Jacek Szmatka (1950–2001)
We will all miss his smile
Obituary sent to overseas friends and collaborators of
Professor Jacek Szmatka
The sad duty has fallen upon me to inform you that Jacek Szmatka passed away October 20, 2001, in Athens, Ohio where he was staying this semester as visiting professor.
We met in 1968 when we began studying sociology at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. Jacek came to our city from Rzeszow (then a county town east of Cracow) where he was born in 1950. Among the members of our sociology class he was the first to receive his M.A. (1972) and Ph.D. degrees (1975), both from the Jagiellonian University where he worked continuously from 1972.
We met for the second time as assistant professors affiliated with the Chair of Theoretical Sociology headed by Professor Piotr Sztompka. Jacek was then interested, first of all, in general methodology and social theory as documented by the titles of his Ph.D. thesis (Theoretical Reduction in Sociology), and that of his first book (Individual and Society: On the Dependence of Individual Phenomena on Social Phenomena) which he published in 1980 as his "habilitation dissertation," a requisite in Poland in order to be appointed to the position of associate professor.
Szmatka's collaboration with American sociologists dates back to the early 1980s. He translated into Polish many classic papers on small groups as well as Jonathan Turner's The Structure of Sociological Theory (Polish edition, 1985). Jacek also wanted to make his native country's sociology known abroad. He was invited to be a member of the board of the International Advisory Editors of Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by Borgatta and Borgatta (first edition, New York: Macmillan, 1990-1992) for which he wrote the entry on "Polish sociology." Though he conceived of theoretical sociology as a science which should deal with abstract social structures rather than historical societies, he often taught courses on the problems of Poland and Eastern Europe and co-edited (with Z. Mach and J. Mucha) a volume on these topics (Eastern European Societies at the Threshold of Change. New York 1993).
Jacek came to the US for the first time in 1983. Since then he was a frequent guest to America where he felt at home nearly as much as in Poland. He worked as a visiting professor at many American universities (University of Kansas, State University of New York, Stanford University, University of Washington, University of South Carolina, University of Iowa) and regularly attended Annual Meetings of the American Sociological Association (he had been an ASA member since 1991). The circle of scholars which used to meet separately at "group processes conferences" accompanying the ASA Meetings became his "reference group"; they helped him reorient his scientific interests from "grand theory" to "hard social science." He made many friends among the members of this group who could certainly add their own memories to this informal obituary.
University of South Carolina was the place in America that Jacek visited most frequently. There he came to know the Elementary Theory and established close ties with David Willer and his colleagues. The long-term cooperation of Dave and Jacek, which yielded several co-authored papers, began in 1989 with a common research project aimed at testing the universality of ET.
My third encounter with Jacek which gave rise to our cooperation throughout the following decade took place just at the time when Jacek got fascinated with the Elementary Theory. In Spring 1990 somewhat unexpectedly I saw my colleague, whom I had known earlier as a "grand theorist," doing "cross-national experiments" in his office now turned into a laboratory.
The historic year 1989 in which the communist regime fell in our country was equally crucial in his career. Jacek had by then published his second book (Small Social Structures: Introduction to Structural Microsociology) which established his reputation in Poland as an outstanding specialist in small group theory and research. That same year he was appointed head of the Microsociological Laboratory which he had created in the Department of Sociology at our university. Jacek's achievements had not gone unnoticed. In 1992 he received the title of professor from the Polish government which granted him tenure. In 1995, his research unit (renamed the Chair of Research on Group Processes in 1996) was equipped with a computer network which, together with software received from South Carolina, enabled him and his team to actively participate in the development of Network Exchange Theory as the first lab of this kind in Europe.
Jacek owed his academic success to his bright intellect, hard work and ambition to keep pace with recent developments in his discipline. With his innovative spirit he was able to locate new research areas such as "conflict networks" which he began to study with his collaborators a couple of years ago. As a self-made man he welcomed the new funding opportunities opened up to individual scholars when National Committee for Scientific Research (the Polish counterpart of the American NSF) began organizing research proposal competitions. He was among the few Polish sociologists who won research grants three times over the last decade. He also gained an international reputation as a conference organizer and editor of a few collective works of which the most important was the volume Status, Network, and Structure: Theory Development in Group Processes (Stanford 1997) which he co-edited with John Skvoretz and Joe Berger.
In Spring 2000, a sudden attack of strong pain made him seek relief in the hospital. When he learned how serious his disease was he did not fall into depression. He firmly believed he would win the struggle with cancer and worked as hard as he used to. He was planning to upgrade his lab so as to meet the needs of the research designed by his last Ph.D. student, Ms. Kinga Wysienska, whom he met in Fall 1997. He invited her to join his research team which, until then, included myself and Joanna Heidtman who had been Jacek's primary collaborator in his conflict network research. When he was released from the hospital in Cracow after isotope therapy, his Polish colleagues could see him at work, as active as usual. Soon afterwards, he took part as a session organizer during the 11th Congress of Polish Sociology in his hometown of Rzeszow in September 2000, and then traveled to the University of Iowa to teach and continue his research there as a Fulbright fellow. The therapy he received in Iowa appeared to be working so he welcomed Bob Shelly's invitation to come to Ohio the following year.
I received my last email message from him on September 23. He wrote me that he felt worse again but still believed in his recovery. Some two weeks later I learned from his family that cancer had attacked his lungs and his life was coming to an end. He died on October 20, 2001.
With Jacek's passing Polish sociology has lost an outstanding scholar whose pro-science stance had inspired many students and researchers over the years, even if the radical form in which he occasionally presented his views might have sometimes appeared irritating to some people outside the group processes circle.
He was my friend and closest collaborator with whom I had communicated daily since 1990, regardless of whether he was here in Cracow or somewhere over the ocean (from 1992 to 1998 alone we exchanged some 1500 email messages). I will remember him, too, as the leader of our small group, formally, the head of the Chair of Group Processes, and last but not least, as the person to whom I owe my contacts with other scholars sharing the idea of scientific sociology which Jacek had outlined in his paper (On Four Myths about Sociology and Three Generations of Sociological Theories) which opens the book he co-edited with me (Structure, Exchange, and Power. Studies in Theoretical Sociology. Warsaw 1993).
May his name and work remain in our memory.
This is slightly edited text of the letter I sent October 23, 2001 to Jacek Szmatka's "professional associates" listed in his most recent CV, and to few other scholars who had maintained academic contacts with him earlier.