• Faculty

  • Elzbieta Matynia

    Professor of Sociology & Liberal Studies; Director of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies


    Office Location
    D - 6 East 16th Street

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    Elzbieta Matynia


    **On leave Fall 2024-Spring 2025**

    Elzbieta Matynia is Professor of Sociology and Liberal Studies, and founding director of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS).

    I am a sociologist and historian of ideas, and my work at the crossroads of political and cultural sociology aims to illuminate how dramatic shifts in past and present social imaginaries shape and furnish our future at the local, national, and transregional levels.

    At the center of my interests is the state of today’s democracy, which – while still aspirational – has been failing large segments of citizenry whether in the United States, East and Central Europe, or Sub-Saharan Africa. My research explores peaceful transitions to democratic order in various parts of the world, gender equality and democracy, and the challenges faced by democracies that have emerged with a legacy of violence. 

    My early book, "Grappling with Democracy: Deliberations on Post-communist Societies (1990-1995)" (1996) is a rare document of semi-clandestine debates on building a democratic order by dissident intellectuals in the countries of the newly defunct Soviet bloc. "Performative Democracy" (2009) examines a potential in political life that easily eludes theorists – the indigenously inspired enacting of democracy by citizens – and identifies the conditions for civic performativity in public life. "An Uncanny Era: Conversations between Václav Havel and Adam Michnik" is a discussion between two iconic dissidents of Eastern Europe, Václav Havel and Adam Michnik, on the precariousness of democracy and early signs of its retreat.  The book was listed among the eight Times Higher Education Books of 2014. The essays "How to Kill a Democracy" (2019), and "Is Liberal Democracy Already History?" discuss further democratic retreat and decline. In my research and teaching I often explore the arts as a site of social reflection, knowledge, and civic agency (“1989 and the Politics of Democratic Performativity” in the International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society), “Architectures of Gender,” “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” “The Promise of Active Freedom,” “Tribute to a Bridge,” and “Democracy’s Endgame?”). I am currently working on a book, “Democracy After Violence.”

    I received my MA in literature and philosophy and PhD in sociology from Warsaw University, and came to the United States for post-doctoral studies at the New School’s Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science. Soon after I arrived in NYC, the Polish government imposed martial law upon a society that 16 months earlier had organized the Independent and Self-governing Trade Union Solidarity, a workers-led movement unique in the Soviet Bloc that ultimately launched a long-running rights revolution throughout the region. Unable to go back to Poland under martial law, I taught at Bard and Sarah Lawrence Colleges and was then offered a junior position at The New School for Social Research.

    As head of TCDS, I developed international fellowship programs in critical studies of democracy and launched the Democracy & Diversity Graduate Summer Institutes open to civic-minded junior scholars for rigorous cross-cultural study on the critical issues facing today’s world (see a one-minute video-lecture here). I am a member of the editorial board of the Social Research International Journal. And am honored to have recently received the 2023 Courage in Public Scholarship Award, established in 2014 by the NSSR/Europe Collective (view a short intro video from the ceremony here.)

    Degrees Held

    PhD 1979, University of Warsaw

    Recent Publications

    Recent Essays

    "Is Liberal Democracy Already History?" East European Politics and Societies, vol. XX no. X, 2020 

    "How to Kill a Democracy", Social Research, Volume 86, Number 1, Spring 2019 https://muse.jhu.edu/journal/644

    The Promise of Active Freedom, (in:) The Value of Freedom, Belvedere Museum in Vienna; (German, English) Verlag fur Moderne Kunst, Vienna, 2018; A shorter version in Public Seminar


    An Uncanny Era: Conversations between Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik, Yale University Press, 2014
    (Polish translation: Przedziwna Epoka: Rozmowy miedzy Havlem a Michnikiem, Wroclaw: Wydawnictwo DSW, 2017)

    Performative Democracy, Yale Cultural Sociology Series, Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2009

    Demokracja Performatywna, Wroclaw: Wydawnicwo DSW, 2008

    The Social Science in Transition: The Case of Central and Eastern Europe, in a series Mapping Human Capital Needs Globally, Social Science Research Council, New York, 2003

    Grappling with Democracy: Deliberations on Post-Communist Societies, 1990-1995, SLON, Prague, 1995

    Book Chapters

    Zieleni Sie Demokracja? Refleksje na marginesie Wiosny Arabskiej (“Greening of Democracy? Reflections on Arab Spring”) in Przesilenie. Nowa Kultura Polityczna, ed. J. Koltan, Europejskie Centrum Solidarnosci, Gdansk, 2016

    Public Happiness in Future Publics (The Rest Can and Should Be Done by the People): A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, Maria Hlavajova, Ranitt, eds, BAKUtrecht, 2014

    The Logics of Performative Democracy in Art in Times of Gray Democracy, J. Kurz, J. Warsza, F. Zólyom (eds), Spector Books, Leipzig, 2015, (German/English)

    An Old Bridge and a new Agora; and Between the Local and the Global; two chapters in A Handbook of Dialogue:Trust and Identity, Brussels-Sejny 2011

    Feminism between the Local and the Global: a Task of Translation, in the volume Women’s Movements in Global Era: The Power of Local Feminisms, Amrita Basu (ed.), Boulder: Westview Press, 2010

    Liberalism for Our Times, Introduction to a book by Ira Katznelson, Liberalism Crooked Circle: Letters to Adam Michnik, Wydawnicwo DSW: Wroclaw, 2006

    A democracia szazadgvegi berendezkedese, avagy a lengyel kerakasztal (Negotiating Democracy in Poland) in a book A Rendszervaltas Forgatokoyve 1989 (The Scenarios of the Regime Changes of 1989), ed. Hetedik Kotet, Uj Mandatum Konyvkiado, Budapest 2000 (in Hungarian)

    Finding a Voice: Women in Post-Communist Societies of Central Europe, chapter in The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Women`s Movements in Global Perspective, ed. Amrita Basu, Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.

    Edited Volumes

    1989 and Beyond: The Future of Democratic Politics, (the International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Springer, Fall 2009; Winter 2009)

    Civil Society, guest editor of the special volume of Social Research, International Quarterly of the Social Sciences, vol.68, no.4. Winter 2001


    “Revolution, Democracy, and Restoration Revisited” in Public Seminar

    “Baumana Sztuka Socjologii” (Bauman’s Art of Sociology, Forum Oswiatowe, vol. 29, No 1, 2017 (in Polish)

    “The Theatre of Public Life—A crucible of our Humanity? Re-reading Hannah Arendt," Polish Theater Journal, 2, 2016

    “W Obronie Amerykanskiego Marzenia –OWS” (“In defense of American Dream – OWS”), Res Publica Nowa, (Warsaw), No 209/2012

    “The Promise of Borderlands,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, (January 2011)

    “Between the Local and the Global: or, What Wroclaw Has Given Us," Polish Theatre Perspectives: International Theater Journal (December 2010)

    “1989 and the Politics of Democratic Performativity,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Springer, Fall 2009

    “Poland Provoked: How Women Artists En-Gendered Democracy,” Current History. A Journal of Contemporary World Affairs, March 2006

    “Feminist Art and Democratic Culture,” Performance Art Journal, PAJ 79, (Winter 2005).

    “Provincializing Global Feminism”, Social Research, Summer 2003

    “Armando la democracia a finales de siglo. La Mesa polaca y otras mesas”, Encuentro, no. 25, 2002, (Madrid, Spain)

    “Furnishing Democracy at the end of the Century: Negotiating Transition at the Polish Round Table & Others”, Eastern European Politics and Society, Winter 2001; vol.15/2

    “The Lost Treasure of Solidarity”, Social Research, Winter, 2001; vol. 68, no.4

    “Women after Communism: A Bitter Freedom”, Social Research, Summer, 1994 (Vol.61, No.2), pp. 351-379.

    Research Interests

    Main areas: Political Sociology, Sociology of Arts and Culture; History of Social Ideas; Social Memory; Democracy and Democratization; Gender and Politics; East and Central Europe.

    Research in political and cultural sociology focusing on democratic transitions in Eastern Europe and beyond, and on the sources and processes of both the enacting and — more recently — the dismantling of democratic projects. Her current book project is tentatively titled Democracy after Violence: Perplexities of the Anti-communist and Anti-apartheid Movements.

    Awards And Honors

    The 2019 Distinguished Alumna Award bestowed by the President of the University of Warsaw and the American Friends of the University of Warsaw, for scholarly achievements vital for the understanding of the contemporary world, 2020

    Vratislavia Grato Animo, Silver Medal of Gratitude awarded by the City of Wroclaw, 2018

    U.S. Fulbright Scholar to South Africa, 2010-2011

    Recurring Distinguished Visiting Professorship at the Lower Silesia Academy in Wroclaw, 2008-2018

    Distinguished Professorship at the Kazakh State University, Almaty, 2006

    Visiting Professorship at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, 2005

    Katarzyna Kalwinska Post-Doctoral Fellowship, 1981-1983

    Current Courses

    Independent Study
    GSOC 6990, Summer 2024

    Future Courses

    Ind Senior Project
    LSOC 4990, Spring 2025

    Independent Study
    LSOC 3950, Spring 2025

    Independent Study
    GLIB 6990, Fall 2024, Spring 2025

    Independent Study
    GSOC 6990, Fall 2024, Spring 2025

    Past Courses

    GSOC 7005, Spring 2024

    Ind Senior Project
    LSOC 4990, Spring 2024

    Independent Study
    LSOC 3950, Spring 2024

    Independent Study
    GLIB 6990, Fall 2023, Spring 2024

    Independent Study
    GSOC 6990, Fall 2023, Spring 2024

    Sociology through Theater
    LSOC 3013, Spring 2024

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