Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


The Polish Peasant in Europe and America: A Classic Work in Immigration History

William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, (edited by Eli Zaretsky)
Urbana: University of Illinois Press
ISBN: 0 252 06484 4
$13.95 (pb)
xvii + 129 pp.

Order this book

During the last decade, the increasing migration flows, on the one hand, and the revival of nationalist movements, on the other, have led to a growing body of literature regarding the role of culture and ethnicity in migrant integration. However, scholars often tend to forget that these are not novel issues and that much can be learned from past experience both in Europe and the USA. In this book, Eli Zaretsky proposes a short selection of abstracts from the classic work of Thomas and Znaniecki on cultural identity and social change in the Polish immigrant community in the United States of America at the beginning of this century.

The editor stresses that 'The Polish Peasant in Europe and America was one of the earliest works to study the culture and social organization of immigrants' (p. x). In the context of early twentieth century America, it was a pioneering study because it 'sought to explain social problems by examining the relation between individuals and their surrounding society' (p. xii). Moreover, it deeply influenced a whole generation of social scientists and led to the creation of the 'Chicago school of sociology'.

The book is organized in four parts which address distinct aspects of the immigration phenomenon. The first part (pp.1 - 21) offers an insight into the main social and moral features of Polish peasant society. The second part of the volume (pp.23 - 84) includes four sets of peasant letters, each set concentrating on the members of a specific family. The loosening of familial solidarity and the transformation of peasant attitudes into the new environment are the main issues developed in this section. More particularly, the authors "illustrate the effect of economic conditions on the expansion and development of the personality" (p.51). The third part (pp.85 - 103) examines social disorganization phenomena in the USA. The failure of welfare institutions in substituting for the community when family problems arise is highlighted. According to the authors, American charity organizations eventually contribute to the demoralization of the Polish immigrant and the weakening of the conjugal bond. The fourth part of Zaretsky's book (pp.105 - 121) refers to the development of Polish-American communities in the United States of America. The twofold nature of these communities, at the crossroads between Polish culture and American economic conditions and social values is analyzed. Moreover, the community psychology is discussed. According to Thomas and Znaniecki: 'The psychology is similar to that of a family or an old village community in contact with modern and more complex forms of social organization'.

In the epilogue, Zaretsky discusses briefly the emergence of a working-class in America with a focus on the hard living and working conditions of immigrant Poles and their work ethic. He thus seeks to place the study of Thomas and Znaniecki in a wider sociological perspective which their original work lacks.

This book offers a concise selection of abstracts from the five-volume work of Thomas and Znaniecki. It discusses important socio-psychological aspects of the migration phenomenon such as the interference of individual and group psychology in the integration process, the blending of old social values and new socio-economic conditions in immigrant communities and the role of ethnic identity in immigrant assimilation in the host country. These issues although highly topical nowadays remain to a certain extent neglected by social scientists while priority is given to socio- economic factors. This volume is an important contribution to contemporary migration studies because it makes accessible to students and scholars an invaluable study on ethnicity, culture and migration.

Two main criticisms, however, could be raised. First, despite the introductory comments of the editor, there is lack of continuity from one section to the other. On the one hand, Parts One, Two and Three deal with the disorganizing effects of immigration on various aspects of community and family life. On the other hand, in Part Four the authors argue that Polish-Americans develop strong village-type communities in their host country. It would be helpful for the reader if the passage from dis- to re- organization of community life was made more explicit. Second, a comment on the meaning assigned to 'ethnicity' and 'racial group/community' by Thomas and Znaniecki should be provided by the editor given the lack of clarity in the use of such terms even nowadays.

Anna Triandafyllidou
London School of Economics

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996