Lamenting Social Change in the Countryside: The Publications of the Bucharest School of Sociology in the Early 1930s
University College London
ACUM 2011, vol. 5, nr. 1: Social space and its actors
Abstract: This paper examines the debates over social change in the Romanian countryside as represented in the writings of sociologists in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Founded in 1925 by Dimitrie Gusti, the Bucharest School of Sociology pioneered fieldwork expeditions as a means of producing knowledge about the rural population for governmental reform. The school brought together people with diverse backgrounds, objective and political views offering them an opportunity to undertake field research in rural areas. After a period intensive data collecting between 1925 and 193/, the scholars started to publish their findings both in academic journals and in the press. Despite their common background, conflicting readings of the countryside and its transformation emerged in this period of international crisis and socio-economic unrest. By integrating the voices in the fragmented and antagonistic media of the time, the sociologists used their field studies to support individual interpretations of what they saw and heard in the countryside, often taking opposing positions. Analyzing the published materials of the Bucharest School of Sociology, I identify several key categories through which change in the rural world was conceptualized. Following Bruce Mazlish’s distinction between „breakers” and the „lamenters”, I map opposing groups of texts – that mourned for the loss of tradition and the inevitability of change and those who supported it and tried to influence it – onto the wider debates of the time. Thus, by concentrating on this group of intellectuals, this paper sheds new light on the way rural transformation was conceptualized. Furthermore, it demonstrates how the „new science” of sociology became implicated but also fundamentally altered the political debates around the future of the peasantry.
Key words: rural, social change, sociology, interwar, Romania, Dimitrie Gusti
This paper examines the debates over social change in the Romanian countryside represented in the early writings of the Bucharest School of Sociology (BSS), produced between the mid 1920s and the early 1930s. Although central to all intellectual debates of this troubled period, the countryside and its formation have received little attention from scholars of Romanian studies. The same can be said about the BSS, founded by Professor Dimitrie Gusti (1880-1955), whose members often appear affiliated with other intellectual or political groups. This paper concentrates on the key category of rural transformation as perceived and constructed in the different forms and styles of writing produced by the Bucharest sociologists. Its main aim is to understand how this new field-based discipline, sociology, engaged with and interpreted the transformation of the rural world, making it visible to the academic and non-academic public. This view provides a reassessment of interwar intellectual history and a reorientation of attention from a static view of the rural world to a more dynamic one, focusing on social change. The transformation of the rural world in the interwar period has been ignored by scholars of Romania, who have mainly concentrated on how the peasantry was represented and used in debates about national identity. I argue that this paints an incomplete picture of the period, as the rapid changes affecting the rural world were high on state political agendas and at the center of public attention. This paper therefore proposes a new perspective on this period by discussing the efforts to create a new science able to understand the rural world within a wider impetus of managing Romania’s pathway to modernity.
Drawing on the work of the historian of sociology, Bruce Mazlish, who argued that sociology was born as a science investigating modernity and the subsequent „breakdown of connections” between „Man to God and the Cosmos, of Man to Nature; and of Man to Man”, I analyse the way Romanian sociologists described the consequences of modernity in the countryside. (Mazlish, 1989: 4). I argue that, similar to Western sociology, which inserted itself in an existing spectrum of interpretations of this „breakdown of connections”, from „lamenting” the disappearance of traditional ways of life, to a desire to „break” with the backwardness and the chains of the past, Romanian sociologists also experienced this contradictory relationship with the advent of modernity and its impact on the rural world. In the early writings of the BSS, the lament over the loss of the old connections was evident, whereas in the second half of the decade the desire to invent new connections that would plug the countryside into the circuits of modernity became more prominent. This paper looks at the rise of this lament in relation to the passage from the fieldwork phase to one of writing-up. Analyzing the different levels of writing sociologically – from the field, to scientific publications and the public sphere – also illustrates how the discipline became a shared way of thinking about the ongoing processes of change affecting Romanian society between the two World Wars.
Sociologists and social change in the countryside 1925-1931
With a majority of around eighty per cent of the population living in the countryside, the newly created greater Romania remained an „eminently agrarian state”, faced with the difficult task of turning peasants into citizens whilst preserving the unique culture and traditions associated with its nation identity. (Georgescu, 1937; Hitchins, 1994). The legal transformations targeting the rural population in the early 1920s had turned peasants into landowners and had enabled them to participate in politics, making them important economic and political actors (Roberts, 1951; Mitrany, 1930). However, the application and consequences of these reforms raised difficult new questions regarding the future of the rural world and about the place of the peasantry in the new social order. Romanian scholars from different disciplines sought to address these challenges by producing scientific knowledge that would contribute directly to state reforms, thus building a new modem state fit to respond to the needs of its society. (Verdery, 1991: 45-47). A pioneer of this initiative, Gusti defined sociology as a „meta-discipline” able to bring together the various angles provided by other social sciences and to shed new light on Romania’s society, starting with the rural world (Gusti, 1941: 39-41). His main talent of bringing students and scholars together and offering them an institutional umbrella to conduct fieldwork research in the Romanian countryside led to the creation of a new ethos of collective multidisciplinary study of the rural world, which became highly influential in the period.
The BSS grew out of Gusti’s seminar of sociology held at the University of Bucharest, in the early 1920s. From 1925 onward, the seminar initiated a series of field expeditions that grew in size, lenght and notoriety over the following few years. Between 1925 and 1931, students and scholars from a wide range of disciplines spent a month of their summer holidays each year in a different locality, visiting villages in most Romanian regions, both old and new. During these expeditions, the participants observed and recorded village life, collected statistical data and conducted interviews with the locals (Stahl, 1934). By the early 1930s, this group, who called themselves „the monographists”, after Gusti and his students’ method of writing monographic descriptions of villages based on fieldwork, had proposed a new „way of thinking sociologically” about Romania’s peasant questions.
The theory and practice of sociology developed in close contact and interaction with the rural world. Scholars experienced very different realities from one region to the next, with some areas adapting to the modern economic system and urban culture, others caught in between the old and the new, and some that had remained almost sealed off from outside influences. The fieldwork experience therefore brought the processes of rural transformation on the School’s research agenda, a fact that was also reflected in the materials they produced both in the field and away from it.
Published and unpublished versions of social change
The different steps in the production of sociological writing reveal the rise of issues related to rural transformation. Reading these materials from „raw” to „cooked” allows a better understanding of how different auctorial voices and interpretations took shape. The interplay between what was observed and what was written and re-written indicates the different ways the rural world was „translated” for different audiences.
The contact with the village mediated by the BSS changed the participants’ perceptions a expectations of the countryside, making them aware of the processes of change affecting it, including the pressure and influence of modernity, capitalism, urbanization and state reforms. Most of the participants confronted rural transformation in their collecting practices, but interpreted it in different ways, some engaging with the new, often hybrid, forms of village life, containing both the old and the new, others desperately searching for the authentic, often disappearing traditions. Also, some portray capitalist and urban influences as moral degenerating factors, whereas others concentrated on the reaction of the village to change in terms of resistance or adaptation.
Mircea Vulcănescu, who was one of the first students to record rural transformation, correlated social and economic change to the transformation of morality and spirituality . During the 1925 trip to Goicea Mare, Vulcănescu chose to study the spiritual life of this Oltenian village. His notes reflect the categories used to understand the transformation of this rural locality. Looking at how rural life was affected by new capitalist market relations gave rise to his interpretation of change as moral degeneration. He noted that „the primitive way of life” was dissolving under the influence of „suburbia on the one hand and of the petite bourgeoisie on the other”. (Vulcănescu, 2005a: 564) The population of Goicea Mare and Goicea Mica, which had grown considerably in recent years, were showing
„obvious signs of physical degeneration”, according to the sociologist. Correlating the socio-economic situation with individual character traits, Vulcanescu sketched a psychological typology of the goicean consisting of three types: the „primitive”, „the emancipated”, and „adventist” (the latter representative of a Neo-Protestant sect). Of these, the „primitive type”, whose life was defined by traditionalism, subsistence economic activities, superstitions and political opportunism, was disappearing, making way for the ascent of the other two. His notes on the „emancipated” type mentioned the influence of the city, consumption of urban products and production for an external market as defining traits of this new rising social group. The consequences of change were revealed in „cases of non-adaptation to village life”. (Vulcanescu, 2005a: 564).
The trip to Cornova in 1931 offered an opportunity to engage with the transformation of aesthetics and the dissolution of traditions in this village that was marked by intensive urbanization. Anton Golopentia was one of the few researchers to discuss this process, analyzing the adaptation of local taste to a new supply of material goods and to external influences. The fieldnotes used for his article about the „process of urbanization in Cornova” (produced both by him and his colleagues), brought together information about the production and consumption of both traditional objects and about new imported ones, as well as the villagers’ opinions about contemporary fashion and practices (A. Golopentia, 1932). The section on fashion relied on descriptions of past and present styles of dress provided by older (60 years old) and younger (15-16 years old) informants of both genders. This source material showed an interest in fashion as a system of social difference, most fieldnotes carefully recording what social group the informants belonged to (S. Golopentia, 2000a: 164-5). This change was also recorded visually, through photographs illustrating the contrast between old and new trends in fashion (A. Golopentia, 1932). The same process was used to record changes in housing, interior decoration and icon making.
These two examples show two ways of recording the transformation of village life in areas where this process was under way. They also represent two different ways of structuring what was observed, one interpreting social change as moral and spiritual degeneration, the other as a new way of negotiating village life. In contrast to these examples, other participants avoided confrontation with new cultural forms and looked for the remaining authentic materials to continue their research. For example, Marcela Focsa, one of the students working on folk art, recalled that she had discovered the „real village, real popular culture” at Dragus, in the Fagaras county, where she found the best-preserved folk art and customs (Rostas, 2003: 112). Unlike Runcu or Cornova, where the process of urbanization had penetrated deep into the villages, eroding the internal artifact market and substituting home-made objects and clothes with cheap mass-produced ones, Dragus provided plenty of materials for the study of folk art.
„Compared to the Transylvanians, who [had] rich and beautifully organised interiors,” she found „the Oltenians ( … ) much poorer, mixed and somewhat urbanized”. Her disappointment with the transformation of material culture was strengthened by her Bessarabian experience in Cornova. „The Comova interiors were very urban, with white linen sheets, white valance pillowcases, with photographs on the walls. ( … ) They used glasses, plates, and cutlery bought in town!”(Rostas, 2003: 117). Under these circumstances, she restricted herself to the study of the Molodvan scoarțe (decorative woven rugs), a craft that had persisted in the region.
Most researchers, therefore, confronted rural transformation in their research practices, but interpreted it in different ways. Overall, they all shared the sense that traditional culture (both material and spiritual) was disappearing and being replaced by urban surrogates. Despite the different interpretations given to social change, this joint lament was expressed as a call for the preservation of the remaining rural culture .
As Henri H. Stahl  pointed out in his memoirs, the early 1930s were a period of crisis and dissent not only in Romanian society as a whole, but also for the Bucharest School of Sociology in particular (Stahl, 1981: 206). Inside the BSS, writing up, which followed the shared experience and team ethos of the fieldwork trips, brought out in the differences between the members, leading often to contradictory visions of the countryside and its future. Moreover, since publishing presupposed entering the public social sphere and thus engaging with the wider intellectual and political debates of the time, the research findings from the field became entangled with the scholars’ different political views and personal agendas. Furthermore, the publications were also affected and shaped by the incandescent atmosphere of the early 1930s, marked by the world economic crisis, the radicalization of politics, and by rising debates about the role of the „young generation”(Vulcanescu, 2004). In turn, these processes affected the object of monographic research, the peasantry. Bigger questions about democracy, capitalism, the economic crisis, and the nation were rephrased into ones about the transformation of the peasantry.
Academic forums and academic writings
Following the expedition to Dragus in 1929, the BSS was formally integrated into the prestigious Romanian Social Institute (lnstitutul Social Roman), where the monographists organised public conferences. A few years later, they were offered space to publish their research in the Institute’s prestigious academic journal, Arhiva pentru Stiinta si Reforma Sociala. The section Arhiva Monografica (the Monographic Archive) appeared at the heart of the journal in 1932, aided by from the Rockefeller Foundation (Popescu, 1926; Plosceanu, 2008). Access to this publication opened one of the highest Romanian forums of intellectual debates to the young scholars, providing them instant recognition and academic distinction.
The 1932-1933 issue is indicative of the School’s general vision of the countryside and transformation and of the researchers’ multiple points of view, reflecting their very interpretations and attitudes to change. I have identified several main themes through which transformation was defined: modernization, capitalism, urbanization and regional diversity.
Modernization through state reforms
The first category through which change was conceptualized was modernization through reforms, addressed differently by Ernest Bernea and Henri Stahl (Bernea, 1932; Stahl, 1929; Stahl, 1930). Bernea’s article on the calendar reform illustrated the disruption to the life of the community caused by the state. In 1924, five years after the territorial unification with Bessarabia, the Romanian state finally voted to bring the Bessarabian calendar over to the New Style, thus adjusting it by 13 days. Despite the progressive parish priest who tried to convince the community of the logic an benefits of the reform, the result was a schism of the village into a group of old-style adherents and one of new-style followers. The reform therefore disrupted not only people’s lives, by changing the date of holidays, traditions and rituals, but also shook their trust in their priest and the government, creating animosity within the community itself. The article’s conclusions lamented both the poor application the reform and the social and spiritual disruptions caused by it (Bernea, 1932). Bernea’s attitude seemed rather ambiguous over the importance of the reform, focusing more on the disruption of traditional spirituality. Psychologically, change was shown as a cause of moral distress, instability and dissent. When imposed by the authorities, change came into conflict with the local traditions, producing a moral crisis. The result was disorder as shown by Comova’s confused sense of time.
Stahl’s work on the village of Nerej in Vrancea illustrated change from a legal point of view (Stahl, 1929; Stahl, 1930). Although the situation in this unique location was presented in somber terms, as a tragedy, the disintegration of the community, and even a plague or curse, his lament was not about moral degeneration. An admirer of the free peasantry of Vrancea, Stahl sought to shed some light on the almost totally ignored traditional laws of communal land tenure and on the ways they had been misused, with the state’s support, to the advantage of forestry industrialists. According to him, capitalism and the legal framework that allowed it to penetrate the region were two sources of evil that initiated not inevitable change, but one that could and that had to be fought against. Mourning the loss
of ancient local knowledge within the community itself, Stahl also indirectly blamed the state, whose laws had never considered the existence and importance of the ancient unwritten legal system. Capitalism and the peasant economy.
Economically, change was mainly linked to the forces of capitalism and industrialization that worked both from within and outside the community. The article on peasant indebtedness by Roman Cressin grappled with the effects of the international crisis in the village, thus showing the interconnections between the local and the global economy as well as the capacity of the former to adapt and react to change (Cressin, 1932). Monographic research also showed the different meanings capitalist institutions like credit acquired when applied to the rural context, leading not to increased productivity, but to consumerism and waste. Cornateanu’s work on peasant budgets and Vulcanescu’s theoretical study of rural economics showed there was a great gap between the authorities’ expectations and the villagers’ interpretations of profit and development (Cornateanu, 1932; Vulcanescu, 1932).
Above all, the studies showed how the land reform and its legal framework had attached the family as a productive economic unit to the capitalist market without any consideration of potential side effects. Firstly, these studies showed the resistance of the traditional mentality to modern capitalist principles such as profitability and investment. Instead of being re-invested or used to its maximum potential, surplus and credit were often wasted or used for consumption (building houses, buying more land, etc). When combined with the international economic crisis, the result was disastrous both for the state and the peasantry. Secondly,· monographic research recorded that social differentiation in the countryside was the combined effect of capitalism and of state intervention through the land reform. As Cornateanu showed, the new rural social classes, which emerged in this transition period, evolved into different types of economic relations. The chiaburi (rich peasantry) and the proletariat rural (rural proletariat) became, in different ways, part of a capitalist mode of production, whereas the mijlocasi (middling peasants) remained part of a self-sufficient economy whereby the family had to produce enough for its own needs (Cressin, 1932).
Thirdly, the articles recorded the importance of psychological factors in the adaptation and resistance to change in the rural world. Even in the case of local industries producing for the market did not always constitute a priority, as shown by Buznea and Negrea in their investigations of the tuica (a local brandy) and milling industries (Buznea, 1932; Negrea 1932). In the first case, only the chiaburi operated within the brandy industry as capitalist producers buying the primary product from others, hiring workers and selling for the market, while the others only produced for their own consumption (Buznea, 1932).
Urbanisation and regional diversity
Other articles showed the different ways in which change affected the various Romanian provinces and highlighted the specifics of the newly unified areas, especially Bessarabia. In this case, Bernea’s article on the calendar reform discussed the locals’ resistance to change, whereas Stahl’s work on the vatra satului and Golopentia’s article on the urbanization process reflected the opposite direction, towards the dissolution of old ways of life and a rapid adaptation to the modern ones (Bernea, 1932; Stahl, 1929; A. Golopentia, 1932). Golopentia showed how geographical connections led to social ones, and eventually to the adaptation of rural life to urban habits. Although the overarching theme was one of cultural hybridization and economic transition, the approach to change differed greatly between Bernea and Golopentia. If the former deplored the spiritual crisis created by the calendar reform in Com ova, the latter concluded that change was normal and inevitable due to the villages’ proximity to a large urban center, the town of Orhei (A. Golopentia, 1932: 571-572).
Like Cornova, the Oltenian village of Runcu posed similar problems regarding change. Situated on the Oltenian side of the Fagaras Mountains, Runcu stood in stark contrast with the autarchic Dragus, a village on the Transylvanian side of the same mountains. Runcu was connected to the Oltenian markets and, like Cornova, showed signs of urbanization, social differentiation, and cultural change. This comparison singled out the autarchic life-style of Dragus, a village where the culture, spirituality, and economic production had been most accurately preserved. As a preliminary conclusion, the academic research published in the early 1930s in Arhiva indicated some major themes and directions of monographic research, whilst also reflecting its unevenness and lack of unity. Underlying the scholarly articles lay very different interpretations of the reality observed within the teams, and even more different opinions of how the transformation of the Romanian countryside was to be dealt with in the future. This was further reflected in a certain attachment that authors appeared to develop towards particular research locations. Even in the early formative stage, „favorite” villages revealed specific study interests, indicating the scholar’s attitude towards the theme of rural transformation. For example, Stahl favored Nerej as the living site of the old old razesie, Vulcanescu became attached to Dragus for its well-preserved traditions and cultural purity and, despite Golopentia’ s reduced experience of monographic research, his interest in Cornova show his curiosity about cultural hybridization and urbanization of rural areas.
As Sanda Golopentia has noted, the BSS used a variety of genres of writing besides academic sociology, creating what she has called a „hybrid literature” that melted field research into literary forms such as „the diary, the travel account” and the magazine article (S. Golopentia, 2000b). Dominated by a specific „ethnographic realism”, this literature flourished throughout the entire decade, perpetuated by the Royal Student Teams, Gusti’s subsequent initiative of transforming rural life (Rostas, 2009).
These publications shed new light on the monographists’ differing opinions about the transformation of the countryside, the subjectivity behind research, and the objectification of the peasantry through writing. Released from the constraints of the scientific style, the newspaper and magazine articles signed by Stahl, Vulcanescu, and Golopentia presented personalized impressions of the villages they studied and became emotionally attached to. Their texts appeared in reviews and magazines of different political orientations. Stahl published in the Criterion review, a renowned intellectual forum that welcomed both sides of the political spectrum. His work also appeared in Dreapta and in one of Vrancea’s local newspapers, Milcovul (Stahl, 1939a). Similarly, Vulcanescu’s texts appeared in Realitatea ilustrata, a general interest magazine that published illustrated reportages on a variety of themes, including „exotic” ones such as life in African and Asian villages. This connected the sociologists with a readership interested in the authors’ emotions and subjective views. Drawing on their knowledge and experience of three different villages, Nerej, Cornova, and Dragus, the authors communicated their personal visions of the rural world and its transformation in more personal and subjective styles.
Three more lyrical texts about the countryside, written by Stahl, Golopentia and Vulcanescu, give a sense of the School’s non-academic writing of the early to mid-1930s. Released from the constraints of the objective scientific genre, Stahl, Vulcanescu and Golopentia created personalized impressions of the villages they studied and became emotionally attached to, Nerej, Cornova, and Dragus respectively. A short analysis of these texts will illustrate the way these authors described the emotional experience of being a social researcher of rural life.
Stahl’s Drumuri vrancene (Vrancean trails), written for the radio show Universitatea Radio (The Radio University) and aired in May 1934, touched on the same issues present in his academic work, the life and transformation of traditional rural communities, the isolation and specific nature of the razesi villages and the resistance of their ancient forms of socio-political organisation, but excluded the other side of the story, represented by the dissolution and gradual erosion of its current ways of life. Resonating with his methodologies for fieldwork research, the script presented the countryside and its people as a „new world” to be discovered and explored and understood with „the mind and soul”. „What will strike you at first are the people”, Stahl noted, explaining the particular nature of the locals, the razesi. The journey to Vrancea appeared in this way as an opportunity for his audience to meet the real peasantry, whereas the exploration of the region offered a journey back in time to the social memory of the ancient independent Vrancea, which was kept alive through custom and through the „stubbornness and resistance of the locals” even against modern state power (Stahl, 1998: 207- 8). Recreating a version of his method of social archaeology, the author showed how people’s present actions and habits corresponded to and recreated the experience of the region’s past, concluding that Vrancea was a place where „people (…) live together under the enchanted star (zodie) of a distant past of a long-forgotten age” (Stahl 1998, 208). This evocation of the region for a wider public showed a common desire to bridge the gap between the urban and the rural population, by encouraging a new form of rural tourism focused on culture rather than nature. At the same time, Stahl’s melancholic tone betrayed a romantic nostalgia the ancient commune, able to provide alternative models of social organisation in a world of rising individualism.
Golopentia’s article on Cornova, published over two issues of the Curentul newspaper in 1931, described a different experience of the rural world that was equally exciting and mysterious. „Hidden from the rest of the world”, Cornova was described as a place full of surprises, where the challenging roads and walkways, the many wells and winding roads all add to the „stranger’s amazement”. The village’s maze-like appearance was further enhanced by the presence of people, who „[were] like the places” (A. Golopentia, 2002). Like the nature surrounding it, the spectacle of village life offered many contradictions to the outsider, who was faced with a „bizarre coexistence of the old and the new” (A. Golopentia, 2002: 99). Some of the processes that had transformed the village over time, which the author had studied in his academic work, explained the hybrid nature of Cornova’ s life and appearance: the railway built „about sixty years ago” had connected the village to the commercial routes both east and westwards, allowing in influences from both sides; more recently, the army meant that the „lads brought in another array of new things” such as dances, songs and expressions. Nevertheless, not all routes led to change. The lack of medical education, for example, meant that magic beliefs and healing practices persisted even amongst the youth. Also, the same resistance towards state-enforced reforms, like the calendar persisted, this time rooted not in ignorance, but in an informed distrust in the government (A. Golopentia, 2002: 101). This attentive description of the contradictions hidden in the village’s local history was counterpoised by the short conclusion stating that „perceived only through the senses, (Cornova) is just like any other village: insalubrious, too poor and uncomfortable, with old bearded men who, like the young ones, often wear ragged town clothes; with women similar to those in the slums of any big city, whose inhabitants are mostly drunk during the harvest and rather inactive throughout the year.”(Vulcanescu, 2005b). Breaking with the rest of the article, these lines expressed what the village must have looked to the scholar at first sight, whilst reinforcing the importance of empathy and patience in judging a place like Cornova. Like Stahl, Golopentia described „the great love that the immersion into the everyday life of the village awakens in the passionate researcher”, taking time to inspect the history behind the smelly rags of the „old bearded men”, unimpressed by the new foreign dances but shocked by the lack of medical care in the village (A. Golopentia, 2002). Also like Stahl, his article spoke of his passion for travel, and confessed to the prejudgments he had taken along and had had to fight against. Finally, it highlighted the differences between the academic and the nonacademic styles of writing and the need to express the emotions that fieldwork brought up. In Golopentia’s words, „studies could at the most vibrate with it [this feeling] without being able to express it”.
Vulcanescu’s article Satul romanesc (The Romanian village), published in the review Realitatea ilustrata in 1929, contrasted strongly with Golopentia’s description of the Cornova village. Although based on the village of Dragus, the text attempted, through a lyrical description of a generic village, to clarify the attraction of „today’s refined intellectual” to the rural world in relation to „the moral crisis of his generation” (Vulcanescu 2005b, 507). Partly, the text constituted a travel account, however, the dreamy description made it more of an imaginary journey rather than a real one. The opening few paragraphs set the tone for an illo tempore of fairytale-like journeys:
The village! What long-muted chords awaken in the depths of our souls and start rustling and vibrating at the sound of this word? What murmur arises in the ear and what visions appear before our eyes, as soon as we allow our lips to utter this wonderful and enchanted word: the villages … (Vulcanescu, 2005b: 508)
Vulcanescu’s village appeared as a mental and an emotional space in the Romanian collective psyche, travelling to the country being an experience of self-discovery. Unlike him, many urbanites had lost this connection to this village of the mind – „for them, the village is nothing more than a homogenous group of people who look alike and have – at the most – a sort of picturesque way of being about them” (Vulcanescu, 2005b: 509). It was for them, for his readers, that Vulcanescu described his own travels in the magical world of the village. The article consisted of two main parts: a description of some geographic and historical features common to most villages and the organisation and life of a peasant household. The first section offered a bird’s eye view of different rural landscapes („scattered along riversides, up in the mountain or gathered tightly together, at a crossroads, down, in the plains”) in relation to a common past of communal land ownership. Similarly, the second section that told the story of a peasant family, created the illusion of fictional human types living a circular narrative. „In this household, that by itself constitutes a closed unit, the peasant leads his life from the cradle to the grave.”(Vulcanescu, 2005b)
The characters (the man, the woman, the child) and the present tense used in the narrative reinforced the nameless and timeless aura of the text. Furthermore, the life of the peasant was presented as a series of rites of passage from birth, to marriage, to parenting and finally death. It is not clear why the author chose this style since the illustrations that accompanied the text could easily identify the village as Dragus and the peasant family as the Sofoneas. Partly, this may have fitted the publication the article appeared in, Realitatea ilustrata being a general interest magazine. However, such a radical fictionalisation of the author’s scientific work in Dragus contrasted with his colleagues’ slightly ornate realism.
As in their academic articles, the authors used similar categories to conceptualize change. Yet, their subjective voices widened the gap between the different types of lament produced. For all three, the common starting point was the crisis affecting all domains of modern life. To this, each found different answers in the interpretation of village life as opposed to that of urban living. From a traditionalist position, Vulcanescu presented the countryside as the mythical land of salvation, the only way to redeem the individual from urban damnation. Change was disregarded in the text since it did not fit with the ideal „Romanian village”. At the opposite extreme, Golopentia approached the village as an „older brother”, seeking to adapt his city eye to the changed aspect of an urbanising village. Caught in between the two positions, Stahl admired Vrancea’s traditional self-governing villages and invited his audience to travel in search of people, not only of places. His text indirectly lamented the inevitable course of historic transformations affecting this region, leading to what he later realized to be the complete dissolution of the ancient village community.
Based on their direct experience of fieldwork in the countryside, the variety of academic and nonacademic articles produced by the Bucharest sociologists expressed conflicting interpretation of rural life. This paper has presented different explanations of a generalized lament by looking at the School’s fieldnotes, the academic writing and the non-academic texts as a means of expressing attitudes towards social change in the countryside. Taken together, these different genres showed how the discipline of sociology and its object of study, the peasantry, were negotiated between the constraints of objectivity and the outbursts of subjectivity and between the academic and the public spheres of debate. Moreover, whilst present in the background of all the published texts, the fieldwork experience and the relation between scholars and the peasantry were deeply altered. Writing for and about the rural world, the sociologists used their experience of „being there” and the close contact with the locals to build an academic and „public authority” both for their discipline and for their individual, often conflicting, political positions.
Towards the second half of the decade, sociology was institutionalized both in the academic and in the public spheres, receiving the support of King Carol II. This meant that more studies and projects were funded by the state, allowing sociologists to become actively implicated in the transformation of the rural world. In their studies, sociologists were able to follow through some of the themes discussed above, concentrating, like Stahl, on the impact of the modernity on the razesi villages or concentrating more on the potential of urban-rural interaction, like Golopentia (Stahl, 1939b; A. Golopentia and Georgescu, 1941; A. Golopentia and Pop, 1942). The continuous interest in rural transformation, which combined the desire to change with that of selectively preserving a peasant way life, shows a lesser known, but crucial aspect of interwar Romanian history. Since the transformation of rural Romania remains an important issue for the state and for scholars today, understanding the continuities and breaks from one period of the recent past to the next could benefit not only historians of the period, but also contemporary social scientists grappling with similar questions about the impact of modernity upon the rural world.
. The scholarship relating to Dimitrie Gusti and to the Bucharest School of Sociology has been strongly influenced by the political changes that have affected Romania from the 1930s to today. In Romania, after the communist take-over, sociology was banned from 1948 to the 1960s, the works of the School being first banned and then just marginalized. In the 1960s, Dimitrie Gusti’s complete works were published (Gusti, 1968) alongside another important edited collection discussing the activities of the School (Caraioan 1971). In the early 1980, one of the most prominent members of the School, Henri H. Stahl, published his memoirs about the rise and activities of the School (Stahl 1981). This was shortly followed by Zoltan Rostas’s interviews first with Stahl himself and then with the surviving members of the School, published after the fall of communism (Rostas 2000; Rostas 2003; Rostas 2006; Rostas 2009). Outside Romania, the School has not received attention from scholars since the 1930s and 1940s, although Gusti’s works and activities were very well in the period (Mosely 1936; JosephS. Roucek 1938).
. The School demonstrated a certain degree of self-reflexivity early in its development, with its most prominent members assessing their fieldwork activities in articles such as (Herseni 1932) and (Stahll936).
. The villages they visited were: Goicea-Mare, in Southern Oltenia (1925), Ruseţu in Wallachia (1926), Nerej in Vrancea, Moldavia (1927), Fundul Moldovei in Bukovina (1928), Drăguş in Transylvania (1929), Runcu in Northern Oltenia (193 and Comova in Bessarabia (1931).
. Mircea Vulcanescu (1904-1952) is best known as one of the representatives of the young generation of intellectuals who adopted a critical stance towards the transformations occurring in their country as an effect of modernity and of Western influences. However, despite his spiritualism and philosophical affiliations with his well-known professor Nae lonescu, Vulcanescu was also one of the leaders of the BSS and Gusti’s assistant at the University of Bucharest. A student in Letters and Philosophy in the early 1920s, he was one of the few participants in the first study trip to Goicea Mare in 1925. In the later trips, Vulcanescu played a key role in systematizing the theory of monographic research and became particularly interested in rural spirituality and the economics of peasant households. In the 1930s, Vulcanescu took a more critical stance towards the BSS and Gusti’s project of social reform for the countryside. He held several important posts in Directia Vamilor (The Customs Office) and Directia Datoriei Publice (The Bureau for Public Debt), within the Ministry of Finance, until the end of the Second World War, and taught at the University of Bucharest as Gusti’s honorary assistant. He was arrested in 1946, tried as criminal of war in 1948 and sentenced to eight years imprisonment. He fell ill and died in Aiud prison on 28 October 1952.
. Anton Golopentia (1909-1951) was a latecomer to the monographic trips organised by the BSS, only taking part in the 1931 trip to Cornova. After graduating in Law at the University of Bucharest in 1930, which he studied alongside Philosophy and Philology, he gave up the first career path, deciding to specialize in Sociology. He was immediately adopted by Gusti and Stahl, being trained by the latter in the methods of field research over the spring of 1931. After the brief appointment as Gusti’s private secretary at the Ministry of Education, he left to pursue his doctoral studies in Germany. On his return in 1937, he became the editor of the BSS’s own journal, Sociologie Romaneasca. After elaborating his own methodology of monographic research based on a combination of brief ethnographic descriptions and statistical data, Golopentia coordinated two major research projects which used some of the work of the Royal Student Teams and that of a new generation of sociology students. During the Second World War, as an employee of the Central Institute of Statistics, he coordinated and led the extensive project of identifying the ethnically Romanian population in the Soviet Union east of the River Bug in present day Ukraine. After the war, he continued his work for the same Institute, then for Institutul de Conjunctura Economica (The Institute for Economic Affairs). As the political times became more unsettled, he continued working on various as a researcher and statistician, but was finally forced to resign in 1948 and was arrested in 1950. He died in prison on 26 May 1951 before being brought to trial (S. Golopentia 2002).
. This attitude can be clearly noticed in Stahl’s article on village culture from 1935. (Stahl, 1935).
. Henri H. Stahl (1901-1991) joined Gusti’s field trips in 1926, and remained the Professor’s faithful student, assistant and collaborator throughout his career. Influenced by earlier studies of the Romanian peasantry by the Samanatorist movement and the socialist Constantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea (1855-1920), Stahl developed his own research interests during the field trips, focusing on the social history of the Romanian raze~i communities (traditional villages founded and organised by free peasants). As one of the leaders of the school, he developed and published the first methodology for monographic research, followed by a long series of other textbooks of the school aimed both at students and amateur researchers. Stahl was actively involved in the debates of the well-known „young generation” of the 1930s, being part of the Criterion group and oontributing to its conferences and homonymous publication. Although often seen as an Austro-Marxist, Stahl sought to remain faithful to scientific objectivism and to negotiate a middle way between right and left. After working for several years as Gusti’s unpaid assistant at the University of Bucharest (1929-1933), he became the Director of Research at the „Prince Carol” Royal Cultural Foundation. Alongside his work at the Foundation, Stahl pursued his own research interests both individually and as leader of the Nerej research trips, which resulted in the publication of the three-volume edited monograph of this village in Vrancea County. After the abolition of the Social Service on the 12th of October 1939, he joined the Institutul Central de Statistica (Central Institute of Statistics). In 1943, he was appointed Assistant Professor for the newly created Rural Sociology course at the University of Bucharest. After the communist takeover, he disappeared from the public and academic scene for more than a decade, to be rehabilitated (together with the discipline of sociology) in the mid-1960s. His memoirs, which gave a detailed and vivid description of the BSS’s activites, were published in 1981, creating the base for many future studies of the School. Stahl lived to see the 1989 revolution and died in 1991 aged 90.
. The socio-economic divisions within the peasantry varied greatly, some authors using them to rank the economic efficiency of the locals and some to reflect the different categories of land-ownership. In his article, for example, Roman Cressin used the first type of division, mentioning „codasi, mijlocasi, fruntasi and intreprinzatori” (literarly, peasants at the „back”, „middle” and „front” of the social pecking order and „entrepreneurial” peasants).
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