Piotr Sztompka

Piotr Sztompka
by Jennifer Platt, University of Sussex, England

Born: 1944
Nationality:  Polish 

Education
1966  MA in Law  Jagiellonian University, Poland
1967  MA in Sociology  Jagiellonian University, Poland
1970  Ph.D. in Social Sciences  Jagiellonian University, Poland (Thesis topic: Functional analysis in sociology and social anthropology; supervisor, Kazimierz Dobrowolski).
1974  Habilitation and docent degree, University of Krakow
1980  Full professor extraordinarius*
1987  University professor ordinarius*
*These are both honorific titles conferred at the national level.

Posts held
1972-3  Fulbright postdoctoral fellow, University of California Berkeley and Harvard.
1975 – Head of the Chair on Theoretical Sociology, Jagiellonian University
1996 -  Head of the Centre for Analysis of Social Chanage, ‘Europe 89’.
[He has also had long sequences as a visitor for summer sessions at Columbia in the 1970s and at UCLA in the 1980s-90s, as well as shorter relationships in other places.] 

ISA participation, main roles
He was a member of the Polish delegation to the 1970 Varna World Congress, possibly at the initiative of then-president Szczepanski, who knew him; he gave a paper there, and has attended every subsequent Congress except in 1982, when martial law in Poland made that impossible.
RC on Sociological Theory: co-founder, 1991-94,Co-Chair; 1994-2002, Board member (conferences organised, publications edited).
EC member 1994-98
Vice President (Programme)  1998-2002
President 2002-06

Participation in other settings
Polish Academy of Science
Polish Academy of Letters and Sciences
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Academia Europaea (London)

Intellectual and ISA career[1]
Sztompka was brought up in a family where his father, a distinguished concert pianist, could travel abroad and receive foreign news to a greater extent than the average Pole at the time, and at an early age he resolved to find ways to take part in the wider world; in school, therefore, he made a special effort to learn good English. The obvious professional area, once he had decided against music and natural science as requiring more exclusive commitment than his political, social, cultural and literary interests permitted, was some other area of academia, and initially he chose law.  He had never heard of sociology, but at university discovered its existence and took a degree in the field alongside one in law. 

Given the constraints under which Polish sociology still operated, he took as his role models books by Ossowski - who wrote on abstract philosophical topics - and Bauman - who gave lip service to Soviet authors but discussed recent American work.  (His thesis supervisor was an old-style sociologist who was helpful, but made no real intellectual contribution to his work.)  A second book on methodology was his last one written in Polish for more than 20 years. 

To increase the practical possibility of going abroad he joined the Communist Party, as many others had done, with complete cynicism (though at the end of 1981, when martial law was imposed to crush Solidarity, he could stand it no longer and handed in his Party card, expecting a call from the secret police - which luckily did not come, perhaps because so many others had done the same).  In 1972 he won a Fulbright fellowship, which took him to Berkeley for 8 months.  There he met, among others, Neil Smelser and Herbert Blumer (both active in the ISA) and joined a graduate students’ ‘Theory Group’, where he met Jeffrey C. Alexander (who became a lifelong friend and collaborator) and Erik Olin Wright.  Then he had three months at Harvard, taking courses with Parsons and Homans.  On this trip he wrote the English-language version of his doctoral work; it was published in 1974.

When this first American book came out, it was original enough to attract quite a lot of attention.  It led to Robert Merton contacting him after he had returned to Poland with an invitation to arrange summer school appointments for him at Columbia so that they could work together, and Merton became his mentor and ‘master-at-a-distance turned friend’[2].  As a result, later on he was commissioned to write a book on Merton (Sztompka 1986).  Since then, Sztompka has taught at a number of American universities, and participated to a considerable extent in American sociological life, without in any way losing his contact with Poland.  In the period of martial law he contemplated emigration, but decided for Poland. 

The experience of those tumultuous years led him to develop his interests in social movements and their role in social change (partly through working with colleagues at the University of Michigan), resulting in his Society in Action: The Theory of Social Becoming (1991) as well as several other publications.  To understand what was going on around him he read deeply in general theories of social change, and his later work on ‘civilizational incompetence’, trust, and trauma, related to ‘the cultural and mental legacies of communism that comprised barriers to the quick and complete success of transformation’.  Sztompka’s work has been mainly theoretical in character, but Kalekin-Fishman (2006: 822) suggests that ‘In many ways… his work can be characterised as a project of theorisation that stems from the astounding political and social changes he is witnessing.’ 

His presidential address was not of the conventional form, but briefly introduced a ‘presidential debate’ on the general theme of the Congress, ‘The quality of social existence in the globalising world’.  He describes the other contributors as ‘a group of eminent theorists whose trademark is not to build theories for theories’ sake but rather to use theories in order to… understand better the perplexities and vicissitudes of human fate in our time’.  In this introduction he analyses the meanings the conference theme has for him, and argues for a style of sociology that he sees as corresponding better to real experience, and so more effective in aiming for social improvements.  He starts by suggesting that it is appropriate to treat the macro theme of globalisation at the micro level of the mundane everyday experiences of ordinary people.  This implies that real sociality resides in those experiences and the relationships they contain. 

That perspective marks a ‘third sociology’, after the first of Comte, Spencer and Marx treating whole societies as organisms, and the second of Weber, Pareto and Znaniecki which focuses on actions; this third one focuses on social events, their patterns and sequences, and much recent sociology has been moving in this direction.  Among the questions this raises are the influence of different settings on behaviour, what the value is of different kinds of bond and how far a satisfactory life can make trade-offs between them. 

Other lines of division run between groups differently located within societies, and between the cultures of different societies; does globalisation increase such cleavages, or tend to equalise circumstances?  The last issue raised by the theme is that of ‘quality’, and this entails evaluations: are the effects of globalisation positive or negative?  Sociology is returning to evaluative judgments, and this responds to the demand of the wider audience for a public sociology.

References, other sources of information, related work

  • Alexander, Jeffrey C., Ron Eyerman, Bernhard Giesen, Neil J. Smelser, and Piotr Sztompka (2004)  Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity
  • Coser, Lewis A., ed. (1975)  The Idea of Social Structure [festschrift for Merton]
  • Crothers, Charles (1987)  Robert K. Merton
  • Finnochiaro, Maurice A. (1980)  ‘Sztompka’s philosophy of social science’, Inquiry 23: 357-371.
  • Kalekin-Fishman, Devorah (2006)  ‘An interview with Piotr Sztompka’, International Sociology 21: 822-828.
  • Sulek, Antoni and Nina Krasko (2002)  ‘The multifarious and changing functions of the Polish Sociological Association’, International Sociology, 17: 213-231
  • Sztompka, Piotr (1974)  System and Function: Toward a Theory of Society, Academic Press. [an extended version of his PhD thesis].
  • Sztompka, Piotr (1986)  Robert K. Merton: an Intellectual Profile (1986)
  • Sztompka, Piotrand Jeffrey C. Alexander(1990) Rethinking Progress
  • Sztompka, Piotr (1991)  Society in Action: The Theory of Social Becoming, Polity.
  • Sztompka, Piotr (1991)  ‘Many sociologies for one world: the case for grand theory and theoretical pluralism’, The Polish Sociological Bulletin 3: 147-158.
  • Sztompka, Piotr (1993)  The Sociology of Social Change
  • Sztompka, Piotr (1996) ‘Trust and Emerging Democracy: Lessons from Poland’, International Sociology 11: 37-62
  • Sztompka, Piotr(1999)  Trust: a Sociological Theory
  • Sztompka, Piotr (2000) ‘Cultural Trauma: The Other Face of Social Change’, The European Journal of Social Theory, 4: 449-466
  • Sztompka, Piotr (2004)  ‘From East-Europeans to Europeans: Shifting Collective Identities and Symbolic Boundaries in the New Europe”, European Review, 12.4: 481-496. 
  • Sztompka, Piotr (2007)  ‘Coming in from the cold: my road from socialism to sociology’, pp. 189-202 in ed. M. Deflem, Sociologists in A Global Age, Ashgate.

Web site
There is only a limited one in Polish, within the site of the Jagiellonian University

Presidential address: pdfIntroductory remarks to the presidential debate’; these have not been published in English.
An extended version has appeared in Polish: ‘Przestrzen zycia codziennego’ (The space of everyday life), in: Malgorzata Bogunia-Borowska (ed.), Barwy codziennosci (The colours of the everyday), Warszawa 2009, Scholar Publishers, pp. 29-50

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[1]  This section draws heavily on Sztompka 2007.

[2]  Dedication, Sztompka 1986.