Balancing Research and Community Commitment in the Interwar Romanian Sociology: Dimitrie Gusti’s ‘Sociologia Militans’ as Public Sociology

Auch Levente Székedi war einer der Vortragenden in der Session “Public Sociology and Social Imagination” (Research Network 29 Social Theory) auf dem Kongress der Europäischen Gesellschaft für Soziologie am 27. August in Prag. In seinem Vortrag präsentierte er eine frühe Form Öffentlicher Form aus Rumänien, die sog. Gusti-Schule. Damit machte er einerseits deutlich, dass „Public Sociology“ schon lange vor Michael Burawoys Konzept existierte. Andererseits stellen sich Fragen der Definition und Angrenzung Öffentlicher Soziologie. Sein Blogbeitrag ist eine gekürzte Version seines Vortrages.


After the First World War the enlarged Romania had to face several new provocations, besides the problems arisen from the economic backwardness and extremely low quality of life (high child mortality, generalized illiteracy etc.), the lack of a democratic tradition and the peculiarly rural character of the society. The country “imported” several ethnic, cultural and religious groups from the newly attached territories. Moreover, the traditional and bourgeois elites of Transylvania – the major postwar territorial gain of Romania – mostly consisted of ethnic Hungarian, Germans and Hungarian-speaking Jews. This new diversity, complicated with the existence of previously hegemonic, strong and non-Romanian ethnic elites and huge differences in the administrative tradition and practices was thought be manageable within the ideological framework of the unitary nation state with the specialized help of the local and regional state institutions. The new clerks and professionals were supposed to be ethnic Romanians. This more or less hidden “directive” stimulated the rapid growth of the university education, but the growing number of students could not receive sufficient funding: university education, accommodation and life in the big cities proved to be rather expensive for the large contingents of young people with rural origin. Later on the looming economic crisis turned the university boom into an increasing intellectual unemployment, which further aggravated the social problems of the Romanian society (Butoi 2012).

In this context of mounting tensions, arisen from the age-old and more recent problems of the country, young intellectuals felt a strong urge to “restate the state”, to transcend the historical errors of the former political leaders, the “fathers’ generation”, to discuss, develop and implement quick and working reforms. Leading figures of the so-called “effervescent generation” began to formulate their reform models, embedded in diverse and even mutually exclusive ideologies. Divergent and contradictory currents of thoughts and line of actions emerged and the intellectual life of the interwar Romania (mostly Bucharest) became partitioned into various ideological groups, constituted around spiritual “pillars”: philosophers, writers, university teachers, journalist and so forth. One can categorize the main current of thoughts in three different, somewhat overlapping and fluid camps (Hitchins 2010; Văcărescu 2012):

  • Europeanists: promoters of Western models, facilitating the diffusion of “West” in “East”
  • Traditionalists: autochthonism, nationalism, Christian-Orthodox Romanianness
  • Adepts of the Third Way: partial and modified adaptation of the Western model, critical reuse of the national traditions (typical current of the National Peasants’ Party)

The right wring, nationalistic approached predominated the intellectual landscape and the Romanian Legionarism, the atypical mystical-religious fascism attracted a substantial number of young thinkers, even though some right-wing intellectuals followed the path of a more constructive and tolerant nationalism (Şandru 2012).

Dimitrie Gusti and his school

This milieu of multiple philosophies, orientations and visions of future led to wide spread tensions and skirmishes between the ideological camps. Fortunately a new type of conciliatory “diversity management” movement emerged, which became engaged in the political and cultural reframing of the Bucharest intellectual space. We refer to the purposeful action of the so-called Gusti School, or the Romanian School of Sociology, which promoted a non-exclusive reformism, interventions based on ideological syntheses and militated for the formation of a common political and ideological ground through the use of public dialogue.

The School – which grew into an organizational framework and a national movement – was founded by the sociologist Dimitrie Gusti, who had studied in Germany (Berlin, Leipzig), finishing his PhD under the guidance of Wilhelm Wundt. After his return to Romania Gusti is appointed as chair of the Department of History of Greek Philosophy, Ethics and Sociology at the University of Iași, Eastern Romania. His experience with the German university system and the perceived underdevelopment of the Romanian academia turned Gusti in a first class reformer, reorganizer of the Iași University Library and an enhancer of the university teaching practice. It is worth to notice, that the city of Iași hosted the central officials evacuated from the German-ocuppied Bucharest and had a remarkably intense intellectual life. During this crisis period Gusti did not limit his “critical eye” to the academia, but observed the serious flaws on the top level, in the Romanian governance: as a proper scientific answer to that he founded the Association for the Study and Social Reform (1918) and initiated his innovative social endeavour, consisting of ethically supervised, politically managed and sociologically based reforms (Rostás 2014). In a speech in 1929 Gusti – remembering the founding of his first reformist organization – outlined the importance of the postwar reforms and the role of the interventionist social research:

“For the reconstruction of Europe it was and still is necessary the parallelism of an economical and financial reform with a moral, spiritual and political reform (…) It was [about] the idealism for which ideas, theories, studies could only be symptoms of the ascending and descending of social life, and they [ideas etc.], through their creative power built upon the understanding of necessities arisen from the social reality, would eventually reverberate upon the very same realities for modelling and improving them.” (Gusti 1929, 6)

Gusti moved to Bucharest and in 1921 organized the successor of the Association for the Study and Social Reform, the Romanian Social Institute, a veritable public forum for the scientific and political debates and a promoter of the social research. The Institute facilitated the open dialogue between the divergent platforms, encouraging the rational debates instead of the irrational, personal fights. Gusti and his movement gained international visibility via the public conferences organized by the Institute and Gusti himself accumulated valuable relational capital, which helped him in the promotion of the monographic method of sociology and in obtaining necessary funding for his forthcoming village research campaigns and cultural actions.

The monographic sociology

The theoretical and methodological foundations of Gusti’s sociology were laid down during the preparatory activities of the Sociology Seminar of the University of Bucharest, which – as a thoughtful response to the 1922 anti-Semitic student uprising – realized a survey on the student life, identifying a wealth of social and economic problems (Butoi 2012).

The monographic sociology of Dimitrie Gusti was a sort of committed social science, a sociology with the mission of creating a better social world, mostly for the uneducated and poverty-stricken Romanian villagers. Gusti identified himself as a representative of the sociologia militans, an engaged, proactive and interventionist sociology, as opposed to the sociologia cogitans, a distant and withdrawn academic sociology. His theoretical and methodological model, which oriented the empirical investigations of the monographic sociology, treated societal units as entities existing within certain frames, or potentialities. In the societal units peculiar manifestations happen and there is a sociological parallelism between the frames and the manifestations:

  • Frames: cosmic, biologic, psychic, historic
  • Manifestations: economic, spiritual, political, juridical

The first and foremost motor of the society is the social will. Humans, energized by this will “burst” into manifestations conditioned by certain frames and they live in social units (village, family etc.), with certain social relations between them, undergoing social processes which signal future tendencies and perspectives.

In Gusti’s view sociology cannot be comprehended without proper empirical research. His long term and unrealized goal was to complete the sociology of the nation, to draw a sociological map of the whole Romania. Starting with the twenties Gusti and his disciples began to explore Romanian rural reality with the so-called monographic research campaigns. The research teams were par excellence interdisciplinary, intergenerational and interclass. The frames and manifestations were studied by researchers and students of different scientific backgrounds and affiliations (sociologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, social workers, physicians, veterinarians etc.), older researchers and younger students collaborated, team members were of quite dissimilar social origins and had various political beliefs. Despite this diversity the research groups and the whole Gusti School had a certain inner coherence, reinforced by an unitary organizational culture. Gusti and his main disciples (research organizers) prevented the over-politicization of the fieldwork even though a number of team members had strong extremist views. A major working principle referred tor the acceptance of the Gusti-model, each frame and manifestation (all eight) was attributed to well-defined research subgroups or individuals. All researchers had to adhere to the scientific criteria of neutrality, non-interference and respect for the subjects, and had to accept an inclusive approach, meaning the harmonization of the common and individual research goals (Rostás 2005).

Sociological intervention

In 1934 Gusti was appointed director of the Royal Foundation, thus securing substantial funding for the monographic endeavour. The productive collaboration with King Charles II permitted the launch of the intervention component of the Gusti model. The so-called royal teams engaged in cultural work, community development actions which could encompass many different activities: health education, road building, organizing agricultural cooperatives etc. The teams consisted of organisers, researchers and students, even though the research component was somewhat neglected for the sake of social intervention. The research teams became action groups which visited a much larger number of villages and produced tangible results in the whole Romania (community centres, village schools, cooperatives, libraries etc.) The community development work was organized and supervised by experiences researches, the old monographists, who advocated a community-centred, collaborative approach. Let us list some of its principles (Sandu 2012):

  • Avoiding the “colonialist”, “civilising” manners
  • Learn from the people and respect them
  • Not imposing, but implementing reforms together with the local community

Under the royal dictatorship King Charles II, who tried to maintain his image of a socially enlightened monarch, enacted the short lived Law of Social Services (1938–1939) which was also an attempt to counterbalance the dangerously growing influence of the fascist Iron Guard. The Law turned the voluntary activity of the royal teams into mandatory community work to be carried out by all Romanian undergraduates and required an extraordinary organizational effort on behalf of Dimitrie Gusti and his collegues (training schools, coordinating teams and communication etc.) The teams were organized in a paramilitary manner, for the organisers tried to diminish the effects of the fascist ideology by mimicking the forms of fascist youth working camps. Anyhow, the social intervention teams could not escape the incursion of the Iron Guard (legionarism) and King Charles II decided to suspend indefinitely the Law of Social Services in September 1939 (Rostás 2005).

The significance of the Gusti School

Notwithstanding the problems around the Law of Social Services and the disputable matter of the mandatory community work, the overall balance of the Gusti School is a positive one. In just five years (1934–1938) the Monographic School coordinated 230 research and intervention campaigns in 114 villages, involving the work of 2.553 team members, and then Community Centres only in the year 1939 held 101 special “popular” courses (Gusti 1942).

Several scientific and professional publications were launched by the Gusti School, including Sociologia Romaneasca, which was relaunched after 1990. The Village Museum of Bucharest was conceived by Gusti and his colleagues and Gusti was responsible for the organization of Romanian world fair pavilions. Sociology became a major topic of discussion in the interwar press, the monographic research campaigns were promoted in the newspaper and on radio, the research teams produced documentary movies and a large number of photographs.

Romanian sociology entered the international mainstream: the monographic research campaigns were regularly visited by Western professors and even students, members of the School went to study abroad and represented Romanian sociology at various scientific events. The realizations and editorial output of the Romanian School of Sociology was remarked even in the United States (Roucek 1936; Roucek 1941; Roucek 1938). The 14th International Congress of Sociology was planned to be organized in Bucharest (1939), though the imminent war lead to the indefinite postponement of the event. Gusti himself was an expert and leading figure, occupying important positions in different state institutions (Ministry of Education and Culture, President of the National Radio Broadcaster etc.)

An early attempt of public sociology

Using the ideas of Herbert Gans (2002) and the theoretical framework of Michael Burawoy (2005) the Gusti School can be viewed as a representative institution and movement of the traditional and organic public sociology, whereas Gusti might be considered a public sociologist. Here are some of our arguments:

  • Gusti himself and his disciples wrote numerous articles on a new type of research-based Romanian reform.
  • The Gusti School put the plight of the Romanian peasantry on the forefront of public and political preoccupations.
  • The sociologists reframed the peasant problem: from a political topic it became a solvable problem.
  • The Romanian Social Institute promoted political and intellectual dialogue, authentic debates around Romanian reforms.
  • Dimitrie Gusti and his colleagues offered concrete solutions to the social problems of the students in the context of intense anti-Semitic student movements.
  • The research campaigns became the grounds of the later community developments projects.
  • The Gusti School became much more than a sociological school: an institutional framework, a movement and a long term community enhancement project.
  • Gusti was actively helping ethnic Hungarian sociologist from Transylvania and even facilitating the sociological research of ethnic Hungarian villages.
  • Gusti himself was a public intellectual and a public sociologist.

The activities of the School also encompass the other three sociologies in the Burawoyian sense. The monographic teams pursued a policy sociology, for the reform movement became a political project of the Romanian monarch. The research of the social reality was based on the strong theoretical and methodological background of the Gusti-model (professional sociology), which was criticized and further developed by Gusti’s best disciples (mostly Henri H. Stahl and Anton Golopentia) – a stance of the critical sociology.

The public character of Gusti’s sociology is certainly arguable. One can try to demonstrate the risky political commitment of the Gusti School by stressing Gusti’s positions in the Romania state administration, his closeness to the National Peasants’ Party, or later to King Charles II. Other debatable aspects refer to the royal funding of the reform project and the anti-volunteerism of the Social Services, also used as a propaganda tool during the royal dictatorship. Nevertheless, the political commitment of Gusti was definitely an instrumental one. He envisioned his complex enterprise of social reforms as serving the nation and as a collaborative venture of sociology and politics, both pursuing higher ethical ideals. One can measure the true public importance of the Gusti School only by taking into account the interwar Romanian society with a not-yet disenchanted intelligentsia, still believing in the betterment prospect of the human world.


Burawoy, Michael (2005): For Public Sociology. American Sociological Review 70 (1): 4–28.

Butoi, Ionuţ (2012): Există Un Curent Monografist În Cadrul Tinerei Generaţii Interbelice? [Is There a Monographist Current of Thought within the Yount Interwar Generation?]. Sociologie Românească X (02): 42–49.

Gans, Herbert J. (2002): More of Us Should Become Public Sociologists. Footnotes 30 (6).

Gusti, Dimitrie (1929): Cuvântarea Președintelui ISR, d-L d. Gusti [The Speech of the President of the Romanian Social Institute, Mr. D. Gusti] In Institutul Social Român După Zece Ani de Lucru, 1918-1928. Extras Din Arhiva Pentru Ştiinţa Şi Reforma Socială, Revista ISR, Anul VIII, No. 4, 1929, 5–12.

Gusti, Dimitrie (1942): Știința Și Pedagogia Națiunii [The Science and the Pedagogy of the Nation]. Sociologie Românească IV (7-12).

Hitchins, Keith (2010): Interwar Southeastern Europe Confronts the West. Angelaki 15 (3): 9–26. doi:10.1080/0969725X.2010.536007.

Rostás, Zoltán (2005): Atelierul Gustian. O Abordare Organizațională [The Gusti Workshop. An Organizational Approach]. Bucureşti: Editura Tritonic.

Rostás, Zoltán (2014): Dimitrie Gusti – profesor fondator de școală sociologică [Dimitrie Gusti, a Professor who Founded a Sociological School] In Dimitrie Gusti. 1880-1955, edited by Dinu Țenovici, Elena Bulgaru, Amelia Costoiu, Daniela Dumitrescu, and Șerban Șubă, 13–38. București: BCU Carol I.

Roucek, Joseph S. (1936): Review. Books Abroad 10 (1): 103. doi:10.2307/40028393.

Roucek, Joseph (1938): Sociology in Roumania. American Sociological Review 3 (1): 54–62. doi:10.2307/2083512.

Roucek, Joseph (1941): Review. American Sociological Review 6 (3): 407–8. doi:10.2307/2086204.

Sandu, Dumitru (2012): Ridicarea satului prin el însuși [Developing the Village through Itself] Secolul 21, no. 1-6: 215–41.

Şandru, daniel (2012): Intelectuali şi capcane politice în românia interbelică [intellectuals and political traps in the interwar romania], sociologie românească, no. 02: 8–20.

Văcărescu, Theodora-Eliza (2012): Trei În Unu Sau Despre Cum Încap Dreapta, Stânga Şi Centrul În Aceeaşi Oală [Three in One or how does the Right, the Left and Centre Fit in the Same Space], Sociologie Românească X (02): 21–41.

Levente Székedi

Levente Székedi

Levente Székedi is lecturer at the Partium Christian University, Department of Social Sciences, Oradea, Romania. He is teaching Rural Sociology, History of Sociology, Sociology of Mass Media and Medical Sociology.

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