Sommaire des JADT 1998   





Günther Schühly

Pontifical Gregorian University,

Piazza della Pilotta, 4; I-00187 Rome/Italy



Bien que la publication du livre de Thomas/Znaniecki Le paysan polonais en Europe e en Amérique remonte à près de quatre-vingts ans, cette œuvre demeure fascinante, et de plusieurs points de vue différents elle provoque les sociologues à de nouvelles analyses scientifiques. Il faut mentionner au moins quelques-unes des publications des ces dix dernières années (Corradi 1988a; Markiewicz-Lagneau, 1988).

La base de notre analyse textuelle sera d’une part le fondement théorique selon Thomas/Znaniecki eux-mêmes: par exemple, "Désorganisation du groupe primaire et réorganisation en Pologne et en Amérique", le concept de "la dissolution de la solidarité familiale", etc. D’autre part l’analyse de ces concepts sera approfondie par la formulation selon Karl Mannheim de la catégorie de "non-contemporanéité des contemporains" par les catégories formulées par Ferdinand Tönnies de "communauté et société", mentionnées dans l’article séminal de Weymann.


1. Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to present the historical foundations of the qualitative biographical method in the social sciences, which my colleague Simona Carbone will be using as the basis of her computerized textual analysis.

In spite of the triumphant advance of quantification in social research, particularly since the second World War, qualitative social research can maintain its position, and in certain circumstances contribute to an even more complete method, in which both approaches are combined in social research.

Since we are dealing today with one of the major works of qualitative social research, namely with The Polish Peasant in Europe and America by Thomas and Znaniecki, and since my colleague Simona Carbone will present a computer-supported textual analysis of this work, I would like to put her contribution into a wider historical context, so that we can understand better the methodological progress of the qualitative biographical method.


2. Different qualitative research methods in the social sciences

Qualitative social research has different methods which we would like to enumerate briefly. It deals, for example, with the qualitative case study, the qualitative interview, the group discussion, the qualitative analysis of content, participant observation, the qualitative experiment, and finally the biographical method.

Since the opus of Thomas and Znaniecki represents the biographical method, which was applied in particular by the Chicago School of the 1930s, I would like to describe briefly the School of Chicago as well as the biographical method which it employed.


3. The Chicago-School of the 1930s as a center for qualitative research in biographical method.

We shall present a short chronological summary of the development of the biographical method, following Lamnek. According to Lamnek, three publications were of particular importance in the development of this method: The Polish Peasant in Europe and America by Thomas and Znaniecki, and the Jack-Roller and The Natural History of a Delinquent Boy’s Own Story, both by Shaw. The work of Thomas and Znaniecki, which runs to more than 2000 pages, contains an abundance of material - private letters, parish and community documents, and also the extensive autobiography of a young Pole.

At the beginning of this text one finds a "methodological note" of over eighty pages. In this introduction, Thomas and Znaniecki describe their methodological innovations, namely:

1.) The idiographic and qualitative procedure by which hypotheses, theoretical concepts and theories are developed on the basis of the materials collected, evaluated and interpreted,

2.) by applying their specific biographical approach, in which the individual and subjective factor is stressed in considering social phenomena.

In their use of the biographical method, Thomas and Znaniecki go so far as to call it the "royal highway" of social research: "We are safe in saying, that personal life-records, as complete as possible, constitute the perfect type of sociological material, and that if social science has to use other materials at all it is only because of the practical difficulty of obtaining at the moment a sufficient number of such records to cover the totality of sociological problems, and of the enormous amount of work demanded for an adequate analysis of all personal material necessary to characterize the life of a social group".

The idiographic and open-ended method of Thomas and Znaniecki, based upon case-studies, spread beyond the frontiers of Poland to the United States, and was adopted there. This methodology "is an essential starting-point of the Chicago School and so of the theoretical orientation which, twenty years later, was called "symbolic interactionism".

"In the circle of the Chicago School of Sociology, the innovations of Thomas and Znaniecki are accepted by colleagues and students; research begins on the problems of immigrants, on the way of life of criminals and of deviant groups, on questions concerning an urbanized society characterized by mass misery, cultural differences and criminality". The range of methodological instruments is notably enlarged. While Thomas and Znaniecki still rely on personal documents already in existence, sociologists of the biographical Chicago School began to produce personal documents and autobiographical descriptions for the purpose of sociological research, using participant or undisclosed observation as well as the qualitative interview.

On the further use of the biographical method in the United States, one must note "that, after 1945, interest in the biographical method was shown only in research on deviance. Outside this area, its development ceased and it vanished from the general horizon of methodological and theoretical discussion". Instead, statistical calculations came to prevail in the area of method, and the structural-functional approach on the level of theory.

The decline of the biographical method had already begun in the 1930s; the debate in the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) happened at a time when the method was on the wane, and the methodological judgments of Allport and Gottschalk et al. were unable to arrest this development (Kohli, 1981a; p. 281). In contrast, the biographical method continued to spread and be popular in Poland, under the personal influence of Znaniecki.

As already mentioned, the publications of Clifford R. Shaw in 1930 and 1931 can be considered as a second culminating-point of the biographical method in those years. Both studies are in the area of deviance and concern delinquent youth. It is not so much the content of Shaw's work that makes it relevant to the history of the biographical method, but rather the methods which he employed.

Although interest in the biographical method declined significantly after its discussion in the Social Science Research Council, since the mid-1970s there has been a change of trend. Since then, there has emerged a renewed interest in the biographical method as part of qualitative social research. In particular, since the start of the 1980s a series of publications have appeared using the biographical method, both studies of theory and method as well as reports on empirical studies.

Recently, a new scientific review was founded, which is concerned with Oral History and also with biographical research (BIOS). All this indicates that biographical studies have become a respectable object of sociological research.

The rebirth of interest in the biographical method, particularly in the 1980s and in Germany, may be attributed to the interaction of two lines of development in German sociology, namely:

1.) Marxist-oriented industrial sociology and the sociology of the consciousness of working people. In this specific area of sociological research, the question concerns the "history of subjects, through which massive historical changes of life-conditions were hoped for in recent decades";

2.) The renaissance of interpretative and phenomenological reflections leading to a differentiated elaboration of action-oriented paradigms. The change of theoretical sociology from system and structure to everyday life and the individual;

- these, together with their methodological implications, are the two trends from which a new interest in biographical research has resulted.


4. New tendencies in the qualitative conception of Thomas’ and Znaniecki’s work The Polish Peasant in Europe and America

The importance of the work of Thomas and Znaniecki for contemporary sociology is shown by the research done on The Polish Peasant in Europe and America in the last ten years (1987-1997). The choice of these last ten years as a time-frame is somewhat arbitrary, and does not mean that the work of Thomas and Znaniecki was less important previously. The last ten years may therefore stand symbolically for the previous 25 years, and serve to give a sample of the recent discussion.

The model of analysis employed by my colleague Simona Carbone comes from Ansgar Weymann and was published in 1995. A little later we shall treat Weymann's model in more detail.

Of the fourteen publications (articles or books) which we have examined, five apply the biographical method (Corradi, 1988a, 1988b; Giza, 1987; Jacubczak, 1995; Karlowski, 1995); three apply the "life-history" method (Simeoni, 1988; Plummer, 1990; Sato, 1991); one is concerned with sociological theory (Gubert, 1993); one with interdisciplinary problems between sociology and philosophy (Markiewicz-Lagneau 1998); and three deal with questions of the sociology of religion (Czarnowski 1988), the theory of migration (Lie 1995) or social disorganization (Wenglinsky 1994). It is interesting to note that all of these commit themselves to the qualitative approach of Thomas and Znaniecki, if one takes the biographical method and the "life history" method as representing a single qualitative approach. The last publication which will concern us is by Ansgar Weymann, whose approach is also qualitative. Before going further, however, we should present briefly the main categories used by Thomas and Znaniecki, since Weymann, together with categories of Karl Mannheim and Ferdinand Tönnies, also applies the analytical categories of Thomas and Znaniecki.

As already noted, Thomas and Znaniecki are concerned with the "primary group", the structure of the rural family, marriage, the rural social class system, social environment, economic life, religious and magical behaviour, theoretical and aesthetic interests. Other categories of analysis are social disorganization and social reorganization in Poland, dissolution of family solidarity, disorganization and reorganization in the United States.


5. Weymann’s model of analysis

Besides the categories just mentioned for the qualitative analysis of letters, published by Thomas and Znaniecki, Weymann adds two further categories derived from the sociologists Karl Mannheim and Ferdinand Tönnies.

Of the 28 series of letters, Weymann selects only 17, namely those exchanged between parents and children; the remaining 11 series are not evaluated. Weymann says: "This article proposes a new evaluation of the correspondence of the Polish Peasant. The evaluation employs first of all a perspective of the sociology of knowledge and a phenomenology of the "life-world" of two generations. "Generational conflicts", adds Weymann, "will be explained as occurring between generations which are embedded in different forms of society. The change of societal forms during the process of modernization leads to the everyday worlds of those who stayed at home and those who emigrated becoming alien to each other. The contemporary world and the former world are - in the sense of Schütz and Luckmann - no longer rooted in the same life-experience. There follows a "non-contemporaneity of contemporaries", a non-simultaneity of the simultaneous. A second step examines the new economic life of the emigrants, in terms of action-theory and biography, as an element of individualized life-histories. The decisive difference in the life-worlds of the two generations is the transition from community to society, from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, in the sense of Tönnies (Tönnies 1979). While the generation of parents who remained at home is still embedded in the local community formed by shared ways of thinking, customs and religion, the generation of emigrants has acquired its membership in American society through personal adherence, in which the transition from community to society is based primarily upon inclusion into law and economy".

The second element of Weymann’s analysis is Mannheim’s concept of the "non-contemporaneity of contemporaries". "Through emigration", says Weymann, "from backward Poland into the United States, particularly into the modern metropolis of Chicago, very different historical-social dispositions of two generations condense into an abrupt biographical change within a short time-span. Conjoint experiences of economic, social and cultural stagnation encounter conjoint experiences of rapid social, economic and cultural progress. Emigration meant that such experiences of the contrast between historical periods were numerous, and biographically dramatic, within a short period of time. To use Mannheim’s formulation: the non-contemporaneity of contemporaries, in the coexistence of generations which represent different historical periods, will be experienced with a greater than normal intensity. The life-experiences of the two generations are no longer rooted in the same set of conditions. The gap between the former world and the new world (Wir-Welt) of the emigrants widens and makes communication ever more difficult.

The letters sent by the older generation in Poland to the younger generation in the United States contain fatalism, while the letters of the younger generation in the USA contain the feeling of creative force.

It will be the task of my colleague Simona Carbone to show in greater depth the contemporary importance of the work of Thomas and Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, by applying the programm SPAD.T to the categories of Thomas and Znaniecki as well as to categories of Tönnies and Mannheim employed by Weymann.

I thank you for your attention.



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Czarnowski, St. (1988). The Religious Culture of Polish Peasants, La Culture religieuse des paysans polonais. Archive-de-sciences-sociales-des-religions, 33,65-1, 7-23..

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Weymann, A. (1995). Modernisierung, Generationsverhältnisse und die Ökonomie der Lebenszeit. Gesellschaftsformen und Generationen im "Polish Peasant". Soziale Welt, 46, 4, 369-384.

Sommaire des JADT 1998