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From Archaic to Colonial Peasantries: An Intellectual Biography of Józef Obrębski, the (Forgotten) Polish Disciple of Malinowski

Anna Engelking

Instytut Slawistyki Polskiej Akademii Nauk

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Engelking, Anna, 2022. “From Archaic to Colonial Peasantries: An Intellectual Biography of Józef Obrębski, the (Forgotten) Polish Disciple of Malinowski”, in Bérose - Encyclopédie internationale des histoires de l'anthropologie, Paris.

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Résumé : Polonais, l’anthropologue social Józef Obrębski (1905-1967) est un disciple de Malinowski à la London School of Economics, et le premier anthropologue à avoir appliqué la méthode et la théorie de son maître à un village européen. Dans les années 1930, il a conduit un terrain ethnographique en Macédoine et à la frontière bélarusso-ukrainienne. Dans ces études, Obrębski applique la recommandation méthodologique cardinale de Malinowski : l’observation participante à long terme. La conviction de la comparabilité des cultures sous-tend l’anthropologie d’Obrębski, sensible au « point de vue indigène ». Il catégorise les communautés paysannes slaves à divers stades de modernisation avant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. À partir de 1948, il vit aux États-Unis et devient expert auprès de l’ONU. À la fin des années 1940, ses recherches ethnographiques portent sur les communautés afro-descendantes en Jamaïque. Il a répondu à l’appel à l’égalité humaine par une attitude émancipatrice, antinationaliste et anticoloniale. S’il met l’accent sur les mécanismes de domination et de discrimination, son anthropologie tente de les déconstruire. Il formule des propositions théoriques novatrices concernant l’ethnicité et la construction de la nation. Ses travaux sont restés pour la plupart inédits et n’ont été redécouverts que récemment. Largement méconnu, Obrębski peut néanmoins être considéré comme un précurseur des études ethniques, de genre et postcoloniales.

Józef Obrębski (1905–1967), a Polish social anthropologist educated in Krakow and London, does not occupy his rightful place in the history of anthropology. Only a few of his works are available in the English-speaking publishing circuit to date. Meanwhile, the more we learn of his scientific achievements, especially the inedita published after the year 2000, the more we realise that he was an innovative and original scholar, arguably the most outstanding Polish anthropologist of the 20th century. [1]

Obrębski’s anthropological identity was shaped in contact with Bronisław Malinowski (1884–1942). He attended Malinowski’s seminar at the London School of Economics, under whose orientation he obtained his PhD in social anthropology in 1934. His own ethnographic researches covered Slavic peasant communities in various stages of modernization before World War II (namely in Yugoslav Macedonia and in areas of the vast Polesie region that were then part of Poland and would be integrated into the Soviet Union after WWII), as well as post-slavery communities in Jamaica in the late 1940s. In those studies, Obrębski applied Malinowski’s fundamental methodological directive : anthropological conclusions should be based on long-term participant field observation. The belief in the unity of human nature and the assumption of the comparability of cultures underlaid Obrębski’s anthropology, which was sensitive to “the native’s point of view”. Convinced as he was that anthropology provided universal tools for the study of culture and society, he also formulated innovative theoretical propositions concerning ethnicity and nation-building in particular. He responded to the call for “human equality” with an emancipatory, anti-nationalist and anti-colonial attitude. The standpoint he adopted could be compared to what we today call culture critique. While one can speak of Obrębski’s sensitivity to the mechanisms of domination and discrimination, his anthropology was also an attempt to deconstruct them.

Early Years. In the Circle of Slavic Ethnography

Józef Obrębski spent the first years of his life outside the ethnically Polish lands, since he was born in what is today Ukraine and grew up in the present-day Belarus. At that time these were part of the Russian Empire. His father worked as an administrator in great latifundia – socio-economic remnants of the former Polish colonization of these lands. After her husband’s death, his mother, a teacher, moved to live with Józef and his two older sisters, initially in Kyiv, and then in Warsaw – reborn as the capital of Poland in 1918, where the Obrębski children graduated from school. The future anthropologist grew up in the milieu of the liberal intelligentsia ; his views and attitude to life were shaped in the emancipatory and pro-democratic spirit. In 1924/1925, he studied law at the University of Warsaw for two trimesters. In the fall of 1925, he moved to Krakow, to the oldest university in the country, the Jagiellonian University, whose traditions date back to the Middle Ages.

Fig. 1
Józef Obrębski, around 1946 (Photographer unknown)
Obrębski family collection

At that time, a new innovative teaching and research unit was established there – the Slavic College. Led by eminent professors, it educated students to be comprehensive researchers of Slavic cultures, a domain comparable to the interdisciplinary Slavic studies of today (Skarżyński 2019, Engelking 2021). Obrębski’s mentors were the linguist Kazimierz Nitsch (1874–1958) and the ethnologist Kazimierz Moszyński (1887–1959) – scholars who laid the theoretical and methodological foundations of their respective disciplines in 20th-century Poland and set the path for their development for many decades.

During his studies, Obrębski was Moszyński’s assistant. [2] He specialised in ethnography and ethnology, and enriched his professional toolkit by acquiring the competences of a Slavic philologist with a solid knowledge of most Slavic languages. He began fieldwork in Orthodox peasant communities in Bulgaria and Macedonia, and a few years later continued in the Polish region of Polesia, which incorporated ethnically Belarusian-Ukranian populations. [3] In the summer of 1927 and 1928, he made expeditions to the Balkans with a focus on material culture, documenting all its dimensions according to the systematics developed by Moszyński. He carried out this work to a large extent for the needs of his professor, who was then finishing the first part of his monumental work Kultura ludowa Słowian [the folk culture of Slavs] (Moszyński 1929). The volume contained some of Obrębski’s Bulgarian materials, including numerous drawings and maps. Unfortunately, the negatives of his photographs, of which we know there were several hundred, have not survived.

Fig. 2
Obrębski’s notebook from his fieldwork in Bulgaria, 1927
Obrębski family collection

In the eastern Balkans, Obrębski also conducted research on agriculture and hunting, but reserved these materials for later publications. Importantly, while studying material culture, he documented not only archaisms but also innovations ; the processes and theory of cultural change would later become an important field of interest for him. He had no contact with Bulgaria after that, but he returned to Macedonia four years later having trained as a social anthropologist in London, and ready to stay for a longer period.

In March 1930, Obrębski obtained his master’s degree in Slavic philology with a thesis entitled “Rolnictwo ludowe wschodniej części półwyspu Bałkańskiego” [folk husbandry of the eastern part of the Balkan peninsula]. Apart from the Balkan material in Moszyński’s monograph, it was the first work in Polish ethnographic literature devoted to the folk agriculture of this area. It was a consistent typological and ethnogeographic analysis, indeed the first Polish work on folk agriculture responding to professional methodological standards. Obrębski presented himself here as a dialectologist ethnographer, who also made extensive use of the methods and conceptual apparatus of linguistics. He compared a wide range of agricultural tools, their vernacular names and their distribution, and this handling of linguistic and ethnogeographic data led him to conclusions of a historical nature concerning the genesis, expansion paths and chronology of individual items. This work shows that he strove towards the ideal of an interdisciplinary Slavic scholar – which guided the education of students at the Slavic College – and at the same time was a “good student” of Moszyński, applying all the substantive and methodological guidelines of the master in his own research, such as typological and ethnogeographic analysis and auxiliary use of the linguistic method, taking into account prehistorical data, emphasis on systematics, and careful genetic hypotheses. The full text of his study, divided into four parts, was published in the periodical Lud Słowiański [Slavic folk] in the years 1929–1931 (Obrębski 1929, 1930, 1931a, 1931b).

Obrębski was extensively trained in fieldwork techniques and conducted his survey ethnographic researches using the questionnaire method developed by ethnographers in cooperation with dialectologists. Moreover, he was familiar with the life and culture of villages in various Slavic regions thanks to his personal experience and five years of field practice alongside Moszyński. Due to this, he was highly predisposed and qualified to conduct further research with a new, ethnographic field method, which he would soon describe as “active participation in the life of the village” (Obrębski 2020 : 70). During his studies, however, he was not only interested in material culture. He read Malinowski’s works and, under their influence, he designed his future research in the field of social anthropology.

At the end of October 1930, having received the Rockefeller Foundation Scholarship, for which he was recommended by Malinowski at the request of Kazimierz Nitsch, he left to undertake doctoral studies at the London School of Economics.

Macedonian Trobriands : Anthropologist of Peasant Communities, Precursor of Gender Theory and Medical Anthropology

As an anthropologist, Józef Obrębski is primarily a student of Malinowski. What is more, he was a close student, although this subject has never entered the charter myth of our discipline. [4] He was a participant in Malinowski’s seminar in his heyday, in the years 1930–1933. Bronisław Malinowski took comprehensive care of Obrębski ; the intellectual dimension of their bond was close to partnership when the student helped the teacher treat field materials for Coral Gardens and their Magic over the 10 months spent together in Oberbozen and Tamaris. The personal dimension of their relationship was manifested in Malinowski’s concern for the health of Obrębski, who was always weak. Józef’s sister Antonina – a linguist, professor at the University of Warsaw after WWII and founder of the Polish Belarusian studies – also established a relationship with Malinowski, who also corresponded with their mother, Maria. After WWII, Malinowski’s second wife, the painter Valetta Malinowski (1904–1973), was a frequent guest in Obrębski’s house in New York. Inspired by her, Obrębski began working on “Bronio’s” letters in the 1960s. [5]

Malinowski expressed the following opinion about the young Obrębski :

“There is no doubt at all that he is one of the most capable young men in ethnology. He is a good worker, original, clear-minded, and efficient. He certainly has also a spark of genius. With all this, it will be touch and go whether he will really come to the fore. To my knowledge, he has in his dossier at least two MSS practically ready for publication which I am afraid will never see the light. [It’s] most[ly] perfectionism, since I suffer myself from that Slav disease (and many others). (...) I still hope he will come to the fore”. [6]

He wrote these words after his student completed his fieldwork in Macedonia. One of the manuscripts must have been the doctoral dissertation by Obrębski, “Family Organisation among Slavs as Reflected in the Custom of Couvade” (Obrębski 1933). [7] It was based on materials collected for a study of the Belarusian and South Slavic patriarchal rural family. The starting point of Obrębski’s thesis is a deconstructive analysis of couvade or, as he called it, “the myth of man in labour” (in which the male partner experiences similar symptoms to his wife in childbirth). Obrębski’s thesis aimed at pinpointing the sociocultural fulcrum of the gender dichotomy in the studied communities (although for obvious reasons, the word gender as a scientific concept could not still be used by Obrębski then). After obtaining his doctorate on January 24, 1934, Obrębski received a proposal for further cooperation in London from Malinowski. The details of this proposal, recalled by the Obrębski family, are unknown. [8] Then, at the beginning of 1934, the 29-year-old doctor of social anthropology, who was the first to apply functionalism in theory and practice to study the European countryside, decided to return to Poland.

Obrębski carried out ethnographical fieldwork among the highlanders in the Poreche region from August 1932 until March 1933. [9] It was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation – as was fieldwork conducted by Malinowski’s students in various colonial settings­. In Poreche, Obrębski found “his own Trobriand Islands” – an ethnically homogeneous community, relatively isolated thanks to the inaccessibility of the mountain area. He was then interested in European “primitive” societies which had not yet been subjected to the disintegrative influences of modernity. His purpose was an ethnographic description of their lives, institutions and worldview. The case of Poreche was his discovery, and he examined their family organisation and their magico-religious system in particular. It is not difficult to see that Obrębski constructed his object of research referring to the model supplied by Malinowski’s description of the socio-cultural reality of the Trobriand Islands. In his application of Malinowski’s method and theory to research on European peasant communities, he was a pioneer in Europe ; [10] and in the field of ethnography/ethnology in peripheral Poland in which he grew up, dominated by earlier paradigms at the start of the process of institutionalisation, his approach was revolutionary.

By documenting social structure and family life, economic system, annual and family rites, healing art and magic, mythology and religion, Obrębski gathered abundant and unique materials, all the more valuable today as no other anthropologist conducted ethnographic field research in Poreche until the beginning of the 21st century. He was not only the first anthropologist in this region, but also the first ethnographer. His materials that survived WWII constitute about 1,500 pages of manuscripts and typescripts, written in Polish, Macedonian and English during field research and later, in the office stage of his work. About 500 glass negatives of photographic documentation have also been preserved.

Obrębski’s ethnographic strategy during the eight months spent in the villages of Poreche comprised observation which was sensitive – and reactive – to turns of events, and participation in village life. He also used an experimental method consisting of the exchange of Serbian incantations – which he knew about from several works on Serbian folklore – with Macedonian medicine women, and which also involved performing simple medical procedures : he did cupping and gave the sick the medicine he had brought with him. Finally, summing up his research on magic and witchcraft, he confessed : “in particular, active participation in the life of the village, which was the main area of my work, allowed me to discover the entire local system of witchcraft and penetrate more deeply into it, not only theoretically, but even through participation in a couple of magic undertakings” (Obrębski 2020 : 70). He owed his good relations with the Poreche highlanders not only to the method of research but also to his personal qualities : emotional intelligence and ease of making contacts. The Poreche people, initially distrustful, eventually began to perceive him through the filter of the neighbourhood and kinship categories. He was “assimilated”. That is why he managed to get to know the world of medicine women and witches, which was secret from strangers, so well. He was able, while living for several months in a zadruga (extended family), to become friends with its members, and to observe the family life of Poreche people almost “from the native’s point of view”. His description of the dynamics of the nuclear family and the life cycle of the home group was based on direct experience. In April 1933, he wrote to Moszyński :

“I have spent nearly six months being almost a member of the zadruga, catching as if in flagrante and watching closely all those things which heretofore remained almost entirely unobserved : the private life of the southern-Slavic family. (...) I have the feeling that when it comes to the subject of southern-Slavic kinship, I am unparalleled, both regarding the knowledge of the facts and the theoretical elaboration of this issue”. [11]

Unlike Malinowski and Meyer Fortes (1906–1983), Obrębski researched the family and the home group in a patrilineal, patrilocal and patriarchal society ; his contribution to anthropological research on the family remains an area to be explored and acknowledged.

Following the example of Malinowski’s Trobriand volumes, he envisaged a series of monographs on Poreche. Unfortunately, the only one he completed – on which he worked during the German occupation – was destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. It was entitled “Macedońska wiara i obrzędy. Socjologiczny opis wierzeń i obrzędów magiczno-religijnych Porecza w serbskiej Macedonii” [Macedonian belief and rituals. A sociological account of the beliefs and magical-religious rituals of Poreche in Serbian Macedonia]. Obrębski’s archival legacy includes three unfinished monographs, the outcome of his research in Macedonia :

1) Giaurowie Macedonii. Opis magii i religii pasterzy z Porecza na tle zbiorowego życia ich wsi [The Giaours of Macedonia. An account of the magic and religion of shepherds in Poreche against the background of the collective life of their village] (Obrębski 2022a) contains materials for the aforementioned destroyed volume. Among them, there is an in-depth description of the Poreche system of healing magic, considered in the context of “the very shape of the life of the Porechian community, in the world of its social values and its outlook on life and the world” (Obrębski 2020 : 93). It is a study called “Walka o życie. Zdrowie, choroba i śmierć w systemie magii i religii” [Fight for life. Health and sickness in the system of magic and religion] (Obrębski 2022a : 482-685) ; [12] if Obrębski had published it, it would probably be considered a founding work of medical anthropology. In the analysis of Poreche healing practices presented here, he did not limit himself to performative descriptions of the rich repertoire of magic spells and incantations in the ritual context of gestures and props. He also looked at the functioning of vernacular medicine within the local community, studied the conceptual and belief system related to the human body, health and disease, analysed preventive rituals, [13] and situated the entire health care system in the broader perspective of the life-death opposition. Obrębski’s original strategy in Giaurowie Macedonii was summed up by Joanna Rękas : “when referring to power relations he did not use the language prevalent in scientific accounts about the religion(s) of ‘primitive societies’. Thanks to this, he created (...) an extraordinary socio-ethnographic-folklore analysis of the religious behaviour of a small community. Religious ties are a form of practising community ties, and what is typical (orthodoxy and its ‘folk’ dimension) coexists with what is specific” (Rękas 2020 : 4).

2) The second monograph – Czarownictwo Porecza Macedońskiego [The witchcraft of Macedonian Poreche] (Obrębski 2022b : 9–249) [14] – was supposed to be published in English with a foreword by Malinowski. Obrębski combines here the ethnography of witchcraft practices with a functional analysis of the entire local magic and counter-magic system, always situated in a broad social context. A characteristic feature of his contribution to anthroplogical studies of magic is not only the well-argued questioning of the classical opposition between magic and religion, but also the consistent social contextualization. The phenomenon of Porechian witchcraft – the domain of women – is presented by Obrębski through the prism of systemic conflicts in the extended family (zadruga) and disruptive tendencies in the rural community, social inequalities and relations of power and domination, and finally, the socio-economic determinants of the institution of marriage. Last but not least, it is seen through the prism of the gender dimensions of social organisation. The most original part of this volume is an ethnographic tale devoted to the institution of marriage by elopement, “Skandal we wsi” [Scandal in the village] (Obrębski 2022b : 126–154), [15] in which Obrębski focuses on the functions of love magic in the context of the institution of marriage and the family-neighbourhood system, and shows his own causative role as an ethnographer observing the “scandal”. [16]

3) The third monograph, Mit i rzeczywistość u Słowian Południowych [Myth and reality of Southern Slavs] (Obrębski 2022b : 250–474), is of a different nature to the others. It is a study deconstructing common myths that orientalised southern-Slavic peasants in ethnology. Among other myths, Obrębski recounted and analysed those of parricide, incest and selling wives. [17] He wrote to Moszyński that this project was “designed not as fieldwork but as a general theoretical work about the Balkans. (...) It consists of two parts : a theoretical polemical part, where past ethnographic mistakes are dismantled, and a constructive part, where for each of the myths, the appropriate social context is provided”. [18]

Fig. 3
Poreche, 1932-1933. Obrębski captioned this photo : "My chat with a friend-informer”
Photo : J. Obrębski. « Obrebski Collection », Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachussetts, Amherst Libraries

Among Obrębski’s Macedonian outputs, only two articles were published during his lifetime, both before WWII in a Polish journal. These were “Czarna magia w Macedonii” [Black magic in Macedonia] (Obrębski 1934a) and “System religijny ludu macedońskiego” [The religious system of the Macedonian people] (Obrębski 1936e). His text “Social Structure and Ritual in a Macedonian Village”, first delivered as a lecture at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia in 1961, was edited and published two years after Obrębski’s death, and in subsequent editions (Obrebski 1969, Obrębski 2006d). [19] Only recently has the Polish critical edition of all of Obrębski’s Macedonian works been published, including his field materials (Obrębski 2022a, 2022b). [20] As part of this project, an e-book in English was also prepared : The Giaours of Macedonia. Selected writings (Obrębski 2020), presenting his most important results in Poreche to English-speaking readers. [21]

By studying social organisation, family and the kinship system in their dynamic connections with belief and ritual – including “asocial” phenomena carried out secretly –, Obrębski delivered a consistent interpretation of the social reality of Poreche, employing categories which today would be associated with gender theory. [22] He talked of a “structural bisection”, that is “the characteristic division of the village society into male and female groups, with different rights and different social standings” (Obrębski 2020 : 76). Importantly, he steered far away from essentialism by pointing to and analysing the social nature of role-building and gender relations. His “structural bisection” concept has a constructivist dimension ; it emanates not from “natural”, but socio-cultural “factors which create and maintain the social differences between men and women in Eastern European society” (Obrębski 1933 : 53). In short, he associated it with the roles and statuses of men and women, showing how flexible and inconsistent the dynamics of male-female inequality can be, depending on the circumstances. His interpretation of couvade illustrates this point, as he associated this phenomenon with matrilocal marriages in which it was the wife-master of the house who played the social role of the man, while the husband living in the house of his in-laws played that of the subjugated woman. He also described in detail the agency and superior role that women played in magico-religious rituals (he summarised the question of women’s power in this sphere in his 1969 article “Social Structure and Ritual in a Macedonian Village”). Analysing the peculiar position occupied in this gender bisection by antisocial witchcraft practised by women who occupied an inferior social position, Obrębski demonstrated that the dominating role of women in the ritual life of the society was a fundamental trait of the Poreche culture – a trait without which the entire socio-cultural system would lose its balance.

Fig. 4
Medicine women from the village of Volche, 1932-1933
Photo : J. Obrębski. « Obrebski Collection », Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts, Amherst Libraries

A striking feature of Obrębski’s ethnography – and anthropology – is his deep insight into the world of women. Women constituted a large proportion of his interlocutors in Poreche. His studies of magic, witchcraft, and healing were based entirely on the knowledge imparted to him by old women, and those of religiosity and family to a great extent. By giving a voice to women and exploring the female domains of social and symbolic reality, he was able to transcend androcentric bias within anthropology. To some extent, he owed this to the fact that, from the age of four, he himself grew up in a family of mother and sisters, and therefore in a world of women. But his personality traits, his methodological standards and self-awareness during his fieldwork were also important factors. As much as was possible for him as a male researcher, he practised – in a current way of speaking – feminist anthropology.

Following Malinowski, Obrębski remained at odds with “old-fashioned anthropology”. He deconstructed evolutionist and diffusionist myths, as well as essentialist views still firmly entrenched in anthropology. Combining both his theoretical and empiricist backgrounds, he was interested in more than (re)constructing that which was systemic in the culture ; he also saw and analysed : “what was so often neglected and omitted from description of the village life : class structure and class inequalities, the individualism of families, the existence of conflicts and tensions stemming from contradictory interests and the egoism of individual families – in a word, all the things which question the myth of social uniformity of the village, the myth of its collectivism and solidarity without exceptions” (Obrębski 2020 : 68). In his descriptions and interpretations, he constantly accounted for the perceived facts and strived to understand “the reality and dynamics of village life” (Obrębski 2020 : 67). The focus of his interests remained always on the present, and on flesh-and-blood human beings (not a “type of an East-European peasant” !), with their life experience, needs, emotions, agency, system of values and beliefs.

Given that, according to his plans, he should have published at least “Couvade” and “Witchcraft” in the 1930s (with Malinowski’s forewords), [23] not to mention the monograph on the Macedonian magico-religious system lost during the war, Obrębski’s message might have exerted considerable influence on the subsequent development of anthropology : we would be forced to date the beginning of anthropology of peasantry in the 1930s instead of the 1950s. The same applies to medical anthropology. And Obrębski would have been acknowledged, alongside Malinowski and Margaret Mead (1901–1978), as an insightful forerunner of gender theory. Finally, Obrębski’s work may affect the ways in which we understand the influence of functionalism on Europeanist anthropological researches. Perhaps this field would have been different if affected by Obrębski’s ideas.

It seems that Obrębski considered his own work in the Macedonian Poreche as the theoretical and methodological foundation for a Europeanist anthropology project. He wrote :

“The field of primitive culture in Europe, such as it exists even in the present day among peasants of Balkan Eastern Europe or Pyrenees, has been left outside the main interest and theoretical considerations of the anthropologist. No doubt the chief reason lies in the current prejudice that this culture represents just a disorganised and rapidly changing mixture of savage heritage and civilised acquisitions, and not a certain peculiar cultural structure of its own, the study of which may be of general theoretical concern. (...) But the more the anthropologist is led in his study of primitive culture by a fundamental institutional approach, the more of scientific interest he will find in the society of the European peasants. And on the other hand, the more sound and accurate his general principles of method and final theoretical conclusion as to the customs and institutions of primitive societies, the more capable he will be of proving their validity in the ethnology of Europe”. [24]

His ethnology of Europe was to focus on the “primordial”, unmodernised peasant communities undergoing gradual changes, whose socio-cultural organisation, perceived as a system, would be studied with tools developed by social anthropology.

Obrębski’s ethnographic contact with peasant communities, first in Macedonia and then in Polesie, took place in post-feudal villages of Eastern Europe, marked by peripherality and subject to the actual and symbolic power of the dominant groups. This class dimension of his research was in harmony with Obrębski’s left-wing sensitivity. His interest in European peasant communities also resulted from the fact that, unlike several of Malinowski’s students, he had no possibility of undertaking research in African or Australasian colonies ; only in the late 1940s was he to fulfil the anthropological dream of studying outside of Europe, namely in Jamaica (see below). Obrębski’s Southern Slavic village (the Macedonian Poreche within the structure of the Yugoslavian state) and Eastern Slavic village (Belarusian-Ukrainian Polesie within the structure of the Polish state) were associated with his notion of archaicity in present-day cultural and social devices. Inherited from and deeply-ingrained in the ethnographic tradition, this notion was, somehow, modernized by Obrębski, whose motivation to study these regions was also methodological and theoretical : it was about applying the ethnographic field method and functional view of culture to the study of “little-known peoples, such as (...) Eastern European peoples located in our immediate and close geographical vicinity”. [25] At the same time, he wanted to challenge scientific beliefs and prejudices still at work in the anthropological mainstream. And since the dominant features of his thinking were criticism and openness, he also constantly checked his own assumptions and questioned his own approach. That is why he soon became more interested in ongoing transformations in the Eastern European countryside.

Ethnosociologist of Imagined Communities in Polesie and Forerunner of Postcolonial Studies

Had Obrębski stayed in London in 1934 and continued to cooperate with Malinowski, perhaps his perfectionism would have been better controlled and the “Family Organisation Among Slavs as Reflected in the Custom of Couvade” as well as later monographs, would have seen the light. He returned to Poland instead, where there was no academic career waiting for him. He had a marginal position in the field of Polish ethnology, and was (like many postdocs nowadays) in a precarious situation of “an anthropologist for hire”. He still loyally associated his academic future with Moszyński, but the latter could only recommend him to ephemeral research projects emerging at the intersection of science, expert activity and policy ; the former assistant lecturer position at the Jagiellonian University was already taken by someone else. Obrębski had received a proposal to head the Department of Ethnology at the Stefan Batory University in Vilnius (then the capital of the Vilnius province, north-east of Poland ; now the capital of Lithuania), but he did not accept it, justifying this with the lack of the necessary experience. Finally, he joined an expert think tank researching the issue of national minorities in Poland, the Instytut Badań Spraw Narodowościowych (Institute for Research into Nationalities Affairs [26]) and engaged in cooperation with a community of sociologists who were intellectually close to him, under the direction of Florian Znaniecki (1882–1958). He found his place in this environment ; and in the autumn of 1936 he took up the post of deputy director of the Państwowy Instytut Kultury Wsi (State Institute of Village Culture, [27] a newly created research institution of sociological inclinations. There, he conducted and organised research on rural emigration, ego-documents and peasant universities. He was very active as a science organiser and lecturer. He lectured, among other places, at the Wolna Wszechnica Polska (Free Polish University) in Warsaw and Lodz : a left-wing private university admitting at the time the most women and Jewish Poles. In 1937, he became a member of the Polski Instytut Socjologiczny (Polish Sociological Institute) and of the editorial board of the Przegląd Socjologiczny [Sociological Journal]. He edited sociological publications and translated Malinowski’s works. [28] Most of all, however, he was a field researcher.

When the possibility of conducting research in the eastern provinces of then Poland, in Polesie, opened up to him in the spring of 1934, he was the best-prepared Polish ethnologist of his generation, fully equipped with innovative theoretical and methodological instruments. At the same time, the research he undertook fell within the field of applied anthropology, with which Malinowski’s students were then associated (see Kuper 1987 : 130–157) ; Obrębski, again, was the only one of them working in Europe at that time.

The fact that the results of a census showed the territory as inhabited by a considerable “ethnically indeterminate” population led politicians to identify the residents of this region as a group that would be the easiest to Polonise. Therefore, Polesie was chosen, or designated, by the governmental Commission for Scientific Research into the Eastern Lands as the territory which should be subjected to systematic scientific research. [29]

Field research in villages inhabited by Belarusian and Ukrainian-speaking peasants was conducted by Obrębski together with a small (and changing) group of assistants. The main methodological directive of his expedition was to study the socio-cultural reality from the bottom-up perspective of its actors, combining Malinowski’s motto of “the native’s point of view” and Znaniecki’s incentive to reach “the humanistic coefficient” (see Fig. 5). These studies covered the ethnic structure composition of Polesie and broadly understood modernization processes, including nation-building, and resulted in four articles that Obrębski published in 1936 (Obrębski 1936a [2007a], 1936b [2007c], 1936c [2005a], [30] 1936d [2005b]). He presented an innovative, anti-essentialist theory of ethnic groups and differences, as well as a theoretical “analysis of the nationalisation [nation-building] process in its specific dynamic course” (Obrębski 1934b : 5). As it was to turn out, “Obrębski soon began to question the ‘deep grammar’ of Polish thinking regarding the Polish nation and the Polish national borderland. Consequently, many ethnologists and sociologists ignored his message” (Lubaś 2019b : 68).

In 1937, he was in charge of the stationary field research in Olmany, a village in Stolin county ; his team at the time focused on youth and family, including rural education and family history. Two monographs he wrote during the occupation – “Polesie archaiczne” (Archaic Polesie ; Obrębski 2007e [1944]) and “Pańska szkoła i mużyckie dzieci” (The nobleman’s school and peasant children ; Obrębski 2007d [1943]) – were the outcome of this stage of research. The archival legacy of Obrębski includes a large body of field materials from Polesie, in Polish and local East Slavic dialects – this unedited documentation is now available to researchers, including about a thousand photographs, the largest pre-war collection from this region. [31]

Fig. 5
Men from the village of Svetitsa, Polesie 1934
Photo : J. Obrębski. « Obrebski Collection », Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachussetts, Amherst Libraries

Obrębski’s four-year (1934–1937) research on nationality and ethnicity in Polesie was focused, as formulated in the prepared programme (Obrębski 1934b), on the “contemporary socio-cultural relations in eastern villages” (ibid : 1), with particular attention to “identifying those systems of activities and cultural values which constitute the national life of the country” (ibid : 3–4). In formulating the assumptions of his research project, he used first and foremost the theoretical findings of American sociologist William I. Thomas (1863–1947) and Florian Znaniecki, concerning the processes of socio-cultural disorganisation and reorganisation among Polish peasants in Europe and America (Thomas, Znaniecki 1918–1920), as well as the theoretical and methodological approach to social anthropology formulated by his immediate teacher, Malinowski (with his directive to research “the invisible facts”). Unlike in Macedonia, his research method in Polesie was eclectic. The study area included two provinces (Polesian and Volhynian), and longer stationary studies were only possible in a few selected locations. Data on dialects, ethnonyms, distinctive features of clothing and other elements differentiating local peasant groups were collected by means of questionnaires during surveys lasting several months. In research on youth and the school institutions, Obrębski also analysed pre-existing sources and used the “method of personal documents” developed by Znaniecki.

For the purposes of his Polesie fieldwork, Obrębski defined himself as an ethnosociologist, using the German term Ethnosoziologie, introduced by Richard Thurnwald (1869–1954) to describe functionalism (see Gingrich 2005 : 142). He never explicated his own understanding of ethnosociology, but he also called it “the sociology of folk societies” and emphasised its relationship with “issues concerning the sociology of the nation” (Obrębski 2007a : 276). Describing himself as an ethnosociologist, he positioned himself in the scientific field as a pioneer and promoter of innovative functionalism in Poland, in a position autonomous from the local ethnological mainstream. The way in which he practised this ethnosociology was a consistent, albeit implicit development of his concept of ethnology of Europe, which should encompass modernization processes.

On the one hand, Obrębski had confidence in the laws of science and in the efficiency of its procedures ; on the other hand, he considered that abandoning objective criteria was the most appropriate scientific approach in ethnic studies. He consistently questioned the research assumptions behind the government’s programme, in particular its colonizing goals expressed in allegedly objective ideological formulas. As has been noticed by a French researcher of the interwar Polish censuses and their context, Morgane Labbé :

“The authorities’ question to Obrębski was whether there were characteristics of the Polesie populations that could determine their belonging to the Belorussian or Ukrainian nation. If not, they would be assigned to the Polish nation. But Obrębski separated the question of whether they formed an ethnic group from the question of their national consciousness, conceptualizing them as distinct phenomena (...). [A]lthough appointed by the authorities, Obrębski refuted the bureaucracy’s view of the Tutejsi : [32] there was no lack of identity, rather a surplus of local identities that resisted any attempt at nationalisation” (Labbé 2019 : 174, 176).

Moreover, Obrębski’s approach also questioned the assumptions then shared by most Polish social researchers :

“Obrębski, as did Barth after him, discarded the holistic metaphysics underpinning not only the nationalist ideologies but also part of the scholarship on nationalism and ethnic diversity. Both scholars conceived of social life as composed not of stable objects or wholes, but rather of currents of events flowing and ebbing, bound by complex relations of cause and effect. (...) Obrębski’s work on ethnic diversity and the nationalisation process had implications hardly compatible with the methodological nationalism overtly or tacitly presented in the writings of his ethnological and sociological colleagues” (Lubaś 2019b : 66).

Obrębski’s independent thinking also had a clear critical orientation. In his writings, one can find comments about the colonial character of Polish policy towards Ruthenian [33] peasants and about the “Poleshuk” (non-Polish peasants) stereotype as one of its tools. He denounced the rhetorical strategies employed in the general discourse on Polesie to dehumanise the Poleshuk as cultural obviousness. In short, he deconstructed depreciating images of Belarusian-Ukrainian rural communities. Undoubtedly, his intellectual sensitivity to colonial oppression, consistent with his general attitude towards life, had its source in Malinowski’s seminary ; this perspective was not present in Polish social sciences at the time. Moreover, Obrębski started to think in terms of internal colonialism (although he did not use this term), and has been acknowledged as precursor of Polish postcolonial studies (Borkowska 2008, 2014). This aspect is also emphasised by Marcin Lubaś : “Obrębski, like no other Polish researcher of nation-building, reveals it as a potentially disintegrating, oppressive and hierarchizing process. In this regard, Obrębski enters the ground of considerations that are nowadays associated with postcolonial thought and research on domination and resistance” (Lubaś 2019a : 16).

In “Pańska szkoła i mużyckie dzieci” [The nobleman’s school and peasant children, 1943 (2007d)], a monograph on the functioning of Polish schools in the Orthodox villages of Polesie where East-Slavic dialects were spoken, Obrębski explicitly referred to the colonial nature of the policy of the Polish state in its eastern provinces. Written with journalistic verve, it is an analysis of the fiasco of the Polish “civilizing mission” among Ruthenian peasants, who were distinct from both the Polish nation then associated with the state and the dominant class not only due to their language and religion but also their value system, cultural patterns and social organisation. He drew attention to the creation of the category of “marginal people” by school graduates uprooted from the local community. Analysing Polish educational strategies in Ruthenian Polesie in terms of colonisation by the Polish state institutions and their national ideology, Obrębski actually wrote – decades before Pierre Bourdieu’s theoretical instruments took anthropology by storm – a study on symbolic violence. Obrębski’s research provided decision-makers with scientific arguments to weaken colonial oppression against non-Polish fellow citizens. However, politicians were determined to use violence.

In his article of 1936 “Dzisiejsi ludzie Polesia” [Contemporary people of Polesie], Obrębski described the social and cultural mechanisms of antagonism and conflict between Poleshuks and Poles ; he analysed, both in terms of class and nationality, the sense of injustice and humiliation felt by the peasants of Polesie and the formation of a stereotype of “the enemy” which they applied to Poles. He indicated that these and related phenomena represented an “outpost of national ideology” (Obrębski 2007a : 300). Here, Obrębski analysed the initial stages of nation-building.

According to him, one of the conditions of cultural assimilation was a change in attitude towards strangers. Perceiving oneself through the prism of their criteria, adopting their value system, and imitating and adopting their cultural models are different stages of that process, which he also analysed in his unfinished work, “Dzisiejsza wieś poleska” [Contemporary village in Polesie, 2007b]. In his view, Polonization, i.e. the mechanism of acculturation and nationalisation of the “pre-national” ethnic groups, was related to a broader context of cultural change and the crossing of boundaries adopted within traditional culture between “own” and “alien” groups. As Katherine Lebow puts it :

“Obrębski’s writings on Polesie echo some of Malinowski’s writings from the late 1930s on what the older anthropologist called ‘transculturation’, that is, a cultural change resulting from the contact between Europeans and colonised peoples. (...) Obrębski, however, would go further than his teacher in postulating the impact of transculturation not just on colonised peripheries, but on the centre itself. In particular, he would theorise the positive cultural creativity of marginal and subaltern groups as a kind of engine for democratic change, an idea that would become central to his work in Jamaica and to his ‘sociology of rising nations’” (Lebow 2019:195).

Obrębski, who repeatedly emphasised the need to “abandon the hopelessness of objective criteria” (Obrębski 2006c : 182) and understood the nation in terms of consciousness, reacted against encyclopaedic approaches to these complex phenomena. One such polemic was included in the article “Statyczne i dynamiczne podejście w badaniach narodowościowych” [Static and dynamic approaches in ethnic studies] (Obrębski 2005b [1936]), [34] in which he presented the process of “nationalisation” as a mechanism of assimilation of the so-called non-national folk groups by the nation state – and that the conditio sine qua non of assimilation was the destruction of traditional rural culture along with breaking its social isolation. As Lubaś puts it, Obrębski showed that

“nationalisation is a process that should be viewed not through the prism of social ties, shared by people ideologies and common culture, but (...) specific activities of the apparatus of power, organisations and associations, and even individuals for the assimilation and integration of the popular community with other segments of the national society”, as well as that “nationalisation is not a process inevitably leading to social integration and cultural unification of national groups, but may lead to dissimilation and exclusion of specific communities” (Lubaś 2019a : 13).

Obrębski’s “ethnography of national ideologies, showing the activities and practices through which national ideology is practised, assimilated and contested in the rural environment of Polesie” (Lubaś 2019a : 9) always indicated his emancipatory stance. The premise of this stance was his concern for developing agency and civic awareness among the peasantry, against a top-down nationalising in the mode of dominant Polishness (see Fig. 6)

Obrębski’s study of the ethnic structure of Polesie was not an analysis of “objective” ethnogeographic facts, but of mental content : the image of an alien group as the negative of the self-group. He was the first Polish researcher to define this image as a “stereotype” founded on the self-alien dichotomy, and to point to its fundamental importance for the construction of collective identity. Several decades before Fredrik Barth and Benedict Anderson, [35] he conceptualised ethnic groups as “imagined entities” and described their configuration as a system of oppositions between the images of “alien” and “self” (see Lubaś 2019a, 2019b, Nowicka 2006). “Like any social formation”, he wrote, “an ethnic group exists only insofar as it exists in the consciousness of those who belong to it and those who, by belonging to other similar groups, exclude themselves from it. Like every social group, an ethnic group is an imagined, not concrete, entity” (Obrębski 2005a : 157 ; my emphasis). Thus, he pointed out that the answer to the basic identity question “who am I ?” is contained in the image of the alien, built not of objective elements, but of subjectively constructed differences – those to which both groups participating in the mutual identification process ascribe “social meaning” (ibid.). This revolutionary approach was also inspired by structural linguistics. Obrębski now looked at the previously valid encyclopaedic parole and ethnogeographic categories from the abstract anthropological level of language ; this perspective allowed him to see the features of the analysed ethnic groups as elements of an abstract system, functioning in relations of mutual opposition and taking on meaning only in these relations. And so, the group became real only in contact with other groups. Thus, the mutual distinction of ethnic groups and, ipso facto, the construction of imagined groups and social boundaries, resulted from their oppositions.

Fig. 6
An evening youth gathering in the Horyzdrychi village in Polesie, 1934
Photo : Z. Korybutiak. « Obrebski Collection », Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts, Amherst Libraries

Obrębski’s theories on the abstract nature of ethnic boundaries were inseparable from his research on the processes of change. Traditional (“pre-national”) and new (“national”) perceptions of the Other, its categorization as an enemy, its taming and assimilation within the dynamics of the “nationalisation process” were interpreted in a broad sociocultural context. One important aspect of this context was the post-feudal social structure of Polesie, which he described in the monograph “Polesie archaiczne” [Archaic Polesie] as a “three-subject” relationship, involving noblemen, peasants, and Jews. As a third group, Jews mediated between the two diametrically opposed groups : “The lord represented the land, power, family traditions, and his own aristocracy ; the peasant – work and serfdom ; the Jew – commodity and money. The lord was a slave to his possessions, his social majesty, and his social prejudices ; the peasant was the slave of the lord. The only free man within this system, the freedom given to him by the goods and money flowing through this system, was the Jew” (Obrębski 2007e : 83).

Obrebski’s non-essentialist, constructivist theory of ethnic groups and his questioning of the scientific status quo on nation and “nationalisation” can be read as an attempt to redirect Polish ethnology from an etic to an emic approach. As Lubaś argues, “Obrębski’s concepts based on Polesie research contained truly groundbreaking ideas, hitting the default assumptions of contemporary scientific thinking and opening up new possibilities for research activity” (Lubaś 2019a : 3). The openness and unconventionality characteristic of his thinking introduced anxiety within the prevailing scientific paradigm, causing its framework to fracture. Thus, the conditions for a crisis were created and, consequently, for a scientific revolution according to Thomas Kuhn’s concept of cyclical development in science. His proposal, however, did not resonate with his contemporaries in the fields of ethnology and sociology in Poland. Until new generations of researchers emerged in social sciences, shaped in the conditions of the postmodern breakthrough, the tension between the rigidity of the reigning paradigm and Obrębski’s challenging concepts had to be ignored due to the rules of the scientific mainstream. As Lubaś puts it,

“such thought, although disturbing and inspiring, is not easily absorbed in its entirety. It cannot be framed into a doctrine. Obrębski’s concepts were slowly adopted, in fragments and with considerable hesitation ; the influence of his ideas seems to be more tangible only if a long series of events are taken into account. This work is part of a peculiarly stretched process, a ‘long revolution’ (...), that is, a multi-generational, multi-faceted and inevitable sequence of transformations” (Lubaś 2019a : 4). [36]

One of the consequences of the post-WWII reconfiguration of Poland’s state borders and political system was a deep reshaping of the institutional and intellectual field of ethnological sciences after 1945. That is why Obrębski failed to publish the two monographs on Polesie, written during the German occupation : after the war, this region became part of the Soviet Union and the research conducted there before the war became a political taboo for many years. “Polesie archaiczne” [Archaic Polesie] and “Pańska szkoła i mużyckie dzieci” [The nobleman’s Sschool and peasant children] appeared in print only in 2007, in the volume containing the collected Polesie works by Obrębski (Obrębski 2007).

WWII and Early Post-War Years. An Ethnologist among Sociologists

Obrębski spent the war years in German-occupied Warsaw, although not from the very beginning. In the first days of September 1939, he evacuated from Warsaw together with the State Institute of Village Culture. The convoy was dispersed by a German air raid. Obrębski and his wife reached Lviv (which in mid-September, along with the rest of the eastern territories of pre-war Poland, was annexed by the Red Army), whence they tried to make their way to Romania, but with no success. Another attempt at crossing the green border between the Russian area of occupation and the General Government was likewise thwarted. At the beginning of 1940, the Obrębskis found themselves imprisoned by the Soviet authorities in the Brest Fortress. Eventually, they managed to escape and make their way to Warsaw where they remained throughout the occupation and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. They lived in a two-family house shared with their mother and Józef’s sister, Antonina Obrębska-Jabłońska (1902–1994), and her husband Witold Jabłoński (1901–1957), professor of sinology. Józef Obrębski’s family consisted of his wife Tamara (1908–1974), economist and sociologist, and son Stefan (Steven) (1938–2018), who in his adult life was an ocean biologist working on the west coast of the USA.

Obrębski’s activity during the occupation was primarily a continuation of research and teaching in the pre-war institutions with which he was associated. It was an underground activity, often placing his life at risk. Although little is known about this period in his biography, the most important facts are known. Obrębski taught sociology weekly at underground meetings of the Social-Educational Division of the Pedagogical Department of the Free Polish University, and conducted lectures and ethnological seminars at the underground University of Western Poland. He also collected materials for research on the underground political life and the resistance. He hid them, as he later said, “in a safe place”, in which they remained until 1945. We do not know what happened to them later.

The Obrębskis’ house was the location of not only clandestine academic undertakings (two underground seminars regularly took place here) but also covert political activities. It served, among other things, as a point of communication of Kazimierz Banach (1904–1985), a delegate of the Polish government in exile, operating in London, for the Wołyń region. Obrębski was most probably cooperating with the Bureau of Information and Propaganda of the underground Home Army. He edited a monthly analysis and review of underground press for the government in London alongside other covert publications and radio broadcasts.

In 1942, the Polish Sociological Institute was reactivated in the underground ; Obrębski became a member of its board. As one of the sociologists from this circle recalled :

“There was an exchange of thoughts between Polish sociologists, who – despite the reigning terror – stayed in Warsaw until the end of the war. This was not, of course, in the form of general meetings, but meetings of two or at most three. The Obrębski’s apartment was a certain exception here, as its door was open to all those who were looking for a place to stay before the curfew” (Nowakowski 1992 : 251).

The Polish Sociological Institute also subsidised Obrębski’s academic work. It was when the news of Malinowski’s death reached the German-occupied Warsaw that he wrote the monographs “Pańska szkoła i mużyckie dzieci” [The Nobleman’s School and Peasant Children] (1943), “Polesie archaiczne” [Archaic Polesie] (1944) and “Macedońska wiara i obrzędy” [Macedonian Beliefs and Rituals] (1944). During the Warsaw Uprising in the summer of 1944, Obrębski managed to save the typescripts of only the two books on Polesie. Field materials and photographs from Macedonia and Polesie luckily survived the occupation and the Uprising, buried in metal boxes in Obrębskis’ garden.

Throughout this period, Obrębski and his wife helped to hide refugees from the ghetto and members of the resistance. Tamara Obrębska was arrested for helping Jews ; they managed to get her out of prison with a bribe. Both she and Obrębski had more than one confrontation with the Gestapo, fortunately without dire consequences. Later, in the period after the Uprising, Obrębski took part in evacuating from the city the library collections and cultural artefacts which survived in the ruins of Warsaw. After his death, Aleksander Hertz (1895–1983), a sociologist and friend of Obrębski, wrote :

“Józef was always very reticent about his attachment to Poland and he was particularly reluctant to talk of his activities during the war. It is only now that I can say he was very active in giving assistance to the persecuted Jews of Poland. A good many Jews survived thanks to Joe, to him giving them shelter and helping them in many ways. Later, in the United States, he was recognised by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in the form of an honorary citation given to him by that organisation” (quoted in Nottingham 1968 : 257).

Immediately after the war, Obrębski was still active as an ethnologist among sociologists. The Polish Sociological Institute, like most institutions from destroyed Warsaw, restarted its activity in Lodz. Obrębski returned to his work as a member of both the board of the Institute and of the editorial board of Przegląd Socjologiczny (Sociological Journal). He also became a member of the Sociological Committee of the Polska Akademia Umiejętności (Polish Academy of Learning) and a member of the board of the Towarzystwo Ludoznawcze (Ethnological Society). As early as April 1945, he resumed his work at the Free Polish University in Lodz, which a month later became the University of Lodz. For the academic year 1945–1946, he headed the newly established Department of Ethnology at the university’s Institute of Sociology.

On the 5th of February 1946, Obrębski received his habilitation in ethnology at the Humanities Faculty of the University of Warsaw, awarded for his monograph “Polesie archaiczne” [Archaic Polesie]. His habilitation lecture was entitled “Teoria ekonomiczna i metoda socjologiczna w etnologii” [Economic theory and sociological method in ethnology]. On the 17th of August 1946, following his habilitation, Józef Obrębski became associate professor (docent) of ethnology at the University of Warsaw.

During this period, he wrote a broad study entitled “Uniwersytety ludowe w Polsce przedwojennej” [Peasant universities in pre-war Poland] (which remains an unpublished manuscript up to this day), and published the article “Teoria ekonomiczna i metoda socjologiczna w badaniu społeczeństw pierwotnych” [Economic theory and sociological method in studies of primitive societies] (Obrębski 1946a). Reflecting his interest in non-European communities, specifically the Inuit and tribal groups of Africa, this was the last Polish-language publication by Obrębski during his lifetime.

In June 1946 Obrębski left for England with his wife and son, at the invitation of Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard (1902–1973) from the Seminar on Social Anthropology in Oxford. He would spend the next 20 years outside Poland.

Social Anthropologist, Lecturer in Oxford and Researcher of Post-Slave “Rural Cities” in Jamaica

In Oxford, Obrębski delivered a series of four lectures entitled “The Changing Peasantry of Eastern Europe”, and a talk on “The Changing Peasant Culture in Poland” at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London (see Fig. 7) They are summaries of his earlier findings and, at the same time, a presentation of theoretical and methodological achievements by Polish ethnosociology in the 1930s and 1940s.

Obrębski’s Oxford lectures were published posthumously by Joel M. Halpern (1929–2019), the American caretaker of his legacy and researcher of his work (Obrebski 1976). In the introduction, Halpern emphasised the pioneering role of Obrębski “in bridging [the] traditions” of Western and Eastern European anthropology ; his lectures were “an attempt to span this gap” (Halpern 1976 : 2). Obrębski’s “merging within the mainstream of western anthropology” happened, according to Halpern, because he was “very much following in the anthropological tradition of using the geographically, economically and politically marginal society to establish the central issue”. Therefore, even though “[l]ecturing in 1946 (...) Obrębski could not really anticipate the development of the concerns of a future generation of anthropologists (...), his focus on ethnic identity and how nation-states are created is very much at the core of contemporary concerns” (Halpern 1976 : 2–4).

Fig. 7
An invitation to Obrębski’s lecture at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, 1946
« Obrebski Collection », Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts, Amherst Libraries

The Changing Peasantry of Eastern Europe contains observations, reflections and conclusions related to several groups of issues on which Obrębski worked before the war and during the occupation. It was, firstly, the patriarchal, family rural community, secondly, the disintegration of traditional institutions of peasant culture, and thirdly, the subject of peasant education, including the so-called “peasant universities”, which were of great interest to him ; and finally the issue of social advancement of marginalised peasant class members and their assimilation into the national culture. Nevertheless, the Oxford lectures do not duplicate Obrębski’s earlier Polish works. They constitute a new, integrated and broad-based approach, in which a coherent theoretical perspective is accompanied by an in-depth analysis of the facts. Edited by Halpern, the American version lacks a bibliographic base and an annotation apparatus ; it became a work of popular science rather than scientific – a record of lectures prepared for a Western listener, in which the lecturer included some necessary simplifications. Regardless of this, The Changing Peasantry is undoubtedly a successful presentation of Polish ethnosociology of the 1930s and 1940s : its methodological tools include, in particular, the biographical method, and the theoretical ones are especially related to nation-building processes. [37] The issue of the Oxford lectures and their elaboration is highlighted in a passage from a letter Obrębski wrote to Znaniecki : “My command of the English language was at that time terribly poor and I had to simplify the matter. Nevertheless, those lectures were a kind of a revelation for the local sociologists. I am now preparing them for printing for Oxford University Press, trying to present them in a form that I would not have to be ashamed of outside of England”. [38]

While in London, Obrębski also published a review of Malinowski’s last book Freedom and Civilization (Obrębski 1946b) in the Polish emigration journal Nowa Polska (New Poland). It is an extensive article that is in fact not so much a review as a committed appeal for freedom and democracy. The worst years of the Stalinist dictatorship in Poland were yet to come, but the iron curtain had already started to lower. The power of communists in Poland strengthened, and with it, the political control over science and culture. The Obrębski family took the prospect of emigration into account.

Fig. 8
Tamara, Stefan and Józef Obrębski departing on a steamer to Jamaica, 1947 (Photographer unknown)
Obrębski family collection

Obrębski’s renewal of contacts with the circle of Malinowski’s students and associates resulted in a contract with the London School of Economics. LSE employed him as a research sociologist in the West Indian Social Survey (WISS) implemented in Jamaica – a research mission of the British colonial administration. This project was funded and supervised by the British Colonial Social Science Research Council. The supervising committee was composed of leading British anthropologists : Raymond Firth (1901-2002), Audrey Richards (1899-1984), Isaac Shapera (1905-2003), and Kenneth Little (1908-1991), as well as specialists from other disciplines : sociologist David Glass (1911-1978), economist Arthur Lewis (1915-1991) and statistician Roy G. D. Allen (1906-1983). [39] Obrębski was therefore , as in Polesie and like many other students of Malinowski involved in the “anthro-administration”, [40] expected to produce expert knowledge for the use of decision-makers. In this case, the context of his research work was “the Colonial Office’s sense of the need for social sciences to help in the work of governing the colonised” (Scott 2013 : 3). The task of the WISS was to gather scientific data for the British colonial administration, concerning mainly the social structure and economic conditions in rural societies comprising descendants of former slaves :

“[I]n 1947 (...) the Colonial Office pressed its sense of the urgency of the question of the ‘social’ in the Caribbean when, in conjunction with faculty members in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics, it launched the now little-remembered West Indian Social Survey. The programme ran until 1949, collecting sociological and anthropological data, largely in rural communities and largely centred around the family as the epicentre from which social order or social disorder radiated” (Scott 2013 : 3).

For a year and a half, from February 1947 to August 1948, Obrębski conducted his fieldwork in two Jamaican villages : Warsop (under the code name Patentville) and Bull Savannah (Rockmeadow). His wife Tamara and local technical assistants collaborated with him. “The moment when Obrębski started his observations of the social life and culture of the Jamaican countryside was a breakthrough because he had the opportunity to register the world of black peasants of slave origin at the very end of the years closing the colonial era and opening the way to great political, social and cultural transformations of this island”. At the same time, “the field studies conducted by Obrębski (...) fell in the pioneering period of research on the Caribbean, including Jamaica, as they preceded the period of more systematic exploration of this island world by almost half a century” (Posern-Zieliński 2006 : 132–133). Based on the methodological foundations laid out in his article “Teoria ekonomiczna i metoda socjologiczna w badaniu społeczeństw pierwotnych” [Economic theory and sociological method in studies of primitive societies], his research focused on the Jamaican peasant family – which was widely believed to be dysfunctional – but went far beyond the pragmatic, sociographic plane envisaged by the WISS. Obrębski was interested in the dynamics of the economic system and social structure in the context of the formation of modern post-slave society. He concentrated on the anthropology of family in the broad context of macro-social and historical circumstances. [41] He paid attention to the issue of poverty and marginalization, examined the social role played by local and religious institutions as well as schools, and looked into the layer of the so-called secondary peasantry functioning in Jamaica, and “rural cities” (this term was coined by him), characteristic of the socio-economic context there. He observed the process of the Jamaican nation’s formation and elaborated his theory, stemming first from his research in Polesie, on the emergence of modern nations. In a letter to anthropologist Feliks Gross (1906–2006), a friend of Obrębski and also a student of Malinowski, he wrote :

“Our work will be a monograph of not so much the village, but of the entire social class, that is the local peasantry. (...) Its title, as we are planning it, would be ‘Family, neighbourhood and nation in peasant Jamaica’ and the entirety of peasant issues (family and rural society) would be shown against the background of the emergence of the modern Jamaican nation (in the socio-cultural, not political, sense) from the former colonial society. In this way, we could touch in this work, with Jamaica as the example, on one of the fundamental processes of modern times.” [42]

In a recent study, Posern-Zieliński writes :

“One should consider Obrębski’s work in Jamaica not so much as a kind of American incident in his scientific career, but on the contrary – to look at his findings and the way of interpreting Jamaican social life as the ‘third’ (after the Macedonian and Polesian) logical stage of his research on the forms of peasantry existence in various cultural and socio-political contexts” (Posern-Zieliński 2006 : 142).

This promising research was accompanied, however, by tensions between Obrębski and the bureaucratic leadership of the WISS [43] project, which ignored his qualitative approach and explanations of local social reality grounded in contemporary anthropological theories and in the humanistic sociology of Znaniecki.

The function of the head of WISS was then held by Edith Clarke (1896–1979), whom Obrębski knew from Malinowski’s seminary. Under the conditions of the research in Jamaica, it turned out, however, that the former colleagues did not find a common language and the growing content-related conflict between them made it difficult to conduct research (Clarke even resorted to financial harassment against Obrębski). [44] It is not difficult to identify the causes of this conflict, which is extensively described in Obrębski’s correspondence with Raymond Firth, Meyer Fortes, Feliks Gross, Arnold Kunst, [45] Clarence Senior (1903–1974) and Florian Znaniecki. Clarke, who previously organised social assistance in Jamaica as a representative of the colonial administration, was primarily an official and a supporter of quantitative research methodology ; she mainly demanded statistical summaries from Obrębski, ignoring the explanation of the local reality that emanated from his analyses of personal documents, for example. They represented two kinds of anthropology (or, for that matter, sociology), with diverging research experiences and significant contrast in theoretical and methodological awareness, scientific temperament, and finally, the breadth of horizons. Obrębski clearly did not intend to become a provider of “social knowledge as a means of engineering social discipline in a colonial (...) context” (Scott 2013 : 4). As Posern-Zieliński puts it :

“He very quickly noticed the important fact that the Antilles, due to the syncretic or hybrid nature of local cultures, constitute a great laboratory for an anthropologist, allowing the researcher not only to recognise the creative process of crossing genetically diverse cultural contents but also following many other important social phenomena, crucial for further development of anthropological reflection” (Posern-Zieliński 2006 : 134).

Obrębski, as before in Macedonia and Polesie, was guided by “a unique scientific instinct, allowing him to identify problems and areas of research that were noticed by other specialists in much later years” (ibid. : 139). While working in Jamaica, he pursued his own, much broader scientific goals in parallel with completing the project tasks. He wrote to Znaniecki :

“My aim and ambition (...) was to give this work such character that it could serve as an example for future research of this kind and rescue English sociology from the deluge of statistics and ‘reportingmania’. (...) The biographic and ecologic method we are implementing yields great results. Work is interesting and it looks like we will soon be able to understand the most fascinating riddles of the social structure and social changes in this country. The only difficulty we have encountered in this job is our partner and manager. She is a charming lady (from the local plantation owners) and a great organiser. Unfortunately, the state of her knowledge and sociological background is at best at the level of our master’s students. I have the arduous task of teaching her without offending her ego. (...) It is not, moreover, her personal trait, but a reflection of the state of sociological knowledge in England. [46] I confess that only after my last sojourn in London did I fully understand how much we all in Poland owe you”. [47]

He elaborated on these thoughts in a letter to Arnold Kunst :

“I have to constantly play a blind man’s buff with the local director of my research. My approach is intolerable to her planting ideology, and her sociological infantilism obviously does not help in finding a common language. Fortunately, I secured help and cooperation (...) from local progressive groups (...). Thanks to this, I have a supply of material that will undoubtedly be great for those who have not woken up from the imperial dream yet. I am also not sure how the ‘interview with the bishop’, i.e. with my employers in London, will turn out. I am afraid that it has not yet been revealed to them that the monographs of local communities are not an end in themselves, but only a method of getting to know the great (national) society in its structure and transformations, as well as in its formation. (...) I was strongly convinced that beyond Poland there was no sociological circle where you could expect the problem of colonial peoples and rising nations to be understood properly both in theoretical and practical aspects. It is we who have advanced considerably and we have all the chances of creating a ‘school’ or approach, which could become the leading one. Here, they are stuck in ancient methods and nearly fossil theoretical disorder”. [48]

After leaving Jamaica in September 1948 and moving to New York, Obrębski worked on the results of his research for many years. However, he never finished these studies and handed them over to London (Malinowski was right in diagnosing the perfectionism that blocked his student). He concluded the writing of only two pieces, one of which, “Legitimacy and Illegitimacy in Jamaica : a Non-Deviant Case” (1966), was published (in photocopy form) as a university brochure, and the other, a conference paper entitled “Peasant Family and National Society in Jamaica” (1956), remained in the typewritten form only. It was not until 2006 that both were published (in the original English version and in Polish translation) in the Polish journal Sprawy Narodowościowe (Nationalities Affairs) (Obrębski 2006a, 2006b), and are now available on the website dedicated to Obrębski. [49]

Field materials from Jamaica (including a collection of personal documents such as letters and biographies) and the studies based on them constitute the largest, entirely English-language, archival corpus in Obrębski’s legacy. It consists of typescripts of five extensive monographs : “Patentville : A Jamaican Village” (127 pp.), “Family Dysfunction in a Familist Society” (959 pp.), “Family Letters in Peasant Jamaica” (94 pp.), “Family Structure and Economic System in Peasant Jamaica” (74 pp.), and “Religion in Rockmeadow” (255 pp.). There are also shorter sketches among them, including : “Pattern of Malintegration”, “Planning Social Survey in Jamaica”, “Family Society and Towns in Rockmeadow”, “Family and Neighbourhood in Rockmeadow” and a draft of a planned monograph, “A Jamaican Rural City”. [50]

We need to focus on the polemical articles by Obrębski about Jamaica. [51] The first, “Peasant Family and National Society in Jamaica” – a paper delivered in December 1956 at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New York – was prepared for printing in Human Organization, the journal of the Society for Applied Anthropology ; however, it was not published. Obrębski discusses here the Jamaican family system “under which reproduction appears to escape structural regimentation.” He sees this as “a perplexing phenomenon, particularly when it is found among a peasant people with the family as the basis of social organisation”. Moreover, “it is perpetuated generation after generation despite its incompatibility with the value orientations and moral standards to which the state, the Churches and the upper classes of the society are committed” (Obrębski 2006b : 306). Analysing this family system, considered “abnormal” or “amoral”, he indicates a whole range of interdependencies with the wider social, economic and historical context. He draws attention, among others, to such phenomena as the social structure and economic situation of this young formation, derived from the secondary, post-slave peasantry, and to the nation-building processes taking place among this stratum. He proposes that the Jamaican family should be viewed not as a dysfunctional, static structure, but as a dynamic phenomenon : a process that leads from loose youth relationships, through the procreation stage and the matrix-centred family, to a family based on formalised marriage.

In relation with his theoretical and methodological reflections on the peasant family and national society, Obrębski engaged in a polemic with William Goode, resulting in an article entitled “Legitimacy and Illegitimacy in Jamaica : a Non-Deviant Case” (Obrębski 2006a). Goode interpreted the “dysfunctional” Caribbean family as a non-“normative” phenomenon. [52] Obrębski’s arguments led him to the conclusion that it is not the Caribbean family that is “abnormal”, but that the concept of a norm is different in the Caribbean socio-cultural context from the one in Western Europe ; that indigenous conceptual categories may have different meanings and perform different functions than the categories of researchers. Obrębski also proposes that instead of calling into question the universality of the “principle of legitimacy” formulated by Malinowski (which states that one of the functions of the family is to legitimise the group membership of the offspring), as did many researchers of the Caribbean family, this principle should be understood more deeply, and thus in accordance with the intention of its creator :

“A proposal is made to widen the meaning of the principle of legitimacy. Instead of equating legitimacy with legal marriage (which may be only one of its cultural variants), the emphasis should be placed on paternity and on how the father-linked kinship statuses are – in different cultures – conferred upon the issues of different forms of procreative unions, normative for the society. This theoretical position has its obvious methodological implications. It asks for the study of the nature of the principle not in its abstract form, and not in detachment from its cultural context, but with the full consideration of its place in the institutional setting, and in the very terms of value orientations and normative standards of the culture, of which it is a part” (Obrębski 2006a : 304).

Fig. 9
A Jamaican family, 1947-1948
Photo : J. Obrębski. "Obrebski Collection”, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts, Amherst Libraries

As Robert Ciski summarised, [53]

“Obrębski was convinced that rural Jamaican society could be understood only by an intensive study of origins, functions and prospects. He felt that the lasting scientific worth of his work lays here, and not in the connection of statistics on rural communities. ... He never fully completed his discussion on the Rockmeadow family dysfunction and social malintegration. Even so, his extensive background in peasant societies produced an alternative interpretation of rural Jamaican family structure, unique among the general trends of Caribbean ethnology. Consequently, the preservation of the original data and the partial analyses of Joseph Obrębski count as an important addition to the body of literature in the field of Caribbean studies as well as Afro-American studies generally” (Ciski 1980 : 355).

While in Jamaica, Obrębski was looking for employment opportunities in the West, [54] and in early 1948 it seemed that he would return to Poland and take the position of the chair of ethnology at the University of Warsaw (of which he was formally an employee until 1950). He wrote to Znaniecki about the politicisation of social sciences in Poland, [55] and about his plans and dilemmas :

“I left the country (...) legally, but at my own expense and without any obligations. I do not want to come back. I have no illusions regarding the possibilities of Polish sociology’s development under the current circumstances. And not many regarding the possibilities of it changing for the better soon. (...) I would prefer the Professor to be discreet in the Polish circles about my plans. I have a national passport, which, thanks to my trip to Jamaica, I was able to expand to all countries and extend until November 1948. By this date, I have to create ‘facts’. I am officially doing field studies in ethnology, for which I refused a chair in Lodz. I am an associate professor at the University of Warsaw, where the chair of the department is empty. I doubt I will return to it. I chose ethnology as the seemingly most detached subject. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Lenin and Stalin were ethnologists as well”. [56]

Eventually, Obrębski accepted a position in the UN Trusteeship Department in New York.

Obrębski’s American Years : An Outsider of US Anthropology

A job at the United Nations was offered to Obrębski by Polish orientalist and diplomat Arnold Kunst. They knew each other before the war. The context of his decision not to return to the University of Warsaw is found in a letter to Kunst, sent from Jamaica in February 1948 : [57]

“My refusal to stay in Jamaica was related to my plans to return to the country, as I finally decided to go to Warsaw. The decision was a bit hasty (...). But I couldn’t wait. The Warsaw chair was threatened with liquidation due to the lack of a candidate. At the same time, I was firmly convinced that no other sociological milieu other than Poland could count on a quick and proper theoretical (and, of course, practical) understanding of the issue of colonial peoples and emerging nations. We have made great strides in our sociology in this regard, and we have all the data to create a school or faculty that could take the lead in this field. (...) Therefore, I accepted the plan to return to Warsaw as soon as possible and take up the chair of ethnology at the local university. My plan was as follows. I wanted to make the department of emerging nations of old or recent colonial peoples the main subject of my department and at the same time synchronise my work with the work of Ossowski (theory of the nation) and Chałasiński [58] (sociology of social movements). (...) Of course, my entry into the UN will eliminate the issue of returning to Warsaw in the immediate future”. [59]

Obrębski became a member of the UN Secretariat. He worked as a senior social affairs officer in the UN Trusteeship Department responsible for former colonial territories which were gaining independence (the so-called trust territories). The issues he dealt with “were in line with his ... interest in the world of declining colonialism”, and “a close knowledge of remote provincial life on one of the most important Antillean islands was certainly a very good intellectual capital that allowed him to perform this responsible service in the UN structures” (Posern-Zieliński 2006 : 143). The field of his research as an expert anthropologist included family, upbringing, education and urbanisation, issues of economy and social policy and, of course, the emergence of new nations. He studied social change in African, South-East Asian, Caribbean, and Oceanic colonial settings, and presented his findings at UN seminars. He prepared a series of essays and analyses which, according to UN rules, were not published but functioned as anonymous brochures for internal use. These include : “Training of Social Workers” (1951), “General Aspects of Social Policy” (1952), “Community Development and Education in Non-Self-Governing Territories” (1953), “General Policies and Major Problems of Social Development” (1953), “Social Progress through Local Action – Community Welfare Centres” (1953), “Social Problems of Industrialization” (1954), “Community Development Policy and Administration in Non-Self-Governing Territories” (1955), “Nature of the Problem of Urbanization in Underdeveloped Areas” (1955), “Social Change and Standards of Living in Non-Self-Governing Territories” (1955), “Social Aspects of Economic Development in Non-Self-Governing Territories. Colonial Peasantries in Transition” (1957), “Social Aspects of Urban Development” (1958), “Social Measures for Economic Welfare of the Family” (1958), and “Urban Community Development. Application of Community Development. Principles in Urban Neighbourhoods” (1958).

In September 1950, Obrębski participated in the First International Sociological Congress in Zurich, [60] where he presented the paper “The Sociology of Rising Nations” – a theoretical synthesis of his research in Polesie and Jamaica regarding the emergence of nations (Obrębski 1951). This text extends and deepens the theoretical perspective present in his earlier works, in particular the article “Statyczne i dynamiczne podejście w badaniach narodowościowych” [“Static and Dynamic Approach in Ethnic Studies”] and the Oxford lectures. It is an important contribution to world research on the processes of social advancement and nation-building as well as to the theoretical reflection on the grassroots of nationalist movements. “Eastern Europe thus became the template for a broadly comparative, global model, for its social realities, Obrębski implied, were more representative of the global norm than those few societies with ‘all-inclusive national structures’ like the U.S. or north-western Europe” (Lebow 2019 : 201). Obrębski’s generalised reflections pointing to universals in the global historical process of forming new national structures were had a strongly empirically grounded in his research experiences to date. Selective assimilation and new class segregation, the important role of marginal men, transition taking place “between and in-between the two different types of society”, and finally “reorganised national structures” – these are some of the relevant phenomena Obrębski had previously observed and studied. He was now convinced that they gave rise to a “comparative analysis, abstract description and systematic theory”. Aware that research on “this chaotic, fluid and dynamic reality” was ascribed “neither to the folk-society nor to the original national society, although it is related to both of them” (Obrebski 1951 : 241–242), he kept paving the way for interdisciplinary cooperation between ethnology and sociology.

Obrębski’s ten-year work at the UN (1948–1958), although it required anthropological knowledge and skills, was largely clerical work : tedious, time-consuming and burdened with bureaucracy. During this period, his strictly scientific activity had to be limited, but he maintained personal contacts with the New York community of anthropologists and sociologists, and participated in seminars. He was in contact with the Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures – a “culture and personality” research program dedicated to national character and run by Margaret Mead ; but his attitude toward this culturalist research was highly critical. [61]

The result of the so-called “Polish October”, or “Polish October Revolution” of 1956, was the liberalization of the political regime in Poland, which could also be felt in the field of science. In 1957, Obrębski was offered the chair of the Department of Ethnology, which was to be created especially for him at the University of Warsaw. Ultimately, however, he did not accept this proposal. His wife was accustomed to and his son had practically grown into the American environment ; Stefan was now a biology student at Columbia University, he had scientific ambitions and plans, and Tamara did not want to return to Poland. In the following years, Obrębski was offered temporary contracts in Warsaw : a year-long professorship of sociology in Warsaw, and the chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Warsaw in the years 1960–1962. None of those plans, however, come to fruition and Obrębski was not associated with any of the Polish institutions, either as an ethnologist or as a sociologist, except for one : in 1960, Józef and Tamara Obrębski were admitted to the Polish Sociological Society (as foreign members).

After leaving the UN, Obrębski worked as a lecturer at universities in New York. He taught sociology and anthropology at Brooklyn College, Hofstra College and Queens College of the City University of New York (1959–1961), and subsequently, in the years 1962–1967, worked at the Faculty of Social Sciences of C. W. Post College of Long Island University. [62] “It was through his efforts, in large part, that the discipline of social anthropology was established at the C. W. Post College” (Nottingham 1968 : 256). Indeed, he was the first professor of social anthropology there, and was remembered as “very approachable and recognised by the students for his zeal and commitment to their development, and his unwavering scholarship” (Bellotti 1992 : 7). In an obituary by a former student he was described in the following way : “I found his lectures – marked by erudition, research, good humour and obvious interest – wonderfully free from pedantry and conceit. He earned the respect others assume ; he demonstrated what others merely assert – scholarship” (Nottingham 1968 : 257).

In the 1960s, Obrębski was a member of the American Anthropological Association. From 1961, he participated in the works of the newly formed Sociological-Anthropological Committee of the Polish Institute of Sciences in America (and Tamara Obrębska became the committee’s secretary). He delivered papers at seminars and conferences, such as “Rising Nations from an Anthropological Perspective” [63] at the University of Chicago (1960), “Social Structure and Ritual in a Macedonian Village” at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia in December 1961, and “Principle of Legitimacy in the Caribbean” at the First Congress of Polish Scientists, organised at Columbia University to mark the millennium of the Polish state (November 1966). The 1960s were a period of intensive academic work for Obrębski. His interest in the history of ethnology and the figure of Ludwik Krzywicki (1859–1941), an outstanding ethnologist and sociologist, forerunner of both disciplines in Poland, resulted in a treatise titled “O etnologii Krzywickiego” (On the ethnology of Krzywicki) of over 200 pages ; unfinished, it remains in typewritten form. He brought his field materials from Macedonia and Polesie from Warsaw, to which he intended to devote his upcoming retirement.

Throughout their time in the United States, Józef Obrębski and Tamara Obrębska maintained close relations with their homeland. They helped Polish scientists coming to the States on research grants. The home of the Obrębski family in Hollis, NY, whose door was always open, saw dozens of people coming and going. Among the visitors were Valetta Malinowski and Eileen Znaniecki (1886–1976), Theodore Abel (1896–1988), Robert Bierstedt (1913–1998), Hortense Powdermaker (1900–1970), Sula Benet (1903–1982), Alicja Iwańska (1918–1996), Feliks Gross, Aleksander Hertz, Józef Chałasiński (1904–1979), Jan Szczepański (1913–2004), Stefan Nowakowski (1912–1989), Wiktor Weintraub (1908–1988) and many others, connected with Polish and American scientific circles.

In the academic year 1968/1969, Obrębski planned to hold a series of lectures at the University of Warsaw and to conduct fieldwork in Poland. He died suddenly on the 28th of December 1967, aged 62.

Some years after his death, Józef Obrębski’s academic legacy from Macedonia, Polesie and Jamaica, as well as his correspondence and other personal documents, was deposited at the university archive in Amherst, Massachusetts, thanks to the efforts of Tamara Obrębska, Sula Benet and Joel M. Halpern. It was made available as the “Obrebski Collection”.

Obrębski’s position in the American scientific field was below his status in Polish academia. “[B]eing a little-known Polish émigré, he (...) lived the life of an academic outsider. (...) His position in the academy had become too weak to allow the effective promotion and promulgation of his ideas” (Lubaś 2019b : 66–67). It is a fact : a decade of anonymous work at the United Nations had marginalised him permanently. When he quit his job as an expert, he was 54 years old and had only one English scientific publication under his own name. Competing with the younger generation, who at that time were taking up positions in the newly emerging anthropology departments at American universities (Silverman 2005 : 281–283), he no longer had the chance (nor the ambition) to find himself a place in the mainstream circuits. The reasons why Obrębski did not achieve an institutional career in the US and why he remains a misfit in the anthropological mainstream today are, however, more complex.

Conclusion : A Marginal Man

This liberal European intellectual with emancipatory, anti-nationalist and anti-colonial beliefs, whose open and non-essentialist anthropology was deeply humanistic, rose above the format of American anthropology and social science in the 1950s and, to some extent, the 1960s. Simply put, he did not fit in with the “bureaucratic” system of academic institutions. [64] He came to America “when positivism was at its apogee in U.S. social science, precisely when such reflexivity was least wanted” (Lebow 2019 : 203–204). [65] The diagnosis of Katherine Lebow is right :

“Obrębski’s perfectionism, however, cannot be blamed for the failure of his and Gross’s project – a vision (...) of building a new city on a hill, exploiting Polish methods and American freedom. Obrębski rediscovered his Polesian peasants in the Jamaican hills (...). Exile was not a tragedy. First, the real tragedy had already taken place, on Polish soil. Second, Gross and Obrębski came from a long line of emigrés, including Gumplowicz, [66] Znaniecki, and of course, Malinowski. Their homeland was theory and method, and it was portable. The America of ‘area studies’ and development economics, however, resisted infection by their enthusiasm” (Lebow 2019 : 203). [67]

This diagnosis was confirmed by a direct witness of the years spent by Obrębski at C. W. Post College, his colleague Joseph Kissinger, in an interview with Anthony Bellotti.

“Yet, the exuberance that Kissinger spoke to me with about their time together was also followed by a reminder of how much Joseph Obrebski suffered in his relationships with the larger academic community. I asked, rather bluntly, why it might be that Obrebski never published anything about Jamaica or anything since returning to the academic environment. ‘Frankly’, he [Kissinger] told me, ‘there was a lack of appreciation for the quality of his research here in the States’. (...) ‘In fact’, Kissinger continued, ‘Obrębski was very frustrated because nobody was interested in his work. He was not very happy. He received little administrative support even here at the C. W. Post’. I got the distinct impression of a man still under the kind of censorship of his work as when he worked under the Survey with Edith Clarke” (Bellotti 1992 : 7–8).

For Bellotti, a researcher of Obrębski’s Jamaican legacy, he was “a man ahead of his time and field” (ibid. : 8).

I myself spoke with Joseph Kissinger in 1996. Telling a story full of admiration for Obrębski’s intellect and for his brilliance and endearing personality traits, he called him a marginal man. “A marginal man, according to Park – wrote Alicja Iwańska – is a truly free man, both theoretically and practically – truly emancipated. His views are freer from superstition than those of other people – broader and more objective. He is less a slave to custom and convention” (Iwańska 1952 : 26). In my opinion, Obrębski, “a humanist in the deepest sense of the word” and “a man of great independence of spirit” (Nottingham 1968 : 257), consciously chose such a marginal position on the American soil. It was also the position of an observer : distant, keen and ironic.

The strength of Obrębski’s thought lies in its openness, thanks to which it can constantly inspire new anthropological inquiries, and in its undeniable pioneering qualities : Obrębski is one of the forerunners of gender theory and medical anthropology, non-essentialist studies on ethnicity, contemporary theories of nationalism and postcolonial studies. Researchers of his oeuvre agree with Bellotti that he was a scientist who was ahead of his time.

While the history of science is written from the perspective of those actors who shape the mainstream, actors on the margins not only belong to it, they also possess something that successful people lack : the potential for subversion.

Archival Sources

AR : The Obrębski family archive in the possession of the author ; workshop materials and correspondence of Józef Obrębski.

IEiAKUJ : Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of the Jagiellonian Universisty Archives, materials of Kazimierz Moszyński.

LSE : London School of Economics and Political Science Archives, correspondence of Bronisław Malinowski.

OC : „Obrebski Collection”, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachussetts, Amherst, legacy of Józef Obrębski.


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[1This article was translated from Polish by Katarzyna Szyszka (with contribution from Helena Teleżyńska and Magdalena Kruk) ; and revised by David Tucker.

[2I have written more broadly on the relationship between Obrębski and Moszyński in : (Engelking 2012).

[3The Polesie region of interwar Poland included two provinces (Polesian and Volhynian). Today the northern part of Polesie belongs to Belarus, the southern part to Ukraine. A small part west of the Bug river (where Obrębski did not conduct fieldwork) belongs to present day Poland.

[4For more information about the relationship between Obrębski and Malinowski, and on Obrębski’s involvement in propagating functionalism in Poland see Engelking (2004).

[5“Valetta Malinowski, Bronio’s widow spent some weeks with us between May and June. She brought her husband’s letters to his fellow-workers and students doing fieldwork, and now Józio is working with them, writing on the origin and application of the functional method” (letter from T. Obrębska to J. Chałasiński, 14.07.1961, OC ; letter in Polish). Obrębski did not compile Malinowski’s letters ; this task has now been successfully performed by F. Foks, (see Foks 2020).

[6This opinion by Malinowski (dated October 22, 1933) was addressed to Dr. Kittredge from the Rockefeller Foundation, whose scholarship Obrębski was a holder of in 1930-1933 (LSE).

[7K. Lebow writes more about this work by Obrębski, (see : Lebow 2019 : 193–194).

[8Obrębski’s sister, Antonina Obrębska-Jabłońska told me about Malinowski’s proposal in 1994.

[9For more on Obrebski’s research in Macedonia, see i.a. : Bielenin-Lenczowska, Engelking (2015) ; Engelking (2003, 2018) ; Halpern (2003) ; Rękas (2020) ; Risteski (2011).

[10Parallel to Obrębski’s fieldwork in Macedonia, the Harvard Irish Survey, funded by Rockefeller Foundation, took place on the European periphery, in which two young American social anthropologists studied family and economic life in County Clare in western Ireland (1932-1934). They were Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball, working under the direction of William Lloyd Warner, who promoted the functional approach to the study of community as a frame of research. The result of their research are two monographs : The Irish Countryman (1937) by Arensberg and Family and Community in Ireland (1940, 1968) of joint authorship, both included in the framework of functionalist theory and at the same time, the American tradition of community studies. See also : Byrne, Edmondson, Varley (2001). A comparative analysis of the course and results of both these fieldworks carried out in parallel in two different European rural communities could reveal deeper relationships and differences between Obrębski’s project, inspired by Malinowski personally, and hitherto unknown to the history of anthropology, and the project of Arensberg and Kimball, indirectly inspired by functionalism, which had a formative influence on later development of the anthropology of peasantry.

[11Letter from J. Obrębski to K. Moszyński, 4.04.1933 (IEiAKUJ ; letter in Polish).

[12English translation of selected fragments see in : (Obrębski 2020 : 92–124).

[13Such as, for example, ploughing the village before the plague, i.e. drawing a plough around the village to protect it from a plague.

[14English translation of selected fragments see in : (Obrębski 2020 : 71–91).

[15See English translation in : (Obrębski 2020 : 125–140).

[16More on Obrębski’s “non-transparent ethnography”, present in this text, see : (Bielenin-Lenczowska (2013).

[17Included in the English text “Bride Wealth in Macedonia”.

[18Letter from J. Obrębski to K. Moszyński, 4.04.1933 (IEiAKUJ ; letter in Polish).

[22On Obrębski’s scholarship on gender construction in his Macedonian writings see also : (Bielenin-Lenczowska (2013).

[23Obrębski and Malinowski corresponded on this topic in the second half of the 1930s (see : LSE).

[24Excerpt from Obrębski’s manuscript “Bride Wealth in Macedonia”, pp. 1–2 (OC).

[25Excerpt from Obrębski’s manuscript “Kinship in Bulgaria”, p. 1 (AR).

[26The Institute for Research into Nationalities Affairs was an independent think tank which functioned as a private association. Its members and affiliates included the greatest authorities in the field of ethnic and minority studies, as well as political activists (see : Serwański, Wrzesińska 2006 ; Stach 2016). Obrębski became a de facto member of the institute in March 1936.

[27I wrote in detail about Obrębski’s professional life and environmental connections in 1934–1946, spent in Warsaw, in : (Engelking (2006).

[28Obrębski translated the following works by Malinowski into Polish : Crime and Custom in Savage Society (1926), Law and Custom (introduction to H. I. Hogbin’s book Law and Order in Polynesia, 1934) and The Deadly Issue (1936). These translations had a number of reprints before and after WWII ; they were also included in the collective edition of Malinowski’s works (Dzieła, Warsaw 1980–2003).

[29On the ideological and political context of the research activity of the Commission for Scientific Research into the Eastern Lands and the Institute for Research into Nationalities Affairs, the research itself and different positions taken by the researchers, including Obrębski, see : (Ciancia (2021 : 197–212). Among other aspects, Ciancia discusses here Obrębski’s key findings related to the ethnic and national specificity of Polesie, which “naturally angered those who believed that the Polesians were simply proto-Poles” (210). However, she refers to only one of his articles. This is probably why, apart from the accurate and important conclusions, she also formulates an opinion on Obrębski as a researcher that cannot be confirmed by the facts : “His approach to the peasantry was undoubtedly tinged with colonial othering. Just as he claimed to understand these people on their own terms, Obrębski remained an elite academic who, to a certain degree, romanticised the more ‘primitive’ people of the Volhynian-Polesian borderlands” (209).

[31Like most of the Macedonian legacy, these materials can be found in the “Obrebski Collection”, University Archives, UMass. Copies of field materials from Polesie are also available in the Archives of Quality Data of IFiS PAN in Warsaw (

[32The Polish word tutejsi literally means ‘the people from here’.

[33The term Ruthenian refers here to the population speaking Belarusian or Ukrainian dialects.

[35“[I]t has become increasingly clear that texts written by Obrębski in the 1930s anticipated future trends and currents in anthropology. ... Upon careful reading, there are resemblances between the work of Obrębski and not only Barth, but also the latter’s critics, such as Anthony Cohen, Katherine Verdery and John Cole and Eric Wolf. ... There are therefore also interesting parallels between Obrębski’s theorization of nation-making, colonialism and the making of minorities, and contemporary scholarship on nationalism represented by the works of Brubaker, Chatterjee, Wimmer and others” (Lubaś 2019b : 68).

[36On the breakthrough significance of Obrębski’s concepts, developed on the basis of Polesie research, which collided with the default assumptions of contemporary scientific thinking, see also Buchowski (2019 : 16-17).

[37See on this topic, Lebow (2019 : 196–197).

[38A letter from J. Obrębski to F. Znaniecki, 3.05.1947 (OC ; letter in Polish).

[39However, “the CSSRC was dominated by anthropologists whose main focus was Africa and the Council’s influential secretary, Raymond Firth, one of the key supervisors of the West India Survey, confessed ‘he had not had much concern with [the West Indies]’” (Bush 2013 : 454).

[40I borrow this term from F. Foks (2018 : 41).

[41Obrębski’s contribution to family anthropology and the scope and pioneering nature of his research in Jamaica, as well as their methods and theoretical assumptions are discussed by R. Ciski (Ciski [1975], 1980) and A. Posern-Zieliński (Posern-Zieliński 2006 : 136–144).

[42Letter from J. Obrębski to F. Gross, 19.02.1948 (OC ; letter in Polish).

[43The analysis of “the relationship between the Colonial Office, the academics on the Colonial Social Science Research Council ... and the research team in the field” in the context of the assumptions, goals and methods of WISS is the subject of an insightful article by B. Bush (Bush 2013). The author also considers here “the impact of the research on academic knowledge and policy making” (Bush 2013 : 451).

[44“As a result, wanting to continue his work, [Obrębski] had to resort to private funds generated thanks to his wife’s entrepreneurship, who in a crisis situation took up additional work in Jamaica” (Posern-Zieliński 2006 : 136). More on the topic of the WISS’s problems relating to pay and remuneration, see Bush (2013 : 460).

[45Arnold Kunst (1903–1981), Polish Indologist. After the war, a diplomat at the United Nations and a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

[46The assessment formulated by Obrębski is fully confirmed by facts, because the process of institutionalization of sociology in England as an academic discipline began only in 1945. As G. Steinmetz comments, “[m]any parts of the emerging sociological discipline became entangled with colonialism” (Steinmetz 2013 : 1). On E. Clarke he writes : “[she] was presented in the grant application as having ‘studied sociology at London University,’, although her main degree was in anthropology” (Steinmetz 2014 : 321). For more on this topic, see Steinmetz (2013, 2014).

[47Letter from J. Obrębski to F. Znaniecki, 3.05.1947 (OC ; letter in Polish).

[48Letter from J. Obrębski to A. Kunst, 27.02.48 (OC ; letter in Polish).

[50All these materials are at University Archives, UMass. They have been copied and are available also at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica :ębski-papers-jamaican-series

[51For a more detailed discussion of both articles, see in Lebow (2019 : 198–199).

[52The same approach is presented by E. Clarke in her monograph My Mother Who Fathered Me : A Study of the Family in Three Selected Communities in Jamaica (Clarke 1957). See more detailed commentary in Bush (2013 : 451–452).

[53In the 1970s, R. Ciski organized and prepared for the purposes of UMass Archives Obrębski’s materials from Jamaica. A slightly more extensive, unpublished version of his 1980 article can be found in the archival inventory of the “Obrebski Collection” in Amherst (Ciski [1975]).

[54Efforts made by F. Gross to find employment for Obrębski in the United States are extensively discussed by K. Lebow, see (Lebow 2019 : 199–201). B. Bush states that Obrębski “unsuccessfully applied for a readership at Oxford in May 1948”, as “Firth gave him a mediocre reference”. Further commentary : “However, in Obrębski’s defence, his outsider status may have prejudiced English academics against him. Moreover, he had a wife and 8-year-old son to support and, given the post-war problems of Polish exiles, arguably had to take any suitable post, even if he was not particularly interested in the project” (Bush 2013 : 461).

[55Sociology was banned in Stalinist Poland until 1956 as politically dangerous, and ethnology was reduced to “ethnographism”. For a short overview of Polish ethnology in the 1950s and 1960s, see Buchowski (2019 : 18–21).

[56Letter from J. Obrębski to F. Znaniecki, 3.05.1947 (OC ; letter in Polish).

[57University of the West Indies at Mona is meant here.

[58Stanisław Ossowski (1897–1963) and Józef Chałasiński (1904–1979) were Polish sociologists, friends and collaborators of Obrębski.

[59Letter from J. Obrębski to A. Kunst, 27.02.1948 (OC ; letter in Polish).

[60He presented here as a representative of the University of Warsaw ; this is also how his post-congress publication is affiliated (Obrebski 1951).

[61It is known from personal documents that in December 1956 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New York he delivered a paper entitled “Peasant Family and National Society in Jamaica”, and a year later he gave a guest lecture at a Caribbean seminar at the University of Columbia on the “Peasant Family in Jamaica”. In 1958, he lectured on the “Social Background of the Polish Revolution of 1956” at the Department of Sociology of Queens College in New York.

[62Until 1965 as assistant professor, and from 1966 as associate professor.

[64A friend of the Obrębski family, a sociologist and anthropologist, Alicja Iwańska, who was also deeply frustrated by the corporate bureaucracy of the American academic system, characterized it as follows : “There are no thinkers here. There are academics and, like in Soviet Russia, productivity is valued above all, which sometimes boils down to quantitative efficiency. Only there are no official verification committees here. The performance criteria are unclear and the consequences of inefficiency are severe” (Iwańska 1952 : 19).

[65On post-war American anthropology dominated by the proponents of neo-evolutionism and new materialism, see (Silverman (2005 : 275-281).

[66Ludwik Gumplowicz (1838–1909), lawyer, historian, sociologist ; one of the pioneers of sociology.

[67J. M. Halpern, considering the reasons why Obrębski did not find a place for himself in American anthropology, also pointed to “the disinterest in European peasant societies which existed in American anthropology during the period he taught in the United States”. Also at that time “ethnic identities were seen as past heritages which might unfortunately be lost, but were not major conditioning forces of the present” (Halpern 1976 : 4).