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Professor of sociology monitors the processes of social change
BY William Murray
WASHINGTON—When the Polish secret police arrested Bronislaw Misztal in 1980, the Solidarity activist spent a harrowing 24 hours in jail.
“The jailers were playing Russian roulette with me” with a loaded gun, he recalled. They had detained him for organizing workers before Solidarity became a legal union. “I was actively involved in fighting communism” non-violently, he said. “We were helping people to reclaim some dignity. They had been undignified by communism.”
Nineteen years later and a continent removed from his native country, Misztal (pronounced “MISHtal”) has devoted his professional career to studying social change and social movements, particularly those that affect democracies.
Coming from a totalitarian country, he also tries to help his students become better citizens, he said. Misztal tries to convey his passion for freedom and democracy, so they won't be taken for granted.
“Poland is a free country. It's what we dreamed it to be,” he said. He still owns his Solidarity identification bracelet, which shows he was one of the movement's early members.
After teaching at University of Chicago, Misztal joined the sociology department at Indiana University, where he received tenure at age 42. Three years ago, he moved to Washington to become a sociologist at The Catholic University of America.
“Making a move to a Catholic university was a great move for me,” he said. “It's an institute with a mission. Many students come here because of their value systems. It makes for a considerable difference from an average college.”
A colleague in The Catholic University Sociology Department noted that the university recruited Misztal from Indiana in part because he was a senior-level Catholic sociologist with a strong identification with the Church. “He is highly respected,” said professor Sandra Hanson.
Misztal specializes in studying social change and social movements. The Polish government had blacklisted Misztal from teaching, so he became a researcher in the Academy of Sciences in Krakow. When he came to the United States in 1980, he found that much research was being done at universities, so he was able to combine teaching and research in a career as college professor.
He rejects the secularist theory of the 1960s and argues that religion can play a positive role in social change. “The faster the pace of change, the more people gravitate to religion to fill a cognitive vacuum amid the confusion. They need something to guide them,” explained Misztal.
In his native country, the Catholic Church emerged as the only institution that allowed people to freely express their opinions, and it played a key role in the downfall of the communist government there, he said. Misztal also offered opinions on other diverse areas of the world:
• The country that was once the bedrock of communism, Russia, has moved quickly with economical reforms but has suffered an erosion in the authority of its government and universities, Misztal said. He does, however, see a religious revival beginning in Russia.
• Consumerism by itself is not a threat to democracy because it thrives in democratic-based market economies, Misztal said, adding, “Consumers don't make revolutions. They change the world so it becomes more predictable.”
• Islam is the fastest-growing major religion in the world. “How long will the Islamic world be fragmented?” Misztal asked. “How united can the Christian world become?” A major conflict between the two religions could occur in the 21st century, he maintained.
In Catholic University's honors program, Misztal teaches a course on the intellectual debates of the 20th century. In it he examines the social doctrine of Pope John Paul II, among other thinkers. He also teaches a class on sociological theory, which the 52-year-old calls the “Art of Sociology — a way to understand the world around [us] in abstract terms.”
Fluent in English, French, Russian, Spanish, and the Slovak and Slovenian languages, Misztal has many professional colleagues throughout the world.
“He knows everyone; he has such a big network, it's amazing,” said Linda Cardinal, a sociology professor at University of Ottawa. “He knows people on every continent.” Cardinal met Misztal six years ago in Germany and serves with him on the Research Committee of Social Movements of the International Sociology Association.
Misztal's involvement with the association has helped give him a higher profile among sociologists. Revival of Religious Fundamentalism in the East and West, published by Westport, Conn.-based Praeger Press, the second book of a series he is co-authoring, has sold 3,000 copies, an outstanding number for an academic book.
‘Making a move to a Catholic university was a great move for me. It's an institute with a mission.’
While his professional networking is paying dividends, Misztal has also seen some of his intelligence and hard work rub off on his only child. Misztal and his wife, Jolanta, are parents of 17-year-old Blaise, who has already completed about half of his studies at the University of Chicago.
Misztal had something of a rude awakening when he worked at University of Chicago. While teaching at an urban institute called Roosevelt University, which is connected to University of Chicago, Misztal tried to “base grades on merit, rather than the payment of tuition.” When one student argued with him outside of class that she should receive a higher grade because her tuition was up-to-date, she pulled out an umbrella and hit him on the head.
“This was my christening as a college professor,” he joked.
William Murray writes from Kensington, Maryland.