The Railway Inspector

by Jacob Lee

Having finally completed my laborious Master’s thesis and degree, I have been free to pursue a number of other projects that have been on hold for almost two years. This freedom has helped me rediscover the joy of research, something that can be lost in the long uncertainty of thesis work.

One of the projects on which I have resumed work is a formal analysis of the Polish kinship terminology. The work is inspired by Dwight Read’s  algebraic approach to the analysis of kinship terminology. Prior to engaging in my thesis work, I had gone a long way to completing my analysis (the details of which I will not go into today). Yet, in that effort, I had been nagged by a feeling that I had not properly done my homework of carefully gathering, and documenting the different sources of information on Polish kinship terminology I had available.

I suppose that some might be thinking, “What’s the big problem? I mean, can’t you just ask someone what Poles call their family members?” The answer is, yes of course, I can, and have. The problem is, the Poles I asked often disagreed with one another, and in some cases, my questions instigated not-always-so light-hearted arguments between my Polish friends on just what to call a mother’s brother, or a father’s brother. As it happens, the Polish kinship terminology appears to be going through a long slow, and uneven, structural transformation (Parkin 1995). See (Stein 1975) for similar observations for the Slovak terminology. Add into the mix the existence of regional or dialectical varieties in the terminology, and a turbulent 19th and 20th century history of (sometimes forced) migration, and you have a pretty messy soup.

So, I’ve been pushing through the literature carefully documenting whatever information on the terminology I can locate. I have been particularly keen on going through the Polish literature. With my still limited grasp of the language, and lack of convenient library access, its been a long slog. And so, much of my data is coming from rather old texts, freely available at

All of this discussion has really been nothing but a long preamble to my main point. Of the various texts I am consulting, one of them is an ethnological report written by Jan Świętek (1896). During his life, Świętek’s published several important and reputable contributions to Polish enthology, including a more than 700 page monograph on the social and cultural life of the Poles living in Bochnia County (a district located a little ways from Cracow in southern Poland).

And yet… Jan Świętek was an amateur, a working-class man who earned his bread as a railway inspector.

There is something satisfying, and maybe even comforting, about consulting the work of a long dead amateur, who did what he did for the love of it. Maybe its just that, right now, standing outside of academia, contemplating which career path I ought to choose, I take comfort in the idea that the serious amateur can still make serious contribution to scholarship, even if he (or she) does not have a position within academia.


Parkin, Robert. 1995. “Contemporary Evolution of Polish Kinship Terminology.” Sociologus 45 (2): 140-152.

Stein, Howard F. 1975. “Structural Change in Slovak Kinship: An Ethnohistoric Inquiry.” Ethnology 14 (1): pp. 99-108.

Świętek, Jan 1896. “Zwyczaje i Pojęcia Prawne Ludu Nadrabskiego.” In Materyały Antropologiczno-archeologiczne i Etnograficzne Komisja Antropologiczna Akademja Umiejętności w Krakowie., 1:266–362. Kraków: Nakl. Akademji Umiejętności.

5 Comments to “The Railway Inspector”

  1. Knowing neither Polish nor anything much about Polish ethnography, I can only say “totally cool” to this project and applaud the idea that those of us who pursue livelihoods outside the academy may yet contribute significantly to scholarship. You are, I suspect, familiar with Florian Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (with William I. Thomas, 5 vols., 19l8-1920).

  2. Thanks John. How was Sunbelt? I rather regret not attending when it was so close to home; too bad, and I’d have liked to have finally met you in person.

  3. I’m glad you pointed this post out in the other thread, because I had missed it.

    The Świętek story is especially satisfying and comforting to me, because I’ve felt blocked by circumstance from being able to pursue my academic interests. If a railway inspector can make a valuable contribution, so can a software engineer.

  4. I agree, it’s a pleasant accident of the kerrent kerfuffle to have this post refreshed. As we’re seeing, a lot of academic career is about crap management (or generation), so there’s little guarantee the best minds make the best careers. By which I do not mean completely to dismiss professional gate keeping and convention, the constraints of which are also importantly enabling, but just to wedge open an honorable space for the Święteks, Jacobs and Ashers.

  5. Thank you, both of you.

    Carl: I do not dismiss the positive role that academic gate-keeping may play either (and this ties in again in a small way to your recent post, I think). It is, however, refreshing when you can think and contribute without having to play the academic prestige game. I am fortunate to have the respect and ear of intelligent and inquisitive researchers who also have my respect and ear. In an ideal world, that sort of dialogue and mutual respect is what it is all about.

    Asher: I am a software developer, so naturally I agree. ( :

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