When I encountered Western working-class studies for the first time, I was a little bit confused. Being born in Poland a few years before the democratic change of 1989, I was raised to value Western culture over so-called “relics of socialism.” At school, on TV, and in everyday conversations, objects or ideas with socialist connotations – architecture, cartoons, social policies – were believed to be worse than their Western counterparts. The notion of “social class” was no exception. Commonly derided as unfashionable or an invention of the communist times, it did not just seem real.
Of course, my view changed when I started to be interested in social sciences. I started noticing a paradox: class explains so much, but it is widely rejected. That tension came back when, as a mid-career sociologist, I started to explore upward-mobility among university lecturers. While many American, British, and French papers analyzed class inequalities in academia, the topic didn’t resonate with Polish academics. No one here would dare to use the term “working-class studies.” However, inspired by many foreign authors (including some regular contributors to this blog), I started to explore this topic in Poland. Ironically, my interest in social class in academic settings resulted from reading Western texts that, according to popular anti-socialist discourse, should not be class-oriented at all.
Translating working-class studies into the post-communist context poses some particular challenges because of fundamental differences between Poland and the countries where theories of class experience were coined. What makes Poland and other post-communist countries unique is their history. First, many academic elites from these countries left for Western Europe and North American after the two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the anti-Semitic purges of 1968. At the same time, Polish society has peasant roots, and post-war affirmative action aimed (with varying effects) to help the children of workers and peasants gain access to higher education. While education gave them access to cultural capital, economic inequalities remained, in part because salaries for academics are so much lower than in the private sector. The transition to the market economy had enabled some entrepreneurs to get rich very quickly, but it also resulted in severe poverty of many victims of privatization and de-industrialization. But even as social divisions deepened, they were not discussed in the mono-ethnic Polish society, and the country’s conservative political orientation was built on the idea that there exists one, undivided model of “real Polishness.”
Indeed, decades of state socialism resulted in a common belief that social class was “invented during the communist period,” making it irrelevant after 1989, while young capitalism led to the conviction that the “lazy” poor are to blame for their plight. Ironically, these beliefs coexist with empirical evidence of a “class ceiling” in higher education and academic careers. Only a few years ago, studies focused on the People’s history of Poland started to attract more interest, but the social research on the experiences of working-class academics remains an uncharted territory. Similarly, programs supporting working-class or first-generation academics simply do not exist in Poland.
The Polish case also illustrates how social class is experienced in a peripheral academic system where academics encounter unfavourable working conditions. Yet the Polish education system is also more egalitarian than Western systems. Poland has few super-expensive private schools, and many public schools offer good quality education. Similarly, the best Polish universities are public and most of their academic programs are free. Moreover, even the most selective universities, such as the University of Warsaw, or AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow, offer some programs with extremely high acceptance rates, so there is no Polish equivalent of École Normale Supérieure or Oxford. In addition, Poland’s many non-public universities (219 among 349 universities in Poland) make it easier for first-generation academics to attend college, because they usually offer relatively low tuition and very high acceptance rates. These conditions make upward mobility through education less strenuous in Poland than in the UK, US, or France. But it is also far from straightforward or easy.
Academics from working-class families in Poland experience many of the same challenges as their Western peers. Interviews with these academics as well as their parents (who represent the culture of origin), and new friends (who reflect the cultural destination) suggest that upward mobility in academia is associated with recognition of poverty as a structural barrier, a sense of unfulfilled dreams, physical and psychological violence, class-related timidity, difficult relations with parents and partners, subjectively experienced deficits of social and cultural capital, disenchantment with academia, and precarious status within academia. We’ve also found instances of class neurosis, working-class stigma, breakaway guilt, and impostorism.
As in other countries, though, working-class academics identified some key strengths, including the ability to deal with difficulties and to contest taken-for-granted knowledge and customs, pride and wisdom stemming from previous life experiences, and unique working-class pedagogy.
All of this will sound familiar to working-class academics from Western Europe and North America, yet we also found some differences. Polish professors from working-class backgrounds described how restrictive gender and religious norms hampered their educational careers at various stages. For example, some had to resist their parents’ expectation that they would join a religious order. Our research also identified the influence of non-human factors, such as local public libraries, on the lives and interests of many of those we interviewed. Language is also a crucial form of cultural capital, as Pierre Bourdieu has argued, but unlike in places where a working-class accent would be a barrier, in Poland the marker of distinction – and a precondition for a successful academic career – is knowledge of foreign languages.
As our research suggests, then, while some class experiences are shared across cultural contexts, others are deeply rooted in local culture. To experience social class during an educational career means something completely different in the US, France, Poland, or Nigeria. In the US, the cost of education can cause painful class experiences for working-class students, cost is not a problem in East Europe, where the best universities offer their programs for free. Other challenges matter more in the Polish context, like the inability to express oneself in English, which has become the language of global research. Middle-class children here learn it in private language schools or from native-speaking tutors, but working-class students must learn English on their own. In addition, even East European professors who secure stable academic jobs can’t count on good salaries. The basic monthly salary of a full professor is roughly $1400, which is well below most highly skilled positions in the country. Working-class assistant or associate professors can never join the middle-class in terms of their income.
For all the varied forms that inequality and exclusion take worldwide, social class is one of the most significant determinants of an academic career. If we want to understand class as a real disadvantaging factor, not just an ideological and obsolete concept, we need to expand our studies of the experiences of working-class academics worldwide.
Kamil Łuczaj, University of Information Technology and Management (UITM), Rzeszow, Poland
Kamil Łuczaj is a sociologist specializing in higher education and working-class studies. He holds a PhD from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. He has been a visiting academic at the University of New Mexico, the Slovak Academy of Sciences, and the University of Cambridge as well as Research Associate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. His research expertise encompasses qualitative interviewing and ethnographic research.