Podgórecki Prize 2021: Jacek Kurczewski

Announcement by Sharyn Roach Anleu, Chair of the 2021 Podgórecki Prize Committee

Following careful deliberation, the Podgórecki Prize Committee awarded the 2021 Prize for Lifetime Achievement to Professor Jacek Maria Kurczewski, nominated by Professor Mavis Maclean, CBE, Oxford University and Emeritus Professor Masayuki Murayama, Meiji and Chiba Universities.  I am grateful to Mavis and Masayuki for the text of their nomination, on which I have heavily relied.

Professor Kurczewski is an eminent sociologist of law and a public intellectual who has persisted with his scholarship during the complex situation of Poland since the 1960s.  His research was and remains an important reminder of the fragility of the rule of law, which should not be taken for granted.  During the Polish People’s Republic, he actively opposed the totalitarian state and in the transition to democracy post-1989 he took up public leadership roles, including as judge of the Tribunal of the Republic (1989-91) and Deputy Speaker of the new parliament (1991-93). 

He has been engaged in research, analysis, and teaching in the sociology of law throughout his long career, continuing in the Polish school of legal sociology, derived from Leon Petrażycki. In 1965, he completed a Master of Arts and a PhD in 1972, both in Sociology at the University of Warsaw.  Adam Podgórecki was his supervisor for these two degrees and his doctoral thesis was published in 1977 with the title: On researching law in the social sciences. With Adam Podgórecki, Jacek Kurczewski conducted his first studies of law, legal awareness, and the application of law, despite the unfavourable political climate in Poland at the time. His academic appointments were at the University of Warsaw, where he is now Professor Emeritus.

Several of the studies initiated and directed by Jacek Kurczewski were international in scope, including the research carried out in the 1970s in the UNESCO Centre for Social Studies, focusing on local legal structures.  Jacek Kurczewski pioneered research on alternative models of dispute resolution, the results of which were published in Poland and internationally (Social Conciliatory Commissions in Poland: A Case study of Non-authoritative and Conciliatory Dispute Resolution as an Approach to Access to Justice, 1978). As Professors Mavis Maclean and Masayuki Murayama observe: ‘Jacek Kurczewski had a talent for turning difficult situations into valuable research opportunities’. A good example of this ability can be found in the studies and analyses of the sense of law, legal awareness, and unofficial law carried out during the time of intense market shortages and rationing of all essential goods (The Rationing Contract, 1985). Core topics and foundational themes such as the operation of law, theories of justice, conflict resolution, and the functioning of the legal professions have been constantly addressed in his work over fifty years.  In this vein, his most recent book is: How People Use the Courts:  The Disputes and Courts in Poland co-authored with Professor Małgorzata Fuszara (Peter Lang, 2017) and he still publishes on dispute processing and the rule of law.

Jacek Kurczewski has actively contributed to sociology of law as a profession, including membership of:  the Board of the European Institute for Sociology of Law, Brussels; the Board of the Polish Sociological Review (including a term as editor-in-chief); the Board of the Research Committee of Sociology of Law, International Sociological Association (thrice elected).  He was Scientific Director and member of the Board of the International Institute for the Sociology of Law [IISL], Oñati, Spain.   His contributions to IISL workshops on access to justice and dispute resolution are ongoing and can be seen in the many chapters he contributed to the Onati series with Hart arising from IISL Workshops. The latest is currently in press for the volume What is a Family Court for? edited by Maclean, Treloar and Dijksterhuis.

Jacek Kurczewski studied and lived the sociology of law and socio-legal change, offering mentoring and guidance to several generations of young socio-legal scholars.  His courage and perseverance in maintaining honest and original scholarship through teaching, research and political involvement are exemplary.  His first major book in English, Resurrection of Rights in Poland (Oxford University Press, 1993), provides detailed case studies of the move towards democracy, and Living the Sociology of Law, his later memoir, offers an inspiring account of these years.  He not only maintained the integrity and development of the subject in Poland but brought others in to learn at first-hand about the hardships, and the ways to survive, develop and advance sociological understandings of law: its benefits and limitations.

The Prize Committee consisted of Professor Stefan Machura (Bangor University, Wales), Professor Germano Schwartz (Centro Universitario Ritter dos Reis, Brazil) and me as Chair. 

Sharyn Roach Anleu


Speech by Jacek Kurczewski on the Occasion of the Podgórecki Prize Ceremony

Thank you, Sharyn for all these kind words. I am honoured by your speech but above all by the prize. The Research Committee of the Sociology of Law became my home in my scholarly youth. Here there was the freedom and openness of speech while in my country from school through to the university there was repressive censorship, fear of political accusation that might lead to expulsion from academia, not to mention academic advancement. Here I met the friends from my generation, some of whom we shall celebrate, Vincenzo Ferrari and Rick Abel, long life to them! But also others, Mavis Maclean with whom I am still collaborating on her ambitious projects concerning sociology of family law and justice, some elders like Bill Felstiner and some youngsters like Masayuki Murayama, as well as others, like Jean Van Houtte, Hubert Rottleuthner, Andras  Sajo  or Martin Krygier,  and many who are no longer with us like Richard White, Kees Schuyt, Lester Mazor, Philip Lewis, Wolfgang Kaupen, Paavo Uutisaalo, Vincenzo Tomeo –  not forgetting the founding fathers of the Committee, Renato Treves, Bill Evan, Vilhelm Aubert and … Adam Podgórecki, (1925–1998) my mentor in the sociology of law who passed away 23 years ago. 

As this is His, Podgórecki’s Prize, let me say a few words about him.  Certainly, a character, full of the wit and black humour that survivors from totalitarian oppression share. He himself had two masters, one was Leon Petrażycki, a Polish-Russian thinker, second, the Chinese sage Si-tien. Adam’s mottos came from the latter, his inspiration from the former. Some people still believe Si-tien was a historical figure but in fact his sayings, apophthegms, aphorisms etc. had all been carefully elaborated by Podgórecki himself. Some say the same about Petrażycki who remains for most sociolegal scholars as enigmatic as Si-tien. But Petrażycki was real. This is the price one pays for living on the periphery of academic superpowers. However, we are born to do our job.

And what is the job of sociologists of law anyway? Certainly not to attempt to overtake legal thinkers in the production of speculative knowledge, phantasms of autopoietic furore. Also, not the scrupulous supervision of citizens as to whether they abide by what the State tells them to do. It is research and theory but openly and unabashed normatively oriented. We also need the multilateral academia where a variety of orientations and concerns co-exist. Podgórecki’s concern was to study the rise, functioning and demise of totalitarian law. This is a permanent task but now more evident when the symptoms of authoritarian-virus pandemics are again threatening. It is time to remind us that there is no value in a study of rules of law unless the law is the ruler. The Common Law world had not yet suffered totalitarian experience as almost the whole of Europe did during the past century, and it is much of the world’s population experience nowadays. Struggle for control of justice between the Polish government and Polish lawyers is just one of many manifestations of the A-pandemics (meaning authoritarian pandemics or pandemics of authoritarianism) which are however threatening humankind in Europe and everywhere. 

Podgórecki was raised under German National-socialist occupation and afterwards lived under the Marxist Communist party dictatorship that also repressed my family. So, when as a student of sociology in Warsaw I met Podgórecki I was attracted not so much by the then new sub-discipline of sociology of law as by the rebellious message he had brought in with it from Petrażycki: the pluralist anti-statist concept of law that allows for disdain for the official law of the state and its servants, including lawyers.  I needed time to discover that there are lawyers with good intentions and laws that may serve good intentions as well. I even had a chance to assist such lawyers in making such laws. Knowledge of social functioning of the law acquired through participation in our Research Committee helped me very much. I have mentioned some of my friends, but even rascals, whom I met from time to time also helped me to understand how the law might be misused. Petrażycki used to shock lawyers by telling them about the law of friendship linking people better than the state does as well as the law of card games that people abide by much better than state law. I share with many the hope that in the future state law will vanish, meaning that the free dynamic, open and renewable contract between a plurality of equals will be the constituent pattern of public life. Last year while doing comparative research on Polish and German business I learned that they both consider the stability and security of legal regulations as the most important aspect of the rule of law.

As if such stability cannot be secured in the concentration or labour camp! The study of the rule of law in all its aspects and manifestations remains the most important task of sociology of law. This means respect for the spirit of law, not of the state – states do not have spirit – but the spirit of the people who consider the law, that is – their mutual rights and obligations – as binding for freedom and cooperation.  And this relates to the major topic of the conference – covid pandemics – to take into account the global debate about voluntary vaccination which is nothing other than a debate on mutual rights and obligations – as binding for freedom and cooperation!!!

Jacek Kurczewski


Podgorecki Prize Winner 2021: Professor Jacek Kurczewski, University of Warsaw

As a longstanding colleague and friend, I am honoured to introduce and congratulate Jacek Kurczewski, who holds the RCSL Podgorecki Prize for his outstanding contribution to the sociology of law.

As an English scholar, trained in history and then empirical research in social policy, the term Sociology of Law was new to me, even as a founder member of the Oxford Centre for Socio Legal Studies when Jacek was first invited to visit us by Don Harris, the founding director, half a century ago. There had been a long-standing connection between the law faculties of Warsaw and Oxford which had hosted the Warsaw faculty in exile during World War 2.  But Jacek’s first visit was to do much more than sustain old friendships: he opened our eyes to the richness of the developing relationship between sociology and law, and between theoretical and empirical research. Jacek introduced us to the work of Petrazycki, and not only brought with him his young colleagues including Malgorzata Fuszara, and Stefka Naoumova but also led the way for Adam Podgorecki himself to come to us as Co Director of the Oxford Centre when he left Canada. Adam had supervised Jacek’s doctoral work, the thesis being published in 1977 under the title “On researching law in the social sciences”.  It was with Adam that Jacek was to conduct his first studies of law, legal awareness and the application of law, despite the unfavourable political climate in Poland at the time. This work was not only pioneering and original, but politically aware. It was difficult to carry out such research in Central and Eastern Europe at a time when totalitarian regimes were in full control.  However, several of the studies initiated and directed by Jacek were international in scope, including research carried out in the UNESCO Centre for Social Studies focussing on legal structures.  Jacek also pioneered research on alternative methods of dispute resolution, the results of which were published in Poland and also abroad (for example Social Conciliatory Commissions in Poland: a Case Study of Non-authoritative and Conciliatory Dispute resolution as an Approach to Access to Justice, 1978).

The central topics of sociology of law including the operation of law, theories of justice, conflict resolution, and the functioning of the legal profession have been constantly addressed in his work and remain so. At the time of writing, August 2021, I am editing the papers from an Onati Workshop held remotely in September  2020 about The Purpose of a Family Justice System, in which Jacek and Malgorzata Fuszara present empirical data on attitudes among the Polish population to what kinds of family matters it is appropriate for  an individual to bring to a court for resolution … including divorce, post divorce parenting, abortion, domestic violence including elder abuse, conflict about sharing responsibility for the household economy, sexual orientation and transitioning, (bearing in mind that Poland has the first elected transitioning MP). The development of individual confidence in the secular authority of the state in the post communist period is carefully plotted for these different forms of family dispute, and compared with the domination of family tradition and religious teaching.

These kinds of ideas were new to us in Oxford, as were Jacek’s ways of working, and of sharing and disseminating sociology of law internationally. Instead of sitting at a desk, alone, to work I learned to walk and talk to argue and share, and later to reach out to enjoy new settings for research activity and debate not only in Warsaw, Bellagio, Sofia, Madison Wisconsin, Durban, and Delhi, but above all in Onati. Jacek did not only study the sociology of law, he lived it.  Although in the early part of his career academic and scientific work on social and political reality under a totalitarian regime was always challenging, Jacek had a gift for turning difficult situations into valuable research opportunities.  A good example can be found in the studies and analyses of legal awareness and unofficial law carried during a period of intense market shortages and the rationing of essential goods (see The Rationing Contract, 1985). During the later Communist period in Warsaw, Jacek was deeply concerned with the future of democracy and the rule of law …  issues which we now face afresh in the United Kingdom and we continue to benefit from the lessons of the Polish experience.

As the political situation began to change in Poland, Jacek was in the forefront of the Solidarnosc movement, sitting at the famous round tables at which change was discussed and developed in the period leading to 1989, and eventually becoming not only an elected member of the Sejm but accepting the office of Vice Marshall, or Speaker of the House. The experience leading up to this political involvement is reflected in his essays on the “Resurrection of Rights in Poland” published by Oxford University Press in 1993, and the practical side of law making is recorded in “Making Family Law; A Socio Legal Account of Legislative Process in England and Wales 1985-2010 with Maclean published by OUP in 2011. Here we ncluded the question of how votes are counted in parliament. Jacek had notes that when he presided as speaker there might be more votes cast (electronicaly by pressing buttons beside members seats) than there were members present in the Sejm.  He asked what happened at Westminster, and was amused to learn that the House of Commons has two supervised exits through which members must leave the Chamber during a vote, one for those voting yes, and one for the nos.

The relationship between individual, family and state became the focus of a number of meetings to be held at IISL Onati, where debate developed about how in Eastern Europe there was a concern to retain welfare provision without reducing individual liberty, while in the West the political right sought to combine independence from the state for the family with interdependence within the self sufficient family group. In Poland privatising the family has also desecularised family law, and this has made actions which the Catholic Church disapproved of, particularly abortion, more likely to be proscribed. A group of sociologists of family law began to meet in Onati holding workshops on Families Policies and Law, specific issues like post separation parenting, and broader issues including access to justice in diverse societies and in periods of austerity. We asked the question of what do we want from family law… how do we frame a regulatory system for interpersonal behaviours, what are the advantages of liberal non-intervention v welfare collectivism, of facilitative rights based models or particular religious frameworks. And we considered the nature of family law and family values ,and the pros and cons of private ordering.

But there is another dimension to Jacek’s work: his ability to enhance intellectual experience by embracing the community experience of sociology through lived social cohesion and conviviality. When Jacek acted as Scientific Director for the IILS Onate masters students he did not only provide a stimulating intellectual experience for the students from a number of countries with very different experiences and values. He also created a community of scholars of the sociology… largely via the kitchen. Jacek’s appreciation and understanding of the impact of cooking and eating together led him to invite the masters students living in the Residencia Antia to take turns to cook together for the joint evening meal. The strategy was not always successful… there was a young boy from Nigeria who would take no part in womens work, but then ended up having to live on bowls of cereal until he changed his mind. And the sad experience of 2 boys from Hungary who became very attached to 2 local girls from Onate. They would all cook together, but then could not agree on a suitable time to eat… the boys were very hungry by 5 pm while the girls, from Onati, thought any time before 8 was not acceptable.

And for those of us fortunate enough to visit Jacek in Warsaw, there was the addition of the element of music… in particular the five yearly international Chopin Competition, where pianists from all over the world competed but usually lost to pale skinny Polish boys who played not just the notes but also the silences in Chopin’s piano music. And wherever Jacek was, there would be walks, in the hills above Onate, the hills around Vienna or the beach in Durban.

We celebrate and salute Jacek…Renaissance scholar and Renaissance man of humanity, curiosity, intellectual rigour, musicality, gastronomic inspiration … and now the esteemed Podgorecki Prizewinner 2021. We thank him again for his contribution to the Sociology of Law.

Mavis Maclean


See also the 2021 Podgórecki Prize Call formerly published on this site.

Back to the Podgòrecki Prize History

This page last updated 12 July 2022; texts first published in RCSL Newsletter 2021 (2)