Józef Obrębski: Chronology of Life and Work

Józef Obrębski remained throughout his life a humanist
in the deepest sense of the word.
He was a man of exceptional modesty but great independence of spirit.

Elisabeth K. Nottingham, Joseph Obrebski, 1905–1967

1905–1925: Boyhood

18th of February 1905

Józef Obrębski is born in the town of Teplik in the Vinnitsa district in Podole. He is the youngest child of Antoni Obrębski and Maria Obrębska, née Hołajska. He has two sisters: Antonina, later Obrębska-Jabłońska (1901–1994), professor of Slavic philology, and Maria, later Stieber (1904–1995), a painter and art lecturer. His father came from a lesser nobility village outside of Mława in the region of Mazovia, and was a manager of Count Potocki’s estates. His mother, born in Berdychev district, was of the same social standing and from the same social circle.


The family moves from Podole to Planta, an estate of Potocki, located near Byteń in Belarus. After the death of her husband, Maria Obrębska leaves the children in the care of her brother, in Berdychev district, and acquires pedagogical qualifications from the pedagogical-educational school “Mariadwinek”, run by Maria Weryho-Radziwiłłowiczowa and Jadwiga Dziubińska in Włochy, outside Warsaw. There she comes into contact with the circle of leftist intellectuals; she befriends, among others, the education activist and defender of political prisoners Stefania Sempołowska. In the ensuing years she works as a teacher and a clerk, and is the sole provider of the family. The family moves to Kiev and Lodz before finally settling in Warsaw, around the year 1911.

The three siblings – Józef, Antonina and Maria. Łódź, ca. 1913.
The three siblings – Józef, Antonina and Maria. Łódź, ca. 1913
(photo from the Obrębski family collection)


In the school year 1915/16 Józef Obrębski begins his studies at a secondary school run by Wojciech Górski and moves the following year to Emilian Konopczyński secondary school, were he completes seven years of education. He is actively involved with the Polish scouts (harcerstwo), including being, among other things, the chief editor of a journal of the scout instructors of the Józef Poniatowski 3rd Warsaw Scout Team (1922). There he publishes an article entitled On Self-Education. After a yearlong break in education due to lung illness, Obrębski continues his studies, as a distance learner, in Henryk Sienkiewicz 4th Public Secondary School in Cracow. He sits his final exams (matura) on the 14th of June 1924.

Picture of Józef Obrębski from his school ID.
Picture of Józef Obrębski from his school ID
(photo from the Obrębski family collection)


Obrębski is a student at the Faculty of Law of the University of Warsaw, where he attends lectures of, among others, the antropologist and sociologist Ludwik Krzywicki and the sociologist Leon Petrażycki, both celebrated academics at the time. He abandons his studies after two terms.

Theory was there to teach the student of ethnology how to look,
how to perceive, how to understand, analyse, generalize, draw conclusions.
It was there, in those respects which were formulated clearly by Krzywicki
during the lectures, in order to lead the novice onto a path
of independent observation and investigation.

Józef Obrębski, O etnologii Krzywickiego [On Krzywicki’s Ethnology]

17th of October 1925

Józef Obrębski matriculates at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow.

The first pages of Józef Obrębski’s student book.
The first pages of Józef Obrębski’s student book
(the original in the Obrębski family collection)

1926–1930: Student of Moszyński and Nitsch. Ethnographer and Slavist, Researcher of the Balkans

At that time, Cracow was indeed a Mecca of Slavic ethnology,
perhaps for the entire central Europe.

Józef Obrębski, O metodzie funkcjonalnej Bronisława Malinowskiego [On the Functional Method of Bronisław Malinowski]


Józef Obrębski is a student at the newly formed interdisciplinary Slavic Studies at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Jagiellonian University. At the same time, from 1st of May 1926, he is employed by the university as a substitute assistant (the so called “auxiliary academic help”), and later (from 1st of October 1928) – as a younger assistant. Obrębski remained at this post until the 30th of October 1930.

His studies comprise classes on ethnography of Slavs, taught by Kazimierz Moszyński, Slavic philology and dialectology, taught by Kazimierz Nitsch, general linguistics, taught by Jan Michał Rozwadowski, Polish grammar, taught by Jan Łoś, and Ukrainian, taught by Iwan Ziłyński, as well as Russian, archaeology, Polish literature, history of art and philosophy.

Among his university friends are Zdzisław Stieber (linguist), Wiktor Weintraub (literary scholar), Feliks Gross (lawyer and anthropologist), and Andrzej Waligórski (anthropologist).

Obrębski was a promising star of Polish ethnology.
He was exceptionally intelligent and truly charmful.

Wiktor Weintraub, O współczesnych i o sobie [On my contemporaries and myself]

As a student Obrębski conducts his fieldwork in villages outside of Cracow, in the regions of Podhale (where he researches mostly local hunting practices) and Kurpie. These studies form a part of a broader ethnographic project encompassing the entire country, run by Kazimierz Moszyński, the results of which will make up the volumes of Folk Culture of Slavs (1929–1939) and issues of Atlas of Folk Culture in Poland (1934–1936).

July–September 1927

Obrębski takes part in a research expedition to the Balkans – it is the second motorised expedition of “Orbis”, led by professor Ludomir Sawicki, director of the Geographical Institute of Jagiellonian University. Obrębski conducts fieldwork in Dobruja and Bulgaria. In part in collaboration with Moszyński and Christo Kodov, a slavist from Sofia, and in part independently, he gathers documentation of material culture, focusing on the techniques and instruments of farming and hunting.

The „Orbis” car scientific expedition to the Balkans.
The “Orbis” car scientific expedition to the Balkans. Józef Obrębski is sitting first from the right
(photo from the Obrębski family collection)

July–September 1928

Obrębski takes part in the third motorised expedition of “Orbis” led by professor Sawicki. A group of researchers from Cracow, from various disciplines, take the following route: Bessarabia – Danube delta – Dobruja – Bulgaria – Strandzha mountains – European Turkey – Eastern Rhodope mountains – Plovdiv – Sofia – Macedonia – Pirin mountains. In conducting research in Bulgaria Obrębski is joined by Christo Vakarelski, an ethnographer from Sofia.

Józef Obrębski’s notebook from his fieldwork in Bulgaria, 1927.
Józef Obrębski’s notebook from his fieldwork in Bulgaria, 1927
(the original in the Obrębski family collection)

Two months of cross country travel along Bulgaria… and work with Obrębski
enriched my experience in fieldwork… I learned directly and indirectly that
there is something particular in Moszyński’s method which I hadn’t known
before. In particular, it was a more analytic attitude to the subject:
during observation, while asking questions and conducting interviews…
I noticed how the inquirer tried to penetrate the psyche of the informer… He was not too inquisitive with that,
he behaved at ease, just like an ordinary, interested person.

Christo Vakarelski, Kazimierz Moszyński a etnografia Bułgarii [Kazimierz Moszyński and the ethnography of Bulgaria]

Parts of the materials gathered by Obrębski are used by Moszyński in the first volume of the monograph Folk Culture of Slavs (Cracow 1929). He himself will use the ethnographic documentation from the Balkans as a basis for his master’s thesis.

However, what concerns the first part of the book,
about material culture, I would not have been able to write it at all…
if it was not for field research in the Eastern Balkan Region
conducted by me and my student Józef Obrębski,
who studies ethnography of Slavs with me…
I owe him and his eager help a lot of valuable information
about Bulgarian ethnography and numerous pictures.

Kazimierz Moszyński, Kultura ludowa Słowian [Folk Culture of Slavs]

Obrębski’s interests during his studies include not only the material culture of the Slavs, but also the spiritual and social cultures, including folk medicine. He is the author of the first Polish classification of the incantations of folk healers, which he published in his Index to H. Biegeleisen’s “Healing Practices of the Polish People” – a book which he will critically review in “Lud Słowiański” (Slavic Folk). He is also preparing for research on the social culture of the Polesie region, during which he wants to implement the method used by Bronisław Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands.

Józef Obrębski on a raft on the Łań river during an ethnographic trip to Polesie, 1929.
Józef Obrębski on a raft on the Łań river during an ethnographic trip to Polesie, 1929
(photo from the Archives of the Ethnographic Museum in Toruń)

I have made a decision to devote the entirety of next year
to fieldwork in the most primitive areas of Belarus…
The work I am planning will go mostly in the direction
of sociology and will rest on your methods, Professor, which I know
thanks to your works, from which I have greatly benefited.

A letter from Józef Obrębski to Bronisław Malinowski, 31th of May 1930


“Lud Słowiański” (Slavic Folk) is formed – the first international academic journal devoted to dialectology and ethnography of Slavs, edited by Kazimierz Nitsch and Kazimierz Moszyński. Józef Obrębski, as an assistant in the Department of Ethnography of Slavs of the Jagiellonian University, takes active part in the proceedings of the editorial board.

26th of March 1930

Józef Obrębski obtains the title of Master of Philosophy in Slavic philology, awarded on the basis of the first two parts of his work Folk Farming in the Eastern Balkan Peninsula, published in “Lud Słowiański” (Slavic Folk).

Ethnography of Slavs. Publications

  • Rolnictwo ludowe wschodniej części Półwyspu Bałkańskiego [Folk Farming in the Eastern Balkan Peninsula], in four parts, “Lud Słowiański”, 1929–1931.
  • Przyczynki do łowiectwa wschodniej części Półwyspu Bałkańskiego [Introduction to Hunting in the Eastern Balkan Peninsula], “Lud Słowiański”, 1931.
  • H. Biegeleisen, Lecznictwo ludu polskiego [Healing Practices of the Polish People] [review], Kraków 1929, “Lud Słowiański”, 1931.
  • Indeks do “Lecznictwa ludu polskiego” Henryka Biegeleisena [Index to Henryk Biegeleisen’s “Healing Practices of the Polish People”], Prace Komisji Etnograficznej PAU nr 13, Kraków 1931.

1930–1934: Malinowski’s Doctoral Student. Social Anthropologist, Researcher of Macedonian Poreche


Having obtained a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation, Józef Obrębski pursues his PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science. From November 1930 he attends Bronisław Malinowski’s seminar on social anthropology.

Józef Obrębski, ca. 1930.
Józef Obrębski, ca. 1930
(photo from the “Obrebski Collection”, University of Massachussetts, Amherst, USA)

Talented, nice, intelligent – he is generally liked and popular.
The only thing is his health. If this does not bring him down
I expect Obrębski’s future to be exceptionally promising.

Bronisław Malinowski’s letter to Kazimierz Nitsch, 10th of June 1931


Obrębski is one of Malinowski’s closest students. As his research assistant he works, among other things, on the linguistic material of the Kiriwina language for Malinowski’s monograph Coral Gardens and Their Magic. During Malinowski’s sabbaticals Obrębski accompanies him to Oberbozen in Tyrol (from July to September 1931) and to Tamaris on the Riviera (from October 1931 to April 1932).

Elaborating my material I received substantial help
from research assistants… In particular Jozef Obrebski, Ph. D.,
and Miss Agnes Drew assisted me in getting (scientific) material
from my field notes… Furthermore, the manuscript,
in its half-finished form was read at one of my seminars,
a chapter by each of the participants.
Reading was followed by critical discussion.

Bronisław Malinowski, Coral Gardens and Their Magic

May–August 1932

Józef Obrębski is in Belgrad preparing for fieldwork, and later spends a month travelling in Western Macedonia, looking for an area appropriate for stationary ethnographic research, before choosing isolated villages located in the mountains of the Poreche region.

Józef Obrębski at Macedonian Poreche, 1932–1933.
Józef Obrębski at Macedonian Poreche, 1932–1933
(photo from the “Obrebski Collection”, University of Massachussetts, Amherst, USA)

August 1932 – March 1933

I’ve been in the field for over two months now – since the 15th of August.
The first month… I spent travelling in Western Macedonia in order to
acquaint myself with the field and choose a place for research. From the two
districts under consideration I chose Poreche, which is most suited to my work
due to its archaism… The relative cultural paucity here is the result of
reasonably recent settlement… and difficult economic circumstances.
Nevertheless, it is the best field from those I know or those which were available to me.
Its difficulty lies in the inaccessibility of the terrain (a mountainous country
and villages spread over the mountains) and in the secrecy and distrust
of the informants… Initially I focused my work on issues of mythology.
My task was to de-folklorize a series of myths (among them some typical
of Eastern Europe and common in the Balkans), uncover their sociological
context and show how they function in the social system.

letter from Józef Obrębski to Bronisław Malinowski, Volche, 4th of November 1932

I am very satisfied with your account of your field-work…
Your results so far as I can judge… are by no means contemptible,
especially if you really succeeded in “contextualizing” the six types of myths
which you have mentioned, and documented them fully
from the sociological point of view – that alone should be
a sufficient result of your work with me and in the field.

Bronisław Malinowski’s letter to Józef Obrębski, 18th of November 1932

His fieldwork in Poreche constitutes the first research of European peasantry carried out consistently in the paradigm of functionalism. The interpretations formulated by Obrębski are perceived today as pioneering in regards to such issues as, for example, gender or medical anthropology. His field notes and anthropological syntheses based on them concern all spheres of life of the researched community: from its economy, through annual and family rituals, medicine, magic, religious beliefs, to system of kinship, marital relations and the institution of family in a broad socio-cultural context. He wrote down a couple hundred shorter and longer texts of folklore, including many magical incantations; he also assembled a rich photographic documentation (around 550 photographs).

Poreche, 1932–1933.
Poreche, 1932–1933. This photo Obrębski captioned: “My chat with a friend-informer”
(photo from the “Obrebski Collection”, University of Massachussetts, Amherst, USA)

Obrębski’s monograph “Macedonian Faith and Rituals. A Sociological Account of the Beliefs and Magical-Religious Rituals of Poreche in Serbian Macedonia”, ready for publication, was destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Extant are four unfinished monographs together with a rich documentation form the field: “The Giaours of Macedonia. An Account of the Magic and Religion of Shepherds in Poreche Against the Background of the Collective Life of Their Village”, “The Witchcraft of Macedonian Poreche”, “Scandal in the Village” and “Myth and Reality of Southern Slavs”. In the last one Obrębski deconstructs and reinterprets myths, common in ethnology, orientalising southern-Slavic peasants. In “Scandal in the Village” he analyses the institution of marriage and its variant forms in the socio-cultural context of Macedonia.

I spent about six months almost as a member of “zadruga”.
I could observe from the inside something that was almost never
observed before: the intimate life of a South-Slavic family…
I feel strongly that in the subject of kinship of Southern Slavs
I am beyond all competition, both in factual knowledge as well as in the theory.
If I regret anything it is that I did not devote enough work
for kinship studies in Poreche, but I was overwhelmed
by a different ethnographical passion: medicine and magic.
Due to its inaccessibility in Macedonia
it was undoubtedly the most difficult subject [to work on].

Józef Obrębski’s letter to Kazimierz Moszyński, 4th of April 1933

Witchcraft was elaborated in the field and later, while my memories
of my apprenticeship under you, Professor, were still fresh,
and it stems from Coral Gardens both methodologically and theoretically.

Józef Obrębski’s letter to Bronisław Malinowski, 24th of January 1935

24th of January 1934

Józef Obrębski obtains the title of Doctor of Philosophy in Social Anthropology from the University of London, awarded on the basis of the thesis “Family Organization Among Slavs as Reflected in the Custom of Couvade”. It is a study of the patriarchal peasant family, based on material from Belarus and Southern Slavic countries, which begins with a deconstruction of the myth of man in labour and ends with highlighting the conditions of the social-cultural dichotomy of gender in the researched communities.

The curious rite, which has stimulated many anthropologists
to construct theories and hypotheses on the incongruity
of social development,… crudeness of the primitive mind and so on,
has been given by our analysis the most simple and modest explanation…
[T]his explanation nas been achieved… by the detailed analysis
of the family organisation in the society concerned,
the relations of the sexes, the nature of the parenthood and marriage,
the character of the patriarchal structure of this society
and the significance of the ritual arrangements.

Józef Obrębski, Family Organization Among Slavs as Reflected in the Custom of Couvade

There is no doubt at all that he is one of the most capable
young men in ethnology.
He is a good worker, original, clear-minded, and efficient.
He certainly has also a spark of genius…
I still hope he will come to the fore.

Bronisław Malinowski’s letter to Mr Kittredge from the Rockefeller Foundation, 22nd of October 1933

Anthropology of Macedonian Village. Publications

  • A. Published by the author:
    • Czarna Magja w Macedonii [Black Magic in Macedonia], “Kuryer Literacko-Naukowy”, 1934.
    • System religijny ludu macedońskiego [The Religious System of the Macedonian People], in five parts, “Kuryer Literacko-Naukowy”, 1936.
  • B. First printings, important re-prints and Macedonian and Polish translations published posthumously:
    • Ritual and Social Structure in a Macedonian Village, ed. by B. Halpern, Boston University, 1969 (and later editions).
    • Folklorni i etnografski materijali od Poreche [Folkloristic and Ethnographic Materials form Poreche] vol. 1, ed. by T. Vražinovski, Skopje-Prilep 2001.
    • Makedonski etnosocioloshki studii [Macedonian Ethno-Sociological Studies], vol. 2, 3, red. T. Vražinovski, Skopje-Prilep 2001, 2002.
    • Struktura społeczna i rytuał we wsi macedońskiej, Czarownictwo Porecza Macedońskiego, Skandal we wsi [Social Structure and Ritual in Macedonian Village, Witchcraft of Macedonian Poreche, Scandal in the Village], in: Dzisiejsi ludzie Polesia i inne eseje [Contemporary People of Polesie and Other Essays], ed. by A. Engelking, Warsaw 2005.
    • Czarna Magja w Macedonii, System religijny ludu macedońskiego, Social Structure and Ritual in a Macedonian Village [Black Magic in Macedonian, The Religious System of the Macedonian People, Social Structure and Ritual in a Macedonian Village], “Sprawy Narodowościowe” 2006.
    • Macedonia. Studia etnosocjologiczne 2 [Macedonia. Ethno-Sociological Studies] 2, vol. 1, 2, ed. by A. Engelking, J. Rękas, I. Upalevski, Warsaw 2020 (collected Macedonian works).

1934–1939: Ethno-Sociologist. Researcher of the Villages of Polesie and in Poland, Academic Lecturer, Translator of Malinowski

Józef Obrębski and Jan Teodorowicz talking with a man from Horyzdryche at Polesie, 1934.
Józef Obrębski and Jan Teodorowicz talking with a man from Horyzdryche at Polesie, 1934
(photo from the “Obrebski Collection”, University of Massachussetts, Amherst, USA)

After returning to Poland at the beginning of 1934, Józef Obrębski joins a circle of sociologists from Poznań and Warsaw – he will collaborate with Florian Znaniecki, Józef Chałasiński and Stanisław Ossowski, first range researchers in the emerging field of Social Sciences in Poland. He also begins working for the Institute for the Study of Nationalities in Warsaw, which leads him to an ethno-sociological expedition in Polesie, a Belarusian-Ukrainian borderland region of then Eastern Poland – it is carried out as part of an interdisciplinary research programme coordinated by the governmental Committee of Scientific Research of Eastern Poland.

Due to the nature of his research, Obrębski begins to identify himself as an ethno-sociologist (he borrows the term Ethnosoziologie used in German ethnology in regard to functionalism). He will define ethno-sociology in general terms as “sociology of folk communities”, with the focus on the relation with “the issues concerning sociology of nations”.

April 1934 – September 1936

Obrębski embarks upon an extensive research expedition in Polesie. It comprises the voivodeships of Polesie and Wołyń, and fieldwork is carried out by a team of researchers. The aim of the research is to understand the process of nationalization of the Polesie village and the ethnic structure of the region.

An ethnologist should be aware of the reality of Eastern peasantry
as regards the problems of nationality, should know what the present shape of
the folk’s national identity is, what factors determine the process of building
national self-identity, in progress now, what it consists in,
what direction it takes. The ethnologist’s task in that area
seems obviously complicated, since the national self-identity of the peasants
of Polish Eastern Provinces has not been formed to the end yet.

Józef Obrębski, Program badań etnologicznych w zakresie spraw narodowościowych w województwach wschodnich [Ethnological Research Program on Nationalistic Problems in Eastern Districts]

The Poles, as an external group, one that has a clear nation
and commonly thinks in categories of peoples or nations,
into those new definitions, stemming from its history,
its experiences and its social conceptualizations, includes
the people of Polesie – if only for this reason,
that it cannot include them anywhere else. How common are
our discussions regarding whether the people of Polesie
are Ukrainians, or Belarusians, and what actually are they,
in reality – discussions which in fact are only a more intellectual version
of this categorization, so easy for us, of the social world focused on nations;
categorization that is naïve, but common.

Józef Obrębski, Dzisiejsi ludzie Polesia [Contemporary People of Polesie]

The theoretical and methodological basis of his research Obrębski finds in Malinowski’s functionalism and in Znaniecki’s humanistic sociology. He works through observation and participation, he does not conduct formal interviews with the locals. His less experienced colleagues use questionnaires and surveys. Among them, Zygmunt Korybutiak and Stanisław Dworakowski, who were taught by Obrębski to be ethno-sociologists of Polesie, will contribute the most to the results of the expedition.

Józef Obrębski with a group of girls from Horyzdryche. Polesie 1934.
Józef Obrębski with a group of girls from Horyzdryche. Polesie 1934
(photo from the “Obrebski Collection”, University of Massachussetts, Amherst, USA)

It is important for the person who enters the field and explores
the national consciousness of the local people not to be influenced
by the general political-administrative atmosphere of Polesie
and not to draw too early any conclusions about anational and lacklustre
attitudes of the local people. We work here in what are in fact
very tough and unfriendly circumstances. On the one hand, we have local
administration, which is chauvinist, full of Polonising vigour,
in love with the direction in which our current politics are going
and expecting complete Polonisation of Polesie within the next five years;
on the other hand, we have the Poleshuks: wary, suspicious,
at the first contact denying any pro-Ukrainian or pro-Belarusian sympathies,
even expressing their readiness to follow the wishes of power
in all these matters. When we’re working, we need to make sure
not to cause any inappropriate reactions among administration
(as it could greatly impede the research)
or among the people who are to be studied in such a way,
so that they should not be aware what exactly is being studied.

Józef Obrębski’s letter to Maria Znamierowska-Prüfferowa, 13th of November 1934

The research conducted in Polesie results in rich documentation from the field, concerning, for example, the attitude of the locals toward the Polish state and its institutions, the diversity of ethnic groups and the stereotypes they have of each other, the Ukrainian and Belarusian independence movements, communism, anti-Semitism, historical memory, the economic situation of rural areas, the dissolution of the grand patriarchal family, and traditional beliefs and rituals. What remains in Obrębski’s archives are notebooks from the field, filled-in questionnaires, maps and drawings, and around a thousand photographic negatives – the biggest extant collection of photos of pre-war Polesie.

The non-essentialist theory of ethnic groups and the dynamic understanding of nation-creating processes, elaborated as a result of the research in Polesie, contribute to Obrębski’s achievements being seen by later generations of scholars as fundamental in the studies of ethnicity and the coming into being of nations.

Józef Obrębski with a group of boys from Maciejeviche. Polesie 1934.
Józef Obrębski with a group of boys from Maciejeviche. Polesie 1934.
(photo from the “Obrebski Collection”, University of Massachussetts, Amherst, USA)

The concepts elaborated by Obrębski basing on his research in Polesie
contained truly innovative ideas, questioning the tacit assumptions
of the scientific thinking of the time and at the same time opening
the researcher to new possibilities… They were accepted slowly,
in fragments and with substantial reservations;
the influence of his thought is possible to be delineated
only when taking into account long series of events.
His work is part of a process curiously extended
in time, a “long revolution”… that is a multigenerational,
multifaceted and not at all inevitable series of transformations
taking place in Polish scholarship concerning nations and minorities.

Marcin Lubaś, Dokument myśli otwartej. Studia poleskie Józefa Obrębskiego a rozważania o grupach etnicznych i stosunkach narodowościowych w polskiej etnologii i socjologii [Record of Open Thought. Józef Obrębski’s Research in Polesie and the Deliberations on Ethnic Groups and Relations between Nations]

Obrębski’s reflection combines two spheres of reality
that are separated in other discourses: social radicalism
and a nostalgic attachment to the culture of Polish nobility.
The scholar shows an irreducible connection between the two;
a combination of violence and the mechanisms that create culture…
Obrębski does not use metaphors, he calls things by their name
and ruthlessly deals with the Borderlands’ myth…
The Borderlands, according to Obrębski, are a space of imposed power,
one that does not care for the locals, is ruthless toward people
and exploitative toward nature… The pioneering character of his studies
in the Eastern Borderlands against the post-colonial perspective is obvious.

Grażyna Borkowska, Perspektywa postkolonialna na gruncie polskim. Pytania sceptyka [A Post-Colonial Perspective on Polish Soil: Some Questions of a Skeptic]


As part of the Nationalities Seminar at the Institute for the Study of Nationalities, Obrębski conducts a class on the “Static and Dynamic Approach in Ethnic Studies”.

In such a research the central point is not a nation en bloc
but a person (an individual) from a village ethnically separate
from the dominant nation of the state…
with all his complex attitutes, social aims and aspirations.

Józef Obrębski, Statyczne i dynamiczne podejście w badaniach narodowościowych [Static and Dynamic Approach in Ethnic Studies]

21st of February 1935

Obrębski shares the first results of the research in Polesie at “a special meeting of the Board of the Institute, with representatives of the authorities and academic circles”.

1st–3rd of November 1935

The Second Countrywide Convention of Sociologists takes place in Warsaw. Józef Obrębski and Stanisław Orsini-Rosenberg take part as representatives of the Institute for the Study of Nationalities.

28th of March 1936

Józef Obrębski becomes an Ordinary Member of the Institute for the Study of Nationalities. At the same meeting he delivers a lecture entitled “The Ethnic Division in Polesie”.

1st of April 1936

At a meeting of the Institute of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences of the Warsaw Scientific Society Obrębski delivers a lecture on “Witchcraft in Macedonia”.

20th–21st of September 1936

The First Reporting and Scientific Convention On Eastern Poland takes place in Warsaw. Józef Obrębski, in his talk “Contemporary People of Polesie”, presents the most important results of the research in Polesie to the scientific community and the authorities. He describes, among other things, the social and cultural mechanisms of animosities and conflicts between Polesie and Poland, analyses the feeling of being wronged and humiliated shown by the peasants from Polesie and the forming of the stereotype of the enemy which they direct towards the Poles. The talk is followed by a lively discussion.

Józef Obrębski in the 1930s.
Józef Obrębski in the 1930s
(photo from the Obrębski family collection)

What has been repeated here after the speaker and participants of the discussion
suffices… to convince one that ethno-sociology is not a cloistered science.
It puts in a scientific manner, which is comprehensible even for the new elite,
that which we – the locals – understand well enough without it.
It brings to light tragic misunderstandings, which we come across all the time,
misunderstandings between us and those who want to makes us happier
against our will… We should all study ethno-sociology.

Piotr Lemiesz, journalist of “Kurier Wileński”, correspondent at the Convention

26th of November 1936

Józef Obrębski becomes the vice-president of the newly formed National Institute of Rural Culture (PIKW). The Institute, headed by Józef Chałasiński, was formally linked with the Minsitry of Agriculture, and in regard to content and staff with the Polish Sociological Institute, and focused on the social and cultural issues in rural areas and the peasantry. Obrębski conducts and organizes research on rural emigration, people’s universities and peasants’ memoirs, and helps Chałasiński in preparing a monograph called The Young Peasant Generation.

I was invited by Chałasiński to the Institute, located at Sentaroska street,
in Luxemburg gallery… There I met Obrębski, who… invited me to his study,
made me a coffee and told of his research on people’s universities
and a planned competition concerning young people from rural areas.
The biographies were coming in and were just being arranged
and prepared for another reading by the board of the Institute.
I remember I read a couple of the memoirs in manuscript
and prepared for them a sort of a questionnaire
comprising the most important issues connected with biography.
This formed the basis for Chałasiński’s monograph
“The Young Peasant Generation”.

Stefan Nowakowski, Druga wojna światowa i jej społeczno-kulturowe odbicie w społeczności socjologicznej. Wspomnienia i luźne refleksje [World War II and Its Socio-cultural Repercussion in the Community of Sociologists. Memories and Reflections]


Obrębski teaches sociology (general sociology, methods of sociological research, sociology of the village and of the city) at Free Polish University in Warsaw. He is the director of the Department of Practical Sociology at the Faculty of Law and Economic and Social Sciences of the Free Polish University.


Obrębski begins to teach sociology at the Centre for Pedagogy and Society of the Pedagogical Institute of the Union of Polish Teachers in Warsaw.

The transactions of the Institute for the Study of Nationalities make note of his talk “The Ethnic Problem in Polesie”, delivered at a meeting of the Institute.

January–March 1937

Józef Obrębski resides in the village of Olmany in Polesie (in the Stolin disctrict), where he is the head of a stationary research expedition organized by the National Institute of Rural Culture. Members of the expedition conduct fieldwork focused on the economic and social life, political consciousness, the situation of women in the village, as well as folklore, beliefs, rituals, religious life, healing practices and magic. Obrębski’s co-workers are Irena Czechówna and Władysław Kurkiewicz.


Obrębski becomes a member of the Polish Sociological Institute and of the editorial board of the “Sociological Review”.

6th of January 1938

Józef Obrębski marries Tamara Morozowicz, a graduate of the Warsaw School of Economics. As Tamara Obrębska, an economist and a sociologist, she will be a close collaborator in his fieldwork in Jamaica and an intellectual partner. She will soon give birth to their son, Stefan.

Tamara Obrębski.
Tamara Obrębski
(photo from the Obrębski family collection)


Obrębski becomes the director of the Scientific Publications Division of the Polish Sociological Institute and the chief editor of the publishing series “Sociological Library”, published by the Institute. Six volumes of the “Library” are published before the outbreak of the war, including Malinowski’s Crime and Custom in Savage Society (rendered as Prawo, zwyczaj i zbrodnia w społeczności dzikich), translated by Obrębski (1939).

I went through the sample translation together with Waligórski.
I found your translation excellent and wanted to thank you very much
for doing such excellent work and improving my texts in its Polish guise.
The only corrections which I suggested proved on Waligorski’s verdict
to be due to my having forgotten what good Polish style is…
I have read your reprints with the greatest interest and hope only
that you will go on publishing, since you, like me have a tendency
of putting manuscripts away and letting them mature in the dark.

Bronisław Malinowski’s letter to Józef Obrębski, 22nd of October 1938


Obrębski teaches sociology at Free Polish University’s campus in Lodz, focusing on social and cultural change in Polish rural areas. At the Nationalities Seminar of the Institute for the Study of Nationalities he conducts a lecture on “The Lithuanian and Belarusian Peoples in North-East Poland”. At a meeting of the Institute he delivers a talk entitled “Problems of Nationality in the Memoirs of Young Peasants. Thoughts On The Young Generation of Peasants by J. Chałasiński”. He also works with the Eastern Poland Seminar of the Society for the Development of Eastern Poland where he delivers a lecture “How to Approach Locals to Gain Their Trust”.

16th of January 1939

At a meeting of the Methodology of Social Sciences Division of the Polish Philosophical Society in Warsaw Obrębski delivers a lecture “On Bronisław Malinowski’s Functional Method”. Prepared for publication under the title “The Functional Method of Bronisław Malinowski”, the essay was due to appear in the seventh volume of “Sociological Review”, but the publication was stopped by the outbreak of the war. The content of the lecture was published posthumously in 2004.

If ethnology could have ever thought about itself as the birthplace
of other disciplines,and it has such aspirations
– as the source from which can spring theories and problems
of other branches of the humanities, then without a doubt
this could only be ethnology as represented by the functional school,
manifesting itself in a series of descriptions and analyses
of particular societies and cultures, as only such research
can sufficiently broaden the perspectives on various,
different social and cultural models
which are among the interests of the humanist.

Józef Obrębski, O metodzie funkcjonalnej Bronisława Malinowskiego [On Bronisław Malinowski’s Functional Method]

Anthropology of rural areas of Polesie and Poland, questions of ethnicity, theory of ethnology, translations of the works of Malinowski. Publications

  • A. Published by the author:
    • Dzisiejsi ludzie Polesia [Contemporary People of Polesie], “Przegląd Socjologiczny”, 1936.
    • Problem etniczny Polesia [The Ethnic Problem in Polesie], “Sprawy Narodowościowe”, 1936.
    • Problem grup etnicznych w etnologii i jego socjologiczne ujęcie [Ethnic Groups in Ethnology: A Sociological Approach], “Przegląd Socjologiczny”, 1936.
    • Statyczne i dynamiczne podejście w badaniach narodowościowych [Static and Dynamic Approach in Ethnic Studies], “Sprawy Narodowościowe”, 1936.
    • J. Falkowski, B. Pasznycki, Na pograniczu łemkowsko-bojkowskim [On the Border between the Lemkos and the Boykos], Lviv 1935 [review], “Sprawy Narodowościowe”, 1936.
    • Społeczeństwo pierwotne [Primitive Society]. B. Malinowski, Coral Gardens and Their Magic, vol. 1–2, London 1935 [review], “Przegląd Socjologiczny” 1936.
    • Szkoła a dążenia młodego pokolenia chłopów [School and the Aspirations of the Young Generation of Peasants]. J. Chałasiński, Młode pokolenie chłopów [A Young Generation of Peasants], vol. 1–4, Warsaw 1938 [review], “Głos Nauczycielski”, 1938.
    • Etnologia i socjologia [Ethnology and Sociology], “Wiedza i Życie”, 1939.
    • Wychowankowie uniwersytetów ludowych w życiu wsi [Graduates of People’s Universities and Village Life], in: [Rural People’s Universities in Poland], Warsaw 1939.
    • Śmiertelny problemat, a translation of Malinowski’s The Deadly Issue (1936), “Marchołt” 1936. Reprint: B. Malinowski, Works, vol. 10, ed. by E. Betlejewska, Warsaw 2001.
    • Prawo i zwyczaj, a translation of Malinowski’s Law and Custom (1934), “Przegląd Socjologiczny” 1938. Reprint: B. Malinowski, Works, vol. 8, ed.  by A. K. Paluch, Warsaw 2000.
    • Zwyczaj i zbrodnia w społeczności dzikich, a translation of Malinowski’s Crime and Custom in Savage Society (1926), “Przegląd Socjologiczny”, 1938. Reprint: B. Malinowski, Works, vol. 2, ed. by M. Ehrenkreutz-Jasińska, Warsaw 1980.
  • B. First editions and important reprints published posthumously:
    • O metodzie funkcjonalnej Bronisława Malinowskiego [On Bronisław Malinowski’s Functional Method], ed. by A. Engelking, “Studia Socjologiczne” 2004.
    • Dzisiejsi ludzie Polesia, Problem etniczny Polesia, Problem grup i zróżnicowań etnicznych w etnologii i jego socjologiczne ujęcie, Statyczne i dynamiczne podejście w badaniach narodowościowych [Contemporary People of Polesie, The Ethnic Problem in Polesie, Ethnic Groups and Their Differentiation in Ethnology: A Sociological Approach, Static and Dynamic Approach in Ethnic Studies], in: Dzisiejsi ludzie Polesia i inne eseje [Contemporary People of Polesie and Other Essays], ed. by A. Engelking, Warsaw 2005.
    • Polesie. Studia etnosocjologiczne [Polesie. Ethno-Sociological Studies] 1, ed. by A. Engelking, Warsaw 2007 (collected works on Polesie).
    • Etnologia i socjologia, Społeczeństwo pierwotne. B. Malinowski, Coral Gardens and Their Magic, J. Falkowski, B. Pasznycki, Na pograniczu łemkowsko-bojkowskim, Szkoła a dążenia młodego pokolenia chłopów, Wychowankowie uniwersytetów ludowych w życiu wsi [Ethnology and Sociology, Primitive Society. B. Malinowski, Coral Gardens and Their Magic, J. Falkowski, B. Pasznycki, On the Border between the Lemkos and the Boykos, School and the Aspirations of the Young Generation of Peasants, Graduates of People’s Universities and Village Life], “Sprawy Narodowościowe” 2006.

1939–1944: Member of Underground University and the Resistance, Author of Anthropological Monographs

In September 1939 Józef Obrębski and his wife, together with the National Institute of Rural Culture, flee from Warsaw to Puławy. The convoy is dispersed by German air raid. In October Obrębski and his wife reach Lviv, whence they try to make their way to Romania, but with no success. Another attempt at crossing the green border between the Russian area of occupation and the General Government is likewise thwarted. At the beginning of 1940 they find themselves imprisoned in the Brest Fortress. They manage to escape and make their way to Warsaw, where they will remain throughout the occupation and the Warsaw Uprising, in a house at 58 Ursynowska Street, shared with Obrębski’s mother and with Antonina Jabłońska and Witold Jabłoński. After the Uprising they escape from the transit camp in Pruszków and are hiding in Podkowa Leśna, where they remain until the advent of the Red Army in January 1945.


Józef Obrębski teaches sociology weekly at underground meetings of the Social-Educational Division of the Pedagogical Department of the Free Polish University. He also conducts lectures and ethnological seminars at the underground University of Western Poland from Poznań, operating in Warsaw..

We sat with the professors at one table, in the same small group,
listening in turns to lectures of professors Szczurkiewicz, Dybowski,
Rode, Obrębski etc. Thus the usual distance separating students
from professors at a university disappeared… Acquainting oneself with
even the basics of sociology gave grounds for a “different thinking”
– thinking in a sociological manner… We took part
in “lessons” of seeing all phenomena in an objective way.

Tadeusz Trzciński, Profesor tajnego uniwersytetu [Professor of an Underground University]

Obrębski is also collecting materials for research on the underground political life and the resistance. He hides them, as he later said, “in a safe place”, in which they remained until 1945. We do not know what happened to them later.

At that time, exchange of ideas went on among eminent Polish sociologists:
Jan Stanislaw Bystroń, Józef Chałasiński, Stanisław Ossowski,
Józef Obrębski, Tadeusz Szczurkiewicz, Stanisław Rychliński.
In spite of the terror of the Nazi occupation all of them remained
in Warsaw till the end of the war. The communication obviously
did not take place at general sessions but during meetings
attended by two or three people. The home of Obrębski and his wife
was an exception – their door was always wide open to all those
who had to be put up somewhere before curfew. Apart from sociologists,
their home was frequently visited by: Kazimierz Banach, Bolesław Srocki,
Wacław Wagner, and Remigiusz Bierzanek.
At social meetings Professor Witold Jabłoński and his wife
Antonina Obrębska-Jabłońska would also take part in conversations.

Stefan Nowakowski, Druga wojna światowa i jej społeczno-kulturowe odbicie w społeczności socjologicznej. Wspomnienia i luźne refleksje [World War II and Its Socio-Cultural Repercussion in the Community of Sociologists. Memories and Reflections]

The house of Obrębski and his wife is the location of not only secret academic undertakings (two underground seminars are regularly taking place here) but also of covert political activities. It serves, among other things, as a point of communication of Kazimierz Banach, a delegate of the Polish government in London for the Wołyń region. Obrębski was most probably cooperating with the Bureau of Information and Propaganda of the underground Home Army, as can be gathered from information preserved in archive materials in the United States. He edited a monthly analysis and review of underground press for the government in London alongside other covert publications and radio broadcasts.


The Polish Sociological Institute is reactivated, working covertly under the direction of Józef Chałasiński. Józef Obrębski becomes a member of its board (together with Stanisław Ossowski and Stanisław Rychliński).

Part of the library and of the archives were sheltered
by Dr Obrębski with utmost care.
Józef Obrębski saved the collections of books and documents twice:
in 1939–40 and later during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

Józef Chałasiński, Z działalności Polskiego Instytutu Socjologicznego [From the Activities of the Polish Sociological Institute]


The Polish Sociological Institute subsidizes Obrębski’s academic work, leading to the writing of the following monographs: “The Nobleman’s School and Peasant Children” (1943), “Archaic Polesie” (1944) and “Macedonian Beliefs and Rituals. A Sociological Account of the Beliefs and Magic-Religious Rituals of Poreche in Serbian Macedonia” (1944). Obrębski will manage to save the typescripts of only the two books on Polesie from the Uprising. Field materials and photographs from Macedonia and Polesie luckily surive the occupation and the Uprising, buried in metal boxes in Obrębski’s garden.

Obrębski and his wife are sheltering refugees from the ghetto and members of the resistance. Tamara Obrębska is arrested for helping Jews; they manage to get her out of the prison with a bribe. Both she and Obrębski have more than one confrontation with the Gestapo, fortunately without dire consequences. Later, in the period after the Uprising, Obrębski takes part in the so called Pruszków Action, the aim of which was to save library collections and cultural artefacts which survived in the ruins of Warsaw.

Józef was always very reticent about his attachment to Poland and he was particularly reluctant to talk of his activities during the war. It is only now [i.e. after his death] that I can say he was very active in giving assistance to the persecuted Jews of Poland. A good many Jews have survived thanks to Joe, to his giving them shelter and helping them in many ways. Later, in the United States he was recognized by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in the form of honorary citation given to him by that organization.

Aleksander Hertz, in: Elisabeth K. Nottingham, Joseph Obrebski, 1905–1967

Anthropology of rural areas in Polesie. Posthumous publications

  • Pańska szkoła i mużyckie dzieci [The Nobleman’s School and Peasant Children] (1943), in: Polesie. Studia etnosocjologiczne [Polesie. Ethno-Sociological Studies] 1, ed. by A. Engelking, Warsaw 2007.
  • Polesie archaiczne [Archaic Polesie] (1944), in: Polesie. Studia etnosocjologiczne [Polesie. Ethno-Sociological Studies] 1, ed. by A. Engelking, Warsaw 2007.

1945–1946: Ethnologist Among Sociologists. First Professor of Ethnology at the University of Lodz

January–April 1945

The Polish Sociological Institute resumes its activities under the direction of Józef Chałasiński, in Lublin, whence it will soon move to Lodz. Józef Obrębski returns to his work as a member of the board (together with Stanisław Ossowski, Jan Szczepański and Nina Assorodobraj) and of the editorial board of the “Sociological Review”. He also becomes a member of the Sociological Committee of the Polish Academy of Learning and a member of the board of the Ethnological Society.

April 1945

Obrębski resumes his work at the Free Polish University in Lodz. On May 24th 1945 the FPU transforms into the University of Lodz.

3rd of September 1945

Institute of Sociology is established at the University of Lodz, where Józef Obrębski – as assistant professor – becomes chair of the Ethnology department.


During the first academic year after the war Obrębski teaches the following classes: “Main Issues in Ethnology”, “Primitive and Civilized Society”, “Dissolution of Primitive Societies”, “Ethnology and Sociology”. He prepares for publication Ludwik Krzywicki’s manuscript, entitled “Origins of Social Bond”, which survived from the occupation, and writes a broad study “People’s Universities in Pre-War Poland”. However, his further academic career is to be based in Warsaw. He will remain an employee of the University of Lodz until 1st of December 1946.

A couple of times now they have given us a building and then revoked it.
The last one we were supposed to receive was at Hoża Street,
in need of repair… When it comes to a lecture room,
I already have promised… a nice room at Widok Street
in a building of the Marine League. Perhaps we could obtain some
space there both for the seminar and for a library.
But this can happen after you have reinstalled yourself in Warsaw
and became chair of the department.

letter from Stanisław Dworakowski to Józef Obrębski, around December 1945

5th of February 1946

Obrębski receives his habilitation from Ethnology at the Humanities Faculty of the University of Warsaw, awarded for his monograph “Archaic Polesie”. His habilitation lecture is entitled “Economic Theory and Sociological Method in Ethnology”.

Józef Obrębski, ca. 1946.
Józef Obrębski, ca. 1946
(photo from the Obrębski family collection)

The work of Dr Obrębski presents an important scientific contribution.
We see here a flawless delineation of the issue
and its subsequent resolution based on material
gathered in the most part in person, in a flawless manner.
It is a new approach in Polish science, thus all the more valuable.
This work, given to the Humanities Faculty as basis for habilitation,
meets the latter’s criteria perfectly and justifies the motion
to allow dr Józef Obrębski to pass on to
further stages of the habilitation process.

Jan Stanisław Bystroń, Włodzimierz Antoniewicz, Review of dr Józef Obrębski’s “Archaic Polesie”, 4th of December 1945

17th of August 1946

As a result of obtaining his habilitation, Józef Obrębski becomes associate professor (docent) of Ethnology at the University of Warsaw.

Theory of Ethnology. Publications

  • Teoria ekonomiczna i metoda socjologiczna w badaniu społeczeństw pierwotnych [Economic Theory and Sociological Method in Studies of Primitive Societies], “Przegląd Socjologiczny”, 1946. Reprint: “Sprawy Narodowościowe” 2006.
  • Wolność i cywilizacja [Freedom and Civilization]. B. Malinowski, Freedom and Civilization, New York 1944 [review], “Nowa Polska”, Londyn 1946. Reprint: “Sprawy Narodowościowe” 2006.

1946–1948: Social Anthropologist. Lecturer in Oxford and Researcher of a Post-Slave Village in Jamaica

June 1946

Józef Obrębski (with his wife and son) leaves for England, on the invitation from professor Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard from the Seminar on Social Anthropology in Oxford.

October 1946

The London School of Economics and Political Science employs Obrębski as a research sociologist to conduct fieldwork in Jamaica, as part of a project of the West Indian Social Survey, financed by a grant from the British Colonial Social Science Research Council. The task of the West Indian Social Survey was to gather for the British colonial administration scientific data from rural societies comprising descendants of former slaves.

November–December 1946

Obrębski delivers a series of four lectures in Oxford, entitled “The Changing Peasantry of Eastern Europe” and a talk on “The Changing Peasant Culture in Poland” at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. They are summaries of his earlier findings and at the same time a presentation of the theoretical and methodological discoveries of Polish ethno-sociology of the 30s and 40s.

An invitation to Obrębski’s lecture at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, 1946 (the original in the “Obrebski Collection”, University of Massachussetts, Amherst, USA)

I congratulate you on your great scholarly achievements
– modest as you are, maybe you do not appreciate enough your success.
I am really delighted, we are going to have another Malinowski.
Not everybody is accepted to lecture in Oxford,
not everybody’s lectures are published there. That is a great thing.

letter from Feliks Gross to Józef Obrębski, 1946

My command of the English language was at that time terribly poor
and I had to simplify the matter. Nevertheless, those lectures were
a kind of a revelation for the local sociologists.

a letter from Józef Obrębski to Florian Znaniecki, 3rd of May 1947

February 1947 – August 1948

Józef Obrębski conducts his fieldwork in Jamaica, in the villages of Warsop and Bull Savannah, with the help of his wife Tamara and local technical assistants. The research, based on the methodological foundations laid out in his article Economic Theory and Sociological Method in Studies of Primitive Societies, focuses on the Jamaican peasant family, widely believed to be dysfunctional, but goes far beyond the pragmatic, sociographic plane envisaged by the West Indian Social Survey. Obrębski is interested in the dynamics of the economic system and social structure in the context of the formation of the modern post-slave society. He concentrates on anthropology of family in the broad context of macro-social and historical circumstances. He pays attention to the issue of poverty and marginalization, examines the social role played by local and religious institutions as well as schools, and looks at the layer of the so called secondary peasantry functioning in Jamaica, and “rural cities”, characteristic of the socio-economic context there. He observers the process of the forming of the Jamaican nation and elaborates his theory, stemming first from his research in Polesie, on the emergence of modern nations.

Tamara, Stefan and Józef Obrębski departing by steamship to Jamaica, 1947.
Tamara, Stefan and Józef Obrębski departing by steamship to Jamaica, 1947
(photo from the Obrębski family collection)

The research in Jamaica is accompanied by tensions between Obrębski and the bureaucratic leadership of the project of the West Indian Social Survey, which ignores his qualitative approach and explanations of local social reality grounded in contemporary anthropological theories and in the humanistic sociology of Znaniecki.

From Jamaica comes the richest body of Obrębski’s field materials, including a collection of personal documents: letters and biographies. His work on those sources, although advanced, was never finished. Among the archival materials from Jamaica are typescripts of five extensive monographs: “Patentville: A Jamaican Village”, “Family Dysfunction in a Familist Society”, “Family Letters in Peasant Jamaica”, “Family Structure and Economic System in Peasant Jamaica” and “Religion in Rockmeadow”. Some of the results of the research in Jamaica were presented by Orbębski to a wider circle of readers in lectures and a brochure Legitimacy and Illegitimacy in Jamaica: a Non-Deviant Case (1966). In the latter he analysed the Jamaican peasant family not through the lens of the concept of “deviation” but as a specific model, well grounded in local culture and society.

Józef and Tamara Obrębski during their fileldwork in Jamaica.
Józef and Tamara Obrębski during their fileldwork in Jamaica
(photo from the Obrębski family collection)

My aim and ambition… was to give this work such character
that it could serve as an example for future research of this kind
and rescue English sociology from the deluge of statistics and “reporting
mania”… The biographic and ecologic method we are implementing
yields great results. Work is interesting and it looks like we will soon be able
to understand the most fascinating riddles of the social structure and social
changes in this country. The only difficulty we have encountered in this job
is our partner and manager. She is a charming lady (from the local plantation
owners) and a great organizer. Unfortunately the state of her knowledge and
sociological background is at best at the level of our master’s student. I have the
arduous task of teaching her without offending her ego… It is not, moreover, her
personal trait, but a reflection of the state of sociological knowledge in England.

letter from Józef Obrębski to Florian Znaniecki, 3rd of May 1947

What we have done hitherto is quite promising. Methods, developed
and tried out in Poland have not fallen short of my expectations.
All the time we are doing discoveries and our only sercret is,
that, owing to the right theoretical perspectives at our disposal,
we are capable of noticing rudimentary facts,
not noticed by anybody else before, and to name them.
In this spate of discoveries we are at times afraid,
that we can outdistance Columbus. The only relief is to know
that our discoveries will not carry such tragic consequences to this island.

letter from Józef Obrębski to Arnold Kunst, 1948

Upon leaving Jamaica, Obrębski declines an offer to be the chair of the department of sociology at the newly forming branch of the University of London there. He intends to return to Poland and take the position of the chair of ethnology at the University of Warsaw (of which he is formally an employee until 1950).

I have received a letter from Obrębski. He is coming back.
He wants to work together. He is interested in “neosociology”:
the emergence of new nations among coloured colonial peoples.

Stanisław Ossowski to Maria Ossowska, 6th of March 1948

Our work will be a monograph of not so much the village,
but a monograph of the entire social class, that is the local peasantry…
Its title, as we are planning it, would be
“Family, neighbourhood and nation in peasant Jamaica”
and the entirety of peasant issues (family and rural society)
would be shown against the background of the emergence
of the modern Jamaican nation (in the socio-cultural, not political, sense)
from the former colonial society. In this way we could touch in this work, with Jamaica as the example,
one of the fundamental processes of modern times.

letter from Józef Obrębski to Feliks Gross, 19th of February 1948

I was strongly convinced that beyond Poland there was no sociological circle
where you could expect the problem of colonial peoples and rising nations
to be understood properly both in theoretical and practical aspects.
It is us who have advanced considerably and we have all the chances
of creating a “school” or approach, which could become the leading one.
Here, they are stuck in ancient methods and nearly fossil theoretical disorder.

Józef Obrębski’s letter to Arnold Kunst, 27th of February 1948

There is no doubt that had J. Obrębski enough time
and determination to publish at least a part
of the monographs prepared, he would have become,
in the 1950s and later, a commonly quoted author,
and his propositions and interpretations would have perhaps
quickened the current of research on Carrabean cultures.

Aleksander Posern-Zieliński, Józef Obrębski i antropologia Karaibów [Józef Obrębski and Anthropology of the Carrabean]

In the end, however, Obrębski does not return to Poland. He accepts a position in the UN Trusteeship Department in New York.

I have no illusions regarding the possibilities of development
of Polish sociology in the current circumstances.
And not many regarding the possibilities of it changing for the better soon.
I am associate professor of the University of Warsaw,
where… the chair of the department is empty. I doubt I will return to it.
I chose ethnology as a subject which was seemingly the most removed.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. Lenin and Stalin were ethnologists as well.

letter from Józef Obrębski to Florian Znaniecki, 3rd of May 1947

Lectures in Oxford. Posthumous publication

  • The Changing Peasantry of Eastern Europe, ed. by J., B. Halpern, Cambridge, Massachussets, 1976.

Anthropology of family in Jamaica. First printings and Polish translations published posthumously

  • Peasant Family and National Society in Jamaica (1956), “Sprawy Narodowościowe” 2006.
  • Rodzina chłopska a społeczeństwo narodowe Jamajki, “Sprawy Narodowościowe” 2006.
  • Legitimacy and Illegitimacy in Jamaica: a Non-Deviant Case (1966), “Sprawy Narodowościowe” 2006.
  • Ślubne i nieślubne pochodzenie na Jamajce – przypadek zgodny z normą, “Sprawy Narodowościowe” 2006.

1948–1958: Expert of the UN Trusteeship Department

September 1948

Józef Obrębski travels with his family from Jamaica to New York.

How strange the vicissitudes can be in one’s life.
Many years ago Malinowski wrote to me,
after you have received your Ph.D.,
that he would like you to be his research assistant.
I thought it wouldn’t be bad.
Still you replied it was right to achieve one’s education abroad,
but one should work in Poland and for Poland.
Now that you have moved with your work to the UN
you wrote that doing useful work for mankind
is working for Poland as well.

letter to Józef Obrębski from his Mother, Maria Obrębska, 1953


Obrębski is a member of the UN Secretariat, he works as a Senior Social Affairs Officer in the UN Trusteeship Department responsible for former colonial territories which are gaining independence (the so called trust territories). He focuses on family, upbringing, education and urbanisation, issues of economy and social policy and the emergence of new nations. He studies social change in the colonial states of Africa, South-East Asia, the Caribbean and Oceania, and presents his findings at UN seminars. He prepares a series of essays and analyses which, according to UN rules, are not published but function as anonymous brochures for internal use. These include: “Training of Social Workers” (1951), “General Aspects of Social Policy” (1952), “Community Development and Education in Non-Self-Governing Territories” (1953), “General Policies and Major Problems of Social Development” (1953), “Social Progress through Local Action – Community Welfare Centres” (1953), “Social Problems of Industrialization” (1954), “Community Development Policy and Administration in Non-Self-Governing Territories” (1955), “Nature of the Problem of Urbanization in Underdeveloped Areas” (1955), “Social Change and Standards of Living in Non-Self-Governing Territories” (1955), “Social Aspects of Economic Development in Non-Self-Governing Territories. Colonial Peasantries in transition” (1957), “Social Aspects of Urban Development” (1958), “Social Measures for Economic Welfare of the Family” (1958), and “Urban Community Development. Application of Community Development. Principles in urban neighbourhoods” (1958).

Józef Obrębski as a UN officer in the 1950s.
Józef Obrębski as a UN officer in the 1950s
(photo from the Obrębski family collection)

During this time Józef Orębski also participates in American and international conferences and seminars. In September 1950 he takes part in the First International Sociological Congress in Zurich, where he presents a lecture “The Sociology of Rising Nations” – a theoretical synthesis of his research in Polesie and Jamaica regarding the emergence of nations. In December 1956 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New York he delivers a talk entitled “Peasant Family and National Society in Jamaica”, a year later he gives a guest lecture at a Caribbean seminar at the University of Columbia on the “Peasant Family in Jamaica”. In 1958 at the department of sociology of Queens College in New York he talks of the “Social Background of the Polish Revolution of 1956”.

A change in the scope of both anthropology and sociology
and their inroads into each other’s field becomes, however,
increasingly justified in view of the changing face
of our contemporary world… This field of common interest
extends over the vast area of phenomena which
– for a lack of a more adequate expression –
can be called the phenomena of rising nations…
[C]an they be scientifically approached as complexes
of similar social phenomena, capable of
comparative analysis, abstract description and systematic theory?
The facts that we know, in spite of all the shortcomings
of our knowledge, favour [this] alternative.

Józef Obrębski, The Sociology of Rising Nations

Your letter raised our spirits, letting us know the details about your work
and confirming our convinction that Joe was right after all,
giving up that job, office work in fact and quite anonymous.

letter from Maria Stieber to Tamara Obrębska, 28th of September 1963

Rising nations. Publication and posthumous Polish translation

  • The Sociology of Rising Nations, “Unesco International Social Science Bulletin” 1951.
  • Socjologia powstających narodów, “Przegląd Socjologiczny” 1968. A new translation in: Dzisiejsi ludzie Polesia i inne eseje [Contemporary People of Polesie and Other Essays], ed. by A. Engelking, Warsaw 2005.

1959–1967: Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at New York Universities


After the Polish October, a political thaw which marked the end of the Stalinist period of communism in Poland, in 1957 Obrębski is offered the chair of the department of ethnology at the University of Warsaw. Later, in the years 1957–1959, he is offered a year-long professorship of sociology in Warsaw, and in the years 1960-1962 the chair of the department of sociology of the University of Warsaw. None of those plans, however, come to fruition.

Józef Obrębski with his mother in Warsaw in the 1950s.
Józef Obrębski with his mother in Warsaw in the 1950s
(photo from the Obrębski family collection)

Dear Joe,
I am writing to you on behalf of the Senate of Warsaw University
to ask you a question (which I have already asked in my private letter)
whether you would agree to take over the Chair of Ethnology
at Warsaw University. The Senate considers it very important
and in the debate no other candidate was proposed.
If you are still determined not to accept please, write and let me know
what you meant by saying that you could help us in some other way.

letter from Stanisław Ossowski to Józef Obrębski, 11th of April 1957

Dear Józef,
Much has changed in sociology in Poland
since your latest visit in our country…
“The Sociological Review” appears again…
The Sociological Section at the Philosophical Society
has been working all the last year, and now we’ve created
Polish Sociological Society… Wouldn’t you like to send
a contribution to “Review” or “Culture and Society”?
We do hope that you could make up your mind
about coming back to Poland.
I have even heard that they would like to see you
as the head of the Chair of Ethno-sociology.

Letter from Józef Chałasiński to Józef Obrębski, 19th of December 1957

26th of October 1960

Józef Obrębski and Tamara Obrębska become members of the Polish Sociological Society.


Obrębski works as a lecturer at universities in New York. He teaches sociology and anthropology at Brooklyn College, Hofstra College and Queens College of the City University of New York.

April 1964

Józef Obrębski becomes an American citizen.


Obrębski works at the C. W. Post College of Long Island University, until 1965 as Assistant Professor, from 1966 as Associate Professor. He teaches courses on sociology and anthropology at the Faculty of Social Sciences. He is the first professor of social anthropology at this university.

I found his lectures – marked by erudition, research, good humor
and obvious interest – wonderfully free from pedantry and conceit.
He earned the respect others assume;
he demonstrated what others merely assert – scholarship.

Elisabeth K. Nottingham, Joseph Obrebski, 1905–1967
Józef, Tamara and Stefan Obrębski by their house in Hollis, NY, 1959.
Józef, Tamara and Stefan Obrębski by their house in Hollis, NY, 1959
(photo from the Obrębski family collection)

From 1961 Józef Orbębski participates in the works of the newly formed Sociological-Anthropological Committee of the Polish Institute of Sciences in America (and Tamara Obrębska becomes the secretary of the committee). He gives talks at seminars and conferences, such as “Rising Nations from an Anthropological Perspective” at the Faculty of Anthropology of the University of Chicago (1960), “Social Structure and Ritual in a Macedonian Village” at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia in December 1961, and “Principle of Legitimacy in the Caribbean” at the First Congress of Polish Scientists, organized at Columbia University to mark the millennium of the Polish state (November 1966).

In the academic year 1968/1969 Obrębski plans to hold a series of lectures at the University of Warsaw and to conduct fieldwork in Poland.

Throughout their time in the United States Józef Obrębski and Tamara Obrębska maintained close relations with their homeland. They were helping Polish scientists coming to the States on research grants. The home of the Obrębski family in New York, whose door was always open, saw dozens of people coming and going. Among the visitors were Valetta Malinowska and Eileen Znaniecka, Teodor Abel, Robert Bierstedt, Sula Benet, Alicja Iwańska, Feliks Gross, Aleksander Hertz, Józef Chałasiński, Jan Szczepański, Stefan Nowakowski, Wiktor Weintraub, Władysław Kuraszkiewicz, Zdzisław Stieber and many others, connected with the Polish and American scientific circles.

I felt at home with you. I am especially grateful to you
for organizing my lecture and the possibility of meeting
so many interesting people – for introducing me into the sociological circle.

letter from Jan Szczepański to Tamara Obrębska, 11th of May 1961

Valetta, Bronio’s (Malinowski’s) widow spent some weeks with us
in May-June. She brought her husband’s letters to his fellow-workers
and students doing fieldwork, and now Joe is working with them,
writing on the origin and application of the functional method…
We are planning to visit her in summer.
She promised Joe to find interesting places for him.
Bronio planned to do his fieldwork there but didn’t manage to go.

letter from Tamara Obrębska to Józef Chałasiński, 14th of July 1961

The 1960s are for Obrębski a period of intensive academic work. His interest in the history of ethnology and the figure of Ludwik Krzywicki results in the over 200 hundred pages long treatise “On the Ethnology of Krzywicki”; unfinished, it remains in typescript. Obrębski is also working on his materials from Macedonia and Polesie, to which he intends to devote his upcoming retirement.

28th of December 1967

Józef Obrębski dies suddenly in Hollis, New York.

Some years after his death, thanks to the efforts of Tamara Obrębska, Sula Benet and Joel M. Halpern, his academic legacy is deposited at the university archive in Amherst, Massachussetts. It is made available as the “Obrebski Collection”.

First printing and Polish translation published posthumously

  • Rising Nations from an Anthropological Perspective, “Sprawy Narodowościowe” 2006.
  • Powstawanie narodów. Ujęcie antropologiczne, “Sprawy Narodowościowe” 2006.

There is no need to advertise Obrębski. He obtained his independent position
in Polish science… with the first strong blow at the end of the interwar period.
He remained in the memory of today’s older generation as a researcher…
and a theoretician interested in new trends in foreign science. But his works
remain in manuscripts, and his articles are not easily available.
Discovered every so often by the younger generations of ethnographers,
published outside of Poland, they form part of the contemporary development
of science being adopted by only a very small group of specialists.
It is worthwhile to create for them a separate space
in the library of classical texts of Polish ethnology.

Anna Kutrzeba-Pojnarowa, Wkład Józefa Obrębskiego w badanie procesów etnicznych [Wkład Józefa Obrębskiego w badanie procesów etnicznych]

Translated by Helena Teleżyńska