The Achievement of Polish Ethnology in the Study of Polish Community Abroad / LUD 1995 t.79

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The Achievement of Polish Ethnology in the Study of Polish Community Abroad / LUD 1995 t.79


etnografia polska
Polonia - badania etnograficzne


LUD 1995 t.79, s.265-276


Kantor, Ryszard


Polskie Towarzystwo Ludoznawcze




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Lud, vol. 79, 1995

Institute of Ethnology
Jagiellonian University




The study of Polish communities abroad has a long tradition in Polish
scholarship. Started before World War I, research was continued during
the Second Polish Republic (1918 -1939) both by individual scholars and
various institutions, such as Instytut Gospodarstwa
Społecznego [Institute
of Social Organization] and Instytut Naukowy do Badania Emigracji i Kolonizacji [Institute for the Study of Emigration and Colonization]. Another
institution involved in the research of Poles abroad was the Instytut Badań Spraw Narodowościowych
[Institute for the Study of Ethnic Groups]
(Boruta, 1985). Although the accomplishments of the pre-war scholarship
was no doubt significant, it was not until the 1970s that the studies of
Polish communities all throught the world gained a proper momentum
and were consolidated, and conducted according to the assumptions of
a single interdisciplinary program. The effort has produced a number of
significant achievements as well as a great deal of disappointment. Currently
the early enthusiasm of research centers and scholars appears to be waning
and studies - due to political changes. Contemporary research concentrates
largely on Poles living in the East (former Soviet Union), where they
constitute ethnic minorities, and not "Polonia", a term reserved for Polish
communities established as a result of economically - motivated migrations.
Given the shift in the area of study, it is a opportune time to summarize the previous scholarschip. My focus in this paper will be on
the research of the last two decades, and I will approach the problem
not as a historian of scholarship, but as a participant in certain projects
who, among many other scholars, has taken part in the more or less
successful attempts to deepen our knowledge about Polish communities

Research Programs
War II

and the Organization

of "Polonia"

Studies after World

In the years right after World War II the general conditions in Poland were
not favorable to continue "Polonia" studies. Only in 1959 was the Komisja
Polonii Zagranicznej [Committee for "Polonia" Abroad] established as a part
of the Committee for the Study of Contemporary
Culture of the Polish
Academy of Sciences. The "Polonia" committee was transformed in 1970 into
an autonomous
Komitet Badań Problemów Polonii Zagranicznej PAN
[Committee for the Study of Problems of Polonia Abroad of the Polish
Academy of Sciences]. This institution has become, and still is today, the main
research center, yet along with the decentralization of research in Poland and
the changes in financing research programs it has lost its dominant position as
the scholarly arbiter and coordinator of studies.
In general, the tasks of the Committee includes, according to the decision of
the Executive Board of the Polish Academy of Sciences: (a) initiating and
supporting research concerning Polish communities abroad; (b) reviewing
research projects in the field and coordinating studies nationwide; (c) popularizing the results of research; (d) evaluating research initiatives and programs
nationwide, preparing and publishing collectively authored materials; (e) organizing academic debates and conferences on the subject of Polish communities
abroad; (1)establishing regular contacts with foreign centers of studies on the
Polish communities abroad; (g) publishing a scholarly annual devoted to the
problems of Poles living abroad (Kubiak, 1975, p. 17). The range of the
Committee's activity turned it into a "dictator" in the field of research on
Polish communities abroad, which was both an advantage and - under some
circumstances - a weakness of this institution.
The annual, "Problemy Polonii Zagranicznej", started appearing already in
1960 (Bogusz, 1975) - in 1975 it was transformed into "Przegląd Polonijny"
which, first as a bi-annual and later as a quarterly, has been published until
today. The journal is not only a mine of information about Polish communities
all over the world, but it also brings information about the organization of
research on Poles abroad, the activity of particular research centers, their
evolution, programs, etc.
No doubt, the Committee deserves credit for encouraging studies on Polish
communities abroad, and particularly for creating a solid institutional foundation of such research. A principal role has been played in this respect by
Polonijny Ośrodek Naukowo-Dydaktyczny
[Center for Polonia Studies of the Jagiellonian University], later renamed as
Instytut Badań Polonijnych [Institute for Polonia Studies] and then as
Instytut Polonijny [Polonia Institute]. However, it is important to mention
other research centers, such as Instytut Migracji Katolickiego Uniwersytetu

Lubelskiego [Institute of Migrations of the Catholic University of Lublin]
(today: Instytut Badań nad Polonią i Duszpasterstwem Polonijnym KUL
[Institute for the Polonia and Polonia Pastorate Studies of the Catholic
University of Lublin]) and Zakład Badań nad Polonią Zagraniczną PAN
[Department of the Studies on Poles Abroad of the Polish Academy of
Sciences] in Poznań (today: Zakład Badań Narodowościowych PAN [Department of Ethnic Studies of the Polish Academy of Science], which for several
years has been publishing a journal "Sprawy Narodowościowe. Seria Nowa").
While Cracow, Lublin, and Poznań have not dominated Polonia studies, which
have been conducted in almost all academic centers in Poland, these
institutions have contributed the most.
A crucial problem was to develop a unified program of Polonia studies
which would encompass "all the research upon all walks of life and episodes
of the history of Polish exiles, their attitude to the homeland and nations
among which they settled down" ("Problemy ... ", 1960, p. 3). The best known
programs were the following: a project of Komisja Polonii Zagranicznej PAN
("Problemy ... ", 1960), of R. Bierzanek (1968), ofW. Szczerba (1973), and, above
all, of H. Kubiak (1975). The last proposal was particularly interesting, since it
provided basic theoretical assumptions for the comprehensive government
program MR Ill/to, "Transformations of Polish Communities Abroad" (later
called "Transformations
of Polish Communities Abroad in the Context of
the Evolution of Other Ethnic Groups in the Countries of Settlement of
Poles"), which was realized in 1976 - 1985, and then, after minor corrections,
in 1986 - 1990.
Putting forward his program, H. Kubiak started with the assumption that
Polonia studies had previously been inefficient. That was caused by a number
of factors among which he distinguished as the most important ones: "the lack
of an adequate research basis in most centers involved in the Polonia studies,
and in particular the lack of proper information and documentation background ... , insufficient cooperation with foreign centers for ethnic studies,
including Polish academic institutions abroad ... , little theoretical and methodological value of most studies determined by their journalistic rather than
academic character. .. , a tendency of most scholars to avoid, mainly for
objective reasons, difficult analyses of the present. .. and to focus on the past. ..
almost exclusively on the basis of sources which are already available"
(Kubiak, 1975, pp. 18 - 19).
In his "unified program of research tasks" Prof. Kubiak distinguished
22 general directions of research which, in most cases, had already been
pursued. However, the program mentioned - and this is its strongest point a number of neglected fields such as: "Transformations of the Polish Spoken by
Polish Communities Abroad", "The Stereotypes of Polish Immigrants, Poles,
and Poland in Foreign Art and Media", "The History of Polonia Studies in

Poland", "The Methodology of Polonia Studies" or, finally, "The Protection of
Things Polish Abroad". One of the most neglected problems was the culture of
Poles abroad. Among others, Kubiak considered it essential to recognize the
mechanisms of transformation of cultural patterns and values as well as the
mechanisms of the preservation and transformations
of folklore in Polish
communities abroad. In an organic development of Polonia studies such tasks
were addressed to those disciplines of scholarship which focus predominantly
on culture, i.e. to ethnographers and ethnologists. Kubiak's program was
definitely an act of encouragement, an invitation of students of culture to take
part in the research on Polish communities abroad. Such research is sometimes
called a Polish version of ethnic studies (Miodunka,
1987, pp. 11-12;
Stankiewicz, 1994, p. 17). Still, before answering the questions of how far this
program was realised and what the effects of the ethnologists' work were, we
must say a few words about the origin and nature of the phenomenon called
"Polonia culture".
Culture of Polish Communities Abroad
The status of the culture of an ethnic community in a multiethnic country
of immigration has been and still is a controversial issue. A variety of ideas in
this respect may be reduced to three most important perspectives: (a) an
(emigrating) ethnic community preserves in the country of settlement its
original culture; (b) such a community adopts the culture of the country of
settlement; (c) an ethnic community develops a new type of culture which
cannot be reduced either to its original one or to the culture of the country of
If we assume that the emigre community just preserves the culture of the
country of origin (even though, for obvious reasons, in an increasingly limited
form), then what remains as the only possible object of interest are the relics:
materialor mental remains of the cultural baggage that have been brought by
emigrants to their new place of settlement (Kantor, 1990b). That baggage is
suppressed by the culture of the country of settlement, and the immigrants
gradually adopt the culture of their new homeland. The degree of atrophy of
their original culture will correspond with the degree of assimilation (Symonolewicz-Symmons, 1982).
Adopting the assumption that in the country of settlement an ethnic
community develops a new type of culture which can not be reduced to either
the culture of their country of origin or to the culture of the country of
settlement, we gain legitimate grounds to recognize ethnic subcultures, including the subculture of Poles abroad (Babiński, 1981; Paluch, 1981). Since
the countries accepting refugees from Poland were culturally diverse, Polish
communities which developed abroad and adopted some elements of the

culture of dominant groups also had to differentiate in terms of culture. This
means taking into consideration differences among the cultural baggage of
particular groups of Polish emigres, and that there is no unified "Polonia"
culture (if we admit, that "Polonia" as such exists at all), but rather a variety of
cultures of Polish communities abroad which are more or less varied in spite of
their common origin.
With respect to their culture of origin, Polish emigre communities could be
more or less unified. An example of cultural unity of Poles abroad are the
Canadian Kashubians (Jost, 1983), yet in most cases groups of Polish emigres
transforming into Polish communities abroad were internally differentiated
according to their regional descent. That regional origin or, more precisely,
regional differentiation connected with origin, was enormously significant for
the development of the identity of specific Polish communities abroad and their
culture. Most waves of emigrants were largely constituted by peasants who in
fact became the kernel of almost every Polish community abroad. The emigre
waves which founded Polish communities in the United States, Canada, Brazil,
France, and Germany did not carry high national culture (though at times
these immigrant groups did retain some of its elements), but specific regional
cultures - the folk traditions of peasants.
Polish peasants who constituted the majority of emigres acquired their
national identity only abroad, under new and in many respects unique
circumstances. The institutions which created that identity were Polish parishes
and social organizations, with books and the press also playing an important
In the initial stage of its development, the culture/cultures of Poles abroad
might have seemed an amorphous cluster of peasant, regional as well as
national traditions. Still, very much due to the influence of the Polish parish,
the annual rituals and customs converged and evolved into one relatively
uniform and universally recognized canon of Polishness in every day life and
social activity. If not for the external influences of the dominant and other
ethnic groups, Polish communities abroad would have probably developed one
type of culture which could be called universal, yet in fact, from the very
beginning of the history of Polish communities they demonstrated great
diversity and specific features related to the country of settlement: American,
Brazilian, Canadian, French, etc. Thus, their culture should be defined in
precise terms as, for instance, the culture of Polish Americans. However in this
particular case the general definition does not suffice, as the differences between
a farming community (Kocik, 1990) and the culture of Polish urban communities are significant (Kantor, l 990a).
There is no doubt that the cultures of Polish communities abroad
continued evolve under the influences of the societies of their countries of
settlement, as a result of internal processes, and under the influence of new

groups of emigrants coming from the mother country. The new waves of
emigrants culture as well as later waves of immigrants carried with them
a Polish version of mass culture. Joining and changing Polish communities
abroad, the newcomers would also impax their ethnic culture.
All the cultures of Polish communities abroad reveal features which result
from their common origin, even though specific differences among them may
be significant. In many cases those differences have not been recognized until
today, but this does not justify an atempt to apply any single common
denominator. Such a procedure might lead to neglecting one crucial fact: the
enormous impact of the local cultural environment on the evolution of any
given Polish community abroad, and the obvious fact that the circumstances in
various countries are different, at times even extremely so.
Polish Communities Abroad and Their Culture as an Object of Etnographic
and Ethnological Studies
The past and present of Polish communities abroad and their respective
cultures have been studied to a varying extent. They have been attracting the
attention of scholars representing various disciplines, and sometimes it is
difficult to set clear interdisciplinary boundaries. Most often, due to the
characteristics of the studied subject effective research requires a combination
of the approaches of history, sociology, and ethnology.
It has been a common opinion that the culture which is best known in all
its respects is that of Poles in the United States. It is indeed true that scholars
have accumulated a great deal of information about the Polish press in
America, Polish organizations, schools, and other institutions. However much
less is known about patterns of every day life, family and annual ceremonies,
social customs, emigre folklore (Kantor, 1994), etc. This means that our
knowledge of the culture of Polish communities in the United States is limited
to culture in a narrow sense of this term: to cultural activity in its
institutionalized forms or even to high culture, whereas very little is known
about popular culture as well as symbolic culture in general, even though
recently some progress has been made in this respect (Rokicki, 1986a; 1986b;
1992a; 1992b; 1994).
Moreover, as far as the culture of Polish Americans is concerned, scholars
have been examining mainly urban culture (Posern-Zieliński, 1982), while the
culture of rural, farming communities which make quite a large part of the
Polish American population in some regions of the United States still remains
virtually unrecognized (Kocik, 1990; Koliński, 1988; 1989).
Although the culture of Polish communities in the United States is
considered to be well known, in fact it has been only superficially understood.
Much less can be said about other Polish emigre cultures, such as, for example,

the culture of Poles in Brazil which has been seriously researched only recently
(Knot he, 1985) and about which much study still remains to be done. Elsevere,
l have discussed extensively the achievement of Polish ethnography/ethnology
in the study of Polish communities abroad (Kantor, 1984; 1987). Having
provided a critical account of the hitherto practiced methods of research and
results, l have proposed a general approach to the cultures of Polish
communities in the world that would allow for the study of culture as such, and
not - as was done in past research - of the cultural heritage of Poles abroad.
This proposal was based on a critique of the conception of W. Sobisiak who
claimed that "what seems the most important is a through and comprehensive
account of the behavior of emigrants related to the maintenance and
cultivation of their original cultural heritage, and only then we should
approach such problems as acculturation, assimilation, and integration with
a new environment or, in general, develop the study of the contemporary
emigre culture or contemporary cultural model of the emigrant" (1975, p. 46).
The same author declared that, to meet the standards of knowledge, "the
concept of the original culture of emigrants should comprise the cultural
heritage of the country of origin, that is, all forms of human behavior which
gave rise to the objectified cultural elements of a given ethos - both material
and spiritual values and accepted demeanor - which has been adopted and
transmitted by its representatives who live abroad" (Sobisiak, 1975, p. 17).
l have already criticized on several occasions (Kantor, 1985; 1987) the
above conception of Polonia studies which leads to the model of research, data
collecting, and the presentation of results (Sobisiak, 1983) which is both
correctly pejoratively - referred to as "ethnographico-folkloristic"
and, in fact,
can be reduced to the time-consuming identification of ethnic characteristics in
the preserved elements of folklore, customs, language, etc. As a result,
ethnography and ethnology (as the latter is often associated with the former)
have been pushed to the margins of studies of Polish communities abroad.
While the results obtained on the basis of such a conception are not without
some merit (including the works of W. Sobisiak), I would argue that his
approach is problematic. Even Sobisiak's students have adopted a much more
comprehensive approach to culture reaching far beyond a narrowly defined
search for the relics of the original culture and symptoms of its cultivation
(Kaczmarek, 1991; 1992).
Another penetrating critique of the approach starting from the concept of
original culture was formulated by A. Posern-Zieliński (1987, p. 59). "In its
classic ... version, the concept of original culture favors the study of the heritage
of emigrants transferred to a new environment and of the ways of its
preservation in a culturally alien milieu. The student of the original culture is
not really interested in the transformation of Polish cultural patterns and
values in the process of acculturation or their selection and combination with

alien elements to yield the elements of a totally new subculture, but in the
of the relics brought in the emigrants' baggage and
identification of all those patterns which may be derived directly either from
Polish folk or high national culture. No wonder, then, that the favorite object
of study for that orientation, no matter if its proponents use the term 'native
culture' or replace it with other concepts, are folk customs, rituals, ceremonies,
superstitions, and other similar aspects of the so-called traditional folk culture
cultivated in Polish communities because of tradition or because of conscious
decisions to refer to the tradition of the country of origin".
As a substitute for such a conception, the author introduces another
essentially different paradigm. "An approach - continues Posern-Zieliński which is, in a way, opposite to the treatment of the culture of Polish communities abroad as a culture of diaspora, both in its elite and folk aspects,
is a conception of the 'Polonia' culture as a culture which is ethnically specific
as a part of the cultural reality of the country of settlement. It may be
considered as a result of acculturation and another transformations related to
the process of gaining roots in a new ground, and viewed as a new (though
transitory) and original phenomenon which is a complex of diverse elements,
including the culture of the country of origin adopted to the particular
conditions of the country of settlement, local patterns adjusted to the ethnic
identity of the group, and innovative solutions developed only in a given Polish
community" (A. Posern-Zieliński, 1987, p. 59).
In recent years, the approach stemming from the belief that the study of
Polish communities abroad should reach beyond the "folklore-ethnographic"
framework and give up the search for the traces of original culture to focus
instead on three basic perspectives: of the country of origin, the country of
settlement, and a given Polish community itself, has been widely accepted. Still,
it remains an open question whether this will result in concrete scholarly
activity: research projects and publications shedding new light on Polish
communities abroad and their cultures.
Any attempt to answer this question should begin with acknowledging
a book which in the context of "Polonia" studies in Poland undoubtedly
has played an inspiring and pioneering role. Even though the scope of
its subject was so wide that it could not satisfy the interested audience
(some questions relating to a variety of problems were dealt with in a rather
cursory manner), over the years the book A. Posern-Zieliński's, Tradycja
i etniczność. Przemiany kultury Polonii amerykańskiej [Tradition and Ethnicity.
Cultural Changes of American Polonia] (1983) has acquired more and more
As it is obvious in the context of the aforementioned approach by the
author to the culture of Poles living abroad, Posern-Zieliński's goal was to
present the culture of Polish Americans not as a series of residues of the

"original culture", which was a common practice at the time when the book
was published, but as "an account of the process of the rise, development, and
gradual reduction of the spread of the ethnic subculture of Polish Americans"
(p. II). The author also rightly claimed that "the original culture brought in the
baggage of the immigrants was replaced by new forms of culture which are
different both from the patterns of culture of the homeland, and from the
mainstream culture of the United States shaped by the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ethos" (p. 12). Those new forms of culture became the object of Posern-Zieliński's close attention.
Posern-Zieliński's study included a number of important and seminal
conclusions, one of them being particularly significant. "Just as there is no
single and uniform Polish community abroad - writes Posern-Zieliński there is no definite culture of Poles abroad; for despite many common
characteristics, it takes various forms, depending on the moment in time and
the social background" (p. 288).
While the author showed these common characteristics in a convincing
manner, the variety of forms of culture of Polish Americans was hardly
delineated. The material available to the scholar indicated the similarities most
distinctly, and a thorough presentation of differences required more systematic
and profound studies and long-term and continuous contacts with the Polish
communities, including, e.g., Detroit and Chicago workers, farmers from the
area of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, the mountaineers from Passaic who maintain
close ties with the Old Country, and the progeny of pioneers from Panna
Maria in Texas.
Recently, the research on the origin of Polish communities abroad and their
culture have become considerably more advanced. Of particular importance
are the publications by 1. Rokicki from Zakład Kultury Polonijnej Instytutu
Polonijnego Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego [Department of Polonia Culture of
the Institute of Polonia Studies of Jagiellonian University]. In several works
J. Rokicki has dealt with the problematic of migration and cultural change in
the context of the study of Polonia culture (1986a), analyzed the role of religion
and language as the carriers of ethnic values and symbols of an ethnic group
(l986b; 1992b), and originally approached the so-called polka-masses, an
ethnic element of the Roman Catholic liturgy in Polish communities in the
United States (1994). Of particular value is Rokicki's work, Więź społeczna
a zmiana kultury. Studium dynamiki polskiej zbiorowości etnicznej w USA
[Social Bonds and Cultural Change. The Study of Dynamics of Polish Ethnic
Community in the U.S.A.] (1992), which combines general studies on the
Polonia culture as an ethnic subculture with detailed analyses of its particular
elements. No doubt, it may be put next to the book by Posern-Zieliński, both
for its outstanding academic value and inspiration for contemporary studies on
Polish communities and their culture/cultures.
lR -

Lud t. LXXIX

Equally noteworthy are other monographs of Polish communities abroad
which, to a varying extent, have taken into account their culture in a way that
does not, in fact, considerably differ from the approach advocated here. Among
others, lately the object of research have included: a Polish American
community of farmers in Wisconsin (Koliński, 1989; Kocik, 1990), a unique,
century-old community of emigrants from one Małopolska parish in Chicago
(Kantor, 1990a; 1994) as well as the Kashubian community in Canada
(Kucharska, 1986; 1993). Unfortunately, similar studies of Polish communities
from other parts of the world still remain to be written.






w społeczeństwach




of Ethnic




in Pluralistic







the Institute

of History

of the

pp. 6 - 23.

Stan i potrzeby

badań naukowych

on Polonia],

nad problematyką







vol. 5, pp. 7 - 28.






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by the National

of Sciences],


Narodową oraz







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przez BibliotekI'
PAN [Culture
of Polish Communities
a Symposium


of Studying







(vol. 1- 9)], "Przegl"d



of Contents
vol. l, fasc. I,


191- 198.






nad problematyką
of Polish

(1921 - 1939). Z dziejów


badOIi naukowych

etniczną [The Institute
of Ethnic Groups
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on Ethnic Problems],
vol. 11,

fasc. 2, pp. 63 - 79.













w Bulgarii,


i na Węgrzech


of Polonia



of Polonia




w Ontario

in Ontario],



in Bulgaria,

in Central





in the



in the


1945 - 1989 [Cultural
the German





latach 1945 -19X9 [The Culture





on Polonia.



Rev.: W. Sobisiak,

121 -125.



i propozycje





vol. 68, pp.


Polonii zachodnioeuropejski£'j






197 - 215.





II, fasc.





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a etniczność.

Ethnicity. Cultural




Changes of American






w zakresie
[Problems and
on Polonia in Terms of Culture); in: Dorobek
i perspektywy
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Communities Abroad), op. cit., pp. 56 - 72.

i perspektywy



of the Research

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hy Marek




Kantor, Ryszard, “The Achievement of Polish Ethnology in the Study of Polish Community Abroad / LUD 1995 t.79,” Cyfrowa Etnografia, Dostęp 6 października 2022,

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