Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

Disorganization of the Polish Immigrant

William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki ( 1918-1920)

There are from the sociological viewpoint two very different types of crime--crime within the individual's own group and crime committed by the individual outside of his group. What are the limits of the individual's own group in any particular case depends on the range within which the ties of active social solidarity are acknowledged by him as binding. Thus, for the savage these limits are those of his particular tribe; for the ignorant old-type peasant they practically coincide with his primary community; for the average modern civilized man they are those of his nation; for the conscious socialist they extend as far as the working class; for the practical Christian they include the whole human race; for the habitual criminal they are not much wider than his gang. Of course, in many cases the lines cannot be drawn exactly, for there may be several degrees of solidarity which the individual acknowledges and in a decreasing measure; for instance, the family, the community or acquaintance milieu, the city, and the nation are the individual's own groups. Nor are the two types of crime always sharply distinguishable in practice; there are complex intermediary types in which the characters of the two fundamental types are mixed in various proportions. . . .

When studying murder among other crimes in peasant communities in Poland, we had to deal chiefly with the first type of crime, i.e., with murder committed within the individual's own group. Indeed, murders of strangers are surprisingly rare among peasants. The reason is simple. The social contacts between the individual and the social world outside of his own community are relatively few and superficial, so that there is not much motive for violence, whereas, quite independently of any considerations of social solidarity, the peasant needs really strong motives for any abnormal acts because of the stable and regulated character of his habitual life and because of the strength of his desire for security. There were, indeed, many murders committed upon strangers during the period which we have investigated, . . . but these happened mainly in towns and were the outcome of the social conditions created by the revolution of 1905-6 and could be adequately understood only in connection with a study of this revolution. In peasant life a murder is usually the tragic solution of some difficult social situation involving powerful individual tendencies, a set of social conditions which make it impossible for the individual to realize these tendencies without removing the person, or persons who stand in his way, and almost always the feeling that he has been wronged and that this person or persons have broken first the principle of solidarity. Greed, fear, sexual desire, jealousy, and revenge, mostly exaggerated by long brooding, constitute the usual factors of murder, and it is clear that situations giving rise to such emotions are apt to develop only within the individual's own group.

Now, from what we know already about the weakening of all social bonds and traditions among the immigrants, we can expect that here the nature of crime in general and of murder in particular must be very different. On the one hand, most of the motives which actuated the peasant in the old country either do not exist any longer or are greatly weakened, precisely because all social ties are loosened. An individual seldom, if ever, finds himself here in a situation which seems to him insoluble except through murder, for his wishes, less determined by tradition, are less exclusive; he has

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Excerpt from Eli Zaretsky, ed., The Polish Peasant in Europe and America ( Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984 [ 1918- 1920]), pp. 281-290. Reprinted by permission.

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