Review of The Polish Peasant in Europe and America

Lester R. Kurtz
University of Texas at Austin

The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. Ву William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki. Edited and abridged by Eli Zaretsky. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984. Pp. 310. $29.95 (cloth); $9.95 (paper).

In 1939, the Social Science Research Council surveyed a number of eminent social scientists as to the most significant work in their field; the overwhelming choice was Thomas and Znaniecki's The Polish Peasant. That classic work, now largely neglected and underrated, has fortunately been reissued in an abridged one-volume edition.

The Polish Peasant examines the subject that preoccupied the major figures in the sociological tradition: the social changes associated with the industrial revolution. The issues raised by Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel are treated here in a brilliant and lucid fashion. Thomas and Znaniecki dissect such problems as the breakdown of traditional social organization, increased individualism, urbanization, and the abstraction of economic spheres of life—all within the context of a detailed empirical

(477) examination of a wide variety of sources such as letters, life records, and first-hand accounts.

This work may still be the most important case study in the sociological literature and is rich with empirical and theoretical insights. Its appearance in 1918-19 marked a veritable watershed in the development of contemporary sociology. It signalled the shift from a speculative to a research base for sociologists and became the model for Chicago school research, inspiring the classic Chicago monographs of the 1920s and 1930s. Park, Burgess, Thrasher, Zorbaugh, Anderson, and others took their cue from The Polish Peasant in their attempts to construct sociological theories out of intimate encounters with real-life situations.

Eli Zaretsky has done an admirable job of editing this volume so that it contains much of the material that inspired, along with the philosophical insights of George Herbert Mead and John Dewey, the symbolic interactionist tradition. Unfortunately, Zaretsky fails to provide a much-needed index. It will serve as an invaluable supplement to Morris Janowitz's edition, W. I. Thomas on Social Organization and Social Psychology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966). Unlike Janowitz, Zaretsky attempts to retain the original balance between empirical data (with lengthy selections from source material such as letters to and from Polish immigrants) and sociological interpretation.

Thomas and Znaniecki's major contribution is their ground-breaking efforts to develop a methodology for sociological research, systematically outlined (at Znaniecki's insistence) in a "Methodological Note," portions of which are included in this volume (a more complete selection is in the Janowitz edition). Sociology, they contend, must use two kinds of data—the objective cultural elements of social life ("social values") and the subjective characteristics of members of a social group ("attitudes"). Thus, Thomas and Znaniecki advocate a dialectical approach that recogniześ the "reciprocal dependence between social organization and individual life organization" (The Polish Peasant [Boston: Badger, 1918-19], 2:1128).

Social life is perceived processually "as the product of a continual interaction of individual consciousness and objective social reality" (p. 293). Like other members of the Chicago school, Thomas and Znaniecki reject behaviorism: "The behavior of an individual as social personality is not scientifically reducible to sensually observable movements" (p. 300).

The Polish Peasant's detailed examination of correspondence to and from Polish immigrants is preceded by introductory material on the peasant family and Polish economic life. Thomas and Znaniecki sketch an ideal-typical organization of the Polish family and offer an analysis of its disintegration by emigration, proletarianization, changes of profession because of industrial development, changes in class organization, and (rarely) changes of religion and nationality among the Poles. Life for The Polish Peasant is thus undergoing a significant transformation, through social disorganization and reorganization. The metamorphosis was pre-

(478) -cipitated primarily by changes in the life experiences of individuals because of the evolution of new forms of economic life, which have become detached from social life in general (p. 89). Economic advance, rather than mere survival, becomes the end of work (p. 92), and a series of new attitudes emerges.

As economic success becomes a source of personal importance (pp. 141-42), the individual is isolated from family and community, and the control of the primary group is weakened. Letters from the old country are replete with complaints from parents about being unable to control their children (see pp. 143 ff.; cf. p. 180), a development that seems inevitable unless parents substitute individual authority for the social authority of the family. Even altruism changes from being a duty into an expression of the personality (p. 153).

Underlying much of the work are the concepts of social organization and social disorganization. Zaretsky correctly points out that the concepts were somewhat secondary to the original analysis, despite the centrality that they assumed in subsequent works inspired by The Polish Peasant. Although their use of social disorganization raises some interesting value questions, careful readers will note that it is not used in the pejorative sense that it has taken on since C. Wright Mills's searing critique ("The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists," American Journal of Sociology 49 [September 1943]: 165-80).

Thomas and Znaniecki do not claim that social disorganization is a negative phenomenon; despite the problems it creates, it also opens up opportunities for social reorganization. Furthermore, they are careful to point out that there is "no unequivocal connection" between social disorganization and individual disorganization, the latter referring to an individual's ability to organize his or her whole life for "the efficient, progressive, and continuous realization" of personal interests (p. 191).

Zaretsky's introduction is insightful and will be particularly useful to sociologists and historians who are unfamiliar with the work. The only major quarrel I have is with his insistence that Thomas and Znaniecki's "aim was to avert revolutions, not create them" (p. 1). Although they are not revolutionaries, and they are well aware of the negative consequences of social disorganization, Thomas and Znaniecki do acknowledge the need for "social reorganization" that goes well beyond piecemeal social reform. The Polish Peasants now living in urban, industrial American society cannot simply reconstruct the traditional social system. That is, however, often the initial response to social disorganization because people define the situation as a choice between the old order and complete chaos. Such an attitude is "the backbone of all coercive and repressive legislation and of almost all `social reform' activities" (p. 192).

There are a number of reasons for the lack of attention paid to The Polish Peasant in recent years. First, it is too much work for most sociologists to bother to read the 2,244 pages of the original. This edition will make it more accessible. The Polish Peasant is highly empirical, but it lacks the simple summary tables to which so many have grown accus-

(479) -tomed in recent years. Second, it is theoretically sophisticated and thus suffers some of the same fate as work by Weber, Marx, and Símmel– much is lost in the "translation" of complex insights into contemporary sociological inquiry. The insights of The Polish Peasant are not easily reducible to pedantic textbook summaries or mathematical modeling and will likely be ignored by those seeking easily operationalized propositions. It is an invaluable resource, however, for scholars constructing a social reorganization of a sociological theory that embraces the complex dialectic between the personal and the social.


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