Being and Becoming European in Poland: European Integration and Self-Identity

Being and Becoming European in Poland: European Integration and Self-Identity

by Marysia H. Galbraith


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Overthrowing communism in 1989 and joining the European Union in 2004, the Polish people hold loyalties to region, country and now continent - even as the definition of what it means to be 'European' remains unclear. Paying particular attention to those who came of age in the earliest years of the neoliberal and democratic transformations, this book uses the life-story narratives of rural and urban southern Poles to reveal how 'being European' is considered a fundamental component of 'being Polish' while participants are simultaneously 'becoming European'. Ultimately, this study demonstrates how the EU is regarded as both an idea and an instrument, and how ordinary citizens make choices that influence the shape of European identity and the legitimacy of its institutions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783084289
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 03/15/2015
Series: Anthem Series on Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies , #1
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Marysia H. Galbraith is an associate professor at the University of Alabama’s New College and Department of Anthropology.

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Being and Becoming European in Poland

European Integration and Self-Identity

By Marysia H. Galbraith

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2014 Marysia H. Galbraith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-234-6



Poland's membership in the European Union (EU) marked a major crossroad in the country's extraordinary path of reform since the peaceful overthrow of communism in 1989. Drawing on life stories told to me over the course of twenty years, I examine this critical period from the perspective of the generation who came of age in the earliest years of neoliberal and democratic transformation, and established careers and families as Poland negotiated its place within the EU. I also advance an approach to identity that recognizes the primacy of people's experiences and their associated thoughts and feelings. I start with the assumption that the only way to understand why some collective identities resonate while others fall flat is by considering what individual selves think, feel and do in response to historical circumstances. In other words, identity is an inherently psychological phenomenon; it takes shape within people's minds.

This may seem to some readers like an obvious point, but much scholarship in anthropology has started with the premise that there is no way of knowing what goes on in people's heads. Those inclined toward interpretive approaches have instead focused on collective representations, especially symbols, rituals, media reports and other forms of communication between people; those taking a materialist approach have tended to focus on objects, institutions and power hierarchies. Correspondingly, rather than talking about "selves" or "individuals," studies have instead discussed "subject positions," "social actors" or "roles and statuses," and thus avoid dealing with the particular people who fill those categories. I argue, by contrast, that unless we take into account the personal experiences, thoughts and feelings of bounded, integrated selves, we diminish what we are able to understand about two fundamental areas of anthropological interest: identity and culture. If we do not pose questions that take into account psychological phenomena, we close ourselves off from ever understanding why people do what they do or believe what they believe.

In 2005, only a year after Poland's historic entrance into the EU, I talked with Poles about their experiences as EU citizens, as well as their thoughts and feelings about EU membership. Their responses were often surprising considering conventional expectations based on socioeconomic and other demographic factors. Consider this small, characteristically varied sample of what they said about their attachment to Europe:

I don't know how I feel toward Europe. I think that if, for example, my country was, I don't know, in Asia, that wouldn't bother me either. Maybe I'm more attached to my country, to ojczyzna [fatherland], you know? And I'm also incredibly attached to this region. Because I'm by nature that kind of person who loves mountains and valleys. [...] And whether I'm attached to Europe? I don't know. Maybe if I look from the perspective of history, of the past ... yes, there is a kind of sentiment to certain things. But I don't have any kind of feeling like we belong to Europe, or that there is some kind of unity or something, or that I will for example fight to protect France. I don't feel that kind of bond with them. (Joasia, a school librarian from a village in Bieszczady)

I don't think I have [any attachment to Europe] ... I'm not a racist. But it hurts me that in Germany — I can only compare that country because I've been there — we aren't treated well. We are treated as lower, poorer, you could say; fingers are pointed at us. It shouldn't be this way. We're already in the EU and we should be treated the same as French people, as every person in the EU. I treat them the same, so I think they should me. (Agata, a farmer in Bieszczady)

I haven't thought about it this way before, but I could easily live abroad ... I'm not sure what's changed inside me, maybe it's the EU, maybe it's because everything has opened, borders have opened, and you can cross the German border and they don't even check your passport. Psychologically, these opportunities give you the attitude that you can at any time board [a plane] and go and return, without cutting yourself off from your own country. And you don't have the feeling of that Iron Curtain, as they used to call it, that something big separates us from the rest of the world, some kind of wall. That has all been destroyed, like symbolically that Berlin Wall. It was an amazing experience when it was destroyed. It was as if all of Europe felt relieved; that whole history went into the past; something opened, a new chance, a new society. [...] I feel the same solidarity [to Poland], but suddenly I also feel it toward other people in Europe. As if they have become closer to me. (Ania, an artist from Krakow)

I'm not the kind of person who identifies with the nation. I don't have any kind of nationalist aspirations, so ... I haven't ever even thought about this. I am a European and that's it. Poles are in the EU, but also we are European, we have been European, and we will be European, unless, perhaps, geographic divisions change. Maybe if I traveled, I would feel it more. As a resident of the EU, I have that freedom to move around the EU. But besides that, not much [has changed]. (Pawel, a sales manager and resident of Lesko, a small town in Bieszczady)

These responses help to show why many researchers avoid personal accounts. Every answer is different; these are not issues that participants usually think about; and personal idiosyncrasies seem to obscure more general cultural patterns. In a word, these data are messy; they do not provide easy or unambiguous answers to the questions posed. But, at the same time, their complexity is what makes this kind of information compelling. Even in the disparate responses I have quoted, certain significant patterns emerge. First, what it means to be European is almost always considered in relation to national loyalties. Often local loyalties or comparisons with other nationalities are taken into account as well. Second, travel or work abroad is the situation in which European identity and attachment to Europe is most likely to matter. Third, participants talk about their attachment to Europe (or lack thereof) in terms of their sense of the kind of person they are; for them, discrete, enduring selves are not a fiction but rather a starting point for navigating in the world. Finally, I must note that many Poles spend more time thinking and talking about identity issues than they themselves seem to realize; as a long-term observer, I have years of field notes that attest to that fact. From such personal reflections I distill what I call "constellations of debate" — common areas of negotiation and interest around which various positions and responses emerge.

In this book, I examine the personal life stories of Polish citizens I have known since they were high school students in the early 1990s, to reveal ways of thinking about the EU in relation to the nation and the particular region of Poland in which they live. These stories show how the EU is regarded as both an idea and an instrument. As an idea, it is shaped by and helps to shape the contours of identity and ideology. As an instrument, it is wielded for personal interests, and also for advancing collective interests (both economic and symbolic) at the local and national scales. The study draws on extensive participant observation and interviews and, especially because it has occurred over an extended period of time, reveals both stable and shifting notions of Europe, nation and local region, as individuals navigate everyday experiences and reflect upon their own lives, current events and concepts like identity, integration and freedom. I argue that close attention to particular lives in all their complexity is essential for grasping the impact of the EU in member states, as well as the ways in which the institution itself has been and is likely to be shaped from the bottom up. Ordinary citizens — even those who know little about the process of integration, who are not directly involved in shaping EU policy, and who may not even think much about macro-level institutional processes — make choices in their everyday lives that have an impact on the shape of European identity, and correspondingly, the degree of legitimacy EU institutions can gain from that identity. By linking three bodies of theory — about the EU, national identity and the self — I develop a person-centered approach to the study of group identities as they are reinscribed, revised and reinvented in the face of democratization, market liberalization and supranational integration. Although the study focuses on a discrete number of people from a specific locale (southern Poland), I explore global processes, and as such I hope this case sheds light on similar processes occurring within and beyond the postsocialist world.

Long-Term Fieldwork

Most participants in this study were born between 1972 and 1976. This places them within a bridge generation that came of age during a period of fundamental institutional transformation; they have childhood memories of life under state socialism, but were young enough to adapt to the expectations placed on persons by global capitalism and European integration. When I first met them in 1992, they were high school students in the city of Krakow in south-central Poland, and in the small town of Lesko in southeastern Poland. I chose these two field sites because I wanted to compare urban and rural experiences of postcommunist reforms. Because I was interested in national identity, Krakow was an obvious choice due to its symbolic significance as the "heart of Poland." Krakow is home to Wawel Castle, the seat of the Polish kings until the capitol was moved to Warsaw in 1596. Furthermore, the city was not destroyed during World War II as was Warsaw, and it has long been regarded as an artistic and cultural center, with its many universities, galleries, theaters and cafes. In recent years, Krakow's ongoing links with the past have led some to characterize the city as provincial, with an insular elite out of touch with the more rapid forces of global integration that have transformed Warsaw and the cities in western Poland. Nevertheless, Krakow's cultural life and symbolic significance remains vital, and it is one of Poland's largest cities, with nearly 800,000 residents (figure 1.1).

Choosing a rural field site was more challenging. I wanted to find a small town that nevertheless had the full range of high schools: licea (lycea; college-preparatory high schools), technical programs that teach both technical skills and academic subjects, and trade programs that prioritize job training. Although state socialism officially promoted a classless society, functionally and rhetorically, the population was divided into three main occupational groups: farmers, workers and intelligentsia. Because schools were instrumental in reproducing these groups, and associated cultural and socioeconomic differences, it was important that students from a variety of programs were included in the study. With four schools, comprised of one lyceum and three technical/trade schools, Lesko fit the bill. Lesko itself is small — with a population of about 6,000 — but it draws students from villages throughout the Bieszczady mountain region. In the early 1990s, students who lived in villages spent the week in school dormitories and only traveled home on weekends. I lived in one of these dormitories, which made it easy to spend time with students inside and outside of school. Lesko is a center of regional history and culture, though on a much smaller scale than Krakow (figure 1.2). It feels in some ways like a medieval town that never grew larger. Historic buildings include a castle, a Catholic church and a former synagogue. Lesko is also home to regional government offices and a hospital. The town attracts a small number of tourists, most of whom are on their way to Lake Solina and the higher mountains of Bieszczady National Park (figure 1.3).

I do not want to overlook, either, the importance of choosing field sites that resonate with me. From the beginning, I envisioned this as a longitudinal study, and I wanted to find places I would gladly return to again and again. The Bieszczady Mountains are beautiful, and Lesko itself has an attractive historic center and is situated on a hill overlooking the San River. Krakow is a vibrant city full of students and artists. Something is always going on the city center, whether a music festival, street theater or maybe a religious procession. Numerous cafes provide a view of the comings and goings on the central market square. Every hour, on the hour, a trumpeter plays an interrupted tune in each of the four directions from the tower of St. Mary's Church (figure 1.4), to commemorate a musician who was shot warning the city of the Tartar invasion in the thirteenth century (hence the sudden break in the melody).

Initially, I was drawn to Poland because my mother is Polish. She raised me on stories about the place in which she grew up and her experiences as a courier and nurse in the Home Army during World War II. I first visited Krakow in 1986 when Poland was still a state-socialist country. This was after the Solidarity movement was suppressed and after martial law was lifted. The Poles I met generally agreed that the state-socialist system was not working — with chronic shortages and ongoing restrictions on liberties — but they had no idea how or when meaningful change would occur. My initial impressions of Krakow, captured in my journal, were rather lukewarm. I wrote about the gray and crumbling architecture, the trucks that billowed black exhaust, and the sullen, disobliging workers in post offices and shops. After several weeks, however, I began to notice the sculptures adorning the exteriors of buildings, subtly carved window frames, and large gateways that led to dilapidated but nevertheless majestic courtyards. I developed acquaintances with Poles who went out of their way to show me less-traveled sites, treated me to home-cooked meals, and helped me navigate the complex and unpredictable Polish bureaucracy. I developed an appreciation for the resilience they showed in the face of institutionalized oppression.

When I became a graduate student, I did not plan to do research in Poland. Rather, I anticipated going to a more typical location (for ethnographic fieldwork, that is) such as New Guinea. However, I continued to think about my time in Poland, and I found myself formulating research questions based on what I was learning in my classes. In the summer of 1989, I decided to do ethnographic research in Poland, just as word was leaking out about the Round Table Agreement in which government officials and members of the outlawed Solidarity union worked out a plan to hold free elections for representatives to the lower house in parliament. Within months, the Berlin Wall fell, and it became clear that state socialism was collapsing. Whereas Eastern Europe had been a relatively closed region, difficult to get into and with restrictions on the kinds of questions that could be asked, after 1989 it became the new frontier for anthropological scholarship. Very little was known about what it had been like (although a few notable ethnographies of Poland during state socialism include Hann 1985; Nagengast 1991; and Wedel 1986), and even less was known about what it was going to become.

I went to Poland again for the summer of 1990, mostly to hone my language skills and to set the groundwork for ethnographic fieldwork on young Poles' national identity after the fall of state socialism. I did my dissertation fieldwork from September 1991 until July 1993 and have been back to Poland numerous times for a total of 41 months. Throughout this time, I have maintained contact with the same participants, many of whom I also consider friends. This long-term engagement not only with the country, but also with particular individuals is a strength of my study. My work fits within the "coming of age" genre first introduced by Margaret Mead ([1928] 1961) in her classic study of Samoan youth, except that rather than speculating about how Polish youth would mature, I have personally witnessed the adults they have become. A life story gives us a view into a person's life; from their words and the way they tell their story, we get a sense of who they are, what is important to them and what motivates them to make the choices they do. The particular challenges individuals face, however, are significantly shaped by the particular cultural and historical context in which they live (what Hallowell [1955] called their behavioral environment). What interests me here is the interaction of the personal and the broader social environment — what people do with the options available to them, and how their thoughts and actions can in turn shape the behavioral environment in which they live. Although I focus on events and reflections from 2005, I view them from the perspective of two trajectories of change over twenty years — across the life course (from youth to adulthood) and through the cultural, political and economic transformations that have taken Poland from state socialism to EU integration.


Excerpted from Being and Becoming European in Poland by Marysia H. Galbraith. Copyright © 2014 Marysia H. Galbraith. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables; Acknowledgments; 1: Introduction: Being and Becoming European in Postcommunist Poland; 2: ‘We Have Always Been in Europe’: Deploying the Past to Shape the Present; 3: ‘Unbelievable! Poles Are Happy’: Looking Toward the Future; 4: ‘We’re European because We’re Polish’: Local, National and European Identities; 5: ‘EU Membership Gives Poland a Better Chance’: Perspectives on European Integration; 6: ‘Now We Can Travel Without a Passport’: Mobility in the European Union; 7: ‘This Region is Our Priority’: EU Subsidies and the Development of a Transnational Regional Community; 8: Conclusion: Coming of Age in Europe; Appendix: List of Participants; Notes; References; Index

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