- 20th-century East Central Europe in global perspective
- society, culture, and politics in modern Poland
- autobiography/testimony and the uses of personal narrative in history/social science
Shortly before I embarked upon the study of East Central European history, I had the good luck to spend a year living and working in South Africa – an experience that was quite important, I think, for how I have approached my subsequent research. To begin with, it was clear from the outset that modernity came in many guises and ought not be measured against a single, Northwest European/North American template. So, for example, in South Africa, the almost inconceivably vast disparities in living conditions between cities and rural areas were complicated by highly interpenetrated consumption, labor, and mass-media regimes; thus, South Africa exposed me firsthand to the apparent paradoxes of ‘semi-peripheral’ or ‘uneven’ societies, with insights that carried over very suggestively to East Central Europe in the first half of the 20th century.
Similarly, I was struck in South Africa by the high levels (compared to the US or Western Europe) of political mobilization, especially among young people, and more broadly, the widespread sense that politics, history, ideas actually mattered. On the eve of apartheid’s collapse, hopes for a better future ran high, just as they did in East Central Europe at Versailles or in the aftermath of World War II. In my research, I have been drawn to historical moments like these, when large numbers of people share a palpable sense of the malleability (for the better) of human institutions, the law, and/or the state. Since then, of course, both South Africa and East Central Europe have been through multiple waves of disenchantment and withdrawal from such aspirations, providing more work for historians.
My first book (Unfinished Utopia: Nowa Huta, Stalinism, and Polish Society, 1949-56, 2013) considered some these themes through the lens of the Stalinist social revolution in post-World War II Poland. My current monograph-in-progress (tentatively: The People Write! Polish Everyman Autobiography from the Great Depression to the Holocaust) reaches back to the decades straddling the war. It focuses on Polish ‘social memoir’ – autobiographies of ordinary people collected through prize competitions – and the political, literary, legal, and scientific projects in which they were embedded.
My other current projects similarly explore questions of narrative, knowledge, and power in the period ca. 1930-50. These include (with Małgorzata Mazurek and Joanna Wawrzyniak) an attempt to re-write the history of twentieth-century social science from the margins, arguing that East Central European thinkers parlayed local and regional ‘epistemologies of in-betweenness’ into global social scientific paradigms. Another project, undertaken during a stay at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute, allowed me to think about Holocaust and World War II documentation, including the ramifications of interwar Polish social memoir for the emergence of the new genre of testimony, as well as begin work on translating (with Anna Muller) the wartime chronicle of interwar radical Halina Krahelska.