The American Sociologist

, Volume 39, Issue 4, pp 217–258 | Cite as

The Polish Peasant in Oberlin and Chicago

The Intellectual Trajectory of W. I. Thomas


This paper examines the historical sources for W. I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki’s celebrated monograph on The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. It first characterizes the work itself, a monumental interpretive casebook of largely biographical material about individuals and groups. It then seeks the origins of these qualities, looking first at Thomas’s prior work, then at the personal influence of Florian Znaniecki and Robert Park. Since these sources do not sufficiently account for the unique qualities of the work, we then turn to three other important sources: 1) the casebook tradition in the social reform literature and beyond, 2) the psychiatric concept of the life history, and 3) the literary sources that Thomas had taught in his prior career as an English professor. We close by identifying the autobiographical roots of the work in Thomas’s own life history.


Chicago School Life History Casebook Literature Psychiatry Personality Social Change W. I. Thomas Adolf Meyer 



We would like to thank Andrew Hannah, Associate Registrar of the University of Chicago, for graciously allowing us to view the transcripts of early Chicago sociology PhDs. We would also like to thank Roland Baumann and his staff for their cordial welcome and assistance at the Oberlin College Archives. We also thank Andrew Harrison at the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution for helping us with the Adolf Meyer papers as well as the staffs of the Schlesinger and Houghton Libraries at Harvard University for their assistance with the Ethel Sturges Dummer and Richard S. Badger papers. We also thank the Rockefeller Archives Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY, USA and chief archivist Thomas Rosenbaum (now retired) for help with Thomas sources in RAC collections. Finally, we thank the staff of the University of Chicago’s Joseph Regenstein Library’s Special Collections Research Center, and particularly University Archivist Dan Maier, for research assistance covering many years and projects. All archival sources are cited in the form in which they are indexed by their holders, which of course varies from one institution to another. We regret the perhaps overwhelming nature of our primary documentation, but the fact is that most historiography of Thomas is based on legends, secondary sources, or primary sources read out of context. So we have tried to base this analysis entirely on critical readings of primary materials.


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© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of ChicagoChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Collegium HelveticumZurichSwitzerland

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