Sociology Index -

DEFINING THE SITUATION

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 W. I. Thomas (1863-1947).

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.

W. I. 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 or the group 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. First, there are "the objective conditions under which the individual or society has to act, that is, the totality of values . . . which at the given moment affect directly or indirectly the conscious states of the individual or the group."

Second, there are the pre-existing attitudes of the individual or of the group which at the given moment have an actual influence upon his behavior. Third, the definition of the situation, that is, "the more or less clear conception of the conditions and consciousness of attitudes."- The Polish Peasant.

In this explanation it will be noticed that 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, what values if any function in it for him, in short, what meanings does it have for him. "It is these meanings which determine the individual's behavior."- The Polish Peasant.

Thomas summarizes the functional and processual 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. Further, this decision is preceded by a definition of the situation, that is to say, an interpretation or point of view, and eventually a policy and a behavior pattern." - Primitive Behavior (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1937). 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 - As we see, this essentially methodological observation draws upon the basic substantive concept of "defining the situation" - jstor.org

The interpretation of the situation involves aspects of social-cognitive, moral, and ego functioning. As Denzin (1980) 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.