Jakub Burkowicz is the first SFU graduate to be awarded the Canadian Sociology Association's Outstanding Graduate Student Award at the PhD level.

Alumni, Sociology

Alumni Profile: Jakub Burkowicz, Sociology

August 14, 2017

Jakub Burkowicz, who completed his PhD in Sociology at SFU in 2016, is the first SFU graduate to be awarded the Canadian Sociology Association’s Outstanding Graduating Student Award at the PhD level. Burkowicz’s research, which straddles history and sociology, examines representations of Slavic immigrants to Canada from the late 19th to the mid-20th century.

As Burkowicz points out, the history of immigration of various Eastern and Central European ethnic populations to Canada is well-documented (ie: Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Doukhobors), but not much is known about the way in which these populations experienced racism. Indeed, he says, there is a lack of knowledge about whether and how they were treated as racialized subjects: “most of the scholarship prefers instead to approach the topic of othering in terms of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment directed at specific ethnic European populations.” In his research, Burkowicz shifts the focus towards racism and race.

Burkowicz co-authored the textbook Society: The Basics. 6th Canadian ed. (Pearson), 2017.

Burkowicz describes himself as “a sociologist doing history . . . a theorist interested in race and social movements.” He considers the role of discourse in the construction of a homogenous Slavic racial identity “a kind of large scale category that subsumed the identities of the Poles, Russians, Serbs, and Ukrainians and obliterated the differences between them.” In doing so, Burkowicz turns to the dominant social discourses represented in a variety of publications – newspapers, political debates, ads, medical pamphlets, scholarly accounts, magazines, novels, etc. – to examine the ways in which the Slav emerged as a figure of racial apprehension in the Canadian imagination from the late 19th to the mid-20th century.

“My hope,” says Burkowicz, “is that a historical examination aids sociology in refining its approach to the study of racialization . . . that is, of the way that racial identities are constructed and sustained. Max Weber observed that history can provide us with the knowledge of empirical evidence of events while sociology can help us make generalizations about them.”

Burkowicz argues that there is something to be gained by combining both: “Neither discipline has adequately approached this topic on its own. Historians who have begun to examine the racialization of Europeans haven’t looked at the Slavs in Canada – we can say that a gap exists here – and social scientists have for too long assumed that as Europeans, the Slavs were just not racialized – we can say that there is a bit of incredulity here as concerns intra-European racism.”

Burkowicz says he pursued the topic of the racialization of the Slavs “mostly out of curiosity … and with the faith that knowing how racial identities were constructed in the past would help us understand how they function today.” Indeed, the limited term lecturer in Sociology at SFU and newly appointed faculty member at Douglas College sees evidence of the relationship between his research focus and current events emerging in his classroom. “I teach a third-year sociology course called Race, Immigration, and the Canadian State, which covers some aspects of my research along with the work of other scholars who write on more contemporary questions regarding immigration and race. What struck me and my students was just how continuous racialization is. The figure of the Slav can be easily replaced with the figure of the Italian, the Jew, and the Chinese, and today quite seamlessly with the Arab and the Muslim.”

Moreover, he says, there are similar concerns attached to each racial immigrant category, whether these are questions of assimilability (dress and family structure) or security (ie: radicalism): “If the Muslim is today denounced as a Jihadist and potential terrorist, the Slav was denounced as a potential anarchist. This is to say that the Islamophobia that we are witnessing right now is not unique; it has been well rehearsed in Canadian society.”

Burkowicz and his family at a decolonization event in Vancouver, July 2017.

Burkowicz attributes some of his research interests to what he calls his own “fairly typical Eastern European immigration experience”: “I lived for approximately the first decade of my life in the 1980s in Poland. My family left rather secretly for West Germany where we spent two years before finally immigrating to Canada in 1989.” Growing up behind the Iron Curtain was, he says, a formative experience.  “Immigrating between three different societies forced a sociological lesson on me. I came to realize that social structures are not to be taken for granted as people’s behaviour and beliefs are powerfully shaped by them. Just by being transplanted, you get this lesson. Living in different countries I also learned to see myself as an other – someone who is on the outside and who does not belong. . . I also learned not to see myself as just a national subject – and I believe this was crucial for my research.”

“While I wrote my dissertation on the Slavs, it isn’t just about the Slavs. My work recognizes that a discursive formation of race can envelop various subjects.” Burkowicz’s research also spurs him on to support various antiracist activist work: while doing his MA at Queens, he co-founded the Kingston chapter of No one is Illegal, a movement dedicated to advocating for the rights of migrants around the world.  While he says his studies have taken time away from activist work – “I haven’t been the kind of activist I would like to be; I’ve spent far too much time on scholarly pursuits” – he says there remains a link between scholarship and activism: “What motivates me in both pursuits is a desire to challenge, undermine, or mitigate racism in our society. Certainly, that kind of work needs to be done.”