Society & Us

Society & Us: Definition of the Situation

The concept, first developed by American sociologist William Isaac Thomas and Polish philosopher and sociologist Florian Znaniecki in The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-20), refers to the idea that people’s actions are shaped more by the subjective meaning they attribute to their situation than by the purely objective aspects of the situation.

Individuals construct the meaning of a situation on the basis of their experiences, needs and wishes, and also on the basis of the customs and beliefs of their social group.


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The Polish peasants in Europe and America had emigrated from Poland during times of crisis and had to cope with the stress of losing the home they had always known and of adapting to an altogether different world. So for the authors they offered a natural group whose ‘definition of the situation’ had changed, and whose need to define a new situation into which they could fit was essential.

Thomas and Znaniecki describe the older people as managing the change, and the younger people as a group more likely to fall into deviance. They attributed this to social disorganization.

According to them, the older people were able to call on the rituals and structural contexts that they brought with them. But the young people were still in the process of being socialized, and the structural context in which the older people were wont to socialize them no longer existed in these urban European and American contexts. The process of socialization to old country ideals and patterns thus broke down when the situation was redefined to one that did not fit into the earlier set of norms.

In his highly acclaimed work, The Unadjusted Girl (1923), Thomas wrote:

“Preliminary to any self-determined act of behavior there is always a stage of examination and deliberation which we may call the definition of the situation. And actually not only concrete acts are dependent on the definition of the situation, but gradually a whole life-policy and the personality of the individual himself follow from a series of such definitions.”

According to Ashley Crossman, the definition of the situation is what people use to know what is expected of them and what is expected of others in a situation. Through the definition of the situation, people obtain a sense of the statuses and roles of those involved in the situation so that they know how to behave.

Author: Stuti Das, India

Click to access the other articles in the “Society & Us” series: 

Society & Us: Sex, Gender, & Sexuality

Society & Us: Labeling Theory

Society & Us: McDonaldization


  • Scott, John, and Gordon Marshall. A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
  • Curran, Jeanne, and Susan R. Takata. “Florian Znaniecki.” Florian Znaniecki. University of Wisconsin, 14 Oct. 2001. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.
  • Harvey, Lee. “Definition of the Situation.” Social Research Glossary. Quality Research International, 26 Jan. 2016. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.
  • Thomas, W. I. “Definition of the Situation.” Sociosite. University of Amsterdam, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.
  • Crossman, Ashley. “Definition Of The Situation.” Education. About, Inc., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.

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