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Hunters, Gatherers, and Practitioners of Powerlessness: An Ethnography of the Degraded in Postsocialist Poland

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Volume 6

European Anthropology in Translation

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Hunters, Gatherers, and Practitioners of Powerlessness

An Ethnography of the Degraded in Postsocialist Poland

Tomasz Rakowski
Translated from Polish by Søren Gauger
Foreword by Jan Kubik

332 pages, 20 illus., bibliog., index

ISBN  978-1-78533-240-1 $130.00/£92.00 Hb Published (October 2016)

eISBN 978-1-78533-241-8 eBook

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“With a very unique voice and perspective, the ethnographer examines the phenomenology and ontology of postsocialist Poland, where people have been driven to an almost pre-modern (the author even says pre-Neolithic) mode of existence, reformulating their experience of the environment and their relationship to objects created and abandoned by the retreating industrial system.” · Anthropology Review Database

“This is an important book that is both theoretically insightful and ethnographically rich. It provides a look into the “other side” of the postcommunist, neoliberal transformation in Poland, focusing on those who experienced social degradation—they lost social status as the country has gained position in the global economy.” · Marysia Galbraith, University of Alabama

“Rakowski is consistent in following his outlined path, trying to return the culture of poverty its human, inner face. Hermeneutical evidence, backed by extraordinary field work experience and thick description, give desired results. Polish ethnological tradition combined with inspirations drawn from world-class anthropologists, the achievements of Polish researchers of poverty and the classics of sociology and philosophy, result in a work of unquestionable research and intellectual value. A real breakthrough in studies on marginalised people, victims of progress.” · Michał Buchowski, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, European University Viadrina

“In his book Rakowski studies the most tragic dimension of the postcommunist condition, by immersing himself in the lives of those who experienced the total, if temporary, collapse of the economic and social foundations of their existence. He produces three nuanced ethnographies of social and economic resilience in the face of not just an economic collapse but also a cultural catastrophe. [...]Rakowski, an heir to the tradition of Bronisław Malinowski and Florian Znaniecki, takes it to a new level, enriching it not only with the results of his own trail-blazing ethnographic work, but also with novel interpretive threads, taken for example from Marleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. It is hard to find a better ethnographic example of the work that is 'ontological' in its spirit.” From the foreword, Jan Kubik, University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies


The socio-economic transformations of the 1990s have forced many people in Poland into impoverishment. Hunters, Gatherers, and Practitioners of Powerlessness gives a dramatic account of life after this degradation, tracking the experiences of unemployed miners, scrap collectors, and poverty-stricken village residents. Contrary to the images of passivity, resignation, and helplessness that have become powerful tropes in Polish journalism and academic writing, Tomasz Rakowski traces the ways in which people actively reconfigure their lives. As it turns out, the initial sense of degradation and helplessness often gives way to images of resourcefulness that reveal unusual hunting-and-gathering skills.

Tomasz Rakowski is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Warsaw. He is also a medical doctor, specialist in Accident & Emergency medicine. He conducts fieldwork in Poland and Mongolia.


Subject: General Anthropology
Area: Central/Eastern Europe


Jan Kubik


Introduction: The Anthropologist as a Poverty Inspector

  • An Anthropological Shift in Perspective
  • The ‘Culture of Poverty’: Getting Beyond the Concept
  • Social Trauma and Dependency: Shift in Perspective        
  • Hermeneutics and Anthropology
  • Towards a Method
  • Maurice Merleau-Ponty – the ‘Patron Saint’ of the Present Ethnography
  • Method: (Lack of) Ethnographic Knowledge
  • Pre-textual Ethnography
  • The Most Bitter Side of the Polish Transformation: Fields of Research
  • The “New Poverty”
  • Post-socialism: History and Experience
  • The Studied Phenomena
  • The Field Research

Chapter 1. The Szydlowiec and Przysucha Environs (The Świętokrzyskie and Radom Foothills)

  • A World Full of Adversities
  • Unemployment and the Farming Recession
  • Community of the Unemployed: Immobility, Odd Jobs and ‘Tragic Scarring’
  • Motionless Orchards, Motionless Fields: Failure
  • Dependency and Irreversibility: A Reproof at the World
  • Second-string Ecology
  • The New Face of the Jobless Village
  • Gatherers of Wild Herbs and Undergrowth, Gatherers of Fir Wood
  • The ‘New Ecology’: The Convertibility of the Environment
  • Collection, Conversion, Transition
  • The ‘Culture of Survival’

Chapter 2. Wałbrzych – Boguszów-Gorce

  • From Destruction to ‘Empty’ Communication: The Liquidation of the Coal Basin
  • The City and the Mine
  • The Highly Ambivalent Story of the Wałbrzych Basin
  • Experience and Liquidation: Destruction – The City – The Body
  • How to Speak of Liquidation? (Auto)aggression – Dialogue – Social Muteness
  • Externalized Shame: Empty Communication and Internal Spectacles
  • Facing Reality after the Mines (1)
  • Complaints – Accusations – Triumphs
  • A World Affected from the Outside
  • Bootleg Mines, Diggers, Skills: The Body’s Active Knowledge
  • Rhythm, Jokes, Anecdotes: ‘Scoffing at the World’
  • Law and Lawlessness: Interior Spectacles
  • The Grey Market: Deal-making and Resourcefulness
  • The ‘Internal Circulation’ and the Fragmentationof Transactions
  • Home-Oikos: The Internal Circulation
  • Freedom in the Mines
  • ‘Do It Yourself’ Equipment
  • Working and Efficiency in Manual Labor: Resources and Deposits
  • Demolition – Collecting – Objects
  • Things
  • Memory
  • Facing Reality after the Mines (2)

Chapter 3. The Bełchatów Brown Coal Mine -- The Shadowlands of the Exposed Mine

  • The Mine/ Power Station. The Perfect Balance, an Abrupt Modernization
  • Causative Alienation and Control over the Environment
  • At the Margins of the Great Industry – Marginalization and Exclusion
  • The Mine: Orbis Exterior
  • Violence, Guilt, and the Building Sacrifice
  • The Consequences of ‘Excess’: Metaphors of Exploitation
  • The Mine: Orbis Interior
  • The Players, Their Families, and Their Means of Sustenance
  • Self-sufficiency, Subsistence: Gathering and Processing Goods
  • Hunting and Gathering
  • Wacław Okoński – The Stalker, Orbis Interior
  • Goods and Trophies: The Hunting/Gathering Existence on the Edge of the Mine
  • Records
  • Cabinets of Curiosities, Collectors’ Museums
  • The Work of Memory: Reconstructions, Objects, Collections
  • ‘The Science of the Concrete’: Inscriptions, Journals, Enumeration
  • Hunters and Gatherers – Practitioners of Powerlessness


  • The ‘Reality Testing’
  • Outcome
  • Beyond Anthropology


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