What’s Happening to Society? The Long View From Poland

by Grażyna Skąpska, Jagiellonian University, Kraków

In September 2010 Polish sociologists held their fourteenth national congress, organized by the Polish Sociological Association (Polskie Towarzystwo Socjologiczne – PTS) and the Jagiellonian University. This event proved to be a great success with the attendance of more than 1200 sociologists from Poland and abroad. Key, too, was the fact that over one third of all participants were students. The congress program consisted of three plenary sessions, four symposia, and 85 working groups, a number of ad hoc groups, and several poster sessions. Its opening lecture was given by Claus Offe, while the closing one was by Michael Burawoy, who also met with young sociologists to discuss the role of sociology and sociologists in the contemporary world and in the ISA

The title of this congress reflected the traditions of sociology and sociologists in Poland, and especially the traditions of their most important professional organization. It demonstrated the strong engagement of Polish sociologists in critical debates regarding burning social issues, as well as their equally strong theoretical interests.

The PTS is the primary association for sociologists in Poland. In its present form, it has enjoyed a continuous existence since 1956, but its history can actually be traced back to 1927 when Florian Znaniecki established the first such organization under the name of the Polish Sociological Institute. In 1931, at the first national congress of sociologists in Poznań, this evolved into a professional organization under the name of the Polish Sociological Association (Polskie Towarzystwo Socjologiczne) created upon Znaniecki’s initiative. This association was one of the first of its type in the whole of Europe.

Unfortunately, during the Stalinist period in post-World War II Poland, sociology was declared a “bourgeois” science in 1951. All sociology departments and institutes at universities were closed. Once it had been readmitted to academic life in Poland as of 1956, a group of sociologists at the Universities of Warsaw and Łódż (centering on Stanisław Ossowski) set up a sociology section within the Polish Philosophical Association, which became a member of the International Sociological Association of which Ossowski had already been a founding member since 1949. The following year, this “section” transformed itself into the Polish Sociological Association with Ossowski elected as its first president. During communist rule, although academic life was highly formalized and subject to ideological control and political pressure, the PTS remained fully autonomous of government intervention, rendering itself an attractive venue for unrestricted, critical debate.

Among its past presidents are the already-mentioned Stanisław Ossowski (1957-1963) and Nina Assodobraj (1964-1968), followed by Władysław Markiewicz (1968-1972), Jerzy Szacki (1972-1976), Stefan Nowak (1976-1983), Janusz Ziółkowski (1983-1989), Antonina Kłoskowska (1989-1994), Antoni Sułek (1994-1998), Andrzej Kojder (1998-2002), Włodzimierz Wesołowski (2002-2005), and Piotr Gliński (2005-present). Currently PTS boasts approximately 1200 members. Its honorary members have included James S. Coleman, the late Shmuel Eisenstadt, Theodore Abel, Stanisław Andreski, Zbigniew Pełczyński, Jerzy Zubrzycki, Melvin Kohn, Jiri Musil, Richard Grathoff, Jan Sedlacek, Feliks Gross, and Vladimir Yadov.  The PTS regularly publishes the English-language quarterly, the Polish Sociological Review.
There have always been close personal and intellectual links between the PTS and the ISA. Indeed, some members of the PTS became officers of the ISA: Jan Szczepański in 1970-1974, and Piotr Sztompka in 2006-2010 served as President, and Magdalena Sokołowska was Vice President in 1990-1994.

By 2010 the PTS had held thirteen congresses.. Their title themes and debated topics have illustrated the altering social reality, and the equally changing issues of public concern in a country that – at least since 1945 – has been subjected to “natural” experiments. For better or worse, life in Poland has comprised an extant “laboratory” for sociologists (inside Poland and out); here one has been able to study most of the influential ideas and forces which have shaped social, political, and also economic processes in the 20th and early 21st centuries. The regularly held congresses have contributed significantly to the development of sociology as a scholarly discipline, and to independent public debate in Poland. At the end of the 1970s when this debate took its most critical turn, the term “oral sociology” was coined since the most crucial and intellectually important ideas could only be spoken and discussed, but not published.

In the initial years of the political thaw after 1956 the PTS congresses reflected the intellectual visions and ambitions of Polish sociologists. This is clear from the titles: Changes in Polish Society under the Influence of Industrialization and the New System (1965), Sociological Theory and Research vis-à-vis Societal Practice (1969), The Development of Polish Society and Sociology (1977), or Polish Sociology Facing the Country’s Problems (1981).

Not surprisingly, the congresses organized after 1989, were devoted to the postcommunist transformation and its possible outcomes, both theoretical and practical. Congress themes included such topics as Fundamental Change and Its Challenges: Theories of Social Change Faced with the Challenges of the Present (1990), or People and Institutions: The Development of Social Order (1994). The most recent congresses, including the 14th Congress organized in Kraków this year, have dwelt on processes of differentiation as well as the anxieties and uncertainties found in both society and sociology. Thus, the title of the congress held in 2006 was What Associates Us, What Differentiates Us, and the most recent one dealt with What’s Happening to Society?

During the 14th Congress of Polish sociologists, these anxieties and uncertainties were clearly aired in the opening lecture by Claus Offe, entitled What, if anything, do we mean by social and political “progress” today? The topics of the subsequent plenary sessions and symposia, working sessions, and ad hoc groups developed this discussion. However, the plenary sessions and symposia were future-oriented, too. Indeed, many of the leading panels were devoted to “reading the future” based on an analysis of contemporary phenomena.

The 14th Congress of Polish sociologists concluded with a panel discussion on Sociology and society in a globalizing world led by Piotr Sztompka, and then a special lecture  by Michael Burawoy on public sociology. The closing discussions more than realized the program committee’s intentions to project a sociology that was future-oriented and publicly-engaged.

Poland, Volume 1, Issue 2

Comments are closed.