Defining the situation refers to the process through which humans go when trying to comprehend the social situations in which they find themselves and deciding on what values and norms are relevant in guiding social interaction. The term 'defining the situation' was first used by William Isaac Thomas who among leading American sociologists.
If one contrasts macro-structural studies and symbolic interactionism, the concept of 'defining the situation' is associated with symbolic interactionism. The structural view in 'defining the situation' tends rather to focus on the situation individuals are in, not on their definition of the situation.
William Isaac Thomas brought the concept of social situation to the center of social psychology. In 'defining the situation', the situation is the set of values and attitudes with which the individual has to deal in a process of activity and with regard to which this activity is planned and its results appreciated.
The situation includes three varieties of data. One, there are "the objective conditions under which the individual or society has to act, which at the given moment affect directly or indirectly the conscious states of the individual or the group. Two, there are the pre-existing attitudes of the individual which at the given moment have an actual influence upon his behavior. Three, the clear conception of the conditions and consciousness of attitudes.
The definition of the situation is very important. To understand a person's behavior in any situation it is necessary to know how he defines the situation, that is, what attitudes does it arouse in him and what meanings does it have for him.
William Isaac Thomas summarizes the functional aspects of defining the situation as follows: An adjustive effort of any kind is preceded by a decision to act or not act along a given line. Thus, the definition of the situation is seen to play a vital role in every human decision involving interpersonal relationships.
The Thomas Theorem and the Matthew
Effect, the phenomenon where "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer", an
essentially methodological observation draws upon the basic substantive concept of
"defining the situation."
Denzin has pointed out in response to the over-cognitive conception of man in symbolic interactionism, the process of defining the situation involves interpretations based on intense feelings as well as on deliberate cognitive interpretations.