The Polish Peasant--Its TheoreticalUnderpinnings


The theoretical scheme underlying The Polish Peasant maybe best understood as an attempt to go beyond both a purely individualisticor subjectivistic approach to sociological data and a generalized"objectivistic" interpretation of social life and socialchange in which acting, feeling, thinking individuals would begranted no analytical attention. They wished to avoid the trapof psychologistic interpretation found, for example, in the workof their contemporary Franklin Giddings, where most of humankind'stravail is considered as the result of "consciousness ofkind" and similar psychological constructs. Yet they alsowished to avoid a type of theorizing of a certain positivisticvariety, which emphasized the determinant influence of geography,climate, or race on human behavior, or of a vulgar Marxism. Inshort, they objected to seeing people as playthings of forcesover which they had no control.

In their attempt to do justice to both objective and subjectivefactors, they developed a scheme in which only the conjoint interplayof individual attitudes and objective cultural values was seenas adequate to account for human conduct. By attitude they understood,"a process of individual consciousness which determines realor possible activity of the individual in the social world." An attitude is a predisposition to act in relation to some socialobject; it is not a purely psychic inner state. A social value,on the other hand, is understood as "any datum having anempirical content accessible to the members of some social groupand a meaning with regard to which it is or may be an object ofactivity." The authors specified further that only certainclasses of values, namely those that are embodied in norms andrules of conduct, come within the purview of sociological investigation.These values consist of the ". . . more or less explicitand formal rules of behavior by which the group tends to maintain,to regulate, and to make more general and more frequent the correspondingtypes of actions among its members. These rules [are] . . . customsand rituals, legal and educational norms, obligatory beliefs andaims, etc."

The main focus of their investigation is social change. They proceedto show that it is always the result of an interplay between attitudesand values. As they put it, "The cause of a social or individualphenomenon is never another social or individual phenomenon alone,but always a combination of a social and an individual phenomenon.Or, in more exact terms: The cause of a value or of an attitudeis never an attitude or a value alone, but always a combinationof an attitude and a value."

Thomas and Znaniecki formulated this basic approach in a varietyof ways, as when they speak, for example, of the "reciprocaldependence between social organization and individual life organization." But their underlying stress on conjoint investigation of theobjective and the subjective dimensions of social behavior remainsconstant throughout their work. It will be remembered from earlierchapters of this book that this general orientation is closelyrelated to the social psychology and sociology of Cooley and Parkand that it has its roots in the pragmatic philosophy of WilliamJames, Mead, and Dewey. What is perhaps less obvious is that itis closely related to Marx's stress that people make their ownhistory but they don't make it as they please; they are constrainedby the play of social forces they encounter on their scene ofaction. It is also closely related to Robert K. Merton's laterinsistence that social actions need always to be explained interms of individual choices between socially structured alternatives.

To Thomas and Znaniecki the influence of external or objectivefactors upon human conduct assumes importance only to the extentthat they are subjectively experienced. Hence, it is the taskof the analyst to try to show how subjective predispositions,or attitudes, molded by experience, determine the response ofindividuals to the objective factors that impinge upon them. Thus,it is not the social disorganization of city slums that determinesdeviant behavior of recent immigrants, but it is experienced looseningof normative constraints in the slum that results in deviant reactionsin individual slum dwellers.

In an effort to conceptualize a set of basic dispositions thatcould then be related to the interplay of attitudes and values,the authors developed their well-known classification of the fourbasic human wishes: (1) the desire for new experience; (2) thedesire for recognition; (3) the desire for mastery; and (4) thedesire for security. Though this classification is more oftencited than any other discussion in The Polish Peasant,it seems to be among the least valuable aspect of the work. Toestablish such lists of basic wishes or drives is a sterile enterprise.Other authors have established similar lists consisting of tenor many more such basic predispositions which are equally plausibleand equally powerless to account for the complicated motivationalrepertory of the human animal. (Indeed, both Thomas and Znanieckibecame quite sceptical about this aspect of methodology in ThePolish Peasant at a later stage in their careers.)

Thomas and Znaniecki's incursion into general psychology by wayof the so-called theory of basic wishes resulted in failure. Theirdevelopment of the rudiments of a social psychology, on the otherhand, has borne abundant fruit. They sharply distinguished psychicalstates from attitudes, assigning the study of the first to generalpsychology and of the second to social psychology. "By itsreference to activity," they stated, "and thereby tothe social world the attitude is distinguished from the psychicalstate. . . . A psychological process is . . . treated as an objectin itself, isolated by a reflective act of attention, and takenfirst of all in connection with other states of the same individual.An attitude is a psychological process treated as primarily manifestedin its reference to the social world and taken first of all inconnection with some social value. . . . The psychological processremains always fundamentally a state of somebody;the attitude remains always fundamentally an attitude towardsomething."

Even if one conceives of social psychology as the science of socialattitudes, it would still be possible to restrict one's focuslargely to attitudes of individuals. This was, however, not whatThomas and Znaniecki had in mind. As they put it: "The moregenerally an attitude is shared by the members of the given socialgroup and the greater the part it plays in the life of every member,the stronger the interest which it provokes in the social psychologist.. . . Thus, the field of social psychology practically comprisesfirst of all the attitudes which are more or less generally foundamong the members of a social group, have a real importance inthe life-organization of the individuals who have developed them,and manifest themselves in social activities of these individuals." What the authors are concerned with, in other words, are notthe idiosyncratic responses of particular individuals, but ratherattitudes that these individuals share to a greater or lesserextent with other members of the groups in which they are variouslyplaced. Social psychology, in this view, is the "scienceof the subjective side of social culture."

On the other hand, the objective side of culture, the investigationof social values, is the proper domain of sociology. Social valuesare objective cultural data that confront the individual, as itwere, from the outside. "These values cannot be the objectmatter of social psychology; they constitute a special group ofobjective cultural data . . . the rules of behavior, and the actionsviewed as conforming or not conforming with these rules, constitutewith regard to their objective significance a certain number ofmore or less connected and harmonious systems which can be generallycalled social institutions, and the totality of institutionsfound in a concrete social group constitutes the social organization of this group. And when studying the social organization as suchwe must subordinate attitudes to values. . . "

It was the peculiar genius of Thomas and Znaniecki to balancetheir emphasis on attitudes, subjectively defined meanings, andshared experience, by an equally strong emphasis on the objectivecharacteristics of cultural values and their embodiment in specificinstitutions. This is why their analyses in The PolishPeasant move from consideration of microsociological units,such as primary groups and family structures, to the larger institutionalsettings in which these smaller units are embedded. Linking thestudy of primary groups to the larger institutional context, Thomasand Znaniecki studied the community in which primary groups ingeneral, and the family and kingroups in particular, flourished;they then proceeded to investigate the still wider frame of socialorganization, which included the educational system, the press,voluntary organizations, and the like. Though each of these, theyargued, could not be analyzed in isolation, each provided distinctarrangements of social values that assumed salience, in differentand varying degrees, as objects to which attitudes were directedeven as they themselves shaped these attitudes.

The main chord that Thomas and Znaniecki strike over and overagain is the reciprocal relation between attitudes and values,between individual organization and social organization, betweenindividual behavior and the social rules that attempt to controlit. This meant to them a continued interplay involving not onlyindividual adaptation but also disruption of social order. Liketheir contemporary Robert Park, they believed that equilibriumbetween individual desires and social requirements was at besta marginal and exceptional condition. In general, social controlsand social norms never succeeded in completely suppressing individualefforts to break the bonds imposed by social organization. Thedialectic of social change involved efforts on the part of thegroup to bend members to its requirements and, at the same time,attempts on the part of these individuals to break group-imposedconstraints in order to realize aspirations not condoned by thenorms of the group.

Thomas and Znaniecki were intent upon countering the prevalentmoralistic pronouncements about such serious social problems ascrime and delinquency by stressing that the roots of the problemswere in social conditions rather than individual failings. Hence,when they introduced the notion of social disorganization theydefined it as "a decrease of the influence of existing socialrules of behavior upon individual members of the group." But they took pains to emphasize that this notion "refersprimarily to institutions and only secondarily to men." Thatis, like Durkheim's notion of anomie, the concept of social disorganizationrefers primarily to a disordered state of society rather thanto a condition of individuals. Moreover, they also pointed outthat there was never a one-to-one association between social andindividual disorganization, so that even in disorganized areasof a city, for example, one could expect to find a number of individualswho manage to organize their lives in a satisfactory manner. "Thenature of [the] reciprocal influence [of life-organization ofindividuals and social organization] in each particular case isa problem to be studied, not a dogma to be accepted in advance." To Thomas and Znaniecki social disorganization never meant astatic condition but rather a social process subject to a greatdeal of variation in impact and extensiveness.

From Coser, 1977:512-516.


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