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Rural Poland


  • Principal Investigator: Heidi Colleran
  • Research started: 2005

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My work is based in 21 villages and one town in the valleys of the Beskid Wyspowy (Island) mountain range in the outer Western Carpathians, just north of the Tatras range, in the district (powiat) of Limanowa. This region was chosen because the villages continued to practice traditional peasant farming and maintained high fertility despite the fact that Poland has one of the lowest total fertility rates in the world. As such this represents one of the few remaining areas of Europe where traditional small-holder farming is practiced, although this has been rapidly changing over recent decades. The land is rocky, hilly and forested. The same range of crops and products are cultivated today as in the peasant past, with most families growing potatoes, vegetables and fruits, and those owning livestock also growing wheat, rye, tricitale (a hybrid of the two) and mangel beets for animal fodder. Over 56% of farmers keep at least one cow, from which they can make their own cheese in addition to obtaining milk and cream (cattle are rarely used for meat). Bee keeping is popular. Farmers also keep rabbits (21%), fowl (77%), sheep (8%), horses (13%) and pigs (15%). Seasonal foods such as mushrooms and blueberries are gathered in the local forests, and those who own forested land also use their wood for heating.

Historically the region was economically deprived, characterized by centuries of peasant farming and long considered one of the poorest areas of Europe. The region was part of Hapsburg/Austro-Hungarian owned Galicia (created in 1772 in the First Partition of Poland and enlarged in 1795 during the Third Partition) until 1818 when the second Republic of Poland (1818-1939) was founded. Polish-speaking peasants made up over 70% of the population of Western Galicia in the 1800s and lived alongside Uniate (Greek Catholic) Ruthenians and Jews. As a result of high levels of impoverishment, farmers here have a long history of alternative income generation and migration. In the late 1880s there were mass emigrations to Imperial Germany and later to the USA; more than 2 million peasants left Galicia in the 25 years before the First World War, and by the mid nineteenth century, at least 20% of the population was engaged in foreign migrant labour in the USA and Europe.

Villages are organised into named hamlets (osiedle) with patrilineal inheritance and patrilocal post-marital residence preferred, though this is currently variable. Nowadays families typically live in multigenerational households, or in a cluster of households on adjacent plots of land, but historical demographers have shown that there has long been a diversity of household formation, with neolocal residence (apart from either set of parents) and simple nuclear families significantly more common than in other areas. A shortage of arable land, combined with a practice of partible inheritance introduced under the Hapsburgs means that land holdings have been historically small and scattered, often far away from the farmhouse, making efficient farming difficult. As recently as 1899, 80% of peasant farmers in Galicia owned less than 5 acres of land. Indeed this relatively isolated area with poor soil and long, hard winters, was never particularly well suited to farming

Under socialism, the land, as in much of Poland, was not successfully collectivized: 83% of arable land was left in the private ownership of peasants, allowing their traditional way of life to continue. In the post-socialist period prior to Poland’s accession to the EU, farmers were able to partially buffer themselves against rapid trade and economic liberalization during the years 1989 - 2001 (known as economic ‘shock therapy’). Since accession to the EU in 2004, the state has enacted wide-ranging agricultural reforms with a view to ‘modernizing’ the peasant farming system. The socio-economic and cultural context is now one that is rapidly transitioning from what was until recently a predominantly peasant agrarian society to a fully market oriented one. However the socio-cultural implications of economic stagnation and a long history of peasant living remain pervasive to this day. The particular cultural features that are most important are the enduring power of the Catholic church, a long history of emigration, continued deep relationships to the land and a traditional, conservative cultural value-system.


My research tries to understand why and how people choose to reduce the number of children they have as they go through the profound economic and socio-cultural changes associated with extensive market integration, and what it means for them. I use this ongoing study to think about broader issues relevant to the process of the contemporary demographic transition which has been unfolding globally over the last 200 years. Important research topics include: the relative importance of economic and cultural change, education, changing inheritance and migration strategies, new forms of wealth and inequality, the transformation of cooperative and kin networks and the dynamics of prestige and conformity.

I use a combination of participant observation and demographic surveys to approach these questions, and a range of quantitative and qualitative methods to analyse the data.

Selected Publications

Colleran H. (in revision) Ties Unbound: Market integration reduces kin-density in women’s ego-networks in rural Poland

Colleran H. (2016) The cultural evolution of fertility decline, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 371(1692): 20150152

Colleran H. and Mace R. (2015). Social network and community level influences on contraceptive use: evidence from rural Poland, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 282(1807): 20150398

Colleran H., Jasienska G., Nenko I., Galbarczyk A. and Mace R. (2015). Fertility decline and the changing dynamics of wealth, status and inequality, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 282(1806): 20150287

Colleran H. Farming in transition: Land and property inheritance in a rural Polish population (2014), Society, Biology and Human Affairs 78 (1 and 2), 7-19

Colleran H., Jasienska G., Nenko I., Galbarczyk A. and Mace R. (2014) Community-level education accelerates the cultural evolution of fertility decline, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281(1779): 20132732


I collaborate with Grazyna Jasienska and her team at the Jagiellonian University in krakow. They have been running a long term bio-anthropological research project in the same area since the early 1990s (see https://evoecogroup.wordpress.com/).