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Znaniecki, Florian

Znaniecki, Florian



Florian Witold Znaniecki (1882-1958) was born in Swiatniki, Poland. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Warsaw but was expelled shortly before receiving his degree—for leading a demonstration against the Russian administration. He pursued his graduate studies at the universities of Geneva, Zurich, Paris, and Cracow, receiving his doctorate from Cracow in 1909. He began his intellectual career as a poet and turned next to philosophy, a field in which he won an early distinction not only by original contributions but by translating Bergson’s Creative Evolution into Polish. Finally, under the influence of W. I. Thomas, he turned away from philosophy and became a sociologist. Philosophy seemed to him to have become a discipline doomed to sterility, whereas sociology opened up new vistas for the future advancement of knowledge.

For political reasons Znaniecki was ineligible for an academic post in Poland, and therefore, after taking his doctorate, he found employment in an emigration bureau. It was here that Thomas, on one of his frequent trips to Europe, met Znaniecki. Thomas had begun to interest himself in the problems of immigrants to the United States and particularly in Polish immigrants. He persuaded young Znaniecki to go to the University of Chicago in 1914 and arranged an appointment for him as lecturer in Polish institutions; together they worked on the monumental five-volume study entitled The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, which appeared during the years 1918-1920. In 1919 Znaniecki also published his own first book in English, Cultural Reality, an essay on historical relativism.

In the early 1920s Znaniecki returned to Poland, where he became professor of sociology at Poznan and where, in 1922, he founded the Polish Sociological Institute. Here he trained many students whose works were to add luster to the history of Polish sociology, and here he wrote his Wstęp do socjologji (“Introduction to Sociology” 1922) and his two-volume Socjologia wychowania (“Sociology of Education” 1928-1930). His book The Laws of Social Psychology appeared in English in 1925.

In the early 1930s Znaniecki lectured at Teachers College, Columbia University. In 1934, back again in Poznan, he published The Method of Sociology and, in 1936, his massive Social Actions. In the summer of 1939 he was once more at Columbia, where he delivered a series of lectures that were published, a year later, under the title The Social Role of the Man of Knowledge. The war prevented his return to Poland, and he thereupon accepted an appointment at the University of Illinois, where he spent the last period of his academic career (with the exception of one postretirement year at Wayne State University) and where he wrote his Cultural Sciences and his Modern Nationalities, both published in 1952.

In all of his works, both Polish and English, Znaniecki enjoyed the support and assistance of his wife, Eileen Markley Znaniecki. A native of New York City, she was graduated from Smith College, received a master’s degree in history at Columbia, and took her doctorate in jurisprudence at the University of Chicago. A scholar in her own right, she nevertheless submerged her career in his and served him throughout their life together as his indispensable amanuensis.

Znaniecki’s reputation suffered from the fact that he was bilingual. Half of his books were written in Polish and are inaccessible to all but a few American and English readers. His most important contributions to sociology as such, however, are in his English works, and our discussion will focus on five of these.

“The Polish Peasant in Europe and America.” Although the careers of Thomas and Znaniecki diverged considerably after their collaboration on The Polish Peasant, and although they were fairly far apart in training and temperament, it may be said that the joint enterprise, precisely because of their differences, was an unusually successful one. It is doubtful whether either of them alone could have brought The Polish Peasant to fruition, and neither alone could have made it the sociological classic it is conceded to be. Thomas brought to the work a psychological depth, a comprehensive curiosity, and a rare wisdom. Znaniecki contributed a philosophical sophistication, a historical erudition, and a flair for systematization.

The Polish Peasant made at least three major contributions to sociology, one methodological and the other two substantive. The methodological innovation was the extended use of personal documents, which Thomas and Znaniecki regarded as sociological data par excellence. The two substantive contributions were, first, the linking of attitudes and values in a relationship that staked out a new field for sociological investigation and, second, the famous four wishes—response, recognition, new experience, and security—a variant of an earlier formulation by Thomas. The wishes were not meant to be used in a strictly motivational sense but rather as a taxonomic device to supplant such earlier lists of “interests” as are found in writers like Ratzenhofer and Small.

“The Method of Sociology.” A claim can be made for the proposition that of all Znaniecki’s works The Method of Sociology (1934a) is the most systematic. It offers in a mature form almost all the ideas that characterize his sociological theory. Conscious of the fact that sociology was then in a period of transition from a synthetic science, interested in large generalizations about “society” or “civilization,” to an analytic science investigating specific sets of empirical data, he felt it necessary to spell out in some detail the methodological implications of the new approach. He accordingly made three major points in this book. The first was that sociology is a special and not a general social science and that it has its own special subject matter, its own kind of data, shared by no other science; it is therefore of necessity limited to the investigation of a small but important range of phenomena. The second point was that, in opposition to positivistic approaches to the study of society, sociology is concerned with the “essential meaningfulness” of social reality. The third was that although rigorous logical standards are to be observed, sociology is destined for a long time to be a qualitative rather than a quantitative discipline.

A number of other salient points appear in The Method of Sociology. Znaniecki argued, for example, that although practical experience teaches us a great deal about social life, it does not suffice for the constitution of scientific knowledge. The same observation applies to the body of ethical and political reflections produced over the centuries : all of it is suggestive, much of it is useful, and some of it may even be “true,” but it has no relevance to a systematic sociological theory until it is organized into propositions that lead to generalizations about social actions and social relations. A theoretical science like sociology can prosper only when it uses theoretical criteria and theoretical standards in the accumulation of its facts, the selection of its problems, and the determination of its data. Znaniecki took a middle ground on the competing claims of theory and research. Neither an undisciplined rationalism nor a planless empiricism could satisfy his criteria for the proper direction of sociological inquiry.

Znaniecki was disposed to maintain the NeoKantian distinction between two kinds of systems —natural and cultural—which exhibit differences not only in composition and structure but also in the character of the elements that account for their coherence. Natural systems are objectively given and exist independently of the experience and activity of men. Cultural systems, on the contrary, depend not only for their meaning but also for their existence upon the participation of conscious human agents and upon men’s relations with one another. Znaniecki had his own label for this difference. He called it the “humanistic coefficient,” and it is this concept that sharply separated his approach from that of most of his contemporaries on the American scene. On the issue of Wertfreiheit, however, he took his position with the majority in insisting that sociology is a categorical and not a normative discipline.

Sociology for Znaniecki was a very special kind of inquiry. It was not a natural science; it was not ethics or political philosophy; it was not social psychology (on this point chapter 1 of Social Actions is especially relevant); it was not the purely formal discipline of a Simmel; it was not a general theory of cultural data; and above all it was not a philosophy of history. Sociology was for Znaniecki a science of social systems, systems that fall into four main subdivisions—social actions, social relations, social persons, and social groups. The nature of these subsystems reveals that sociology is a special science that concerns itself with only one kind of cultural system—the social—and not, for example, with such other cultural systems as the technological, economic, religious, or linguistic.

Everywhere in his work Znaniecki emphasized the role of conscious agents or actors—an emphasis which his opponents were inclined to criticize as the subjective point of view. It is persons as objects of the actions of others, however, not as subjects, that meet his criteria for sociological data. Among the sources of these data Znaniecki listed the personal experiences of the sociologist, both original and vicarious; observation by the sociologist, both direct and indirect; the personal experience of other people; and the observations of other people. It is this emphasis which supported his use of personal documents in sociological research.

“Social Actions.” Znaniecki wrote much of Social Actions prior to The Method of Sociology, to judge by the internal evidence and his own admission that he had worked on Social Actions for 15 years. It is less well organized than The Method of Sociology, less precise in its articulation of the nature of sociology, and it offers less sense of system. Its value lies in its insights both into the interior meaning of various types of actions and into the manner in which an investigation and analysis of actions can contribute to sociological theory. Actions are social not because they conform to norms but because they deal with human beings to whom the agent reacts as conscious objects and with an intent to influence.

Znaniecki insisted upon the dynamic quality of social relations and regarded Comte’s distinction between social statics and social dynamics as pernicious. The social world is a world in becoming, not a world in being, and for this reason studies of social structure as such are not to be countenanced. They are erroneous in basic premise because there is no such thing as a static action. For the same reason Znaniecki seldom, if ever, used the words “community” or “society,” because he thought of them as static concepts that violated his sense of the flux and changefulness of the human scene. He was a follower of Bergson rather than of Descartes.

“The Social Role of the Man of Knowledge.” In The Social Role of the Man of Knowledge (1940), which exhibits a graceful literary style, Znaniecki asserted once again that sociology is a special, not a general, cultural science. Sociology’s legitimate interest in knowledge, therefore, concerns not the relationships that may obtain between knowledge and the sociocultural conditions under which knowledge is produced, but rather the social relations that those who produce knowledge have with one another and with those who receive its benefits. In this book also Znaniecki utilized the concepts of social person and social circle. The circle gives to the person a social status, consisting of rights and privileges, and he in turn performs certain services for the circle. Social persons and social circles are the essential components of social roles, and it was in these terms that he discussed the social role of the man of knowledge, treating in turn the roles of technologists, sages, scholars, and “explorers,” the last being those who create new knowledge. The essay is a small masterpiece of sociological literature.

“Cultural Sciences.” In Cultural Sciences, Their Origin and Development (1952a) Znaniecki transcended the boundaries of sociology proper—boundaries that he himself had tried to chart—and wrote again as a philosopher of culture, thus completing the circle he had begun to trace as a young scholar. For a number of years he had planned to write an outline of the historical evolution of sociology, but he found the subject so intertwined with the development of philosophical and scientific knowledge in general that he had no alternative but to attend to the origin and development of the cultural sciences more generally. Accordingly, he treated such problems as the nature of knowledge, the concept of order, biological and psychological determinants of culture, the relationship of individual entities and collectivities, determinism and creativity, human actions, and axio-normatively ordered systems. In treating such normative systems, he turned from the sociological direction back to his earlier interest in values.

Znaniecki advanced to a new position in Cultural Sciences with his assertion that sociology, though specialized, is nevertheless the basic cultural science, just as physics is the basic natural science.

As a matter of fact, the importance of sociology in this central role increases to the extent that it limits its task to the comparative study of social systems. It makes other cultural sciences possible because they too deal with social actions and without them there would be no art, no religion, no commerce, no philosophy, and no science.

The views that receive expression and emphasis in Znaniecki’s works are (1) that sociology is a social and not a natural science and that it is the humanistic coefficient which distinguishes the data of sociology from the data of nature; (2) that sociology is a special and not a general social science, concerned not with everything that happens in society but only with conscious agents as they interact with one another and thus construct systems of social actions; and (3) that the method of sociology can be as objective, as precise, and, indeed, as profound as the method of the physical sciences, notwithstanding the differences between them. The humanistic coefficient is not something to be deplored as detracting from the objectivity of scientific knowledge; rather it is something to be seized upon and utilized in the construction of a scientific sociology. The humanistic coefficient not only justifies but also requires the use of personal experiences as sociological data and thus gives a special meaning and significance to sociological research.

Robert Bierstedt

[For the historical context of Znaniecki’s work, see the biography ofthomas. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seescience, article onscientists; values.]


1910 Zagadnienie wartości w filozofii (Philosophy of Values). Warsaw: Wende.

1912 Humanizm i poznanie, (Humanism and Knowledge). Warsaw: Wende.

1913 Znaczenie rozwoju swiqta i cztowieka (The Meaning of Evolution). Warsaw: No publisher given.

(1918-1920) 1958 Thomas, Williami.; and Znaniecki, Florian. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. 2 vols., 2d ed. New York: Dover. → Unabridged edition of the original five-volume work.

1919 Cultural Reality. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1922 Wstęp do socjologji (Introduction to Sociology). Poznañ (Poland): Gebethner & Wolff. → Résumé in English on pages 451-467.

1925 The Laws of Social Psychology. Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff.

1928-1930 Socjologia wychowania (The Sociology of Education). 2 vols. Warsaw: Atlas.

1931 Miasto w Świadomosci jego obywateli (The City in the Consciousness of Its Inhabitants). Poznañ (Poland): Wydawnictwo Polskiego Instytutu Socjologicznego.

1934 a The Method of Sociology. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

1934 b Ludzie terazniejsi a cywilizacja przysziości (The People of Today and the Civilization of Tomorrow). Lwöw (Poland): Atlas.

1936 Social Actions. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

1940 The Social Role of the Man of Knowledge. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

1952a Cultural Sciences, Their Origin and Development. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

1952b Modern Nationalities: A Sociological Study. Urbana : Univ. of Illinois Press.


Abel, Theodore 1958 Florian Znaniecki, 1882-1958. American Sociological Review 23:429-430.

Barnes, Harry E.; and Becker, Howard (1938) 1961 Revival of Interest in National Reconstruction: Znaniecki. Volume 2, pages 1075-1078 in Harry E. Barnes and Howard Becker, Social Thought From Lore to Science. 3d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Dover.

Gidijnski, Joseph C. 1958 Florian Znaniecki: Original Thinker, Philosopher and Sociologist. Polish Review 3, no. 4:77-87.

Martindale, Don 1960 The Nature and Types of Sociological Theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Timasheff, Nicholas S. (1955) 1957 Sociological Theory: Its Nature and Growth. Rev. ed. New York: Random House.

Znaniecki, Eileen M. 1945 Polish Sociology. Pages 703-717 in Georges Gurvitch and Wilbert E. Moore (editors), Twentieth Century Sociology. New York: The Philosophical Library.

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Florian Znaniecki

Florian Znaniecki

Florian Znaniecki (1882-1958) was a Polish-American sociologist and educator who helped to develop concern for a responsible emphasis on subjective aspects of social behavior.

Florian Znaniecki was born near Swiatniki, Poland. After a childhood of broad exposure to foreign languages, he developed an interest in philosophy, which he studied at the universities of Warsaw and Geneva, among others. He received the doctorate at the University of Cracow (1909) and published extensively in Polish during the next five years. While working as director of the Polish Emigrants Protective Association, he was invited by W. I. Thomas to come to the United States and collaborate on a project dealing with Polish migrants. The result was their monumental The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920).

After World War I, Znaniecki returned to Poland to teach sociology at the University of Poznan, where he founded the Polish Sociological Review and the Polish Sociological Institute. He was a visiting professor at Columbia University in 1932-1934 and again in 1939. In 1940 he began a final and happy tenure at the University of Illinois until his retirement in 1950. In 1953 he was elected president of the American Sociological Society.

Znaniecki's first works in English—Cultural Reality (1919), The Laws of Social Psychology (1925), The Method of Sociology (1934), and Social Actions (1936)—shared the basic objective of forging a viable connection between sociology and social psychology. In Cultural Reality, he emphasized the importance of values as components of social action. This was further developed in The Polish Peasant, but he analyzed changes in values, attitudes, and behavior as emergents from the process of social interaction in Laws of Social Psychology. Znaniecki then identified the strategy of sociology as seeking patterns in human valuation in four related phenomena—single actions, social relations, social roles of given individuals, and specified social groups. Focusing on social action as the most basic unit, he distinguished the structure of social action into a set of key values: those dealing with other persons, with methods of influence, with responses of others, and with self-evaluation.

Turning from actions to social roles, Znaniecki developed a detailed theory of the origins and specialization of roles around circles of common interest in The Social Role of the Man of Knowledge (1940). He illustrated his general theory in accounting for modern nations as cultural units in Modern Nationalities (1952).

Znaniecki's most ambitious work, Cultural Sciences (1952), tried to combine basic methodology and a general theoretical orientation for sociology. Essentially, he regarded sociology as the study of actions propelled by different kinds of attitudes or tendencies, though he was specially interested in creative or innovative action, which he took to be difficult to explain in causal terms. However, he was unable to complete a complementary volume on his revised systematic theory of social roles. His incomplete manuscript was posthumously published in 1965 as Social Relations and Social Roles.

Further Reading

Extended discussions of Znaniecki's work are not available, apart from an unpublished doctoral dissertation by Hyman Frankel, The Sociological Theory of Florian Znaniecki (University of Illinois, 1959). A critical summary of Cultural Sciences is in Pitirim A. Sorokin, Sociological Theories of Today (1966), and a more general summary of his work is in Alvin Boskoff, Theory in American Sociology (1969). Znaniecki's daughter, Helen Lopata, appended a biographical sketch to his posthumous work, Social Relations and Social Roles (1965).

Additional Sources

Dulczewski, Zygmunt, Florian Znaniecki: life and work, Poznan: Wydawn. Poznanskie, 1992. □

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Znaniecki, Florian

Znaniecki, Florian (1882–1959) Born in German-occupied Poland, Znaniecki was one of the first Polish professors of sociology, initiating the Polish Institute of Sociology and the Polish Sociological Review. In 1914 he collaborated with William Isaac Thomas on The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, a study which pioneered new methods (diaries, life-histories, letters); the methodology of the humanistic coefficient, in which the meanings to participants in social action are always considered; and the beginnings of a more systematic account of society. This was developed in his later books, Cultural Reality (1919) and Social Relations and Social Roles (1965).

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