A Museum of Scientific Pathology: Poland’s Most Influential Sociologists
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default, Staszic Palace, the building of the Polish Academy of Sciences, photo: Andrzej Bogacz / Forum, center, #000000, palac-staszica-fot-andrzej-bogacz-forum-0431140027.jpg
Sociology is a thriving discipline in today’s Poland. Scholars from numerous universities have scrutinised their society very closely over the years and many Polish social scientists have made great contributions not only to their field, but to Polish culture and politics as well. Culture.pl presents some of the people that helped Polish sociology achieve its international renown and its impressive academic position.
Józef Supiński (1804-1890)
Józef Supiński did not exactly call himself a sociologist since he was more interested in political economy as well as more practical matters of organic work and other positivist ideas aimed at improving the lot of his compatriots. However, his attempts at determining the best economic programme for 19th-century Poland did bring him to publish in 1860 what is commonly agreed to be the first Polish book on sociology: Myśl Ogólna Fizjologii Powszechnej (The General Though of Universal Physiology).
In this volume, which can be seen as an attempt to bring the ideas of August Comte to Poland, Supiński tried to pinpoint the laws governing Polish society which in his view were akin to laws of nature. Their knowledge should help people organise social relations and work together for the progress of humankind. Despite the work’s relative lack of originality, it proved quite influential by popularising ideas of positivism and organic work which had great importance for Polish culture in the second half of the 19th century.
Ludwik Gumplowicz (1838-1909)
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Working as a professor at the University of Graz, Ludwik Gumplowicz wrote his works in German and he left a lasting mark on the language: his Grundriss der Soziologie (The Outline of Sociology) published in 1885 was the first German book with the word ‘sociology’ in its title. But Gumplowicz’s contributions were quite revolutionary not only on the level of linguistics. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not believe that social science should occupy itself with ‘the society’ or ‘the nation’ and treat it as an independently existing organism subject to specific laws.
Gumplowicz still believed that social relations were governed by discoverable laws, but he argued that those laws should be studied without any presuppositions (such as those about the organic nature of the society). In his view, careful observation would demonstrate that people are divided into distinct groups which enter into conflicts with each other and these conflicts motivate social life as we know it. However, while antagonisms are an essential part of society, Gumplowicz argued that they are not all there is to it. He believed that the existence of the state creates shared interests for the rival groups and consequently gives them reason to cooperate and develop bonds of solidarity. For Gumplowicz, social life plays out as groups interchangeably come together and come into conflict.
Bolesław Limanowski (1835-1935)
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Bolesław Limanowski was, in many aspects, the opposite of Gumplowicz. He wrote in Polish, was never affiliated with any university and believed that the proper object of sociological study is the nation understood as an organism – the highest form of social organisation which in Limanowski’s view had some psychological, or even spiritual, unifying substance which made it distinct from mere biological organisms.
But the biggest difference between them lay in how they understood the goal of sociology. Whereas Gumplowicz believed his field should only occupy itself with creating knowledge, Limanowski saw social science as a means of progress – the goal was not just to learn how things are in society but to discern a uniform plan of development of human societies, which could advance towards the equality of all people and greater solidarity. Limanowski consequently declared himself a socialist (interestingly, he criticised Marxists for ignoring the ‘spiritual’ element pervading reality) and became involved politically. Today, he is best remembered for his involvement in the independence movement and for his three terms as a senator of Poland between 1922 and 1935. Even if his sociological work is now relatively little known, his influence lastingly connected Polish social science with left-leaning, emancipatory political ideas.
Ludwik Krzywicki (1859-1941)
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Speaking of left-leaning sociologists, Ludwik Krzywicki was one of the most influential Polish Marxists of his time and his ideas had a great impact on future generations of social scientists (another important sociologist from this school, Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz, died too early to leave more than some promising theoretical work). As a Marxist, he was mostly interested in the idea of social progress and mechanisms that enable or constrain it, but he went much further than simply analysing the material conditions of particular societies – Krzywicki’s arguably greatest contribution lay in his insistence in emphasising the importance of ideas.
In his view, the productive forces existing in the society develop in a haphazard manner and to some extent determine the shape of social relations – as new tools and methods of organisation of labour arise, society changes in order to accommodate them and make best use of them. But Krzywicki was more interested in how this material substance is met by the culture, legal system, shared goals and ethics of a society. His works present a compelling analysis of how ideas are created, how they travel across time, space and societies and how they influence social change alongside material innovations.
Leon Petrażycki (1867-1931)
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Leon Petrażycki’s involvement with sociology could be summarised by his opinion that the field ‘represents something akin to a museum of scientific pathology’, but his scholarly contributions have had a great impact on Polish social science. As a lawyer by education, he was well familiar with all the contemporary codes, but he believed that those legal documents only spoke of what the law should be. The question that interested him was how the law existed in the lives of people. As such, he is widely considered as a sociologist of law.
He believed, that law does not rally function as a set of written norms, but as a certain emotion which is experienced by people who feel a sense of obligation on the one hand, and of a right on the other. Consequently, even if law can also exist in the form of statues, codes or prohibitions, Petrażycki’s social studies examined whether the duties and rights written down in legal documents are actually felt by people in their everyday life. After all, what good would be a law that exists on paper, but not in people’s consciousness?
Florian Znaniecki (1882-1958)
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There are few people who can boast about revolutionising an entire field and Florian Znaniecki was certainly one of them. He believed that social science cannot simply follow the methods of natural science and study societies from the perspective of an independent observer. Znaniecki believed that social structures are elements of culture and, as such, they are co-created by specific people and, consequently, in order to fully understand a society, sociologists need to examine the perspective of its members. To further this methodological goal, Znaniecki advocated for the study of personal documents such as letters and diaries, which in his eyes were the best way to understand how others see the social reality that is the subject of study.
Although many more of his ideas left a lasting influence on social science (and philosophy as well!), Znaniecki is best remembered for his monumental work The Polish Peasant in Europe and America co-written with William I. Thomas. Consisting of over 2,000 pages, his study is a detailed examination of Polish immigrants and a great example of Znaniecki’s method of analysing personal accounts – by discussing the individual perspectives of their study subjects, Znaniecki and Thomas argued that over time, Polish immigrants in the United States did not simply assimilate, but developed a new, distinct identity that is a unique mix of Americanness and Polish elements adopted to the new social circumstances.
Stanisław Ossowski (1897-1963) & Maria Ossowska (1896-1974)
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50th anniversary of professor Maria Ossowska's scientific career, meeting in the representational Mirror Room in the Staszic Palace, Warsaw, 1966, photo: Marek Zurn / Forum
Although the names of Stanisław Ossowski and Maria Ossowska might not be as internationally recognisable as those of the previous and the next sociologist on this list, this married couple deserve recognition as their books provide great insight into the societies of their time. Stanisław analysed social bonds and their connection to the beliefs and convictions shared by members of society, while Maria studied how moral norms exist in the social consciousness and how they manifest themselves in particular groups. But what is more important, they were at the forefront of re-establishing sociology as an academic discipline in Poland.
Despite briefly thriving as an academic discipline and university major in the first years following World War II, sociology quickly came under close scrutiny of the communist authorities for not sticking to the party line completely. Consequently, freshly established sociology departments were disbanded and some professors, like the Ossowskis, were even banned from teaching altogether. Everything changed after the death of Stalin in 1953 and the ensuing political thaw. The late 1950s saw the reopening of sociology programmes and cathedrals, the creation of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the restitution of the Polish Sociological Association and the Ossowskis were at the forefront of the movement to restore social science to its rightful place. The Ossowskis’ skills as academic teachers should be highlighted here in particular, as they had enormous influence over future generations of Polish social scientists.
Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017)
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Zygmunt Bauman is the only sociologist on this list that could challenge Znaniecki for the title of most influential Polish social scientist. Whereas Znaniecki is widely recognised for his methodological contributions and empirical studies, Bauman established himself as a sharp observer of contemporary societies and one of the most quoted scholars in today’s humanities. He is most known for his analyses of modernity and postmodernity, a term which he helped popularise.
In Bauman’s view, the contemporary world is characterised by increasing decentralisation and the rising influence of international capital, which flows freely across borders and cultures. He believed that today’s reality has a ‘liquid’ character which manifests itself in constant changes – people no longer have fixed positions in the world, but change social and geographical positions as modern nomads who are no longer bound to traditional social structures and are required to take responsibility for creating their own way of life. For some, this can mean greater freedom to choose their desired way of life, but others may perceive it as a constant state of uncertainty.
Written by Michał Wieczorek, Sept 2020
Sources: Jerzy Szacki ed., ‘Sto Lat Socjologii Polskiej’ (One Hundred Years of Polish Sociology), 1995; Marta Bucholc, ‘Sociology In Poland: To Be Continued?’, 2016