The Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies

Challenging the myths of weak civil society in post-socialist settings: ‘Unexpected’ alliances and mobilizations in the field of housing activism in Poland

Field: Sociologi
Project leader: Dominika V. Polanska
Starting year: 2015


There are many gaps in the scientific literature on social movements dealing with housing during state socialism and after the regime change. Along with the gaps, there are also partly misleading views of the state of the civil society and social movements in post-socialist settings. Studies on social movements and civil society mobilizations in the post-socialist context tend to use tools and yardsticks developed in the West that applied on the conditions in post-socialist societies result in misleading and outdated interpretations. These interpretations have resulted in a conventional view of civil society and social movement activity in post-socialist societies as “weak”, “uncivil” or suffering of “civilizational incompetence” (Howard 2003; Kotkin 2010; Sztompka 2004). However, this view on the functioning of civil society has recently been nuanced and new research demonstrates that there are frequent mobilizations taking place in the post-socialist countries that are either not taken into account, or misinterpreted due to the use of blunt theoretical or methodological tools (Jacobsson & Saxonberg 2013; Ekiert & Kubik 2014; Ekiert & Foa 2012). The argument I would like to put forward in this project, by focusing on Poland, is that there has been a thriving activity in the sphere of civil society and social movements in the last decade that has been under-studied or studied with the help of tools developed for other contexts. In the project I would like to show that the picture is more nuanced and that the assumptions on the lack of grassroots connections and the dominance of friendship and family connections (and thus an inability to cooperate with “unknown” others) in the collective action field are not fully adequate. This I will do by studying previously under-studied social movements dealing with housing: the tenants’ movement and the squatting movement in Poland, and how the two- rather diverse movements- cooperate.

The contribution of this project will be both theoretical and empirical. Its objective is 1) to go against the conventional view of weak civil society and passivity of collective actors in present Poland by analyzing two different social movements created from the grassroots and actively cooperating with each other, and 2) to fill in the empirical gap on housing-related collective mobilizations in post-socialist context and give an updated view. The project also aims at 3) studying these mobilizations’ dynamic in an empirically-close, qualitative and detailed way than offered in previous literature (usually the quantitative ‘protest-event-analysis’) and at 4) filling in the gaps on the more informal or un-typical forms of civic engagement and collective action, and by doing so the ambition is to contribute to the theoretical discussion on the functioning/definition of the civil society and collective actors in post-socialist settings.

The objective of this research will be twofold. One the one hand it will examine the development of two grassroots movements (in the field of housing) in an understudied setting, focusing on their demands, action repertoires and the conditions under which they function. On the other, it will analyze the role of different mechanisms for cooperation and cross-movement alliance formation in the light of squatters’ and tenants’ recent (and shared) successes. Specific research questions that the project will answer are:

• How and why did the cooperation between the squatting movement and the tenants’ movement emerge?

• What relations characterize the cooperation and what facilitated them?

• What specificities in the local context condition the activity and collaborative action of squatters’ and tenants’ movements?

The theoretical ambition of this project would be to challenge the common definition of post-socialist civil society and nuance it by discussing the case of tenants’ and squatters’ activism and by demonstrating their close links (and the mechanisms behind them). The empirical basis of the project will be semi-structured interviews with activists in the squatters’ and the tenants’ movement in Warsaw. The choice of interview data would provide activists’ perceptions of their engagement, on how they perceive the activity of their squats/organizations, but also the more informal or personal features of their engagement, social relations and cooperation.