Return Migration and Social Change in Poland: ‘Closures’ to Migrants’ Non-Economic Transfers

  • Published in:
    Central and Eastern European Migration Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2016, pp. 167-188
    DOI: 10.17467/ceemr.2016.16
    Views: 35709

The aim of this article is to provide an empirical test of the model of non-economic transfers by migrants such as values, attitudes, behaviours, lifestyles, transnational social networks, know-how, skills and knowledge. The first part of the article discusses the current state of Polish society, identifies the direction of social change in Poland since 1989 and analyses the mutual dependency between social change and migration. The second section offers the analytical model and describes how existing empirical data from official statistics and research reports as well as the author’s own research projects have been analysed. The crucial element of the model is the notion of ‘closure’, defined as any factor that makes the migrants’ non-economic transfers difficult or impossible. Within each of the three categories of closure – socio-economic, cultural and psycho-social – more specific barriers to non-economic transfers are tested, e.g., lack of cohesive policy towards return migrants, social narratives on migration or ‘homecomer syndrome’. The analysis leads to the conclusion that, however difficult the measurement of the impact of return migration on social change at this stage, return migrants’ transfers are accelerating the process of social change in Poland towards the model of well-developed, post-modern Western societies, whereas closures impede this process. 

Keywords: post-accession migration; social change; social remittances; return migrant; actor of change


The aim of this paper is to introduce a model of migrants’ non-economic transfers impacting on social change, using Poland as an example of the post-communist country. An exploratory test of the model uses existing empirical data from publicly available statistical sources and research projects in migration studies; however, more in-depth analysis is still required. By providing a framework that includes barriers to non-economic transfers, this model contributes to research on the impact of non-economic transfers on the dynamics and direction of social change in Poland. It is relatively easy for researchers to trace the economic transfers of migrants and to measure their volume and direction through bank transfers, and household, educational and business investments. Migrants’ non-economic transfers – the social and cultural elements which they bring home – are extremely difficult to conceptualise, as are questions of how these resources are transferred, what barriers are in their way and what their impact is on social change in the home country. The answers to these questions are important for policy makers, politicians, social activists and researchers who want to understand the process of migration and its links with social change as well as the mechanism of ‘closures’ (barriers) in the way of their implementation. In the Polish context some of these questions have been raised in public debate around the post-accession migration after 2004, when, within just eleven years, around 2 million Polish citizens left the country for the UK, Germany, Ireland, Sweden and other Western European destinations. In the context of social change, migrants are often seen as both the medium and the instigators of ‘the new’ (Levitt 2001, Weinar 2002; Levitt and Lamba-Nieves 2011). Therefore, the society of the sending country has specific social expectations of members of its diaspora and return migrants. People quite often see returnees as possessing undefined qualities, knowledge and ideas. The in-depth analysis of the process of migrants’ non-economic transfers is also important for intra-EU policies and solutions, such as the idea of the ‘knowledge-based economy’ in Europe, which often occurs in EU legislative documents.

Contemporary Polish society and the direction of social change

Studies that see return migration as the main determinant explaining the direction and scope of social change in Poland after 2004 at macro-structural level make a critical mistake. If the wider socio-cultural context of the post-communist period in Polish history is omitted, such studies fail to include the endogenous determinants which principally explain the phenomenon of non-economic remittances. The present study understands migration as an integral part of wider revolutionary change in Poland after 1989. The impact of post-accession migration on the home country should not be treated in isolation. It has been impeded by wider social change and is the consequence of endogenous determinants, but it plays a significant role in the dynamics and direction of the change. This means that migration is an effect of social change in the form of accession to the EU, but owing to migrants’ non-economic transfers it also has an impact on the dynamics and direction of social change. Therefore the relationship between social change and migration is reciprocal. In a sense migration is both the effect and one of the determinants of social change (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Migration as the effect and one of the determinants of social change

The process of social change is multifaceted and cannot be instigated by an individual alone or by a group of individuals. However, the place of the individual actor in the process may be incredibly important, accelerating or impeding the whole process. An interesting example of the role of individuals as actors of social change comes from a study of the return migration of the second generation of Poles from the UK in the late 1990s. These respondents were undoubtedly actively involved in Polish matters and willing to take part in Polish economic transformation. Their unique competences in terms of language skills and knowledge of cultural patterns made them perfect candidates to be sent by British companies such as advertising agencies to set up new branches. For most return migrants, being effective actors of change was an act of patriotism but also represented a career opportunity (Górny and Osipovič 2006: 63).

The post-communist trajectory of the country involved changes in the economic, cultural and social aspects of people’s daily lives. Scholars usually describe this process as a shift from one type of state to the other type of state, illustrated by binary oppositions (see Table 1). The present study focuses on two (modernisation and post-modernisation) of four possible theories illustrated by the comparative statistical data.

Table 1. Conceptualisations of the process of social/cultural/economic change in Poland since 1989

Modernisation theory – however controversial – emphasises the shift from a pre-modern to a modern society. This direction is seen as positive mainly in economic terms. Poland, for many decades cut off from market-oriented Western countries, is seen as technically and socially undeveloped. Therefore the social changes of the last 26 years are measured by the decreasing distance from Western European countries. The distance is still significant; however indicators such as gross national income (GNI) or the number of internet users show rising values. This gap and the potential direction of the process of social change are illustrated in Table 2, which compares Poland, Norway and the United Kingdom using Human Development Index (HDI) indicators. According to modernisation theory, the potential direction of social change is towards well-developed countries, such as Norway and the UK – the destinations for thousands of Polish post-accession migrants.

The table indicates the main fields in which Poland (ranked 35th in HDI in 2014) might be seen as distanced from Norway (1st) and the UK (14th): economic growth, R&D and technology, education and employment. The value of GNI per capita in Poland is three times lower than in Norway. Poland is at the very bottom of the rankings of European countries by R&D support for innovation in technology and business solutions (only 0.7 per cent of GDP in comparison to 1.7 per cent in Norway and 1.8 per cent in the UK). Due to its significant outflow of migrants Poland experiences a significant inflow of migrants’ economic transfers (1.48 per cent of GDP). Poland has a high rate of youth unemployment – more than three times higher than in Norway (26.5 per cent compared with 8.6 per cent in Norway and 21 per cent in the UK). However, crucial to our analysis is the fact that the average annual HDI growth for Poland is almost twice as high as for Norway or the UK (0.48 per cent in the period of 2000–2013 compared with 0.28 per cent for Norway and 0.25 per cent for the UK), meaning that Poland’s progress towards the model of the modern state is faster than in Scandinavian countries and Western Europe. We might interpret this trend as an attempt to make up for the lost decades of its communist past.

Table 2. The economic and social gap between Poland and Norway and the UK

Source: 2014 Human Development Statistical Tables. Online: (accessed: 10 January 2015).

Contrary to the understanding of the last 26 years in Poland as a process of modernisation, post-modernisation theory does not focus on economic and technological aspects of ‘progress’. It sees the shift from modern to post-modern society and its culture mainly in terms of values and identity. In Table 3 we present some indicators of modern (Poland) versus post-modern societies (Norway, the UK). The differences between these two models of society are based on two oppositions: materialist/post-materialist values (Inglehart 2007) and civic/ethnic nationalism (Hutchinson and Smith 1996).

For Polish people traditional values like religion are still significantly more important than for the citizens of Norway or the UK (47.8 per cent compared with 10.5 per cent in Norway and 21 per cent in the UK). Polish people agree that family and work are very important in their lives. They are much less oriented towards participation in social and political life. The share of Poles who value friends is 34.8 per cent (18.8 per cent in Norway, 45.9 per cent in the UK) and politics just 5.3 per cent (9.9 per cent in Norway, 9.2 per cent in the UK). Polish people’s collective identity is centered on the idea of nation understood in essentialist terms. Polish nationalism (in general) should be seen as ethnic nationalism in contrast to Norwegian or British civic nationalism. 37.5 per cent of Poles agree with the statement that to be granted Polish citizenship one has to have Polish ancestors (only 6.7 per cent in Norway); and 40.4 per cent that one has to be born on the country’s soil (only 7.9 per cent in Norway). Norwegian and British people see themselves as autonomous individuals (73.4 per cent in Norway, only 36.1 per cent in Poland) and citizens of a relatively open nation-state, in which anyone who agrees with the basic rules of democracy is welcome, no matter who their ancestors were, where they were born, what language they speak, or what their religion or skin colour.

Table 3. Two different understandings of ‘what is important’ and ‘who we are’: Poland versus Norway and the UK

Nd – no data.

Source: Analysis of data from the World Values Survey database, Wave 5 2005–2008 OFFICIAL AGGREGATE v.20140429. World Values Survey Association ( Aggregate File Producer: Asep/JDS, Madrid SPAIN (accessed 10 January 2015).

To see the change towards post-materialist values in Poland one has to analyse the whole process of value transformation since the 1990s. Essential data illustrating this transformation can be found in Social Diagnosis 2011 (Czapiński and Panek 2011: 220). Since the 1990s there has been a gradual decline in the importance of traditional values, such as children, marriage and God. At the same time Polish people have become more oriented towards post-materialist values, such as health, friends, optimism, freedom and a strong personality. The shift is significant, leading to a more autonomous and individually oriented society in which the rights of all people are respected, with the right of self-fulfillment being one of the most important. Comparison of the data relating to such values as money (37.2 per cent in 1992 and 28.2 per cent in 2011) might suggest that Polish citizens are becoming better off and therefore less materialistic. Data related to work (26.6 per cent in 1992 compared with 30.7 per cent in 2011) show that Poland remains halfway between a modern and a post-modern society. The process of post-modernisation in Poland since the late 1990s is relatively easy to understand. However, according to many thinkers such as Zygmunt Bauman (1998), the very value of work to individuals changes in a post-modern society. Work no longer offers security and an anchor in the social structure; neither is it the source of identity.

Literature review, key concepts and the model of non-economic transfers

Sociology as an academic discipline was born to describe and understand various dynamic changes in social life caused by industrialisation and urbanisation. Classical theories of social change owe a great deal to philosophical exploration of the history of humankind and its ‘rules’. At least three conceptualisations of social change rooted in the nineteenth century can be identified: (1) evolutionism; (2) the theory of social cycles; and (3) Marxist historical materialism. The common ground for all these theories is the belief that the process of change can be described in the form of a single scheme.

In evolutionism the main scheme of social change is based on the idea of ‘progress’, a one-directional, endogenous process leading to a better society. This approach is present in modernisation theory. Modernisation is understood as an intentional, goal-oriented process, with members of the modernising society emulating the patterns of the ‘modern’ society and trying to eliminate the gap between their country and ‘modern’ ones in such fields as the economy, standards of living, values, behaviours and attitudes. The theory of social cycles is as old as philosophy. In the field of sociology it can be found in Vilfredo Pareto’s conceptualisation ([1916] 1994), in which the process of social change is not one-directional but periodical. After the period of equilibrium there is a period of disequilibrium after which the society returns to a state of equilibrium. The Marxist conceptualisation of social change refers to the idea of revolution instigated by social actors changing dominant social relations. Their actions, however, are determined by their positions in the social structure.

Twentieth-century thinkers such as Charles Tilly (1988), Norbert Elias (1980), Anthony Giddens (1984) and Margaret Archer (1996) criticised classical theories of social change. In their works the emphasis shifted from seeking a scheme or ‘form’ of the history of humankind to seeking the mechanisms which initiate social change. Instead of deterministic visions of the process, they emphasise the role of free choice and the decisions of individual and collective actors, their emotions and whims. Recent theories of social change are focused on understanding the process of change as multi-directional and open. Adherents of the new approach to social change describe society as in statu nascendi. Society is understood as the process by which individuals and groups generate and reproduce the context of their own existence. Social structure is the starting point of their actions – on the one hand it can be treated as a closure as we call it in our study (barrier), on the other hand, as stimuli for actions aimed at changing the structure. This approach is present in both historical sociology and the theory of agency. In the case of historical sociology (Norbert Elias, Charles Tilly) social change is the effect of many simultaneous and intersecting processes which may be concurrent or divergent, but the main initiator of each process is the individual or collective actor. The actor operates within the given social environment which both stimulates and simultaneously closes the opportunities for his/her actions. The same rule of the actor in the process of social change is present in the theory of agency (Anthony Giddens, Margaret Archer). The ultimate engine of change is the agency of individuals and the community. Social change occurs on the one hand thanks to the creativity of the actor, and on the other hand is determined by the social structure.

The present study understands social change as the difference between the condition of the social system at one moment in time and its condition at another moment in time (Sztompka 2007). The difference can be related to the composition of society, its social and cultural structures, its borders, the environment or the function of institutions in the society. Our model makes use of both classical and more recent theories of social change. We argue that such fusion is possible and fruitful as it allows macro and micro levels of analysis to be linked to explain the role of the individual in the whole process of change.

In our study of the process of social change in Poland since 1989, we have used essential data to provide the broad context within which migration ought to be analysed. Both modernisation and post-modernisation theories can be useful in the study of non-economic transfers by migrants. The former is focused on economic issues and the latter on the social and cultural aspects of change. Our conceptualisation of social change regards the return migrant as an actor who might be either the initiator of one of the processes of social change or its propagator. ‘Actor’ is understood as the individual (migrant) or a group of individuals (migrants) who are able to make decisions and choices, understand the meaning of events, communicate with other actors and influence the activities of other individuals. The return migrant as the actor of social change is the stimulus in the process of both modernisation and post-modernisation at various levels: values, ideas, know-how, behaviours, new elements of free-market and social relations, transnational flows of information and various forms of non-economic capital. Following Agnieszka Weinar (2002), we make a clear distinction between effective actor and potential actor of change. The effective actor has a measurable impact on social change (e.g., through social innovation) at macro level. He/she has access to key institutions of social life, such as government, media and financial institutions. In the effective actor’s case there is a strong probability that change will be successfully implemented and widely disseminated. The potential actor is understood as possessing migratory non-economic resources which could be activated by society, but he/she lacks institutional support. In the potential actor’s case there is a rather low probability that the modernisation or post-modernisation processes of economic, social and cultural change will be widely and successfully disseminated in Poland.

Researchers to date have used various concepts to discuss and empirically measure non-economic migratory remittances as a specific ‘added value’ of migration. All of them have their advantages and constraints in empirical practice. The most popular concept refers to the idea of social networks. The concept of social networks as popularised by Mark Granovetter (1973, 2005) is understood as the net of relations between individuals. The volume of publications on social networks is huge and exceeds the size of the article. Among many who have contributed to our better understanding of this phenomena are such authors as Douglas Massey (1990a, 1990b), Alejandro Portes (1995) and Adela Pellegrino (2004). In recent years the issue of social networks in relation to Polish migrants and their families migrating to the UK have been studied by Louise Ryan (Ryan, Sales, Tilki, and Siara 2007) and Anne White (White and Ryan 2008). In the case of migrants their social network is often based on transnational relations. Thanks to these (mainly weak) ties, the migrant can access various resources, so the network becomes the key to resources and might be understood as a resource in itself. On the one hand, the advantage of this kind of conceptualisation is that it can be easily operationalised and allows the strength of migrants’ network relations to be measured using such indicators as amount of time spent together, emotional intensity and reciprocal services. On the other hand, this conceptualisation is too narrow and does not allow for the circulation of resources and their impact on social change to be explored.

Another conceptualisation of non-economic remittances is social capital, a very popular concept that has been exploited by many social researchers, thinkers and policy makers. Among the many we mention proponent of the concept Pierre Bourdieu (1986), Robert Putnam (2000) and Francis Fukuyama (1997). Bourdieu understands the concept as the aggregate of the actual or potential resources that are linked to possession of durable networks of more or less institutionalised relationships. Putnam understands social capital as funded by trust, horizontal networks and the norm of reciprocity. All the authors underline the fact that social capital is the determinant of economic growth. Along with social capital many researchers who are close to Bourdieu’s cultural sociology apply his concept of cultural capital. According to this concept individual capital is observable in four forms: the embodied state; the objective state; the institutionalised state; and values/norms/behaviours (Bourdieu 1986). Both concepts can be useful in migration studies but are always connected with studies of power relations, which does not shed particular light on the question of migrants’ non-economic transfers.

A more useful concept is the idea of human capital, discussed mainly by economists. James Coleman (1988) understands it as the capital created by changes in persons that bring about skills and capabilities enabling them to act in new ways. This conceptualisation is appropriate to migrants’ situation but it is too focused on the innovative use of abilities and professional skills and does not include issues of lifestyles and values.

There has been increasing interest in the concept of social remittances popularised by Peggy Levitt (Levitt 2001, Levitt and Lamba-Nieves 2011). This concept focuses on the circulation of non-economic capital in transnational fields of migrants. This time the conceptualisation seems to be very wide as it includes the ideas, behaviours, identities and social capital that migrants export to their home communities. It includes a mixture of social (social capital) and cultural (norms) elements of various complexities and is not sufficiently precise.

Finally, we come to the conclusion that the notion of social remittances is not only broad but might be misleading as a proxy concept as it emphasises social rather than cultural aspects of non-economic transfers. On the other hand, we find social networks and social/cultural/human capital concepts too narrow, missing important aspects of non-economic remittances. We therefore use the notion of non-economic transfers and remittances to describe the process by which the values, norms, patterns of behaviour, attitudes and lifestyle internalised by migrants abroad, and the transnational social network they become part of with its know-how, knowledge and skills, are introduced into the home country.

Another important notion in our model is the return migrant. Alfred Schütz’s figure of the Homecomer (1943) is one of the best metaphors for the return migrant. According to Schütz, the Homecomer is the person who comes back to his/her native socio-cultural environment after significant time spent in a different environment. The Homecomer expects that they are coming back ‘home’, therefore the system of signification, customs, relations and settings are taken for granted. Unfortunately, they find their ‘home’ changed. The lost communion with the realities of place ends up with the feeling of being a Stranger (Schütz 1944) in their own country or even feeling ‘out of place’. Many adherents of transnational theory would strongly disagree with this phenomenological approach to return migration on the grounds that we live nowadays in a globalising world providing us with technological tools for ‘being here’ even if physically we are hundreds miles away from ‘here’. Internet communication, cheap flights and multiple inter-cultural contacts are supposed to make us construct a transnational social space such that being physically in the UK does not mean we lose contact with ‘being mentally’ in Poland (Levitt 2001). We argue that the theory of transnationalism has serious limitations. First of all, the ability to build up transnational social networks depends on migrants’ level of openness towards members of the host society and their willingness to integrate. The migrant population is extremely heterogeneous in terms of socio-economic status, educational level, cultural competences, occupation, age, migratory decisions and strategies. Therefore, some migrants may merge easily into the host society, while others may live in ethnic ghettos with very little or no contact with representatives of the host society. They might be beneficiaries of various forms of non-economic resources abroad (e.g., a new work ethos) but their main point of reference and the source of their identification is the home country which is being reconstructed in the geographical space of the host country. Second, transnationalism does not greatly consider the issue of belonging as a concept related to individual identity. The concept of belonging is crucial to understanding the phenomenon of ‘cultural shock’ which is part of return migrants’ narratives. We argue that the metaphorical figure of Schütz’s Homecomer is still a suitable concept to describe the situation of the return migrant back home. For the migrant who is able to develop a wide transnational social network and merges into the host society, homecoming might be much more of a challenge than for the migrant who retains a strong attachment to home-country realities. However, we argue that the migrant in both cases loses their sense of ‘community of time and place’, being physically away from home, even if through technology and ‘mentally’ they are close to their compatriots.

In Polish research literature on homecoming in the context of post-accession migration, there are at least three studies deserving critical evaluation. All of them provide various scenarios of return migration and its impact and all of them end up with the typology of return migrants. In the study by Górny and Kolankiewicz (2002) return migrants are individuals who during their stay abroad can potentially acquire two kinds of capital, cultural and economic (Bourdieu 1986). Coming back to their country of origin they might transfer one, both or neither of these forms of capital. The analysis leads to the conclusion that we can single out four types of return depending on the kind of capital migrants do or do not transfer to their country. Innovative entrepreneurship is the kind of return linked with transfers of both cultural and economic capital; conservative pensioner is the return connected only to economic capital allowing for a comfortable life back home. Innovative return is connected with the transfer of cultural capital and a loser is the return of a migrant who does not transfer either form of capital. The study explores the issue of return migration and its effect from the individual, micro perspective.

A study by Bieńkowska, Ulasiński and Szymańska (2010) is based on empirical research with return migrants to the Małopolska region. The authors focus on two criteria: (1) the professional career benefits that come from migratory resources; and (2) the accumulation of economic capital (Bourdieu 1986) and its investment. On the basis of these criteria the researchers construct a typology of return migrants and try to statistically depict the profile of returnees to Małopolska region. Tourists (33 per cent of returnees to Małopolska) are the ones who neither benefit from migratory resources, nor accumulate economic capital abroad. Specialists (9 per cent) are returnees who have benefited in their career thanks to migratory resources but do not accumulate economic capital. Investors (34 per cent) are those who accumulate economic capital and invest it in Poland (properties, business, education, consumption). Actors of change (24 per cent) are returnees who both benefit in career terms and accumulate economic capital for investment in Poland. In this study the notion of ‘actor of change’ is understood from an individual perspective. The ‘change’ itself relates to the individual’s life trajectory and is not understood as socio-cultural change at regional or national level.

The third and most original study of returnees is the empirical monograph of Izabela Grabowska-Lusińska (2012). The main research question of the study relates to the significance of migration in the career trajectory of return migrants. Grabowska-Lusińska constructs a typology of migrants using a matrix. The criterion for putting the migrant in one of four categories is their position within the matrix. The vertical axis of the matrix is the stability versus fluidity of the career axis; the horizontal axis is the self-agency versus lack of agency axis. In this typology Grabowska-Lusińska does not directly explore the issue of return migrants in the context of transfers but explores the impact of migration on the stability and self-agency of the actor. What makes this work interesting is its both inter-subjective and ‘objective’ approach to data drawn from in-depth interviews as well as from statistical sources.

None of the studies discussed above answers the question of the extent to which the return Polish migrant can be seen as an ‘engine’ of social and cultural change in Poland. What we do learn, however, is that individually acquired capital might be an important resource for career development and economic stability for the individual. The return migrant presented in these studies is mainly a potential actor of change. There is little knowledge about the effects of return migration on the local community in terms of new ideas, know-how, lifestyle and social networks. This is the effect of the prevailing application of Bourdieu’s conceptualisation of various forms of capital. To apply the notion of non-economic remittances to ‘homecoming studies’ would seem to be more promising.

The concept of closure used in the present study was originally introduced by Frank Parkin (1979) in his analysis of social mobility. It was understood as the strategy and activity of individuals and professional groups whose aim is to close access to valuable resources and social positions to individuals not seen as ‘one of us’. In our study we understand closure as any factor that makes migrants’ non-economic transfers and their implementation at regional and national level in the form of non-economic remittances difficult or impossible. Closure might slow down the whole process of social change. It means that the migrant’s non-economic resources go unrecognised and are ‘wasted’ in the home country. Closure does not allow the potential actor of change to be activated. We identify three main types of closure in our model: socio-economic, cultural and psycho-social. Socio-economic closures are factors which come from the social and economic system at any given time, such as unemployment or low social capital in the country. Cultural closures are factors that are present in the cultural structure of the sending society, such as common norms, values and behaviours. Psycho-social closures relate to personality, attitudes and mental structure. These key elements of our theoretical model of return migrants’ non-economic transfers to the home country are illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Model of migrants’ non-economic transfers to home country (society undergoing social change)

Methodology and data analysis: closures to migrants’ transfers

In our study we pose the following questions:

What are the closures to migrants’ non-economic transfers in the context of contemporary Polish society undergoing the process of social change?

The more specific question allowing more precise exploration of the general question is:

What elements (variables) should be taken into consideration to empirically measure resistance to non-economic transfers and its impact on the dynamics and direction of social change in Poland?

Our model includes obligatory conditions for successful non-economic transfers by migrants to Poland. First, the migrant has to acquire ideas, identity, know-how, behaviours or elements of lifestyle abroad so that they can be introduced in Poland. Second, the migratory resources have to be seen as innovative from the perspective of the native cultural or social structure and the migrant themselves (they may or may not be convergent with the direction of social change). Third, the return migrant has to become an effective actor of social change. Last but not least, the level of dissemination (local community, nationwide) depends on the ‘permeability’ of closures.

To answer the first question we will identify socio-economic, cultural and psycho-social closures. To answer the second question we will try to estimate the impact of potential migrants’ transfers on the dynamics of social change. Our analysis is based on existing data. In the analysis of socio-economic closure we refer to data from the European Social Survey (2008), the Central Statistical Office (CSO) and data from research by Henryk Domański (2008), Anna Fiń, Agnieszka Legut, Witold Nowak, Michał Nowosielski and Kamila Schöll-Mazurek (2013) and Mariusz Dzięglewski (2015). In the analysis of cultural closures we refer to data from the World Values Survey (Wave 5: 2005–2008 and Wave 6: 2010–2014), the International Social Survey Programme National Identity (ISSP 2003), and studies by Joanna Rostek (2011), Mariusz Dzięglewski (2013, 2016) and the research project conducted by the author in 2015. The research was conducted between 31 June and 30 September 2015, in the Social Research Laboratory at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Pedagogical University of Cracow. An on-line survey (CAWI) was conducted on the quota sample of 582 internet users. The quotas (including age, education level and place of residence) were applied on the basis of the results of the nationwide representative survey – NET TRACK 2015. The very low response rate, self-selection bias and typical limitations of such surveys are the main causes of the poor reliability of these kinds of data. However, data collected by national research institutions or other research institutes based on random sampling mainly concern respondents’ declared willingness to leave the home country. So far, there have not been any public opinion surveys on the effects of migration that would support the outcomes of the author’s research and show similar patterns. In the analysis of psycho-social closures we make use of data from works on ‘cultural shock’ in the context of return migration by Halina Grzymała-Moszczyńska, Anna Kwiatkowska and Joanna Roszak (2010), Sławomir Trusz and Magdalena Kwiecień (2012) and the author’s research projects (2011, 2015). The data analysis will refer to both raw data and findings from research projects published in the form of monographs or reports.

There are three stages to the analysis. The first stage proposes the hypothetical closures to migrants’ transfers. The second stage demonstrates the extent to which they are present in the context of return migration to Poland on the basis of existing data. The final stage estimates the impact of potential transfers on social change in Poland.

Socio-economic closures

What we call socio-economic closures are the barriers to transfer and dissemination of non-economic remittances created by the entire social and economic system in Poland. Socio-economic closures result in serious constraints on return migrants’ transfers. Exploration of recent literature in migration studies suggests the following factors which we are seeking to verify:

  1. Economic factors (rate of unemployment, especially among young graduates).
  2. Very low level of social capital in Poland.1
  3. Ambiguity of access to labour market for returnees.
  4. Lack of cohesive policy to make use of migrants’ non-economic resources at government/macro level.

The economic factors are among the key issues explaining the very low level of return migration to Poland in recent years. The labour market situation for young graduates can be a huge barrier to potential returnees and is linked to the devaluation of tertiary-level qualifications in Poland. The education boom of the late 1990s saw an extraordinary increase in the number of graduates (over 150 per cent within 15 years) and the number of tertiary-level degree holders rose from 9.9 per cent in 2002 to 17 per cent in 2011.2 For this huge cohort of graduates, their inadequate educational profile led to an increase in the number of unemployed graduates (2 per cent of all unemployed in 1999 and 15.5 per cent in 2013).3

Another socio-economic closure in potential non-economic transfers is the extremely low level of social capital in Poland. According to the European Social Survey 2008 (data from Czapiński and Panek 2011: 285) Poland ranks among the lowest of European countries whose population aged 16+ trust other people (13 per cent). This share is almost twice as low as the average in Europe (23.4 per cent) and more than four times lower than the level of trust in such countries as Denmark, Ireland and Sweden. Social capital plays a vital role in the re-adaptation of returnees, so its low level might lead to reserved and distant attitudes towards new ideas, know-how, behaviours and any social innovation of which migrants might be the propagators. Low levels of social capital do not allow social innovation, even if it is in line with the direction of social change, to be widely disseminated among society.

Another socio-economic closure is ambiguity of access to the labour market. The patterns of social mobility analysed by Henryk Domański (2008) are centered around the system of ‘inherited positions’. The level of meritocracy based on the indicators of homogeneous marriage and social relation patterns is low. Returnees have to find a place within the network system of family and friends to which they might no longer belong. However, there have been some institutional projects and initiatives on the part of the Polish government to ‘make use’ of return migrants’ unique resources (see, for example, So far these have not been evaluated and we could not observe any cohesive policy towards returnees at the national level.

The same might be said of the policy towards the Polish diaspora, evaluated in the report by Anna Fiń et al. (2013) as ineffective. Only 8.1 per cent of respondents (Polish migrants) in this research project considered Polish policy towards migrants positive; 44.9 per cent regarded it as negative. The socio-economic closure in this case is the structural lack of any institutionalised facilities for migrants and return migrants.

In the absence of socio-economic closures, successful non-economic transfers by migrants would have an enormous impact on the dynamics of social change – accelerating the process of transformation to a model of modern and post-modern society. Overcoming the problem of unemployment and the wage gap between Poland and Western countries would lead to a significant rise in the number of return migrants, as (apart from lifestyle migration) economic migration remains the main reason for migration. More returnees means more opportunities for non-economic transfers. The issue of social capital is extremely complex, but a shift towards a society of trust would allow the new know-how, behaviours, skills and lifestyles that returnees bring from abroad to be more easily absorbed and disseminated. In the hands of policy makers, the issues of the access to labour market for returnees and cohesive policy to make use of migrants’ non-economic resources could become institutionalised ‘tunnels’ facilitating non-economic transfers. Two potential tunnels could be (1) a government programme ‘easing’ access to the labour market for individuals who have qualified abroad, and (2) for migrants who want to return and who possess non-economic resources, a bundle of solutions for ‘making use’ of these resources in Poland and facilitating their re-integration into their home country. At local community level, solutions such as Home Town Associations have been implemented in many emigration countries, enabling effective co-operation between migrants and local authorities in the home country. The list of such solutions is long: organising local community information platforms/centres for returnees; monitoring of migration and returns; quick and effective procedures for recognising qualifications; training schemes for return migrants; and support/working groups for returnees.

At this stage it is difficult to precisely estimate the impact of the resistance to non-economic transfers on the dynamics of social change in Poland. Further research is needed to verify the thesis on the potential acceleration of the process in the absence of socio-economic closures as one element of the complex prognostic model.

Cultural closures

Cultural closures means the barriers to non-economic remittances created by the Polish cultural structure. Cultural structure is understood as the independent variable which leads us to understand the behavior and motivations of social actors. The cultural closures identified in our study, which play a vital role in resistance to migrants’ remittances, are:

  1. Social narratives on migration.
  2. Cultural values and patterns of behaviour.
  3. Mechanisms of cultural diffusion.

We understand social narrative as the process of collective imagination within which actors find themselves inside the story, myth and play roles assigned to them (Alexander 2010). The social narrative is the main source of moral judgment and provides the actor with the direction for any action. What people know about migration is partly the interplay between their own experiences, interactions with other people (migrants or non-migrants) and the stories which come from the media (press, soap operas, literature) and political debate. All these sources come together to construct social consciousness and expectations concerning migrants and returnees. An analysis of media narratives in the Polish press (Dzięglewski 2013) and soap operas (Dzięglewski 2015) in the last ten years reveals that migration presented from a macro-structural perspective is seen as a negative, dangerous process mostly generating troubles (migratory delinquency, weakening of family ties, break-ups, Euro-orphans, brain drain, depopulation) with few benefits. Narratives depicting individual migrants’ trajectories are more ambivalent. On one hand, migration is linked to the many benefits of economic and cultural capital, on the other hand, it comes at a psychological cost. The main costs are family separation, stress, depression, homesickness, alienation and social deprivation. Among the benefits are economic stability, life experience, a dominant U-shaped career progression, accumulation of cultural capital, personal development and new lifestyle. The most challenging narrative comes from the soap opera Londyńczycy which depicts the transnational model of the family and an American Dream-type migrant’s career (Rostek 2011). The series represents migration as an optimistic self-realisation project, showing young migrants as the main beneficiaries of migration in terms of cultural capital acquisition and the development of self-agency.4 The media narratives are reflected in public opinion on the costs and benefits of migration for the individual, region and sending country (Table 4).

Among respondents there is a predominantly negative perception of the consequences of migration for the region and for society as a whole. Public opinion sees migration as endangering development both nationally and regionally. The most negative perception of migration can be observed in older respondents (aged over 65). Among the benefits of migration respondents only point out the increase in Polish people’s mobility. Their opinions echo press narratives between 2004 and 2012 (Figure 3).

Table 4. Respondents’ opinion on the consequences of emigration for the migrant, respondent’s region and the whole country

Source: Author’s survey (CAWI), 2015, N = 582.

Figure 3. Consequences of emigration for the whole country in respondents’ opinion

Source: Author’s survey (CAWI), 2015, N = 582.

Respondents mention Euro-orphans, brain drain, family separations, ageing society and gaps in the labour market as the main consequences of migration from Poland. Significantly fewer respondents saw migration as a potential source of benefits to the country, such as changing behaviours, new working cultures, transformation of Polish customs, brain gain or increased effectiveness at work. To sum up, social narratives on migration pre-dispose members of Polish society to have a negative attitude towards migration as endangering the country and unrealistic expectations of returnees (Londyńczycy). These attitudes and expectations form an impenetrable cultural closure for non-economic remittances.

Another cultural closure identified in our study refers to cultural values and behaviours measured by the declared importance of values, goals for the country/individual and the level of openness to ‘others’. A comparative analysis of publicly available data from representative international surveys (International Social Survey Programme and World Values Survey) reveals significant differences between Poland as one of the post-communist countries and Western European countries (Germany, France, the UK). First, Polish people significantly more often mention traditional (religion, see Table 5) and material values (like a stable economy) as important to them and for their country (Table 6).

Table 5. Indicators of religiosity

a N = 11 112; b N = 10 473.

Source: Calculations for variables V8 and V9 based on the databases of World Values Survey Wave 5 (2005–2008) and Wave 6 (2010–2014).

The value of God as very important in respondents’ lives was declared much more often by Poles than any other nationality surveyed (average value for Poland is 7.46 in comparison to 4.33 for Germany and 5.22 for Hungary). The declaration is in line with religious practices. 50.3 per cent of Polish people take part in religious services once a week or more often – six times more often than Germans and eight times more often than the French.

The difference in value systems is visible at the axis of materialist/post-materialist values (Inglehart 2007; see Table 6). Economic growth (a materialist value) is much more important for Poles (56.4 per cent) than for Germans (49.2 per cent) or Britons (37.7 per cent). The aesthetic appearance of towns and villages (post-materialist value) is important only for 3.1 per cent of Poles in contrast to 12.7 per cent of French and 7.6 per cent of British people. Materialist values can be traced in patterns of conspicuous consumption (Veblen 1986). Return migrants’ economic transfers are spent by family members investing in home improvements and luxury goods which are aimed at drawing attention to the individual’s economic status (Garapich and Osipovič 2007).

Attitudes towards the ‘others’ in Poland are less open than in Western European countries, which we can observe by analysing attitudes towards the national community (Table 7).

Table 6. Aspirations for the country for the next 10 years (N = 10 832)

Source: Calculations for variable V70/V61 based on the World Values Survey database, Wave 5 (2005–2008) and Wave 6 (2010–2014).

Table 7. Criteria for being ‘native’ (Polish, German, etc.)

a N = 6 509; b N = 6 322; c N = 6 466; d N = 5 397.

Nd – no data.

Source: Calculations for variables 3a, 3e, 3g, 3h based on International Social Survey Programme: National Identity II – ISSP 2003 database. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA3910 Data file Version 2.1.0.

84.7 per cent of Poles argue that to be Polish one has to have ancestors in Poland (only 48.4 in Germany and 49.2 per cent in France). 71.2 per cent Polish people agree that to be Polish one has to be born in the country (57.4 per cent in Germany, 61.1 per cent in France). The data reveal an attitude of distance from those who were not born in or do not have any ancestors in Poland.

The data analysed reveal relatively little openness to people of different cultures or religions. It is an indication of how little openness exists to social or cultural innovation that could potentially be brought back home by return migrants. We might suppose that such innovation is seen in Poland as endangering legitimised, traditional cultural practices and routines – and this translates into cultural closure.

These comparative analyses of the data suggest that return migrants coming back from well-developed, post-materialist societies are likely to internalise values and attitudes which do not suit the Polish cultural structure, therefore the transfers are likely to be resisted.

The final cultural closure identified is the mechanism of cultural diffusion itself. The dissemination of return migrants’ new ideas, social innovations, cultural behaviours or know-how depends on the general rules applying to any diffusion. The classical rules of cultural diffusion introduced by Ralph Linton (1936) might be applied to a return migrant as a medium for non-economic transfer. Although this issue has not been studied in detail in relation to post-accession migration from Poland, some of these rules can easily be observed. Linton argues that practices or technologies are more likely to be introduced than any changes in the value system. Patterns that are in line with the cultural structure will be more likely to be absorbed. In other words, it is more likely (according to Linton’s rules) that the migrant would implement new applications on his office computer than change his attitudes to religion. Similarly, it is more likely that the migrant would make use of his language skills developed abroad (as that kind of competence is highly valued on the labour market in Poland) than that he would address new clients visiting his company in an informal, familiar way, which would be regarded as vulgar through the lens of the Polish cultural structure. Therefore, we argue that the very mechanism of diffusion is another cultural closure.

Cultural closures are probably the most challenging dimensions for successful non-economic transfers. Changes in patterns of behaviour or value systems do not occur quickly. These are deep changes in the cultural structure of the society. Resistance to migrants’ transfers is weakened by endogenous processes of social change in Poland (discussed in the first part of the article). In this case we can pose the hypothesis that while returnees coming back from well-developed, post-modern societies are to some extent the accelerators of social change, the cultural structure itself impedes their potential impact. The impact needs to be measured more precisely by prospective researchers.

Psycho-social closures

What we mean by psycho-social closure is a psychological barrier experienced by return migrants which leads to blockage of the non-economic transfers. The evidence for these kinds of closure is still anecdotal and comes mainly from psychology and education studies. Therefore at this stage we might pose limited hypotheses on the basis of fragmentary research and observations. The most probable psycho-social closures might be defined as:

  1. ‘Homecomer syndrome’ in the process of re-adaptation (Schütz 1943).
  2. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ division (Dzięglewski 2011).

In some studies of the situation of return migrants (especially teenagers), authors use the term ‘cultural shock’ to describe the emotional and psychological reaction of returnees (Grzymała-Moszczyńska, Kwiatkowska, and Roszak 2010; Trusz and Kwiecień 2012). We are more confident in using the concept ‘Homecomer syndrome’ as a more appropriate description of the wide range of emotional and cognitive reactions experienced by returnees once they are ‘home’. The high level of emotional tension created by a return after a few years’ stay abroad is quite often connected to the attachment of the migrant to patterns, social and cultural structures from the past (before leaving the country of origin). This attachment is the basis for misleading expectations of what it means to be ‘back home’. The homecoming is never a return to the patterns and structures of the past, as they have changed over time (panta rhei). The returnee is never the same person who left the country, home is never the place they left. What is emotionally and psychologically difficult for the returnee is the lost sense of ‘community of time and place’. This leads to psychological and emotional difficulties in the process of re-adaptation: a feeling of alienation, being misunderstood and ‘out of place’.

The second psycho-social closure is the mental division between ‘us’ (return migrants) and ‘them’ (non-migrants). This division is based on the differences in identities, values and attitudes revealed by migrants in the course of their in-depth narratives (Dzięglewski 2011). Some differences are also noticed and described by members of the native society and translate into a social distance towards returnees (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Respondents’ attitudes towards return migrants        

Note: The data refer to mean values on the scale (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2) where the opposite extremes of the scale are the opposite adjectives describing the return migrant, e.g. resourceful (+2); helpless (-2).                                                           

Source: Author’s survey (CAWI), 2015, N = 582.

The data reveal that the return migrant tends to be seen by members of his/her society (migrants and non-migrants) as distant (mean: -0.3), not a stranger but not entirely ‘one of us’ (0.2). The social distance between the native society and the migrant is measured by the high level of expectations about returnees who are seen as very resourceful (0.8), active (0.9) and exceptional (0.2).

The first psycho-social closure (Homecomer syndrome) is constructed by return migrants themselves and is due to many factors such as individual personality, the length of stay abroad, the strength of ties with compatriots, etc. For one individual re-adaptation might be a really difficult process, and for others much easier, but this closure should be another element in the prognostic model analysing the impact of migrants’ non-economic transfers. The second psycho-social closure (‘us’ and ‘them’) is constructed by the native society. We might suppose that any social or cultural innovation (behaviour, attitudes, ideas) that return migrants wanted to transfer to the country of origin would meet with scrupulous and critical investigation and potential resistance from members of the native society, who see returnees as potentially resourceful and active but do not seek interaction with them. This closure is well documented in the data and should form part of future research analysis.


In our article we have described Polish society as undergoing dynamic social change (in statu nascendi), the important aspect of which is the political, economic and socio-cultural transformation that began in 1989. This change is portrayed as the process of transformation from a pre-modern society to a model of the well-developed, post-modern Western societies migrants are returning from. Post-accession migration from Poland is seen as an integral part of this change. On the one hand, migration is the effect of social change, on the other hand, it has an important impact on the direction and dynamics of the change. The return migrant as an individual and return migrants as collective agents are seen as the potential actors of change through their non-economic transfers. These transfers are understood as the introduction and dissemination in the home country of migrants’ non-economic remittances, such as the values, norms, behaviours and attitudes, and lifestyle internalised by migrants abroad as well as the transnational social network they became part of with its associated know-how, knowledge and skills. Obligatory conditions for successful transfers to Poland are the acquisition of ideas, know-how, behaviours or elements of lifestyle abroad, returnee(s) being in the position of effective actor(s) of social change (having access to key institutions), and the relative ‘permeability’ of closures.

We use the concept of closure as any factor that makes migrants’ non-economic transfers and their introduction at regional and national level in the form of non-economic remittances difficult or impossible. In our study we identified three kinds of closures: socio-economic, cultural and psycho-social. Socio-economic closures are mainly the barriers constructed by the Polish economic and social system. Cultural closures are the barriers in cultural structure understood as the independent variable which leads us to understand the behaviour and motivations of social actors. Psycho-social closures are the mental barriers on the part of both return migrants and the native society. In our analysis we offered the hypothetical closures which ought to be implemented as independent variables in a more precise model analysing the impact of resistance to non-economic transfers on the direction and the dynamics of social change in Poland. The closures – where possible – were described using existing empirical data. Among the socio-economic closures we identified such barriers as: economic factors (unemployment); low social capital in Poland; ambiguity of access to the labour market; and the absence of a cohesive policy of making use of non-economic remittances at national level. Among the cultural closures we identified: social narratives of migration which lead to negative attitudes and social distance towards return migrants; cultural values and patterns of behaviour that are elements of cultural structure and the mechanism of cultural diffusion. Among psycho-social closures we identified two barriers: the ‘Homecomer syndrome’ in migrants’ re-adaptation; and the psychological division between return migrants and members of the native society. The former is the psychological dissonance between the return migrant’s expectations and everyday life back in Poland, which results in feelings of alienation, being a ‘stranger’ or ‘out of place’. The latter takes the form of distance towards return migrants on the part of the migrant’s native society. We suggest that all these closures should be taken into account in any attempt to assess the impact of non-economic transfers on social change in Poland. Although this claim still needs to be verified by further studies, we argue that migrants’ non-economic transfers are accelerating the process of social change in Poland. Closures impede the implementation of migrants’ non-economic remittances, hence impeding the whole process of social change.

This model which analyses the closures on non-economic transfers in the specific context of social change in Poland can, we believe, be applied to other post-communist societies with a similar trajectory. Each case should consider the specific context of social change and it is the intensity of migration that can be seen as the limitation of the model. Our study has important implications for policy making as it identifies some of the barriers which might become subjects of regulation potentially transforming these closures into institutionalised ‘tunnels’ for migrants’ non-economic transfers.


1 Social capital is understood here in Robert Putnam’s way as a ‘generalised trust’.

2 Source: years 2004–2011: CSO, Szkoły wyższe i ich finanse w latach 2004–2011; years 2001–2003: CSO, Small Statistical Yearbook of 2001, 2002, 2003.

3 Source: years 1999–2005: CSO, Small Statistical Yearbook, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004; years 2006–2014: CSO, Badanie aktywności ekonomicznej ludności (BAEL), IV kwartał. The detailed analysis of this process can be found in Dzięglewski (2015).

4 Detailed content analysis of the main Polish magazines is available in a research report by Dzięglewski (2013). The key findings of the research on two Polish soap operas, Londyńczycy and Wyjechani are discussed in Dzięglewski (2015, 2016).


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