Thinking with “Postsocialism” in an Ethnographic Study of Old Age in Poland

Jessica C. Robbins-Ruszkowski


Twenty-five years aft er the end of state socialism in Central and Eastern Europe, how useful is the category of postsocialism? In this article, I suggest one possible answer to this question through a discussion of how this category emerged during ethnographic fieldwork on aging, personhood, and memory in Wrocław and Poznań, Poland. A binary Cold War framework that opposes socialism to postsocialism and East to West does not suffi ciently explain the complexities of processes by which persons and social relations are created and transformed. However, “postsocialism” is defensible as an ethnographic, rather than analytic, category because these binary categories shape people’s expectations, hopes and imaginations. Ethnographic fieldwork in a range of institutional and non-institutional contexts found that older people were often understood as relics of the socialist past, that some older people look to the “West” for moral exemplars, and that national narratives of suffering provide moral frameworks for older Poles’ life histories. By interpreting these findings through a theoretical framework that centers on the processual formation of personhood and relatedness, this article thus helps anthropologists of Central and Eastern Europe create research imaginaries that escape dominant binary frameworks.

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