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Thomas Theorem

Thomas Theorem

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson will explain the Thomas Theorem and define ethnomethodology.

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Thomas Theorem and Ethnomethodology

Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. I hope you're having a great day. Thanks for tuning in. We're going to be talking about something I really like. Really interesting theory, and it's simple, it's elegant, it's on the board, here. It's called the Thomas Theorem, which says that situations defined as real, are real in their consequences. Situations defined as real, are real in their consequences.

This seems intuitively easy to understand. So suppose you have a little kid, or you are a little kid, or just imagine a little kid out there believing in ghosts, or the boogeyman, underneath his bed. The kid is terrified of these things. It doesn't matter that they're not there, they're not real. But he thinks they are, and so that situation, then, is real in its consequences.

That fear that he's feeling, that boogeyman underneath his bed that's causing him to get up in the middle of the night and run into mom and dad's room, that's a real thing. Even though it doesn't matter that it's not real in reality, but situations defined as real, are real in their consequences. This is a simple illustration just meant to flesh out the Thomas Theorem, but it also applies to much more complex, more important, more consequential, more broader societal issues too, like race.

People of different races are no different biologically. But as a society, we've constructed notions of racial difference over the years. And even though our ideas about racial difference are social constructions, they have real consequences for people of color, in that their opportunities and life chances have been constrained for generations. And this has been really hard to overcome.

Or you can think about the politician who says that all poor people are lazy, and they're poor because they're lazy, and they don't want to work hard. This is probably, in most cases, not the reality. But because he thinks that, that's going to affect the policy he wants to make, which can have real world consequences. Doesn't want to cut all aid to poor people because they're just squandering it. Welfare Cadillac, welfare Queens, you know you've heard that stereotype before. So all of these things illustrate the Thomas Theorem, situations defined as real, are real in their consequences.

Let's turn, now, to Ethnomethodology, to an explication of Ethnomethodology. Harold Garfinkel gave us this idea, in the 1960s, and Garfinkel argued that we need to study the way in which people, themselves, make sense of their everyday surroundings. So this is done by recording, dissecting, and analyzing the underlying assumptions of everyday action in specific cultures and even in specific subcultures.

It's the researchers job to go out, and record, and understand how people use assumptions to make sense of their everyday world. Often we do this by thickly describing what we see, thick description social scientists call it. So it's not just John sat at the dinner table, picked up a spoon, and ate.

We'll you're going to say John walked a particular way to sit down at the dinner table. John's clothes were like this. The table was set like this. The spoon was on the right, and the fork was on the left. The plate was in front of him and he had two small plates there.

You're going to describe how the plates look. You're going to describe the tablecloth, if there was one. You'll describe the walls, the floors. You'll describe how people interacted etcetera, it can get, chchchchch, stupendously long. Just in every mundane interaction, but doing this helps us to see the underlying assumptions that help people make sense of their everyday surroundings.

Often a way to become cognizant of the constructed nature of social reality is when you disrupt patterns of interaction that people expect are supposed to be there. So when I ring someone up at my retail job, I follow our cultures assumptions about how these kind of interactions are supposed to go. OK, bring me the clothes. Hi, how are you doing today? Oh good, and you? Ah, good thanks. Did you find what you needed? Yes. Good. Have a great day. Thanks. Yeah, you too.

But what if I broke the rules? What if somebody came up. Hi, how are you doing? Good, and you? Well actually, I'm awful. I'm having digestive issues, my brother just went to jail, and my mom is a drunk. Like what is the person going to think? It will make them aware that we take for granted these cultural constructions of a retail transaction.

There's nothing natural about how that's social transaction is supposed to go, but we construct what, culturally, and we take that for granted. And Ethnomethodology, then, Garfinkel maintained is good because it helps us become cognizant of how social reality is created, and constructed, and the assumptions that underpin that reality. Have a great rest of your day. I hope you enjoyed this introduction to Ethnomethodology and the Thomas Theorum.

  • Thomas Theorem

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

  • Ethnomethodology

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