at the L.S.E. , now financed by her mother who had recently obtained a well-paid position with one of Maryland’s most distinguished families. At Barnard , she had already studied the work of Columbia professor Wesley Mitchell, whose Business Cycles (1913) figured prominently in one of the two papers she wrote with Ogburn. Her thesis director was Arthur Bowley , author of the textbook she had used in another Barnard course in applied statistics. Her goal was to become a "mathematical statistician."

In Social Aspects, Thomas traced the relation of the business cycle to changing rates of marriage, pauperism and crime. Stripped of charts, graphs and correlation coefficients, her findings were of three sorts: (1) cases in which statistics confirmed the conventional wisdom (marriage increases in time of prosperity, pauperism during depressions); (2) cases in which apparent surprises were readily explained (divorce bears a closer relation to economic cycles in the U.S. than in Britain, where it remained a preserve of the affluent); and (3) instances in which the reasons for "surprise" can at best be speculated (the increase both of alcoholism and of mortality rates during prosperity).

Displaying a faith in statistical analysis that she would later qualify, Thomas allowed that statistics were a "crude" substitute for the "laboratory method." But she also agreed with an earlier study of the statistician G. B. Longstaff that the "numerical method. . .will yield a first approximation to a solution." Moreover, improvements in data-gathering and statistical methodology since Longstaff made it "possible to estimate probable relations more closely," offering hope that in another fifty years a more "complete" record and " refined" methods would allow "a really conclusive estimate."

When statistics produced "surprises, " Thomas also inadvertently revealed some of the assumptions and uncertainties that drove her and many contemporaries to seek certainty in "science," defined as quantification. Interestingly, given the opportunities women of her generation enjoyed, one was an apparent ambivalence toward the forces that were bringing women into the workplace. Was the rate of infant mortality higher in good times than bad, as the numbers suggested? Perhaps, she speculated, it was because "the greater employment of women in times of prosperity makes them more liable to conditions causing mortality in childbirth." Perhaps also, industrial employment caused a decline in breast feeding, or led the "poorer classes" to neglect their children.

Thomas also speculated repeatedly about alcohol, undoubtedly because a number of studies already existed, probably because national Prohibition highlighted a serious social problem, perhaps also because it had been the cause of her father’s "personal difficulties." The fact that alcohol consumption increased in times of prosperity surprised her because "theoretically" she assumed that "the greatest psychological need for drunkenness would arise at the time of greatest misery." Other questions invited similar speculation. Was alcohol behind the unexpected increase in infant mortality during periods of prosperity? Probably yes, she answered, given the coincidence of the increase of drunkenness and infant deaths by suffocation in Saturday nights.

Thomas was not exactly saying that women should stay home and breast-feed (although her speculations on this score, one reviewer noted, "will not be accepted by many authorities"). Nor was she advocating a crusade against alcohol or condemning the poor. Rather, as with the other social changes she traced (divorce, illegitimacy, crime, pauperism), she sidestepped commitment, declining either to defend or reject vestigial values. The result was a treatment of social issues quite different than that of the moral reformers of the pre-war era. Developments once considered "social evils" were no longer calls to action but "series" to be charted and weighed with the help of rigorously "scientific" method. The emphasis was less on social justice than social order. For the "social reformer," she concluded, the single lesson was "the need for bringing about greater economic stability."

A statistical view of human affairs also eroded traditional notions of individual responsibility and human agency. Despite her denials that correlation meant causality, Thomas insisted that the business cycle was "undoubtedly the fundamental factor in determining the [social] fluctuations" between 1854 and 1912, the years roughly from the migration of the Thomas clan from Yorkshire to the desertion by her father. Her study also confirmed "the part played by group influences upon individual actions." The role of the business cycle "takes away the emphasis from the individual in many cases, and shifts it toward the group," she noted. Urging a "need of further research, " Thomas thus articulated one premise of the behaviorism that would become more prominent in her later work.

When she returned from the L.S.E. in the fall of 1924 , Thomas could be pleased with her accomplishment. In an age of crude calculators, she developed careful measures of variables and ran time-series correlations among them that would earn praise six decades later. Her doctoral defense won the Hutchinson Research Medal. At the suggestion of Sir William Beveridge, director of L.S.E. and one of Britain best-known statesmen/economists, she presented part of her findings in the journal Economica. The thesis itself was accepted for publication in the L.S.E. dissertation series.

But, as reviewers soon noted, her analysis also raised problems that soon tempered her own faith in statistics. Although most reviews were favorable, criticism focused on her claim that business cycles were the "fundamental" factor producing social fluctuations. Although Thomas assumed the effect was one way, the opposite case could as easily be made, as indeed had been done in a study by Roger Ward Babson, a "business statistician. " Correlations by their very nature (even the 340 Thomas produced) did not address the problem of causation, one reviewer observed. The statement that the business cycle was "fundamental" was "merely the obiter dictum of Miss Thomas."

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. At the University of Chicago, home of the nation’s leading sociology department, women students were not eligible for graduate teaching assistantships, but instead worked during their graduate years grading papers, coordinating laboratory work, serving as research assistants or as departmental secretary. Following studies at Chicago and elsewhere, those who married often followed their husband’s careers, accepting positions at marginal institutions. Some studied sociology as prelude to careers in social work, now an established route for women who might once have joined social settlements. Others were channeled into jobs in America’s extensive network of women’s colleges. Some drifted into disciplines only tanagentially related to the still-porous discipline of sociology. By the 1930s, a wave of anti-nepotism rules, designed in part to protect jobs for the male "bread winner," raised the barrier still higher.

The careers of Thomas’s leading female contemporaries in sociology illustrate the situation she faced in the years after her return from London. After studying at Chicago, Ruth Shonle Cavan (Ph.D. 1926), despite a distinguished thesis on Suicide (1928), served on various research committees at Chicago (with no faculty status) for half a dozen years, then taught at Rockford College in Illinois for most of her career. Helen Black Winston (Ph.D. 1930) , whom William Ogburn judged one of his best students, took jobs with various New Deal agencies before being appointed welfare commissioner in her native state of North Carolina. Helen McGill Hughes (Ph.D. 1937), author of a widely-cited study of News and the Human Interest Story (1940), followed her husband Everett to McGill University and eventually to Chicago, where for many years she was managing editor of the American Journal of Sociology . Other distinguished Chicago sociology graduates included half a dozen prominent social workers..

At other leading graduate departments the story was similar. Although, numerically, Columbia produced more women Ph.D. s in sociology than Chicago in the interwar years, the most distinguished ended up at Barnard (Mirra Komarovsky) and Sarah Lawrence (Helen Lynd), both fine institutions, but also women’s colleges. Most others left little or no mark on the discipline. University of North Carolina graduates included Katherine Jocher (Ph.D. 1929), Margaret Jarman Hawgood (Ph.D. 1937) , and Harriet Herring, each of whom made important contributions to the study of southern life and agriculture. But Jocher alone obtained full faculty status (at UNC) and only in 1943 after more than a decade as research associate in Howard Odum’s Institute for Research in Social Science and as managing editor of Social Forces. Demographer Irene B. Taeuber, probably Minnesota’s most accomplished sociology graduate (Ph.D. 1931), taught briefly at Mt. Holyoke before becoming an associate at Princton’s Office of Population Research. Of four women doctorates in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania’s between 1920 and 1935, two worked and published in social work, while a third published statistical studies of wages and cost of living for Ohio’s States Bureau of Business Research. Jessie Bernard (1903-), later well-known for her study of Academic Women (1964) and many feminist writings, labored for more than a decade after obtaining her B.A. as research associate for her tyrannical husband Luther Lee Bernard, obtained a Ph.D. (1935) from Washington University where he was teaching, then spent another ten years in assorted government agencies and teaching positions before obtaining an appointment at Penn State University at age forty-four.

As evidenced by Winston, Taeuber, Jocher and others, one consequence of restricted career choice was a tendency to channel energies into practical applications, with a special focus on quantitative or narrowly empirical "research" such as favored by the institutes or non-academic agencies for which these women worked. Thomas commented on her own choices in 1925 only to say many years later that she felt that three articles and a newly-published thesis were enough to justify a position at a "first-rate university" instead of the job she was offered at an unnamed woman’s college. During the five years after returning from London, she thus accepted a series of temporary positions as statistical analyst for the Federal reserve in New York; as post-doctoral fellow on a grant from the S.S.R.C.; and as research assistant to W.I. Thomas. Eventually, career choices would lead to Yale’s Institute of Human Relations, a research post at Stockholm, a staff position on Myrdal’s study of race relations, and the Japanese-American relocation study. Whatever Thomas’s reasoning, these choices had consequences not unlike those for other women who found careers in the interstices of academia or in government agencies, reinforcing whatever social or psychological imperatives attracted her to a behavioral, quantitative sociology in the first place.


As the battle of methods in sociology heated up in the late 1920s--"statistics" and "case study" being principal contenders-- Dorothy Thomas was in the thick of it. On one side stood her mentor Ogburn, who after going to Chicago in 1927, became a leading proponent of a neo-positivistic, quantitative sociology. In the sociology of the future, he announced in a presidential address to the American Sociological Society in 1929, "everyone will be a statistician, that is, nearly everyone." Putting theory into practice, he published a path-breaking analysis of the Hoover-Smith presidential election that same year, using partial correlation coefficients to demonstrate that the urban vote, when other variables were controlled, actually went against Smith.

On the other side stood W.I. Thomas, author of the near-legendary "Methodological Note" in The Polish Peasant , widely-hailed for advocating a more subjective "life history" approach. Although their May-December union invites speculation, their relationship remains largely a closed book. When they met in 1926, nine years before they married, Dorothy was twenty-seven and W.I. sixty-three. Given the notoriety that attended his firing from the University of Chicago a decade earlier, his past cannot have been a secret to his young assistant. At the University of Chicago rumor had it that Thomas in his early years held quite conventional views concerning marriage and the family. But by about 1910, his views changed. "All off on the sex question," one graduate student quipped at the time. "He has read too much Bernard Shaw and not enough facts." In 1918 Thomas was arrested while registering in a Chicago hotel under an assumed name with a married woman, the wife of an officer in active service. The resulting scandal cast a pall over the rest of his career.

When the two began work on The Child in America, Dorothy was already questioning her earlier faith is statistics. At the L.S.E. she quickly realized that her inadequate mathematical background doomed any dream of being a "mathematical statistician." From the British statisticians, she had also learned that statistical measures were valuable only insofar as they were suited to the data being measured. Difficulties with an ambitious S.S.R.C. post-doctoral project brought her face to face, not only with problems in the data, but with her general deficiencies in the behavioral sciences. Criticisms of Social Aspects brought these points home.

In theory, the newly-allied Thomases would lick the platter clean. Indeed, in an article that appeared in the American Journal of Sociology six months before Ogburn’s A.S.S. address, Dorothy appeared to back away from her enthusiasm for statistics and to embrace "case study." "There is no magic in the use of statistical methods, " she wrote, adding "The greater part of the statistical work that has been done in the social sciences is. . . of little value." Statistics could "never completely exclude other methods of analysis," she continued, but should rather be considered a method for the "objective valuation" of data that has already been "mulled over." "The case study, for instance, must always keep several steps ahead of statistical analysis," which in turn must select factors for analysis based on "intimate knowledge of the total situation." "W.I. Thomas . . . convinced me of the importance of the ‘behavior document’ in social research, " she acknowledged years later, and of an approach that might be called ‘situational determination’ of behavior."

But Dorothy Thomas was not really prepared to make serious use of "life histories," let alone embrace "subjective" over "objective" data. For one thing, W.I. himself was in the process of abandoning the insights of his earlier work in favor of what colleagues viewed as a disturbing turn to behaviorism, a position toward which he had always been more favorably inclined than many disciples acknowledged. Dorothy , as the reference to "life histories" as "behavior documents" suggests, continued to view social action, not in terms of subjective values or desires, but of observable stimulus and response. (She later confessed that she had merely given "case studies" "verbal recognition"). By nature opposed to "theory," she also never addressed the problems of the subjective assumptions behind statistical analysis (what makes a correlation "significant? is correlation equivalent to "cause"? ) but rather appeared to assume that they could be overcome by redoubling her efforts to eliminate observer bias.

In Some New Techniques for Studying Social Behavior (1929), a study of nursery school age children she conducted and directed at Columbia Teacher’s College, she proposed techniques for collecting data concerning behavior within groups that could eventually be subject to statistical analysis. In practice, the method consisted of atomizing behavior to the smallest measurable elements (e.g. "looking around," "lying on back", "sucking finger") and classifying these as "social behavior acts," "material acts," "egoistic acts," and "passive egoistic acts." Thomas contrasted this approach with both "the sterile interest of the metaphysician" and an "empiricism" that was little more than "art. " It also differed from the efforts of the natural scientist or psychologist to create a "controlled experiment." Rather, it was "more important to control the observer than to control the experiment," she concluded. In Observational Studies of Social Behavior (1933), prepared at Yale’s Institute of Human Relations, she extended the approach to a kindergarten, a trade-school, and an adult industrial group, with a lengthy second section on "Observer Reliability."

Thomas’s "neutrality" again carried its own ideological baggage in assumptions rooted in her own background and shared with many contemporary neo-positivists. Daily experience or conventional wisdom were no longer adequate guides. Not only "metaphysics," but "empiricism" could not be trusted. The latter produced merely a "homely sort of experimentation" that handled "behavior ’problems’" as they arose with a success rate "so relatively slight as to lead to serious dissatisfaction." The ideal was behavior that combined material productivity and interaction with others. Although Thomas herself shied from drawing this conclusion (indeed, any conclusions), her student and New Haven housemate Ruth Arrington spelled out the lesson. "Those we would probably consider the best ‘adjusted’ [are those whose interests are evenly divided between people and things]," Arrington wrote." Those uninterested in either people or things "we are wont to diagnose as abnormal."

For some reviewers, Thomas’s single-minded focus on methodology and observer reliability was apparently enough, as they praised her "useful" work. But at least two found it wanting . New Techniques made points worth stating, conceded the Wisconsin sociologist Kimball Young--for example that standardized tests reflect in their scores emotional and social, as well as intellectual responses (as "students of social behavior have been saying for years"); and that a child’s "I cant’s" and "don’t knows" can have several different meanings. But on the whole, the book was not so much a study of child behavior "as methodological suggestions for child study." Observational Studies reminded another sociologist of one of his favorite plays, The Tavern, which repeatedly raised the question "What’s all the shooting about."

Thomas herself sensed the problem and later confessed that she felt she was "going down a blind alley, . . . essentially trying to quantify the ‘unquantifable’ by means of mechanistic, observational techniques, " a telling admission, since her charge six years earlier against previous research by others was that it "represented the measurement of the immeasurable." Fortunately, her marriage to W.I. Thomas in 1935, and the contacts in Sweden she and he had been cultivating for five years seemed to provide a way out. .


During the mature phase of her career, Thomas produced major studies at each of the three institutions with which she was associated: Research Memorandum on Migration Differentials (1938) and Social and Economic Aspects of Swedish Population Movements, 1750 -1933 (1941), while associated with the University of Stockholm; the Japanese relocation project at Berkeley; and a multi-volume study of Population Redistribution and Economic Growth: United States, 1870-1950 (1957-64) which she directed with economist Simon Kuznets at the University of Pennsylvania. The first two especially tested her ability to provide "objective" analysis of politically-charged, often emotionally wrenching material. Although ostensibly successful in this endeavor, she returned in the 1950s to the safer ground of demography.

The Thomases’ interest in Sweden began in 1929 in a meeting with Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, then on Rockefeller Fellowships in the United States. The two couples soon became close friends, Dorothy especially, since Gunnar was only a year older, and Alva less than two years younger than she (whereas Gunnar’s father was thirteen years younger than the senior Thomas). Invited to Sweden by the Myrdals in 1930, Thomas and Thomas returned regularly throughout most of the decade. There they met a number of prominent Swedish social scientists, among them Karl Arvid Edin, who had worked on an extensive project for the Swedish Emigration Commission in 1908-12, a study Dorothy would essentially update in her study of Swedish population movements. Their initial plan called for a study of Swedish migration to parallel W.I’s classic work The Polish Peasant (1919), one combining "case study" and "statistics. " When it failed to find funding, Dorothy devised the project as eventually published.

Population decline was an explosive issue in Sweden throughout the 1930s. Conservatives had long invoked low birthrates and declining population to advocate anti-contraception laws, to exert pressure to keep women from working outside the home, and to whip up nationalistic fears of immigration from "inferior" peoples. In Nazi Germany, pronatalists added their own sinister list of class, racial, and religious concerns to the debate. Sweden’s Social Democrats, led by the Myrdals, instead seized upon the issue to argue for national economic planning, full employment, income redistribution, and a restructuring of the family on the basis of the equality of the sexes and increased social responsibility.

When Dorothy Thomas began her formal affiliation with the University of Stockholm in 1936, the issue was at the center of political debate. The previous June, the Swedish government had appointed a Population Commission, with Gunnar Myrdal at its center. In its three years of existence the Commission recommended, and the Parliament approved, many of the reforms the Myrdals had advocated, although not radical income redistribution or measures aimed at restructuring the family. In the spring of 1938, however, the Swedish Prime Minister called for a "reform pause," leaving bills for free school meals and day-care centers stalled in Parliament. The same year, Myrdal turned to agricultural reform where his radical proposals for social engineering met a similar fate.

Readers of Thomas’s work might have expected some attention to these controversies. She had in a sense "inherited" the study of the impact of industrialization on population movement from Myrdal whose interest in the issue grew directly from his politics, specifically his view that urban Swedes suffered from a "cultural lag" (Ogburn’s phase) and continued to apply rural values in an urban setting. Thomas’s conclusion that "pull" was a greater factor than "push" in migration, not only in overseas emigration but within Sweden, suggested that a vital economy at home could provide one answer to population decline through outward migration.

But neither of Thomas’s studies contained a whisper of these concerns. Instead, the Research Memorandum focused narrowly on the characteristics that distinguished "migrants" from the general population within the U.S., and differences from the English, Swedish, and Dutch experiences. The Swedish study, in turn, considered population movements over two centuries, not the birth rate or population decline per se. In both, Thomas assiduously avoided any conclusions that did not bear on research technique. Research Memorandum, a work commissioned by the S.S.R.C., combined refinements of the well-known ("there is an excess of adolescents and young adults among migrants" ) with a seemingly endless list of inconclusive findings and issues requiring more study. Aside from reaffirming her earlier conclusion that "pull" was more important than "push," the Swedish study sidestepped substantive issues, instead reveling in the opportunity to use a "two country model" more satisfactorily than she had in her study of British data. The "lavish use of charts"--culminating in a 65 page appendix consisting entirely of columns of numbers --were not "mere illustrations" but "an essential part of the whole analysis," she assured readers.

A brief introduction to the Research Memorandum again revealed Thomas’s underlying agenda. Although American investigators had showed a growing interest in migration, it was typically fueled by "problems," initially immigration from Europe and African-American migration from the South. Once stringent application of restrictive immigration legislation had relegated the issue to "history rather than sociology" (an assumption that many immigrant groups would hardly share) sociologists shifted attention in the 1930s to the declining birth rate, to populations "stranded" on the land by the Depression, and to "the masses of the unemployed in the cities." All suffered from "a lack of knowledge of migrations and migrants under less extreme conditions," she continued. Accordingly, she equated problem-oriented study with work that "was more speculative than scientific." A study of internal migration was needed precisely because it represented the "normal" rather than the exceptional. At a time of domestic crisis and international turmoil, that is, Thomas deliberately opted for the "normal" over the controversial.

Reviewers responded much as they had to her earlier work. Those who liked the Swedish population study praised her "substantial research contribution," her "fact-laden study" and her "listing of basic data." Those who did not, found her charts and graphs "exhaustive. . .not to say exhausting." "To too great an extent," this reviewer continued, "the 92 tables, the 70 charts, together with the text, demonstrate the obvious." None mentioned the study’s political or policy implications. An original plan to have Myrdal write an "extensive Introduction" was abandoned, allegedly "because of the breakdown of communications occasioned by the war." Although Thomas’s friendship with Myrdal continued, she had again effectively anesthetized a vital public issue.


The relocation of more than 120,000 West Coast Japanese-Americans raised even more explosive political and human issues. Branded "enemy aliens" immediately after Pearl Harbor, more than 2000 Americans of Japanese descent were arrested by February and "prohibited" military zones established. In March, exclusion became a plan for detention, to be supervised by the federal War Relocation Authority (WRA). Within months, ten centers were in operation, including one at Tule Lake, on an agricultural plain 350 miles from Berkeley. In February 1943, a plan to register "loyal" detainees for eventual relocation elsewhere in the U.S. (as well as military service) spurred outbreaks of protest and violence, especially at Tule which became a center for so-called "disloyals" who chose segregation over relocation. The Spoilage was essentially a study of some 18,000 Tule "disloyals, " a significant number of whom eventually renounced their U.S. citizenship. The Salvage examined those who were allowed to leave the detention camps for work elsewhere.

Now at Berkeley, Thomas conceived of the Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS) in early 1942, probably inspired by studies two of her Nisei students undertook of Japanese-Americans in the Berkeley area immediate after Pearl Harbor. Initially, the project was to be multidisciplinary, involving Berkeley colleagues in economics, anthropology, political science, and social welfare. In March 1942, Thomas obtained a promise of full cooperation from Milton S. Eisenhower, Director of the WRA. Lavish funding from the Rockefeller and other foundations exceeded $100,000.

Unpredicted developments, however, played a large part in shaping the results. The departure of her male colleagues for war-related service left Thomas in sole charge of ten student field workers, five of them Japanese-American Berkeley undergraduates. The rest (four of them non-Japanese ) were still in graduate school , and only one (Frank Miyamoto from the University of Chicago) had passed his prelims. An additional graduate student in anthropology (Rosalie Hankey Wax) joined the project in 1943, providing most of the field reports used in The Spoilage.

Although Thomas at first conceived her role in rather narrow terms of measuring differential responses to "forced migration," she found herself supervising field workers in different disciplines, each with their own ambitions and agendas. Although the plan called for a third volume, "the residue, " on evacuees who remained in the camps throughout the war, the outcome was two "official" volumes, an unauthorized and controversial political study by field worker Morton Grodzins, and a response to it which Thomas helped commission but played no part in writing.

Decades later, debate continues over both Thomas’s role and the project itself. Issues include (1) the selection of Tule as the major site to be studied (and hence an emphasis on the "disloyals" aggravated by Thomas’s alleged preference for recording sensational events) coupled with the negative connotations of the terms "spoilage " and "salvage"; (2) her direction of student field workers and role in discouraging or repressing "unauthorized" publication of their findings; and (3) her apparent neutrality in face of a monumental injustice, coupled with an ignorance of the history and culture of Japanese-Americans. In each case, unexpected and unavoidable developments played a significant role. But each also shed important light on Thomas’s sociology and the strengths and weaknesses of her study.

Although the fate and reputation of the Tule "disloyals" later became an emotional issue among Japanese-Americans, Thomas’s decision to focus on the camp was probably accidental: it was simply nearest to Berkeley at a time when communications made contact with researchers difficult at best. Nor was Thomas driven by a desire for the "sensational" in choosing to focus on the dramatic events that occurred in the wake of the registration drive, as researcher Frank Miyamoto has convincingly argued. Throughout her career Thomas’s work focused on the "normal" rather than the sensational, making such a departure uncharacteristic. Her use of the term "disloyal" (always in quotes) was intended to distance her analysis from the popular passions that gave the term common currency. "Spoilage" and "salvage," terms adopted although not coined by Thomas, expressed her underlying conviction that the "normal" process in migration was adjustment and assimilation. Rather, she chose Tule because, as the center for those evacuees who deliberately chose segregation, it provided an ideal opportunity for the statistical study she favored.

Circumstances also accounted for some of the most-criticized aspects of Thomas’s treatment of student field workers. As "participant observers" and detainees, the Japanese-Americans found professional detachment difficult if not impossible. This uneasiness probably informed demands that Thomas provide more "theoretical" guidance, although what was meant by "theory" was never clear. Fearful of being branded informers, field workers adopted unusual strategies, often unable to take notes in public or to ask direct questions. Tensions also developed between Thomas and the WRA, which demanded access to all field notes, leading her to restrict access to JERS staff. These circumstances together produced a need for anonymity and a climate of secrecy that carried over into the postwar years, explaining in part Thomas’s seemingly inadequate acknowledgment of her student co-workers, as well as her attempted suppression of separate publication of their findings.

Although space does not allow detailed discussion of these conflicts, Thomas’s neo-positivistic conception of social science was a major factor, as Miyamoto has also argued at length. In rejecting Morton Grodzins’ thesis for publication at Berkeley, and opposing its publication at Chicago even when the war was over, Thomas was technically correct that JERS "owned" his data on a narrow reading of the terms of the project, even though he wrote the thesis on his own time. She may also have been right that his indictment of California politicians and pressure groups was more propagandistic than scholarly, even though three distinguished readers at Chicago recommended publication. But her sharp exchanges with Grodzins, whose work she earlier supported, and her intervention in the Chicago situation in a manner that even her supporters later judged to have been unreasonable, suggests that Thomas was acting upon her own emotional commitments to scholarly detachment, and antipathy toward any work that took a position on political issues, in this instance possibly reinforced by fear of offending California powers that supported her state university.

A congenital distaste for "theory" also led her to lecture dissident researchers regarding their "immaturity" and on the perils of "unrealistic and fanciful theories," a phrase that directly echoed Ogburn’s 1929 address to the A.S.S. With regard to such theories, she wrote, "sociologists were perhaps the worst offenders of all." Her antipathy to theory also figured in the non-publication of "The Residue," a work to have been based on the field work of James M. Sakoda at a camp named Mindoka. Although Sakoda later completed a doctoral thesis in social psychology on the subject, Thomas refused to have it published unless he omitted a section on theory, which he declined to do.

The detachment that troubled some reviewers, although rooted in Thomas’s lifelong commitment to objectivity, was also reinforced by the policies of the funding agencies, as suggested by her initial application. The proposed study of "enforced migration" promised a pay-off, not for the Japanese victims, but for dealing with dislocated populations in post-war Europe. JERS, Thomas noted in a sentence that would be the kiss of death if written half a century later, "is in no way connected with the interests of the [Berkeley] administration or of individual faculty members in the welfare of the Japanese group as a whole or of the students of Japanese ancestry." "To say that it should have been [in the interests of Japanese Americans] is to engage in wishful thinking," a surviving evacuee later remarked; "to criticize if for not having been is to be naive."

In Thomas’s neo-positivist model, circumstances within the camps were the "situation," protest and other reactions the "behavior." Missing from this formula was any sense of the prewar history of the different factions within the camps. Thomas’s careful tabulations revealed certain characteristics among segragants compared with outmigrants: Japanese-born more than second or third generation, Buddhists more than Christians, farmers more than urban dwellers, and so on. This ahistorical analysis, as Miyamoto again has noted, supported repeated assertions that the degree of assimilation was crucial, whereas examination of the prewar experiences of the different groups would have revealed that the critical factor was quite different experiences with discrimination and segregation.

Despite the extensive collection of "life histories" in The Salvage, Thomas also remained , in the words of one associate, "uncomfortable with field data which dealt with behavior, attitudes, and values. " Ironically, the inspiration for the "life histories " collected by Charles Kikuchi for the second volume came from W.I., who by early 1943 had persuaded his wife to give them more prominence. Ironically too, Kikuchi’s work later seemed to one sociologist to anticipate certain aspects of feminist theory regarding "life histories," although without the emphasis on the political nature of personal experience. In any case, the publication verbatim of fifteen of Kikuchi’s life histories in The Salvage , with no analysis, left a gap within the book that Dorothy was again unable to bridge.

For all the problems of conception and execution, JERS in many ways succeeded in spite of itself. Thomas’s detailed account of evacuation and detention not only provided an extraordinarily detailed framework for later studies but underlined the immense injustice all the more for its sober detachment--a point several reviewers made in one form or other, and one ratified when the Supreme Court years later cited the volumes as evidence of "our crimes against our fellow Americans." Thomas’s statistical analyses of differential reactions to the "loyalty" program provided an example of her work at its best. The unedited "life histories " and reams of still-unprocessed field notes remain probably the best sources for understanding the evacuation experience, making a good case for the value of Thomas’s "vacuum cleaner" approach to gathering data.

With the evacuation study completed, at least two other developments in the late 1940s compounded the strain of Grodzins affair and other problems associated with the project . One was Thomas’s effective exclusion from a newly-created department of sociology at Berkeley. A second was her husband’s death on 1947. Although she characteristically left no record of her feelings about either event, they may together account for her decision to return to the relative safety of her first intellectual love--a study of the relation of population and migration to the business cycle. Coupled with the move to the University of Pennsylvania in 1948, this decision in effect meant a retreat from sociology.


Although Thomas worked on the population project from 1952 until a stroke incapacitated her in 1974, her contributions to the three published volumes are difficult to measure precisely. As co-director with economist Simon Kuznets, she presumably planned and coordinated the contributions of the other authors. She also wrote a brief methodological introduction to the second volume, and a relatively brief (47 pp.) analysis of "Temporal and Spatial Relations between Migration and Economic Opportunities" for the third. She also had the task of providing the "conclusions" which, as reviewers of the earlier volumes noted, would be proof of the pudding for the entire project. But her five-point summary, covering less than a page, was bare-bones even by Thomas standards: over seven decades U.S. internal migration responded "positively" to swings in levels of economic activity, with some variations by age and race-- both "push" and "pull" having greatest impact on "Negroes."

Although reviewers praised the Kuznets-Thomas project, marveling especially at the man-hours involved, sociologists were not quite sure what to make of it, even though Ogburn, in a review of one of Kuznet’s earlier books, had urged the value of such work. Although the three major sociological journals reviewed the first two volumes, only Social Forces covered the third to which Thomas directly contributed. Sociologists and demographers continued to cite Thomas’s work--demographers especially--but none apparently made later use of her contribution.


In a game of "what ifs," one can imagine a different Dorothy Thomas. How more challenging her work might have been had she been bolder in questioning the theories of Wesley Mitchell, Ogburn, and W.I. Thomas. How much richer and more valuable by later standards might The Spoilage and The Salvage have been had circumstances and disposition made her more interested in interior lives of evacuees. How much more might Population Redistribution have contributed to the debates of the 1960s and 1970s had she explored the "life histories" of non-whites caught in the "push" and "pull" of economic change rather than taking refuge in charts and graphs. How much more likely these outcomes had she had more extensive training in social theory, a keener appreciation of history, or the benefit of female networks and feminist theory.

Such speculation, however, does not alter the reality that Thomas was a product of her times, shaped by many of the same forces that molded male contemporaries, especially those in the neo-positivist camp within sociology. As such, her work shared the liabilities of a brand of sociological objectivism which many sociologists later judged an especially sterile chapter in the history of the discipline, even by those who applaud its legacy of quantification.

At the same time, her overall contributions to social science were not insubstantial. With Ogburn, Stuart Rice, and younger sociologists such as Read Bain and George Lundberg, Thomas helped break the grip of the armchair theorizing and uncritical do-goodism that characterized much pre-1914 sociology, and in the process helped establish a permanent place for sociology in American universities, significant foundation support, and a beachhead for women who would enter the discipline the 1960s. Although this younger generation would question assumptions concerning "normality," "adjustment" and "expertise" implicit her neo-positivist program, as well her "value-free" creed, Thomas’s considerable influence on studies of the business cycle, on demography, and even on immigration history--not to mention the accomplishment of The Spoilage and The Salvage-- set a scholarly standard that transcends generations.

Although Thomas was not immune from prevailing gender stereotypes and conventions, overt sexual discrimination played a relatively minor part in this outcome. Whatever her resentments against a deserting father and taunting uncle, she repeatedly gained help and inspiration from males who were forthcoming with assistance and support. Her suggestion that her sex barred her from a university position upon her return from England (an implication that may or may not have been intended in a passing reference to her refusal to accept a job at a woman’s college ) must be weighed against quite plausible reasons a twenty-five year old with an overseas degree only tangentially related to "sociology" might have encountered such difficulties regardless of sex. Although sexist stereotypes may have figured in Chicago’s handling of the Grodzins affair and her exclusion from Berkeley’s sociology department (as two commentators have suggested, albeit tentatively) it is equally probable that the chief issues in both cases were competing visions of sociology.

But being a woman probably did make a difference in more subtle ways, not all to her advantage. One thread among many, gender arguably intensified experiences that affected Thomas and male neo-positivist colleagues alike, in her case including a socially marginal childhood, psychological vulnerability to a father’s desertion, the desire of every "good student" to please, and perfectionism in the quest for "observer neutrality." On top of all this, 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.