Contemporary Sociology May 1990: p. 358-360

Janine Wedel: The Private Poland. Facts on File Publications, New York - Oxford, England 1986, 230 p. $17.95

Daniel H. Krymkowski, Dartmouth College

The Private Poland is a genuine attempt to provide insight into the functioning of Polish society. [Janine Wedel’s] case material consists of personal experiences and observations during her many trips and extended stays in Poland. The bulk of the book is based on fieldwork conducted during the martial law and initial post-martial law periods, so there are accounts of the deep pain experienced by many Poles during these times. In addition, Wedel does not ignore Poland's massive economic and social problems, but neither does she have such a rigid a priori agenda as do Kolankiewicz and Lewis. Instead, she simply describes how Poles manage in their day-to-day lives and cope with their problems. In the course of such an analysis a rich picture of Poland emerges, providing the reader with a penetrating analysis concerning the interesting, unique, and special features of Polish social life.

Since much of Wedel's material is drawn from the 1982-85 period, the tone of the book is heavily laden with martial law themes. In present-day Poland, led as it is by a Solidarity government, talk of political prisoners and underground publications al¬ready seems a bit distant. A wide variety of good newspapers features interesting informa¬tion, and, quite frequently, fiery polemics. Even the broadcast media have opened up to some extent. No one, however, could have anticipated the incredibly rapid pace of social change in Eastern Europe.

Although in some respects the book is a bit dated, in other important respects it is not. Wedel reveals some very fascinating (and resilient) characteristics of Polish society. One immensely interesting aspect, especially from a sociological point of view, can be neatly summarized in a short phrase: the strength of the social bond. Wedel's material suggests that family ties are more durable than in most Western countries, and that they have been reinforced during the recent periods of political and economic crisis. In addition, friendship bonds are very strong, and Polish spiritual and intellectual life (duchowe) retains its historical vibrancy. On the subject of friendship Wedel quotes the late Polish sociologist Stefan Nowak, and his remarks are worth repeating here:

When Americans say about someone "he is my best friend," at the most we can say that the Polish equivalent of that is "good acquaintance." That which would correspond with friendship in our understanding is simply lacking in many cultures. To our friends we can go for help in many difficult situations and, in relation to them, we are obligated to offer help. A lot of Poles would go very far both in their expectations of real help and in terms of offering such help to their friends. Having a circle of przyjaciele (friends) increases the feeling of safety, both in psychological as well as in very "practical" aspects of life. (p. 104)

Wedel discusses the importance of such social bonds for survival during the current difficult times, but I feel that she could have gone further in speculating about the causes and consequences of solid family and friendship ties. It is possible, for example, that the strong social bond is related to the relatively low violent crime rate in Poland. However, she focuses on - and in my view overemphasizes the instrumental basis of social interaction. While it is true that Poles spend a great deal of time using their social networks of exchange to obtain life's necessities (the practice of zalatwianie), Wedel gives the impression that Poles spend nearly all of their time engaged in such pursuits. In addition, she excessively links the strength of the social bond to the economic hard times of the present period and to the hard times of the partitions and occupations of previous historical periods. Although these factors are undoubtedly very important, some historians trace the origins of such behavior to much more distant periods.

Some issues raised by Wedel merit re¬examination in light of the recent changes in Poland. For example, she documents what some Polish sociologist" have called "social dimorphism": the differences in behavior displayed by Poles in their public and private lives. The humiliating nature of the postwar system perpetuated the harsh ritualization of public life, which had its historical roots in the times of partition and occupation. Private life, on the other hand, remained warm and intimate. One possible result of the current restructuring in Poland may be the elimina¬tion of this dimorphism.

Social dimorphism may not be the only casualty of reform, however. It is interesting to speculate about other social consequences of the radical changes beginning to take place in contemporary Poland. For example, certain elements of the Mazowiecki government favor the establishment of a Milton Friedman-like market economy. What effect would this have, if any, on some of the social arrangements regarded as distinctively Polish?

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