A Mirror on the High Road

Chapters from the History of Social Research in Poland

by Antoni Sułek (Author)
©2019 Monographs 244 Pages


The book is a collection of articles and essays devoted to important studies conducted by Polish sociologists in the course of more than a hundred years. It displays not only the discipline’s scholarship but also the society studied, with its questions and problems, from the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century, from partition times through the interwar period to the Great Depression, and then from real socialism to the fall of communism and the systemic transformation toward democracy. In this sense, sociological research is Stendhal’s "mirror carried along a high road", where Polish society parades. The findings have been important sources for the social history of Poland.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 Tracing de Tocqueville: Ludwik Krzywicki’s 1893 Journey to “Modern” America
  • Ludwik Krzywicki – His Life, His Work
  • Itinerary – The Columbian Exposition
  • Journey to Modernity
  • In Institutions of Education and Self-Education
  • Field Researcher
  • An Observer of Immigrants
  • Repercussions and Consequences of the Journey
  • Ludwik Krzywicki – A Polish Observer of America
  • 2 Le Suicide in Poland: Analysis of the Spread and Reception of a Sociological Classic
  • Initial Reception
  • Le Suicide in Theoretical Debates of the Early Twentieth Century
  • A Little-Known Classic: The 1930s
  • After the War
  • Modern Studies of Suicide and the Case of Anomie
  • Conclusion
  • 3 The Marienthal 1931/1932 Study and Contemporary Studies on Unemployment in Poland
  • Introduction
  • Studies of Unemployment in Poland
  • Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal in Poland
  • The Fate of Research and Researchers
  • 4 “To America!” Polish Sociologists in the United States after 1956 and the Development of Empirical Sociology in Poland
  • Polish Sociologists in America Before the Second World War
  • Grand Opening of the Mid-1950s
  • Sociological Journeys in Search of the Method
  • Stimuli for Sub-Disciplines of Sociology
  • Marxist Empirical Sociology
  • General Observations
  • 5 Stefan Nowak’s “Students of Warsaw” and Other Studies on Social Attitudes by Members of Stanisław Ossowski’s Circle
  • “Students of Warsaw”
  • The Question
  • Data Collection
  • Analysis
  • Findings
  • Influence
  • Fate of the Study
  • Other Studies of Social Attitudes
  • Andrzej Malewski’s Research into Attitudes to Inequality
  • Irena Nowakowska’s Research into the Social Attitudes of Academics
  • Stefan Nowak’s Study on the Psychological Aspects of the Social Structure
  • Conclusion: Social Research as an Historical Source
  • 6 The Rise and Decline of Survey Sociology in Poland
  • The Birth and Bloom of Survey Sociology
  • Decline of Survey Sociology
  • 7 Serving Society or the Authorities? Public Opinion Research in the Last Decade of Communism
  • CBOS’s Beginnings
  • CBOS Research and Reports
  • The Political Functions of CBOS Research
  • CBOS Research and the Breakthrough of 1989
  • Conclusion
  • 8 Systemic Transformation and the Reliability of Survey Research: Evidence from Poland
  • The Institutionalization of Public Opinion Research
  • The Range of Freedom and the Reliability of Survey Research
  • Political Pluralism and the Reliability of Survey Research
  • Conclusions
  • 9 On the Unpredictability of Revolutions: Why did Polish Sociology Fail to Forecast Solidarity?
  • Sociology’s Surprise with Solidarity
  • The Limitations of the Sociology of the Stabilization Period
  • The Peculiarities of the Solidarity Revolution
  • Consequences for Sociology
  • 10 A Sociology Engaged on Behalf of Polish Society
  • The Power of Sociologists
  • Method
  • Ideas
  • Meaning
  • The Two Duties of Sociologists
  • References
  • List of Figures and Tables
  • Index


Sociology in Poland was created and shaped by three forces: the changing historical conditions and problems experienced by Polish society; the varying historical circumstances and political contexts determining the prospects for the social sciences; and new intellectual currents and sociological concepts originating in other parts of the world.

Sociology as a scholarly discipline emerged from social reflection and analysis and came to be grounded, intellectually and institutionally, in Western Europe and America. The rise of sociology continued through the nineteenth century, including, after a delay, in the partitioned Polish lands, which were civilizationally less advanced than the center of Europe. The process accelerated in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the tempo of the industrial revolution quickened, bringing social progress and intellectual awakening. Polish society then shook off the apathy into which it had fallen after the failed uprising against Russia in 1863. In social thought, there was a desire to elucidate everything that could stimulate or uphold progress. Sociology, a new science, fit the need. Sociology, however, was not only focused on progress but also on Poles’ basic concern about the “national question,” which involved issues of independence and identity. At the beginning, sociology was dominated by the positivist outlook, with its naturalism, scientism, and faith in progress and laws of social evolution. With time, historical materialism appeared, and at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century, humanist currents as well, accentuating the specificity of culture and the role of individuals’ experiences and activities in social processes.

In spite of good beginnings, the new discipline did not develop in the universities of Kraków or Lwów, which were excellent Polish-language institutions in the Austrian partition. In Warsaw there was only a Russian university, and in Poznań the Prussian authorities did not agree to the opening of a Polish university. Interest in sociology expanded due to scholarly journals and magazines for the intelligentsia, and in education and self-education clubs, which were initially illegal. Then after the revolution of 1905 it grew in legal education institutions, scholarly societies, and foreign universities where Poles went to study, and sometimes, like Ludwik Gumplowicz in Austria and Leon Petrażycki in Russia, also to teach.

The First World War and Poland’s acquisition of independence fundamentally changed the conditions for sociology in Poland. In the early years of the ←11 | 12→restored country the first sociology departments appeared at the University of Warsaw and in the liberal Free Polish University. Nevertheless, the institutionalization of sociology occurred mainly at the young University of Poznań, due to Florian Znaniecki, who returned from Chicago and created a strong and influential center of the discipline. The first two congresses of Polish sociologists were held in 1931 in Poznań and 1935 in Warsaw. In the interwar period, sociology energetically shed its speculative nature and began to educate sociologists. At the universities, sociological works were produced that have remained important to this day, and the newly established institutions intensively researched contemporary social problems. These chiefly involved the situation of the working class and conditions in the countryside, but there was also a focus on issues that were then of importance to Poland, such as nation-building, national minorities, and education.

The Second World War interrupted this development. The revival of sociology in the first years after the war was soon suspended again – this time by Stalinism. In the period after the fall of Stalinism, in the second half of the 1950s and in the 1960s, Polish sociology was quickly reborn and reached maturity. It established itself in the institutional structures of scholarship, including internationally, and maintained a balance between empirical studies and theoretical interpretations of social reality. Although it functioned with limited freedom in the choice of research topics and scholarly publications, it documented the great social processes that were underway in postwar Poland: the consequences of introducing a communist regime (officially called “socialism”) and a planned economy; industrialization; urbanization; great migrations and changes in the social structure; and the appearance of universal education and mass culture.

In the following years, especially in the last decade of communism, sociology revealed the tensions in the system, which for some time had been called “real socialism.” Sociology presented the ongoing erosion of the system’s legitimacy and created interesting theoretical interpretations of that crisis. After the collapse of the political system in 1989, sociology turned to studying the consequences of introducing a market economy in Poland and the consolidation and effects of political democracy, all while Europe was integrating and the world was becoming globalized.

Almost from its beginnings, Polish sociology was itself an object of interest for sociologists. In 1917, Jan Stanisław Bystroń gave a talk entitled “Rozwój problemu socjologicznego w nauce polskiej” [“Development of the Sociological Problem in Polish Scholarship”] and in 1995 Jerzy Szacki produced the monumental anthology Od Supińskiego do Szczepańskiego [From Supiński to Szczepański], a collection of texts showing the heritage of Polish sociology. Numerous works by ←12 | 13→sociologists about Polish sociology have been written, both from the perspective of ideas and of the history of institutions and sociology of science, but they have mainly been in Polish. Few have been in the languages used by the international sociological community. Fortunately, Marta Bucholc’s (2016) work Sociology in Poland: To Be Continued? in the well-known Palgrave Macmillan series Sociology Transformed, gives an essential and, for the first time, systematic explanation of the history of Polish sociology. Profiles of outstanding Polish sociologists appear in a collective volume, Masters of Polish Sociology (Sztompka 1984), and in the special issue of the Journal of Classical Sociology (Mucha, Vaitkus 2006) devoted to Polish sociology: Edward Abramowski, Józef Chałasiński, Stefan Czarnowski, Ludwik Gumplowicz, Julian Hochfeld, Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz, Ludwik Krzywicki, Andrzej Malewski, Bronisław Malinowski, Maria Ossowska, Stanisław Ossowski, Leon Petrażycki, and Florian Znaniecki.1 Among briefer works, the synthetic expositions of the history of sociology in Poland (or its subperiods) by Władysław Kwaśniewicz (1993), Jerzy Szacki (1998b), and Janusz Mucha (2003) are worthy of mention.

The history of sociology is the history of ideas, people, and institutions, but also of sociological studies. The present book treats of the latter. It is not, however, a systematic description of the history of sociological research in Poland. It is a collection of articles and essays devoted to various important studies conducted by Polish sociologists in the course of more than a hundred years.

The collection begins with an essay on Ludwik Krzywicki, a founding father of sociology in Poland, and the systematic observations he made during a trip to America in 1893. Next is a study of the reception over more than half a century of Emile Durkheim’s classic book Le Suicide, both in theoretical work and in empirical studies of suicide. The following essay describes forgotten works on unemployment in Poland during the Great Depression of the 1930s: these were the equivalents of the well-known research by Marie Jahoda, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Hans Zeisel in Marienthal, near Vienna. The essay “To America!” relates how, after the fall of Stalinism, the travels of Polish sociologists to the United States, as well as to England and France, contributed to a “renaissance” in sociology in Poland, and also to Poland’s adoption of “empirical social research,” the style then dominant in America. The essay on “The Students of Warsaw” study ←13 | 14→presents a series of pioneering survey research conducted at the University of Warsaw by Stefan Nowak and other sociologists in Stanisław Ossowski’s circle.

The following four essays describe the alterations in Polish sociology in connection with the great social transformation that occurred when the political system changed into a democracy. While the former essays were based on strictly historical materials, these rest on my own direct observations as well: during the last half century I have worked at the University of Warsaw and participated in the life of Poland’s sociological community. In “The Rise and Decline of Survey Sociology in Poland,” I show how the model of doing sociology that I call “survey sociology” and that was formed in Poland after 1956 lost its normative, paradigmatic nature under the influence of new, “anti-positivist” currents in world sociology and the Solidarity revolution in Poland. In the context of public opinion research in Poland, the article “Serving Society or the Authorities?” demonstrates the changing function of such research in the last decade of real socialism, on the eve of democratic government. In the next part, I show how the systemic change in Poland led to the increased credibility of survey findings, and, in general, how democracy favors the reliability of social research. In an essay entitled “On the Unpredictability of Revolutions,” written on the 25th anniversary of Solidarity, I try to answer the question of why Polish sociology was unable to predict that phenomenon, even though by 1980 the discipline was well developed and in possession of worthy techniques.

The final essay in the book is on “engaged sociology,” in which, inspired by the famous example of Max Weber’s “Wissenschaft als Beruf,” I show how sociologists in Poland, through their research, theorizing, and public pronouncements can and should help people and society. I argue that the postulate of engagement is not contradictory with sociology’s calling as a science and that engagement can be par excellence scientific in nature.

Sociology did not arise and does not exist in a vacuum; an account of it must thus be based on the broader historical and social context and will itself acquire a three-fold sociological nature.

First, a history of Polish social research displays not only the discipline’s scholarship but also the society studied, with its “questions” and problems, from the end of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century, from partition times through the interwar period, to the Great Depression, the postwar period, and then from real socialism to the fall of communism and the systemic transformation toward democracy. In this sense, sociological research is Stendhal’s “mirror carried along a high road,” where Polish society parades. The findings have been important sources for the country’s social history.

←14 |

Second, the portraits contained in this book show how sociology has changed in the course of a century: from Krzywicki’s systematic observations through the description and study of cases, fieldwork monographs, and pre-war competitions on life histories, through representative surveys, and later the whole palette of qualitative research. From the example of pre-war research into unemployment we see how sociography has changed in sociology. Sociology’s methodological development does not at all consist in the replacement of certain methods by others, but in the enrichment of the discipline’s instruments through new methods and the constant refinement of each one.

Third, in studying the history of sociological research in Poland we can see how society, the political system, and institutions condition and stimulate – but also sometimes limit – the potential of social research and the possibility that findings will enter scholarly and public circulation. Such limitations can be seen, obviously, not only in considering systemic change or the outbreak of war but – in Poland – also through changes in policies. The case of research in Ossowski’s circle shows how the stiffening of the communist party’s policy toward scholarship a few years after the turning point of 1956 meant that research could still be conducted, but the findings could no longer be published.

The essays in this book were not written with the idea that they would ever form a whole, but they are not at all a random collection. A reading of the entirety should convince the reader of their connectedness, although each text is self-sustaining and can be read separately. Almost all the essays were written first as papers for conferences organized by various universities and scholarly societies – most often by the Research Committee of the History of Sociology the International Sociological Association (ISA RCHS), but also by the University of Warsaw and by Copernicus University in Toruń. All were later reworked for the purpose of publication in national and international sociological journals. These works were composed in my head and on paper over the course of many years. In this volume they appear in their original form; updating them would undoubtedly have ended in their manipulation. Occasionally minor repetitions occur in the book; removing them would have disturbed the logic of my argument or the composition of the text. All the empirical data cited in the book comes from original reports and publications, and all the unpublished data comes from reports of relevant research institutions.

I am pleased to be able to express my gratitude for the assistance I received, over many years, from Róża Sułek in the library of the University of Warsaw’s Institute of Applied Social Sciences and Roman Frąckowski in the library of Rutgers University in New Jersey in connection with my research into the history ←15 | 16→of Polish sociology. They are exceptional librarians in their regard not only for books but also for readers.

This book is dedicated to the memory of Jakub Karpiński, a discerning sociologist, a brilliant political writer, and a devoted activist in the democratic opposition, who died prematurely in 2003. In 1990 Jakub gave me a copy of his book Nie być w myśleniu posłusznym: Ossowscy, socjologia, filozofia [Don’t Be a Servile Thinker: The Ossowskis, Sociology, and Philosophy] (Karpiński 1990) with a handwritten dedication “To Antek, May he take the matter further.” The present book is my attempt to do so.

I wrote the studies contained in the present volume during my years at the University of Warsaw, where I was first a student in the Department of Philosophy (1963–1968) and then later combined research and teaching in the Institute of Sociology (1968–2018). With this book I end my work at that excellent academic institution.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
history of sociology sociology of sociology communism Polish history democratic transformation
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 242 pp., 3 fig. b/w, 1 tables

Biographical notes

Antoni Sułek (Author)

Antoni Sułek has taught in the Institute of Sociology at the University of Warsaw since 1968. His research interests cover sociological methodology, history of social research and Polish-Jewish relations. In the years 1994-1998, he served as president of the Polish Sociological Association.


Title: A Mirror on the High Road
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