Social Remittances and the Impact of Temporary Migration on an EU Sending Country: The Case of Poland

  • Published in:
    Central and Eastern European Migration Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2015, pp. 99-117
    DOI: 10.17467/ceemr.2016.05
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This article sheds light on the unintended consequences of temporary migration from Poland by combining Merton’s functional analysis with Levitt’s work on social remittances. In addition to economic remittances, Polish migrants have been bringing norms, values, practices and social capital to their communities of origin since the end of the nineteenth century. The article presents a juxtaposition of the non-material effects of earlier migration from Poland, dating from the turn of the twentieth century, with those of the contemporary era of migration from Poland since the 1990s. The analysis shows that some aspects, such as negotiating gender roles, the changing division of household labour, individualistic lifestyles, new skills and sources of social capital, and changing economic rationalities are constantly being transferred by migrants from destination to origin communities. Contemporary digital tools facilitate these transfers and contribute to changing norms and practices in Polish society. The article demonstrates that migration fulfils specific functions for particular sections of Polish society by replacing some functions of the communist state (e.g., cash assistance and loans from communist factories, factory and post-coop cultures) and by facilitating their adaptation to changing conditions (e.g., changing gender relations, new models of family, job aspirations and social mobility).

Keywords: temporary migration; unintended consequences; social remittances; Poland


In the first decade of the new millennium, circular and temporary labour migration trends reached a climax in Europe as an increasing number of migrants began to engage in more fluid forms of mobility (Castles, de Haas and Miller 2014). The European Union (EU) offered numerous new job opportunities and helped migrants to engage in temporary circulation, particularly following its 2004 and 2007 enlargements to include Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries (Glorious, Grabowska-Lusińska and Kuvik 2013). Fassmann, Kohlbacher and Reeger (2014) calculated that by 2011, almost five million citizens from CEE countries were living in the ‘old EU’. Furthermore, 2011 Polish census data revealed that over two million Poles had resided abroad for at least three months (Goździak 2014: 1). This massive migration is accompanied by significant reverse flows of return migrants. However, it is often the case that the return migration of Polish labour migrants does not imply permanent return. For many Polish migrants return often merely means a short break between periods spent abroad (Kaczmarczyk 2013: 112).

This article discusses some of the unintended consequences of temporary labour migration for particular sections of Polish society. Temporary migration refers to every move made abroad and back by migrants for both short-term (up to three months) and longer-term periods (more than twelve months), usually in connection with employment in a foreign labour market. Central to our functional analysis will be the concepts of unintended consequences and social remittances. Our assumption is that the concept of social remittances (the transfer and circulation of social practices, norms, values and social capital by migrants to the home country) helps to reveal the unintended consequences of contemporary labour migration for Polish society.

The outline of the article is as follows. First, we discuss the relevance of a functional analysis to understand some unintended consequences of temporary labour migration. Second, we introduce the concept of social remittances. Third, we explain the relevance of the Polish case and introduce arguments based on a review of Polish studies documenting the social consequences of migration for Polish society.

Functional analysis and unintended consequences

A central theme in the work of Merton (1989, 2006) is the phenomenon of unintended consequences. In his analysis of the unintended consequences of human action Merton (1967: 51) made a distinction between manifest and latent functions. The manifest functions are the objective consequences of social action which are intended and recognised and help social systems to adjust and adapt, whereas latent functions of designated social structures or socially patterned action refer to ‘those unintended consequences for a specified unit (group, social stratum, social or cultural system) which contribute to its adaptation, to its persistence and evolutionary change. Unlike manifest functions, latent functions are not the result of plan or design but of social evolution’ (Merton 1989: 316). Merton also made clear that in a differentiated society, social patterns may have multiple consequences which can be functional for some individuals and subgroups and dysfunctional for others (Merton 1967: 27, 53). Sztompka (1990: 60–61) gives as an example a competitive success orientation or ‘achievement syndrome’ that may benefit the economy, but ‘at the same time lead to the neglect of family life and consequent breakdown of family structure’.

Critics of the functional framing of issues have argued that it ignores knowledgeable human agents and that the distinction between manifest and latent functions is imprecise (Campbell 1982; Elster 1990; Mica, Peisert and Winczorek 2011). Elster (1990) and Giddens (1984, 1990), for example, rejected the concept of latent functions on the grounds that actors might recognise the consequences of human action, or that presumed unintended consequences are intended by actors. Campbell (1982: 33) argued that there are at least four different meanings of the manifest–latent distinction: 1) the contrast between ‘conscious intention’ and ‘actual consequences’; 2) ‘common-sense knowledge’ versus ‘sociological knowledge’; 3) ‘official aims’ of an organisation versus ‘unofficial’ aims; and 4) ‘surface meaning’ versus ‘deep understanding’. Boudon (1990: 136), in his defence of Merton’s distinction between manifest and latent functions, mainly refers to the second and fourth dimensions of latent functions: ‘Manifest functions are visible and do not need the social sciences to be detected. Latent functions are not only invisible but sometimes half-consciously hidden’. Portes (2000: 9), on the other hand, refers to the third meaning when analysing the latent function of US–Mexican border control (see also Portes 2010). The latent function of border control – as a symbol of a national determination to defend certain values – is in his view more important than the manifest organisational aim of stopping the flow of illegal immigration. Finally, Rigney (2010: 14) refers to the first meaning in his book on ‘Matthew effects’ in technology and different social fields. He cites as an example the fact that the inventors of the automobile probably did not intend or recognise its latent dysfunctions, such as contributing to climate change and creating greater social distances between people by locking them up ‘into isolated moving compartments’.

This article will not resolve conceptual confusion about manifest and latent functions. In line with Boudon (1990), the article mainly refers to the second and fourth meanings of the manifest–latent distinction. Apart from the obvious economic benefits, labour migration has social consequences that might be more difficult to trace but are important for the development and evolution of households, communities, regions and societies. And in line with Portes (2000: 9), we are of the opinion that social consequences of temporary labour migration are often ‘not recognized but are nonetheless real’. The concept of latent functions gives rise to the analysis of unexpected, unintended consequences of human actions that are important for the sustainability of specific social units or that are destructive for particular sections of societies.1 A crucial element of functional analysis is Merton’s plea (1967: 52) for revelation of the social mechanisms through which functions are fulfilled.2

Functional analysis can be applied to labour migration as it is an important patterned process. It is also clear that migration brings about multiple and contradictory consequences (functional for some and dysfunctional for others), both for traditional units of functional analysis – such as the economy, the family, social and religious organisations, and local communities – and for specific social groups and classes of a society (cf. Sztompka 1990: 60–61; Rigney 2010: 14). However, our aim in this article is not to pass judgement on migrants’ activities and their consequences. We want to understand the unintended consequences of temporary migration from Poland, including possible dysfunctional aspects. And we think that a functional analysis is still ‘an exceptionally useful sociological approach’ for such an undertaking (Calhoun 2010:14). The current prominence in the social sciences of mechanism-based explanations is profoundly influenced by the work of Merton and is highly relevant for migration studies (Hedström and Ylikoski 2010; Tilly 2010; Faist 2015; Bakewell, Engbersen, Horst and Fonseca 2016).

Unintended consequences of migration and the mechanism of social remittances

Unintended consequences

Within migration studies, Massey (1986) and Portes (2000, 2010) have used the concept of latent functions to highlight some unintended consequences of migration, such as the symbolic nature of US–Mexican border control, and the social and economic benefits for migrant enterprises of a soccer club established by Mexican migrants in California (Massey 1986: 103; Portes 2000: 9).3 In addition, Landolt (2001) has discussed the cumulative and unintended consequences of economic transnationalism for migrant households, immigrant community and sending country, using Merton’s concept of unintended consequences. While intended to improve the economic well-being of migrants’ households and their communities, they ultimately ‘have the unintended consequence of perpetuating a bankrupt economic system’ (Landolt 2001: 234). Second, the economic obligations of migrants to transnational households limit their ability to maintain their social relations with non-household members. The circulation of financial resources and moral obligations or commitments to family can cause undesirable and unintended consequences, undermining ‘the formation of locally oriented social networks of support’ (Landolt 2001: 234; see also Portes and Landolt 1996).

Social remittances

Levitt (1998, 2001) introduced the concept of social remittances as a conceptual tool to classify and explain intended and unintended consequences of migration. The concept of social remittances demonstrates that, in addition to money, migrants also export back ideas, norms, lifestyles, behavioural practices and social capital to their home country (cf. also Castles et al. 2014: 43). Social remittance is an example of a social mechanism through which specific functions are fulfilled. These social remittances influence particular sectors in the receiving countries. In the case of Polish labour migration, Okólski (2012a: 74) states that (temporary) labour migration ‘may be favourable or even indispensable for modernisation’. Sandu has argued that that ‘temporary emigration is one of the modernising factors of current time Romania acting directly at individual level’ (Sandu 2010: 286).

In her work on social remittances Levitt (1998, 2001) distinguishes three types: 1) normative structures; 2) systems of practice; and 3) social capital. Normative structures consist of ideas, values and beliefs. Examples are norms on equal gender relations. Systems of practice refer to divisions of labour in the household, religious practices, and patterns of civil and political participation. For organisations they include membership, recruitment and socialisation systems, leadership styles, and intra-organisational models. Social capital refers to the capacity of individuals to mobilise resources (such as information, financial means, material support or organisational skills) from the networks and broader social structures in which they are embedded (Bourdieu 1985; Portes 1998). It may also include the norms and values on which it is based (Levitt 2001). Social capital is based on four sources (Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993; Portes 1998): 1) value introjections; 2) reciprocity exchange; 3) bounded solidarity; and 4) enforceable trust. Value introjections mean introducing norms and values to individuals that encourage them not only to act for pragmatic, individual profit but also to provide altruistic assistance to others. Reciprocity exchange means expecting reciprocal benefits from the non-material help provided. Bounded solidarity is about the group solidarity arising from a common situation or experience, and the obligation to provide assistance to group members. Enforceable trust is based on a more anonymous reciprocal relationship between giver and recipient that derives from both actors being part of a common social structure. The giver provides support because they expect to profit from it and trust that the community will apply collective sanctions should the recipient fail to fulfil their obligations (Engbersen 2001).

Social remittance exchanges occur when migrants return to live in or visit their communities of origin, when non-migrants visit those in the receiving country or through modern communication exchanges (Levitt and Lamba-Nieves 2010). While those involved often cannot immediately recognise the social consequences of their migration experiences, over time migrants may learn to do so, usually with a certain time lag.4 Levitt (2001) also argues that just as economists distinguish individual economic remittances (for individuals and households) and collective economic remittances (to benefit a group, community or entire society) it is possible to distinguish individual and collective social remittances. Individual social remittances are the transmission of individual behaviours, and interactions and exchanges between friends, family members and neighbours. Collective social remittances are organisational actions taken by migrants to create collective goods (e.g., a sports complex, fire station or arts centre) or to organise activities to benefit a local community (e.g., public health campaigns) (Levitt and Lamba-Nieves 2010).

Unintended consequences and social remittances: the Polish migratory case

Poland became the main sending country in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Institutional barriers to the labour markets introduced in the 1990s by the main receiving countries of Western Europe and North America had fostered a specific pattern of mobility of Polish nationals: migration mostly took the form of repeated short stays abroad and involved seasonal or temporary employment in agriculture, the construction sector or household services (Fihel, Kaczmarczyk and Okólski 2006). In order not to exceed the three-month non-visa stay limit in West European countries, Polish nationals would return to Poland and migrate again immediately or after a short time, depending on their economic motives and family circumstances. The term ‘incomplete migration’ (Okólski 2001, 2012b) was coined to capture this back-and-forth mobility (Jaźwińska and Okólski 2001)

The EU enlargement of 2004 and the lifting of institutional barriers to the Polish workforce in some EU member states gave observers reason to believe that the outflow from Poland would become increasingly permanent. This turned out to be partly true (Grabowska-Lusińska and Okólski 2009). However, temporary migration has remained an important part of the outflow from Poland, although the duration of stays abroad has lengthened (Grabowska-Lusińska and Okólski 2009). The scale of the outflow from Poland so soon after EU enlargement, and the economic and demographic aspects of this process have been discussed extensively (Kaczmarczyk and Okólski 2008). However, a systematic analysis of the social, partly unintended consequences for Polish society is still missing.5 As argued before, the social mechanism of social remittances offers an analytical tool to document these social consequences.

19th- and 20th-century migration studies

The central ideas behind the concept of social remittances are not new in international migration literature (for overviews see, e.g., Vecoli and Sinke 1991; Walaszek 2003). Although social remittances were not so named nor systematically discussed in the past, international scholars have observed changes in norms, values and attitudes resulting from migration. For instance Thomas and Znaniecki’s (1918/1920) renowned monograph The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, while not referring directly to social remittances, has plenty to say about non-financial circulation between origin and destination communities, and the intermingling of old and new norms, values and attitudes. Authors wrote about ‘social becoming’ in the new context, meaning individuals, families and whole communities re-fashioning their way of life. The families they analysed were fusing old normative systems from the sending country with the new normative systems of the receiving country, which sometimes resulted in social conflict and brought unintended consequences to both origin and destination.

Historical Polish migration literature, alongside studies of Polish migrants in various local destinations, also shows the sending country perspective, usually after migrants’ return to their local communities (see, among others, Krzywicki 1891a, b; Chałasiński 1936; Duda-Dziewierz 1938; Zawistowicz-Adamska 1948).

We deliberately selected for further analysis instructive historical studies where social remittances, although not termed such, somehow became operationalised with sociological indicators of changing norms, practices and social capital through migration. We found two categories of studies dating from between 1890 and the mid-1930s, (preceding World War II) that looked at: 1) the impact of social remittances on sending locations (e.g., Krzywicki 1891a,b; Duda-Dziewierz 1938); and 2) the circulation of social remittances between origin and destination (Thomas and Znaniecki 1918/1920; Chałasiński 1936) (see Table 1 for selected historical overview and enumeration of social remittances). It is important to note that at the turn of the 19th century it was much easier to filter out the impact of migration on destination and origin from other social processes than in the 21st century, because these occurred before the technological revolution that so profoundly affected the complexity and outreach of social diffusion.

All the above-mentioned scholars working at the turn of the 19th century agreed that migration produced more individualised lifestyles which also had spill-over effects on the inhabitants of local sending communities. Scholars showed that migration not only promoted a new type of individual, more mobile and freer from the Polish feudal system and local social control, but also indirectly hastened the modernisation of isolated and remote rural areas of 19th-century Poland (cf. Grabowska, Garapich, Jaźwińska and Radziwinowicz, in press).

In the first category of studies, Krzywicki (1891b) and Duda-Dziewierz (1938) focused on the social impact of migration on both the concrete everyday practices and the more general normative structure of local sending communities. For instance, Krzywicki (1891b) noted that the labour migration of Polish peasants, mostly from the Prussian part of Poland to German Saxony (in Polish: saksy) was changing everyday practices in the communities of origin in terms of clothing (wearing shoes) and using household equipment (different utensils to prepare potatoes, noodles, etc.). Krzywicki also noted that after migration to Germany, female migrants began to institute greater gender equality in Polish households, with male assistance in everyday household activities such as cleaning, cooking and childcare. He was concerned that migration had contributed to people’s reduced feeling of ‘Polishness’ during the historical partitioning of Poland into Russia, Prussia and Austria, but he also underlined that migration facilitated changes in attitudes within Polish society, questioning the feudal way of life and liberating the people from its pressure.

Duda-Dziewierz’s (1938) monograph of Babica, a small emigration village in Malopolska, Poland, showed vividly that return migration and ongoing communication with the USA (through letters, newspapers and magazines) produced changes in the village way of life: households were run in a more professional and systematic way, the environment was cared for, common spaces were created, people began to meet in social places not necessarily connected to religion (e.g., after Mass), and hard work and its rewards began to be appreciated. She described how the customary way of life in the village had changed. She also documented changes in the cosmology of the people, who developed a more rational worldview, and became more critical of the impact of the Catholic Church on many aspects of life. This more rational worldview, together with emerging new forms of leadership, encouraged residents to cooperate and to contribute to the social and structural reorganisation of the village, which meant migrants buying new land in the village and settling there, the breaking down of the old territorial and social barriers between peasants and serfs, and locating new common (non-religious) cultural centres at the heart of the village, which according to Levitt amounted to a kind of collective social remittance. Duda-Dziewierz also documented the growing importance of more rational, entrepreneurial attitudes that stimulated economic investment in the land or the establishment of small businesses.

In the second category of historical studies relating to the circulation of social remittances between origin and destination, both Thomas and Znaniecki (1918/1920) and Chałasiński (1936) underlined the creation of transnational identity, being ‘here and there’ (the traditional sending of letters and parcels and infrequent visits to the sending village), that facilitated this circulation. All authors emphasise the almost ‘mythological sense of migratory return’ that encouraged migrants to live in transnational social spaces. As Chałasiński noted, this pattern of ‘migration for return’ was broken when World War II led to people becoming stuck in the receiving country. Both Thomas, Znaniecki and Chałasiński point to the creation of new values and attitudes at the juncture of tradition and modernity: valuing work and respecting manual work; the growing importance of individual autonomy (especially for women for whom the widespread growth of kindergartens in the USA provided assistance with childcare), the increasing significance of independence among both men and women; acceptance of those who chose not to marry; rationality about spending and budgeting; belief in life success; and changing attitudes towards the Catholic Church leading to changes in religious practices whereby individual effort and achievement were recognised and praised. All authors argued that this fusion of tradition and modernisation in transnational space had many unintended consequences. One of them, strongly underlined by Thomas and Znaniecki, was the reorganisation and sometimes fragmentation of traditional bonds in a community, with side-effects (called ‘deviances’ by the authors) such as homelessness and alcoholism but also theft and other crimes which migrants themselves saw as ‘moral holidays during migration’ because they were no longer under the social control of their local communities of origin.

Table 1. Summary of social remittances in sociological migration writings of the 19th and early 20th centuries

Source: own elaboration.

To sum up, scholars had already touched on the changing norms, practices and social capital resulting from migration long before the term ‘social remittances’ was coined (cf. Grabowska et al., in press). The findings of these early migration studies can be summarised according to Levitt’s three types of remittance (see Table 1).

Contemporary Polish studies

Below we will again use the three types of social remittances to classify and examine the social consequences of contemporary migration flows from Poland.

Normative structures. Elrick (2008) in his studies of two locations in Poland, argued that in addition to the economic consequences of migration, there are social and cultural consequences for the cohesion of the community and the lives of its members. He pointed out that emerging ‘cultures of migration’ can be seen in communities with a history of migration and high volume of outflow (cf. Massey Arango, Hugo, Kouaouci, Pellegrino and Taylor 1993). Migration culture after 1989 seems to be taking over some functions of communist-era factory and state farm cultures in local communities, especially in places where incomplete migration patterns still persist (Okólski 2012b). This is particularly connected to the structuring function of the rhythm of life of local inhabitants (seasonal migration; visiting families left behind), but also going for ‘shifts’ (people replace each other after some period of working abroad, e.g. in household services, agriculture and construction resembling shifts in communist factories). Migration, similar to the work in the communist factory or state farm, becomes a norm in such a local community with the culture of migratory- majority of inhabitants work there.

Elrick (2008) also found that migration is changing care arrangements in the two villages he studied due to the temporary absence of members of local communities. One important change is the substitution of mutual support provided by neighbours with paid professional help. As a consequence, informal support structures are being replaced by commercial support systems which may create a ‘commercialisation of life’ (Elrick 2008: 1515).

For traditional Polish society where the Catholic religion predominates, migration also has an impact in terms of changing gender roles and family relations. White (2011a) stresses that, in the Poland of the 1990s, the predominant pattern of migration was incomplete migration (Jaźwińska and Okólski 2001) mainly involving people from small towns and villages (‘hidden’ migration in Elrick’s analysis). This type of migration reinforced conventional family gender roles, with women becoming even more responsible for raising children largely on their own, while men’s parental responsibilities were mostly focused on earning money.

By contrast, a phenomenon often noted in various analyses of post-EU enlargement migration flows is that, when women migrate, traditional family roles change or in some cases are even reversed within households (White 2011a). Women gain more self-esteem and self-confidence, mainly because they improve their own financial standing. They come to feel that gender roles should be better balanced within the household. Given that Polish migrants are strongly attached to their communities (Kaczmarczyk 2008), a change towards more balanced gender roles in families may also take the form of a remittance applied as a new social norm in local communities. White’s (2011a: 93) survey in Podkarpacie showed that migrants who had returned from the UK and young people under 25 were less supportive of traditional migration gender roles, possibly reflecting a preference for ‘partner-like marriages’ (Fuszara 2005) where the roles of men and women are more equally shared. Moreover, in localities where many women have migrated, there was a general understanding that in some situations, wives were more suited than husbands to take on the role of migrant and main breadwinner (White 2011a: 96–97). This change stems from the economic necessity for a division of roles and labour in households where women migrate, but also from direct observation of lifestyles in Western societies. White suggests that social and economic change in Poland, together with social remittances from Western countries, may be contributing to a situation where ‘rigid gender roles (father = breadwinner; mother = chief parent) will be eroded, at least partially’ (2011a: 92). She suggests (2011a: 233) that ‘changing views about gender roles might be a form of social remittance, but only in the sense that Western ideas may reinforce new ideas about gender roles already circulating among younger and better-educated sections of the Polish population’. Pine’s (2007) research in a Polish mountain location showed that the migration of mothers is widely accepted because hard work and economic responsibility are ingrained in their sense of motherhood.

The report Social Consequences of Post-Accession Migration of the Population of Poland (Slany and Solga 2014) highlights that transnational families reveal a multiplicity of social roles. Migrating mothers in particular have to deal with the feelings of loneliness and helplessness experienced as a result of separation from their children along with taking on the multiple roles of distant parent, household manager and carer of elderly parents. However, many migrating women, despite changing gender roles and the increasing level of their agency (taking responsibility for the material well-being of family, the economic support of children and intense transnational communication), find themselves unable to change their attitude to the traditional mother role and continue taking entire responsibility for the eventual effects of separation and transnational relations, even where the fathers have been left behind with the children (Ryan 2010). Analysis also shows that fathers who are left behind with children when women migrate tend to seek help and sometimes shift responsibilities to other members of the family – grandparents or other relatives. If mothers stay behind when men migrate, they tend to raise the children themselves, taking on the everyday responsibilities of the absent fathers. But some researchers question the extent of the emancipation of women left behind, as they are usually still financially dependent on uncertain money transfers and ad hoc visits by fathers to the families based on patriarchal authority, obedience and discipline.

Migration has other effects on family relations. White (2011a) has pointed out several consequences of migration for family life when one part of the family is left behind in a sending country: loss or weakening of bonds with other members of family; loss of parental control over children; or the abandonment of children as a result of migration by both parents. There are also cases of children who were abandoned as a result of parental migration abroad (referred to in media discourse as ‘Euro-orphans’). These children tend to suffer from loneliness and a loss of emotional and material security (Niewiadomska 2010). Kozak (2010) posits that in families with one or both parents abroad, the ‘sailor syndrome’ of psychological or emotional mismatch between migrant and family members left at home may occur on return.6 However, children are not the only ones to suffer from family separation; elderly parents of middle-aged migrants may also experience negative consequences. White (2011a: 125) has argued that although there are more and more accessible services, especially certain forms of care-giving at a distance, the emotional consequences for elderly parents left behind by migrants can be quite severe (see also Krzyżowski 2013). This may be due to the fact that it is still not common in Poland to place elderly parents in residential homes, there is rather a strong norm of direct involvement in care.

In sum, research on the family and changing gender roles shows differentiated consequences of migration. On the one hand there is evidence that migration transforms traditional gender roles and equalises the household division of labour, on the other hand the absence of parents may have a negative impact on family relations and care arrangements for those left behind. Acknowledging and understanding some negative or dysfunctional aspects of migration does not imply that individual migrants are to blame for them: they are consequences of the structure of international migration. Besides, migration is often not an individual but a collective strategy of (transnational) households and extended families based on economic, social and personal considerations (Stark 1991; Ryan, Sales, Tilki and Siara 2009; Ryan 2010).

Alongside changing norms with respect to gender relations and care arrangements, scholars have also pointed out that migration has changed norms of social mobility aspiration. Elrick (2008) argues that mobility has become the dominant value for the perception of life chances. Migration has become the main vehicle for social mobility and the main strategy for escaping from social deprivation. Migration resources have helped people to improve their social status. Elrick also found that migrating parents seek to compensate for their absence by investing in extra foreign-language lessons for their children left behind to enable them to work abroad in the future should the local labour markets be adverse.

Changing social mobility norms can also be seen in studies of the careers of non-seasonal Polish migrants engaging in migration on a longer-term basis (Grabowska-Lusińska 2012; Grabowska, in press). Some migrants realise that appreciation from and promotion by foreign employers (especially as qualified workers) provides opportunities for further social mobility at home, especially in connection with setting up their own business. One of the unintended consequences of labour migration connected to social mobility is that many migrants from Poland, especially those who have worked abroad in jobs below their formal qualifications, realise what ‘they don’t ever want to do in their professional lives’. They also regret not planning their career before migration, by comparison with their foreign counterparts with the same level of formal education (Grabowska-Lusińska 2012). Aspiring to social mobility at home is also connected to migrants’ financial attainments abroad. The more they earn abroad in the short term, the more they can aspire to improve their relative position in local social structures. This is one of the more direct manifest functions of migration.

But the behaviours of migrants in the receiving labour markets have other effects. One is the widespread phenomenon of deskilling that accompanies cross-border mobility (Morokvasic and de Tinguy 1993; Erel 2003; Currie 2007; Grabowska-Lusińska 2012; Piętka, Clark and Canton 2012; Trevena 2013; Grabowska, in press). The term ‘occupational skidding’ has been coined to describe the drop in job status experienced by migrants after migration (Morawska and Spohn 1997: 36). Although many migrants are well educated, they accept work for low wages in occupations outside their formal training. Morokvasic and de Tinguy (1993: 245) have highlighted the ‘brain waste’ of people from CEE economies because their formal qualifications and skills are out of date. Currie (2007: 72) reports that the majority of her respondents from Poland recognised their diminished social status and expressed high levels of disappointment with their social ranking in the UK. When highly educated migrants are willing to accept low-skilled jobs for a short period of time, the experience can be refreshing and provide career motivation. If, however, they are stuck in such a position for a prolonged period, it can devalue their skills or render them out of date, which may be a problem when they attempt to return to their previous, usually formal professions (Grabowska-Lusińska 2012). But migration also enables reflexivity about working life which may impact social mobility (Grabowska, in press, following Archer 2007), making migrants aware of life skills acquired even when working below their formal qualifications.

Practices. Morawska (2001) argues that migration is a process of structuring through migrants’ everyday social practices. She also claims that migration teaches migrants to value their labour and income: ‘This newly acquired orientation-cum-practice, a commitment to hard work in conditions promising good financial rewards, becomes part of migrants’ coping strategies in the capitalist world and, over time, an integral component of a cultural structure of migration. As part of the available culture of migration this resource enables, in turn, other migrants to make well balanced decisions and take subjective actions regarding income-seeking in the West’ (Morawska 2001: 21).

With regard to work practices, Grabowska (in press) found that according to the 2011 Polish census nearly one in two Polish migrants with tertiary education and one-third with medium-level qualifications did not undertake work abroad that accorded with their formal qualifications. Therefore, they were unable to bring home manifest new qualifications. However, they had gained ‘tacit skills’ through work practices, such as teamwork, handling multiple tasks in complex and demanding environments, prioritising, planning and learning (Grabowska, in press).

Migrants also learn specific transnational information practices through digital media. One of the unintended consequences of transnational information practices, driven by strong emotional bonds with sending localities, is that both migrants and their peers left behind master everyday digital media usage (Ignatowicz 2011; Dekker and Engbersen 2014). Migrants want to be ‘virtually local’, even maintaining stronger local identities at a distance than they had before they left (Komito and Bates 2011). Peers left behind want updates about their everyday lives. This everyday talk about experiences in receiving, often multicultural, societies may serve as a conveyor belt for the cultural diffusion of objects, ideas and practices (Bakewell et al. 2013). White (2011b) calls this phenomenon of migration from small Polish towns and villages to small towns and villages in the UK ‘translocality’, referring also to translocalised relations. Migrants become, often in unintended ways, ‘practicing actors of globalisation’ (Kennedy 2010); some of them diffuse innovations acquired from rich contacts with receiving societies, others just unintentionally create local links (White 2011b).

Physical mobility practices demonstrate important aspects of kinship rituals and ceremonies (such as christenings, First Communion, weddings and funerals) ordered through migration and mobility, and in particular of the centrality of family networks (Ignatowicz 2011: 38). The practice of travelling for weddings, funerals or christenings has major significance: ‘More than simply continuing and recognising the religious and cultural traditions, mobility as an obligation acts as a motivation for the maintenance of social relations’ (Ignatowicz 2011: 42). Mobility patterns also create a space to exhibit material and non-material success, but also a space of diffusing, rather à la carte, new practices brought from abroad, such as wedding and christening customs and outfits, and fashion.

Migration impacts the practices of family lives and family relations of those who migrate (Levitt 1998), and this is also true of circular migration, where the person is in a cycle of going abroad to work and then returning to the home country for some time. Kurczewski and Fuszara (2012), in their studies on traditional patriarchal Silesian families in the Opolskie Region, argued that, on the one hand, the entire family has to adjust to the rhythm established by migration, and that on the other hand family members, mostly women, become more independent and take over the responsibilities that had previously belonged to the migrating husband or wife. This creates new practices in households affected by the absence of those who had previously had roles in a family. These practices include women starting to drive, organising property refurbishment or building a new home, going to schools for parent–teacher meetings, having sex education talks with children, and taking children to after-school activities.

As pointed out by Social Consequences of Post-Accession Migration of the Population of Poland (Slany and Solga 2014), new transnational practices of caring for children and elderly parents left behind are emerging. As regards transnational care of children left behind, parents want to be involved via Skype or phone calls in children’s education (doing homework, monitoring on-line teacher information if available) and diet (on-line shopping for children), and in bringing or sending them new technological equipment. When migrant parents visit communities of origin they usually pay visits to schools and meet teachers.

As regards transnational care of elderly parents, three types of practices were listed in the 2014 report: 1) practices which remain the same despite the distance, namely emotional support (via Skype and telephone), giving advice, help seeking legal, health and services information; 2) practices which are modified in transnational spaces, such as monitoring the situation of elderly parents via Skype, on-line or phone booking of medical appointments, on-line shopping, organising paid daily assistance with cleaning and cooking, paying bills online; and 3) new practices emerging in transnational social spaces such as financial help to the elderly parent (internet or Western Union money transfers), introducing new labour-saving devices from destination countries, consulting medical specialists abroad, sending medicines from abroad, and teaching elderly parents how to use computers, tablets, the internet and Skype.

Kilkey, Plomien and Perrons (2013) also examined changing practices of fathering as a result of migration by Polish fathers: from breadwinning, passive fathering to more conscious, active fathering at a distance. They highlighted that migration also uncovers tensions between breadwinning and fathering, and various practices deployed to reconcile these tensions. They see fathering as a latent element of a global care chain, compared with the manifest roles of mothers. Fathers too have attachments and commitments to their children which go beyond mere breadwinning. Migrating fathers are caught between material and non-material aspects of their parenting with the bigger focus on the first aspect. Experience of transnational, distant fathering, especially for those fathers who are separated or divorced and have fractured relations with their children left behind, also made them more alive to emotional relations and everyday practices with children in newly created families in a receiving country (Kilkey et al. 2013).

Social capital. The analysis of social capital as a type of social remittance needs to take into account that the content of social capital is highly contextualised by nature and difficult to generalise (Trutkowski and Mandes 2005). This principle is particularly important for Poland, which has been undergoing complex social, political and economic transitions. Some analysts suggest that Polish society still contains aspects of the communist-era mentality, behaviour and actions, and that it has a very low level of social capital compared to other European societies Studies on incomplete migration from Poland have also included analyses of migratory social capital in relation to the resources facilitating migration and relations with owners of these resources. In order to analyse migratory social capital, Górny and Stola (2001) used data from six ethno-survey studies conducted in Poland (Lubniany, Monki, Namyslow, Nowy Targ, Perlejewo and Warsaw) between 1994 and1996. They showed that migratory social capital tended to be concentrated in specific local communities of origin and destinations to which Polish migrants gravitated. Within social migration networks people indirectly and directly helped each other, which sustained the scale of migration networks and the importance of social capital. The sustainability of migratory social capital became especially important for local communities with intense back-and-forth migration. In circulation, migration meant not an escape from a social community but a temporary absence, and maintaining social relations with friends, family members and neighbours was highly important. Family members left behind expected reciprocity from migrants because they looked after the latter’s children, households and elderly relatives during their absence. It resembled capital investment which a beneficiary migrant needed somehow to pay back. This created reciprocity exchange, bounded solidarity between generations and enforceable trust (Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993). Górny and Stola (2001) also found that the more independent and self-sustainable a migrant, the less social capital they needed. Stola and Górny concluded that social capital could be also seen as a social credit in the form of more or less unselfish actions towards members of social networks. Migratory social capital replaced in post-communist local communities the cash assistance and loans which had functioned in the communist factories. The only difference was that migratory social capital was based on non-material aspects and social trust (Górny and Stola 2001) which migrants could also remit from abroad.

Wieruszewska (2007) studied migrants’ social capital in three Polish villages, in Opolskie, Podlaskie and Podkarpackie regions (mostly post-accession migration). Their analyses showed that migration can somehow generate or even increase social trust (see also Górny and Stola 2001). Polish migrants learned that trust building is a process of proving their reliability, trustworthiness and credibility. This, metaphorically, opens doors everywhere. Migrants understand that trust is an important mechanism in the everyday labour market because it can promote business between partners. In the village communities of Wieruszewska’s study (2007), increased social trust after migration was mostly directed towards family members and relatives, but to a lesser extent also to fellow villagers. This finding highlights some unintended consequences of migration, even if somewhat limited in impact, especially as they counter the widespread distrust inherited from the communist regime. However, on the other hand Wieruszewska (2007) have also shown that labour migrants may remit modern values of individualism from abroad, and that the role of social capital in connection with neighbourliness has declined. The rise of more individualistic lifestyles can be seen among the young.7 As expressed by Putnam (2002), international migration may lead to the weakening of bonding social capital and the strengthening of bridging social capital in local communities.

The strengthening of bridging social capital is noticeable in the social remittances of migrants that relate to forms of voluntary help (Wieruszewska 2007). Migrants admitted that after migration they felt more obliged to help others, especially their families and relatives but also, to a lesser extent, their local communities. More than half of migrants said that their general involvement in helping others increased as a result of migration. Migrants suggested that people who have more money as a result of migration should also donate more money to private and public institutions such as churches, schools, kindergartens and arts centres, thus contributing to the building of civil society.

Table 2. Contemporary Polish labour migration and different types of social remittances

Source: own elaboration.

Table 2 summarises the major aspects of contemporary social remittances discussed above. Most social remittances relate to the transmission of individual behaviours and values and exchanges between friends, family members and neighbours. Collective social remittances are less common or even rare in Polish local communities. However, the aggregation of individual social remittances may create specific collective outcomes, such as more equal gender roles and changing fathering practices. This overview can also be seen as an inventory of the latent functions of labour migration for particular sections of Polish society.


This article has combined Merton’s functional analysis with Levitt’s work on social remittances to gain a better understanding of the social consequences of temporary labour migration for Poland. The complex ways in which temporary labour migration is transforming and reshaping Polish society call for an in-depth analysis that goes beyond the more obvious manifest economic functions of migration. In this article we have analysed the unintended social consequences of migration from Poland through the conceptual lenses of the mechanism of social remittances. For this undertaking we examined early (19th- and 20th-century) as well as contemporary migration studies. This analysis shows that there are many things which people continuously bring to their communities of origin as a result of migration or circulation between destination and origin, such as more equal gender roles, changing household division of labour, individualistic lifestyles, new skills and sources of social capital, changing economic rationalities and emerging forms of collective action for the development of civil society. The analysis also shows that migration can produce functional and dysfunctional outcomes. The clearest examples are the differentiated effects on the family and on civil society. The study also shows that contemporary forms of digital communication bring distant family members closer to each other and generate new transnational practises of caring for children and elderly parents left behind. 

The analysis of the mechanism of social remittances presented in this article enables us to understand the enduring relevance of temporary, back-and-forth labour migration for the sending society. The social remittances produced by temporary labour migration may help particular sections of Polish society adapt to changing global, European and national conditions (Castles et al. 2014; Slany and Solga 2014). Social remittances in the form of the transmission of norms, values and practices may also help not only to overcome the effects of the political and social transformation of Polish society, but also to contribute to the transformation of stable, ordered lives into lives of greater uncertainty and insecurity resulting from globalisation (Bauman 1998; Hughes, Fergusson 2000). Moreover, temporary labour migration also has its darker side, and calls for targeted social and economic policies that support family structures and the careers of migrants and their families (Slany and Solga 2014).

This article is based on a secondary analysis of historical and contemporary studies of Polish labour migration. What is missing is a systematic study of the actual transmission of social remittances. Under what conditions do we see changes in norms, practices and social capital? How do individual acts of social remitting produce collective changes in norms, practices and social capital? To answer these fundamental questions systematic multi-sited studies in destination and origin countries are needed to document in detail the process and impact of social remittances within the European Union.


1 Our analysis is also in line with those authors who differentiate between methodological and substantive functionalism (Boudon 1990: 136). Merton’s contribution is that he offers a methodological framework to document and interpret social consequences of human phenomena that are important for the continued existence of institutions (Calhoun 2010).

2 Merton (1967: 52) states: ‘Functional analysis in sociology (...) calls for a ‘concrete and detailed’ account of the mechanisms which operate to perform a designated function. This refers, not to psychological, but to social mechanisms (e.g., role-segmentation, insulation of institutional demands, hierarchic ordering of values, social division of labour, ritual and ceremonial enactments, etc.)’.

3 Massey used the concept of functions to explain manifest and latent functions of a Mexican migrant soccer club: ‘One of the two urban communities under study provides a particularly good example of how an organization apparently unrelated to the migrant process, a soccer club, has been adapted to serve the needs of a bi-national migrant community. Although its manifest functions are recreational, its latent functions are to strengthen and expand the social connections within the network, thereby supporting the migrant enterprise’ (Massey 1986: 107). Nearly seventy years earlier, Thomas and Znaniecki (1918/1920) made the same kind of observations with respect to the functions of the Polish peasant cooperative institutions in Chicago (see Merton 1967: 62).

4 It is important to bring in temporality as a dimension of human agency and reflexivity (Archer and Tritter 2000:10–12). Merton (1967: 70) also acknowledged that latent functions may over time become generally recognised by the public, such as the latent functions of consumption (bringing status and creating distinction).

5 Recently, the Polish Academy of Sciences published a report (Slany and Solga 2014) on the social consequences of post-accession migration from Poland.

6 It can also be argued that migration only reveals family dysfunctions that existed long before migration, and that parents were unable to take care of their children even before going abroad. ‘There are plenty of children like that in ‘ordinary’ families where no one has ever migrated’ (White 2011a).

7 The rise of more individualistic lifestyles does not imply that the family is a declining institution. The family still plays a central role in individual mobility (see Botterill 2013).


The article is also based on findings coming from the project Diffusion of Culture Through Social Remittances between Poland and The United Kingdom funded by National Science Centre Poland (Grant No. 179068).


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