The Thomas theorem or the price of consequences

When a group ill defines a situation, it becomes real and dangerous in its consequences. How can we apply the theorem to issues that range from public health to geopolitics?

In early days of American sociology, W. I. and Dorothy Thomas formulated a theorem that made them famous and from which we can still profit to understand many social phenomena.

The theorem says, “If people define a situation as real, it becomes real in its consequences.” Through this theorem, the Thomas made us realize the ability a group has to turn into real situations that people suppose are real, by adjusting their behavior to such situation. In particular, the authors stated their theorem in the context of their studies on deviance and social stigma[1].

The best-known illustration of the theorem is that of a run on the banks. A group of depositors fears that the bank where they have their deposits might be undergoing bankruptcy, even if this is not true. In consequence, everybody demands at the same time the return of their entire deposits. The bank cannot return everybody their monies because, as every bank, it has allocated them in loans and investments. Thus, the bank files for bankruptcy “confirming” in the facts the initial assumption. This is the classic case, quoted many times of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are two ways of analyzing this case: one, in terms of causes and another, by its effects. The first one is about researching for the motives that led people to assume a reality that is not such. The other one is the analysis of the consequences of such collective assumption, which in some cases turns the wrong assumption into reality. In other words, the first one is a historical (or causal) investigation; the second one is a functional analysis. That is how the Thomas theorem stimulated the spread of functionalism in sociology, which has a much more productive trajectory than what its critics accused it of at one time. Without falling into pedantry, I will give some examples.

At the end of the XIXth century, French sociologist Emile Durkheim, reviewing the state of anthropology at that time, stated that religious beliefs are important in a group’s life not for being “true” but because they contribute to building social organization and maintaining group solidarity. Thus, many social practices can be found that persist over time because of their consequences, which the group or society as a whole consider beneficial or necessary, either consciously or unconsciously.

In other cases, the consequences of some beliefs are disastrous for the group and can even contribute to its own destruction. I will give a common example—that of some fishermen. It is frequent to note that a collectivity of commercial fishermen in a coastal marine environment thinks that each of them should compete against the rest in maximizing the volume of his/her catch and thus his/her profits. In pursuit of this individualistic ideology, they soon arrive at collectively producing such overfishing that the resource disappears and therefore there will be no more fish for anyone. The initial denial of the common interest leads to a collective tragedy. To avoid such outcome, the intervention of a regulatory entity external to the group—generally the State—becomes necessary.

At this point in the article, the reader might have realized that these examples can be applied to the reaction to and the management of the pandemic that is lashing populations around the globe. Each country acted with different measures of success and different errors in managing public health in the face of the pandemic. The initial definition of the situation and its consequences were determinants both of the (relative) control or (chaotic) lack of control of the pandemic. Moreover, the initial definition of the situation depended on two factors: on one side, the rationality and coherence of authorities in the communication of the risk to the public, and the trust in government and social discipline of the population, on the other. Where these two factors were combined and acted upon in the beginning, the results were positive (as in South Korea). At the other extreme, the initial definition of low risk, mixed with contradictory messages by the authorities and a fragmented social communication system, produced a true sanitary catastrophe (as in the United States). In these two extreme cases, the Thomas theorem applies in reverse—the consequences counteract the initial definition. The initial definition of a high existential risk produced a decrease in the risk. At the other extreme, the initial definition of low risk and less importance has as a consequence the explosion of the infection and a high number of victims that retrospectively could have been avoided. Today, this repeats itself in the microcosm of the White House, where the main actors, blinded by an obstinate ideology of social irresponsibility in the name of an ill-understood “freedom,” fell pray to their own definition of the situation, whose motivation had been political instead of scientific.

In addition, the reader might have noticed that individual freedom at any cost and ill-understood, leads to a series of collective catastrophes. The most extreme example of neoliberal ideology in this field is an expression by Margaret Thatcher in an interview in which she stated that “society does not exist. There are only individual men and women.” This initial denial of social solidarity and group existence does not make society magically disappear as such; rather it produces a sick and dysfunctional society, whose symptoms (equivalent to the neurotic symptoms produced by defense mechanisms in individual psychology) are visible everywhere today—urbi et orbi.

Finally, we can apply the theorem to the field of geopolitics. The well-known Thucydides trap, referred to the growing enmity between Sparta and Athens in ancient times, states, in the words of that classical historian, the following: “It was Athens’ rise and the fear it instilled in Sparta what made the war unavoidable.” In other words, when a new power defies another established one, conditions are created for a war to break out. Today, some apply the concept to the rivalry between the United States and China. However, many forget the fact that the “challenge” sometimes only exists in the jealous or fearful imagination of some politicians or opinion leaders in the established power—a definition that in itself is not necessarily right, but rather opportunistic, or the product of internal chaos in the establish power, which is eager to reintegrate itself by searching for an external enemy. This Syndrome exceeds the formulation of the “trap of Thucydides.” It is far better to apply the Thomas theorem to it.

In a recent essay, the political scientist Juan Tokatlian mentions a different geopolitical trap, formulated by the great Arab sociologist Ibn Kaldoun. Tokatlian says, “With other lenses, more attentive to domestic phenomena, Carla Norrlof from the University of Toronto examines the state and development of the rivalry between the United States and China through what she calls the “Ibn Khaldun’s trap.” The same author talks about Ibn Khaldun saying, “The key concept that guided his work was asabiyyah, which was translated as social cohesion, group solidarity, shared purpose or sense of belonging. This intense and fraternal bond leads to maximize performance and achievement but its absence lays the foundation for decline and decadence.” Aggression then follows.

To summarize: the internal polarization of a society makes those in power try to reestablish cohesion through external aggression. They search for an escapegoat in other societies, demonize another power, and thus create a casus belli.  Once again, the Thomas’ theorem is confirmed: a fiction fed by a political party becomes a sad reality.


[1] . Thomas, W.I., and D.S. Thomas. 1928. The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs. New York: Knopf.

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