Tying Micro and Macro

What Fills up the Sociological Vacuum?

by Mikołaj Pawlak (Author)
©2018 Monographs 272 Pages
Open Access


This study critically discusses the thesis on the sociological vacuum formulated by Stefan Nowak. The author’s aim is to refute the claim that the sociological vacuum is relevant for major social processes occurring in Poland. He presents the sociological vacuum in the context of the debate on micro and macro levels and discusses how the theory of fields and social network analysis is useful to reconcile the micro-macro divide. The book considers the uses of the sociological vacuum in explaining such phenomena as the Solidarność social movement, civil society, social capital, and democracy. In the empirical part, the author confronts the data on identifications with the data on relations and claims that the vacuum is not in the society but it in sociology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part I: The micro-macro problem in sociology: theoretical background
  • 1 Classical approaches to the micro-macro problem in sociology
  • 1.1 Introduction
  • 1.2 Micro-macro and other pairings in sociological theory
  • 1.3 The classics on micro-macro and macro-micro
  • 1.4 The 1980s and the debate about the micro-macro link
  • 1.5 Linking micro and macro via meso
  • 1.6 Concluding remarks
  • 2 Social fields: the meso-level of analysis
  • 2.1 Introduction
  • 2.2 Social fields and the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu
  • 2.3 Sociology of organizations in the search for the level of analysis
  • 2.4 Towards an integration of the field theories: strategic action fields approach
  • 2.5 Concluding remarks
  • 3 Social networks: tying micro and macro
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 From fishermen to World Wide Web: a brief review of network approaches in social sciences
  • 3.3 How nodes are tied into society: from micro to macro
  • 3.4 Concluding remarks
  • Part II: The sociological vacuum: the story of the spell cast on Polish sociologists
  • 4 Polish sociology in the 1970s, Stefan Nowak, and the sociological vacuum thesis
  • 4.1 Introduction
  • 4.2 Stefan Nowak
  • 4.3 Survey sociology: measurement of attitudes, values, and society as an aggregate of individuals
  • 4.4 Thesis on Poland’s sociological vacuum
  • 4.5 The sociological vacuum: brilliant intuition or a methodological artifact?
  • 4.6 Concluding remarks
  • 5 Solidarność: how atomized individuals mobilized as a social movement?
  • 5.1 Introduction
  • 5.2 The outburst of Solidarność: the most interesting event in Polish social history
  • 5.3 A movement fulfilling the vacuum? Solidarność as a problem for sociology of Polish society
  • 5.4 Towards sociological explanations of Solidarność: how are atoms linked into a society?
  • 5.5 Concluding remarks
  • 6 Civil society: in search of the new actor of the social transformation
  • 6.1 Introduction
  • 6.2 Civil society: its rivals and kin
  • 6.3 Civil society in the vacuum
  • 6.4 For the common good? Associationalism: its advantages and disadvantages
  • 6.5 In search of civic life in Poland
  • 6.6 Concluding remarks
  • 7 Social capital: what mediates between individuals and society?
  • 7.1 Introduction
  • 7.2 Social capital: short story of a fuzzy concept
  • 7.3 Social capital and the sociological vacuum
  • 7.4 What do we know about the social capital in Poland?
  • 7.5 Concluding remarks
  • 8 Quality of democracy: social base for political institutions
  • 8.1 Introduction
  • 8.2 Democracy: aggregating individual wills into collective action
  • 8.3 Democracy in the vacuum?
  • 8.4 Concluding remarks
  • Part III: What fills up the sociological vacuum? Empirical illustration
  • 9 Getting a job in Poland: how weak ties fill up the sociological vacuum?
  • 9.1 Introduction
  • 9.2 Brief story of getting a job studies
  • 9.3 Getting a job in Poland
  • 9.4 Concluding remarks
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

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This book has been written thanks to the financial support of National Science Center (Narodowe Centrum Nauki) and presents the results of the research project “What Fills up the Sociological Vacuum? The Reinterpretation of Stefan Nowak’s Thesis from a Network Perspective, as Exemplified by the Labor Market Behaviors” (DEC-2012/07/D/HS6/00977). I am very thankful to my good friend and statistical data wizard, Michał Kotnarowski, who worked with me as the key investigator in this research project. The friendly atmosphere of the Institute of Social Prevention and Resocialization at the University of Warsaw – where I am happy to be employed as assistant professor – is a merit of its director, Danuta Lalak. The vigorous discussions during the work on this volume were possible thanks to the intellectual diversity of the Chair of Sociology of Norms, Deviance, and Social Control headed by Jerzy Kwaśniewski; not without significance was the scholarly curiosity of Joanna Zamecka. I had the opportunity to present my thoughts on the topic of sociological vacuum in various formal and less formal occasions. My inspirations came from various discussions and critical comments of Mikołaj Cześnik, Mateusz Fałkowski, Piotr Kulas, Adriana Mica, Jakub Motrenko, Ireneusz Sadowski, and Andrzej Zybała. I have also received advice and various kinds of help from Izabela Bukraba-Rylska, Jarosław Kilias, Ireneusz Krzemiński, Aleksander Manterys, Agnieszka Nowakowska, Jakub Pawlak, Irena Rzeplińska, Tadeusz Szawiel, and Kacper Wierzbicki, to all of whom I am indebted. Dealing with the administrative aspect of the research project would not be possible without the expertise of Małgorzata Bojarska and Edyta Szałas. Ilona Kawalec from the Public Opinion Research Center did a great job coordinating the survey execution. I would like to express my gratitude to Mateusz Durczak, who helped me to better express my thoughts by excellent proofreading. Last, but no least, I am thankful to the anonymous staffs of several libraries in which I have searched for materials for this book or simply used their reading rooms. Authors rarely thank librarians, which is wrong, because before writing a book, one needs to spend some time reading other books as well, and without their guidance, this task would be much more difficult.

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The concept of the sociological vacuum was coined by the prominent Polish sociologist, Stefan Nowak (1979a; 1979b), by the end of Gierek’s era, in the 1970s. It expresses the idea that although Polish people are bonded with their families and close circles of friends on the level of primary groups, as well as with their national community, they have no significant bonds with other structures existing between those two levels. The thesis was stated in a pessimistic tone and to this day continues to occupy the minds of Polish sociologists (Pawlak 2015) who use it to explain negatively evaluated social phenomena. The thesis on the sociological vacuum has undoubtedly a very strong status in Polish sociology and is treated as a certainty or quasi-axiom (Cześnik 2008a). I, however, believe it is always worth to question influential ideas; and indeed – after a closer inspection of the thesis itself, or of the narratives applying it to explain other phenomena, one can see its theoretical inconsistences, which are often covered with persuasive rhetoric. The present book belongs to the school of critical sociology defined by Michael Burawoy (2005: 10) as examining “the foundations – both the explicit and the implicit, both normative and descriptive – of the research programs of professional sociology.” The main claim this book makes is that the misuses of the thesis on the sociological vacuum are caused by the under-theorization of the links between the micro- and macro-levels of analysis; the book’s objective is to refute the claim that the sociological vacuum is relevant for major social processes occurring in Poland.

The term “sociological vacuum” is in a way misleading. The idea can be better expressed through the term “social vacuum,” because the intention of its author was to describe the lack of something in the society, which is the reason why literature dealing with Nowak’s thesis uses both of these forms. Ironically, however, the term “sociological vacuum” is – although not in the sense that it was originally intended – accurate too: the vacuum in society is perceived because of the vacuum in sociological theory, which does not see the links between the micro- and macro-levels of analysis. Documenting the way in which the theoretical framing of the issue consequently produces artifacts is yet another objective of this book.

In my claims about the problems with theoretical framings of important processes present in Poland, I do not simply call for more nuance, which has recently been criticized by Kieran Healy (2017), provocatively calling to “fuck nuance” in sociological theory. I do not claim that the thesis needs more complex theoretical elements or that it should be confronted with a very detailed empirical analysis. I agree that the thesis on the sociological vacuum is very interesting – in a sense, ← 11 | 12 → it brings attention and triggers other researchers to work on it. At the same time, however, I track how it is grounded in theory and how it fails when used to explain phenomena. In my opinion, the problem lies in the under-theorization of the micro-macro link between the levels of analysis. This is why the story of the sociological vacuum is presented in the context of important sociological debate on micro and macro.

The discussion of the current state of the micro-macro issue in sociological theory is an equally important objective of this book. The book may therefore be read in two ways: (1) as a book about the development and reconciliation of micro-macro dualism in theory, illustrated with the case of Polish sociology preoccupied with a thesis on the sociological vacuum; (2) as a book about the thesis on the sociological vacuum analyzed from the perspective of the micro-macro problem. Since the 1980s debate on micro-macro dualism, there have been no new summaries of this debate published. This book contributes to the sociological theory by presenting new developments in this area and by integrating the theory of social fields and social network analysis into the body of micro-macro literature.

The linking of micro- and macro-levels of analysis is not an easy task. Finding relations between what is micro (connections between individuals, small groups, interactions, relations, and situations) and macro (social classes, states, nations, and societies) is key for the development of comprehensive theory. Especially the social field and social network perspectives build on theoretical and empirical elements which are not easily noticeable. The social field as a level of analysis and the salience of various social ties constituting social networks are counterintuitive both for social actors and for sociologists. Their theoretical understanding is possible thanks to the conceptualization of the links between micro and macro. In this book, I attempt at tying micro and macro in order to bring a new contribution to sociological theory. At the same time, I show the usefulness of these theoretical accounts on the example of the sociological vacuum problem.

The subtitle of the book is the question: “What Fills up the Sociological Vacuum?” It has been raised by a number of sociologists, who suggested their answers; these, however, have been only of an allegorical character. I, too, am not going to provide the ultimate answer. Instead, I use the question as an opportunity or a pretext to play with various possible theoretical approaches and try to see what was so far described as an empty space. Therefore, in this book, the narratives about the micro-macro issue and about the sociological vacuum are mutually feeding each other. By the same token, by discussing the micro-macro issue and the sociological vacuum in one volume, I am able to make the claim that the debate on the sociological vacuum – which, as a crucial concern of ← 12 | 13 → Polish sociologists since the late 1970s, might seem as a very local problem – is, in fact, a quite universal tension in the development of the discipline worldwide.

I was trained as a sociologist at the University of Warsaw by the disciples of Stefan Nowak, who worked there from 1972 to 1989 as the head of the Chair of Methodology of Sociological Research. For this reason, I can proudly define myself as his intellectual grandson. In the environment of the University of Warsaw, the legacy of Nowak is very important: the main auditorium has been named after him, the methodological award granted by Institute of Sociology carries his name as well and, finally, the course in methodology is recognized as key for sociological education. I did not have a chance to meet Stefan Nowak in person because he passed away when I was a child, but I guess that he must have had a certain charisma which one cannot simply sense when reading his publications. In this context, the interest in the thesis on the sociological vacuum came to me as something natural, although I am not able to recall the exact moment when this happened. My first theoretical problems with the sociological vacuum started when I was reviewing literature inspired by new institutionalism on the post-communist transformation in Poland. To my surprise, scholars were not applying the category of the organizational field, which is located on the intermediary level of analysis and is an important part of new institutional theoretical toolkit. On the contrary – the analysts of Polish transformation were often recalling the thesis on the sociological vacuum and lamenting on the void on the meso-level (Pawlak 2013). The sociological vacuum was appearing nearly in all of the publications I was studying, not because of my interest in it, but because of the objective of reviewing the works on transformation that I had. Some time later, I had the opportunity to read the famous paper by Mark Granovetter (1973), “Strength of Weak Ties,” which turned out to be an eye-opening experience. I realized that the sociological vacuum actually might be filled-up with something that Stefan Nowak and other scholars were unable to perceive. At this point, I decided that the sociological vacuum thesis needed to be reinterpreted and confronted with theoretical accounts which problematize structures which are not easily noticeable.

This book is an effect of applying manifold research approaches. First, I decided that I did not only want to discuss the thesis as formulated by Stefan Nowak, but also as it was used by other scholars. The first step was therefore to study all works which cited the thesis. The method of acquiring the literature and the results of its analysis are presented in my paper entitled “From Sociological Vacuum to Horror Vacui” (Pawlak 2015). The thesis on the sociological vacuum seems to be the most popular idea to emerge from the field of Polish sociology, yet still, the literature that discusses it is of the volume that allows a single researcher to ← 13 | 14 → process all the production citing it.1 The analysis of the publications resulted in creating a typology of sociological problems identified by scholars as connected to the sociological vacuum Thus, the references to the sociological vacuum appear in five contexts: as an element of background description in the works on Polish society; in the works on Solidarność social movement; in the works on civil society; in the works on social capital; and in the works on the quality of democracy. These are important and huge problems for social science, indeed!

The fact that the concept of the sociological vacuum is mentioned in the background introductions to studies on Polish society proves its significance in Polish sociology, but this context did not occur to me as interesting. Many of these citations have a rather ceremonial character: authors who need to write any short description of the Polish society, mention the sociological vacuum without giving it much thought. Yet, the remaining four contexts pertain to some of the most important topics of Polish sociology after the 1980s. The next step was therefore to study the general literature on these four topics in order to learn about the relevance they had for the sociological vacuum and the micro-macro problem.

Here, I need to make a caveat about my own dilettantism. When writing my book about the sociological vacuum, on many occasions I had to struggle with my ignorance. The sociological vacuum is a concept applied in so many contexts, that it is impossible to be competent in all of them. I have to be honest and admit that as a researcher I do not feel comfortable and confident when dealing with topics of Solidarność and democracy. Yet, the central subjects of this book are the sociological vacuum and the micro-macro problem in sociological theory, therefore I write about Solidarność or the quality of democracy only when it is relevant to the main theme of this book. Certainly, I do not have the ambition of contributing much to the discussion about Solidarność or democracy, although I aim at making other scholars more aware when connecting these themes of study with the sociological vacuum.

Last but not least, the inquiry on the sociological vacuum had also its field research component. Together with Michał Kotnarowski, we designed a survey study on labor market behaviors, which was conducted by Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej [Public Opinion Research Center]. One of the objectives of this study was to confront Granovetter’s and Nowak’s perspectives. The design ← 14 | 15 → and results of the study, which are relevant to this book, are presented below. The survey also provided us with data, which is not presented in this book. It is not related to the issue of the sociological vacuum, yet, I believe that it contributes to the understanding of the role played by social networks on the labor market. The general results of the survey study were presented in Polish in the article “Siła słabych powiązań na rynku pracy w Polsce” [The Strength of Weak Ties on the Labor Market in Poland] (Pawlak, Kotnarowski 2016). There are also forthcoming publications which explore the more narrow research questions and use the data set acquired through the survey.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2018 (August)
Social fields Social capital Civil society Social networks Democracy Meso level
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2018, 272 p., 3 b/w ill., 6 b/w tab.

Biographical notes

Mikołaj Pawlak (Author)

Mikołaj Pawlak is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Social Prevention and Resocialisation at the University of Warsaw and Vice-President of the Polish Sociological Association. His research interests concern new institutionalism, the labor market, migration, and the sociology of knowledge.


Title: Tying Micro and Macro