Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Definition of the situation

core definition

Definition of the situation refers to the way people define the setting and context in which they are located before undertaking any action.

explanatory context

Definition of the situation refers to the idea, first proposed by W. I. Thomas in the early 1900s, that people act in given circumstances on the basis of the way that they define the situation they are in. The definition of a situation will depend on experience. Where individuals do not have the appropriate experience, or where that experience is called into question, then they have to work out anew what the situation means. This process of defining the situation, in complex circumstances, can be aided by having someone else provide a definition. This is precisely the role that some media analysts say that the mass media play in mass society.

analytical review

W.I.Thomas (1923) who developed the concept of definition of the situation 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 Crossman (2013):

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.


Bakker (2007) writes :

The term “definition of the situation” has come to signify the “Thomas theorem,” the idea expressed by W. I. Thomas as follows: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas & Thomas, 1928 : 571–2). That is, when the phrase is used, it usually carries with it the connotation of the whole theorem. However, the phrase “definition of the situation” predates Thomas's famous theorem. The more general conceptualization seems to be closely related to the concept of norms and culture. The interpretation of collective norms is important for all social action. It is only in certain situations where the agent chooses to redefine the norms. Park and Burgess (1921: 763–9) cite a Carnegie study (1919) where the term is used to discuss the topic of assimilation to American society, especially in terms of “Americanization”: “common participation in common activities implies a common ‘definition of the situation.’ In fact, every single act, and eventually all moral life, is dependent upon the definition of the situation. A definition of the situation precedes and limits any possible action, and a redefinition of the situation changes the character of the action.”

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary parpahrases Thomas and Thomas (1928) and defines the definition of the situation as:

The idea that if people define situations as real, then those definitions are real in their consequences. (Chicago School)

associated issues


related areas

See also


Researching the Real World Section


Bakker, J.I., 2007, Definition of the Situation, available at, accessed 16 January 2013, page not available 17 December 2016.

Crossman, A., 2013, 'Definition of the situation' available on the Sociology site at, accessed16 January 2013, updated 4 January 2018 and entitled 'Assessing a Situation, in Terms of Sociology' available 3 June 2019.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 17 December 2016.

Thomas, W.I., 1923, The Unadjusted Girl. Boston: Little, Brown . An excerpt can be found at, accesed 16 January 2013, still available 3 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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