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Old and New Forms of Poverty: The Lifestyles of Poor Families (Elżbieta Tarkowska’s research from 1997–1998)

The collection contains 72 retrospective in-depth interviews from 1997–1998, gathered under the project entitled ‘Old and New Forms of Poverty: The Lifestyles of Poor Families’, conducted at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, under the supervision of Prof. Elżbieta Tarkowska. The aim of the project was to collect insights about the ‘new poverty’, triggered by the country’s systemic transition, and the poverty inherited from the past. The project was part of an international study on the social history of poverty in post-communist countries.

Elżbieta Tarkowska characterised the nature of the study as follows: ‘First of all, it is based on the historical perspective, which allows us to capture the current poverty in the context of its past forms, and to uncover its inherent roots in the past, and mechanisms that are conducive to inheriting poverty. Secondly, there is the anthropological (cultural) perspective, allowing us to get a direct deep insight into individual human fates, the history of families and their lifestyles, specific problems faced by people living in poverty, and into the social, cultural and subjective meanings of these situations.’ (Tarkowska 2000, p. 27). The inspirations for this research endeavour included: (1) the case history of the family of Daniel Bertaux, (2) the Polish tradition of lifestyle research, initiated by Andrzej Siciński, (3) the oral history tradition of Paul Thompson, (4) the concept of cross-cutting interviews developed by Oscar Lewis, and (5) the postulates of micro-history (history of everyday life and experience). The family was the basic unit of research. In 23 cases, interviews were given by three people from the same family, nearly always from three different generations. The ‘middle’ generation was defined as poor. There were also four individual interviews. Efforts were made to reach differentiated cases of poverty in different parts of Poland, in villages and towns of various sizes. On many occasions, information from social assistance centres was used to identify potential respondents. The majority of the respondents from the middle generation had incomplete primary, primary or basic vocational education, many were unemployed, and most of them were women.

The basic data collection technique was a free-flowing guided interview (based on instructions for the researcher). Researchers were also asked for a detailed case description and a commentary on each case (the result of ‘sociological observation’). However, those descriptions have not survived to this day.