Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Dorothy Swaine Thomas received her undergraduate degree from Columbia University in 1922, and her doctorate from the University of London remarkably two years later. She worked as a researcher for the Federal Reserve Bank and Yale University, and briefly taught at Columbia's Teachers College. In 1939–40, Thomas joined the renowned Carnegie Foundation–funded study of African Americans led by the Swedish economist and sociologist, Gunnar Myrdal, that eventuated in Myrdal's landmark study, An American Dilemma (1944). Thomas married W. I. Thomas, one of the founders of the Chicago School of Sociology, and in 1940 took a position as professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Before her work on Japanese Americans during World War II, Thomas had no interest in Japanese Americans. Her research mainly involved the social aspect of the business cycle such as birth, death, marriage, divorce, crime, poverty, and so forth as statistical measures and consequences. She later turned to children and some of their social problems and programs directed at them. Just before the war, Thomas published a work on internal migration for the Social Science Research Council, and it was this study, along with another work on Swedish population movements, that framed her research on Japanese Americans.
Thomas organized the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS) in the spring of 1942 after receiving funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Columbia Foundation, the Giannini Foundation, and the University of California. She also secured the cooperation of Milton Eisenhower, director of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), to open the concentration camps to her field researchers. JERS employed University of California faculty from anthropology, social welfare, economics, and political science in various capacities, and hired University of California graduate students as field researchers.
JERS, Thomas wrote, was principally a study of “enforced mass migration” in which the usual push–pull forces of immigration were inoperable. She, accordingly, conceived of the “evacuation” as an “unselective outmigration enforced upon the Japanese population.” That phenomenon, she contended, had its counterpart in Europe where war forcibly displaced large numbers of people rendering them involuntary migrants, and the problems associated with their resettlement in areas other than their places of origin paralleled the resettlement of Japanese Americans away from their West Coast homes.
Faculty support of JERS soon dwindled due to wartime demands on their time, so Thomas had to take on sole leadership of the study for which she had little
training or knowledge. Her fieldworkers, all graduate students, looked to her for direction and leadership, but complained she failed to convey to them what they were supposed to be studying and noted that the overall project lacked theoretical rigor and orientation. Meanwhile, events transpired so quickly Thomas and her researchers had little time to reflect on the work and its plan; they improvised and reacted to activities around them.
Both subjects of her study, government policies and Japanese American internees, Thomas wrote, presented problems for JERS. Numerous government agencies shaped camp regulations, and these changed over time and in place, each camp administering the rules differently. Even the policies, she decried, were “often conflicting in purpose and application” and thus “multiple lines of contact had to be established and maintained.” The subjects of those government policies, Japanese American internees and their social adjustment and interaction, could not be studied in the usual way of surveys or questionnaires. They had to be interviewed and observed directly, leading to complications of trust between researchers and Japanese Americans, physical danger for the researchers, and questions over the validity of subject responses under extreme conditions of stress within the camps among an “insecure, increasingly resentful people” toward government imposed policies and the conditions of their detention (Thomas and Nishimoto, vi–vii).
Despite Thomas's lack of expertise on Japanese Americans and the concentration camps, her principal, coauthored work, The Spoilage (1946), and the JERS publications and archive set the intellectual framework for most of the studies that followed.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Thomas, Dorothy Swaine and Richard S. Nishimoto. The Spoilage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946.