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Thomas Theorem

Thomas Theorem

Author: Paul Hannan

Identify the theorists and ideas behind the Thomas theorem and ethnomethodology.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain, Images from, Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology-- Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on the Thomas theorem. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop, rewind, or even fast forward to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.

So today is a pretty brief tutorial looking at the Thomas theorem. Let's figure out what it is.

Now, the Thomas theorem really comes out of ethnomethodology. And ethnomethodology is really just a type of branch of sociology. And what they're really looking at is they're looking at how people in society create meaning and reality. So they're looking at the process of how meaning gets created, and how meaning gets changed, and what people think is real, and how that reality might change, and what situations are going to cause those changes. That's ethnomethodology.

So the Thomas theorem is part of that general idea. And what it is is it's expanding on that theory in a different kind of way. So the Thomas theorem, as it says on the screen there, it's sociology sees reality as flexible. But reality is truly real in its consequences.

So let's break that down. What exactly does that mean? So as you've learned about sociology, you've seen that a lot of things, sociologists don't say, yep, this is the hard and fast truth about something. Meaning itself, there's a whole branch of-- that we just learned about-- a whole branch of sociology that looks at how meaning is constructed.

And what is real to someone else might not exactly be real to someone else. And so reality is always flexible. And it can change amongst individuals, or as time changes, or as a situation changes. Reality itself, what is defined as real, changes.

But what the Thomas theory is saying-- it's really adding on that-- saying that even though reality is flexible, even though it can change, it's really real. It actually is real the way we think of the word "real," like traditionally, outside of sociology, in its consequences.

So people act on their understanding of the world. And that includes when they're right, and when there's a misunderstanding, or two different perspectives. But regardless of where that original thought for that action comes from, the consequences have a permanent effect, a real consequence on life. So even things that only exist in our minds have a huge effect on us.

Let me give you an example. There's the United States of America. Now, countries are something that don't actually exist. If you go up to the border of Canada, and you look there, there's not a physical line on the ground, in Mother Nature, that's, yep, Canada is different from the United States of America. These countries are something that is socially constructed. The difference there is socially constructed.

So we're zooming in on this hypothetical line that exists-- we know exists. But it really only exists in our mind. But it's socially constructed, and that's normal. And so there's the line there.

And here's an example of the Thomas theory in action. So you have this woman. And if she's born on one side of this invisible line, or the other side, there's going to be huge effect, a huge consequence of this, even though the reality, that line that divides Canada and the United States, doesn't actually exist in the world.

So let's say, for example, this woman is suffering from a really progressive, aggressive form of cancer. And it's eating away at their body. And in America, there is no treatment for this cancer. It's too far gone. But in Canada, there's a really experimental treatment that they're letting patients try in Canada.

Well, that invisible line, that kind of like flexible line that doesn't really exist, it's all socially constructed. And it can change exactly what we say is that line and how it works. Well, in this moment, the consequences of that line become hard, fast, of real consequence. Because what happens in this example here is that if she lives in America, because she can't get that experimental health treatment, she dies. That's a permanent consequence to this flexible reality. And if she lives in Canada, she can try this experimental form of cancer treatment. And she might live. So that's the theory-- the theorem in action there.

So today's take-away message. We just looked quickly at two different things today. We looked at ethnomethodology, which is an approach to sociology that looks at how society-- individuals in society create meaning. And society as a whole actually even creates meaning.

And we also looked at the Thomas theorem. And that is saying that even though sociology sees reality as flexible, this reality really is real. It's truly real in its consequences.

Well, that's it for this lesson. Good work. And hopefully you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon. Peace.

Terms to Know

Harold Garfinkel's term for the study of the way people come to understand the world and their surroundings.

Thomas Theorem

A theory named after W.I. Thomas and Dorothy Thomas that states: "situations defined as real, are real in their consequences."