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Like an Oasis in a Desert: The Importance of Replika Open University in Hungary

Note from the LeftEast editors: In an effort to circulate information about local events and initiatives, we invite the submission of other reports such as this one in the future.

Critical, self-reflective, interactive, communal, free, and open – these were the promises of Replika Open University, the series of online sociological presentations and discussions between February and May. Replika is a critical social sciences journal in Hungary, published since 1990.

Flyer for Replika Free University.

Replika was founded in 1989, and stemmed from the Club of Young Sociologists. In its early years, the Club proved to be quite vibrant: several events were organized weekly with guests like Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s current prime minister, and his earlier and current political allies. Besides the politically oriented events, the Club also served as an alternative sociological circle. 100–150 sociologists, economists, philosophers, and other social scientists were involved. Miklós Hadas, its founder, decided to continue the Club in a different form, and together with sociologist László Antal Z. started Replika. The first issue came out in fall 1990, and since then the journal has become one of the most important social science forums in the country. It has opened up sociological research to postmodernism, cognitive science scholarship, and other recent trends in the social sciences. As Miklós Hadas explained in an interview, the goal was to use sociology as a critical tool rather than as a means to legitimize political power, which at that time meant embedding more sociological paradigms besides Marxism.

The journal publishes mostly Hungarian articles, and occasionally also translations. Browsing through the archive – uploaded on their website – reveals a broad range of topics. Of the 120 issues published so far, some were devoted to topics such as homelessness, consumerism, hegemonic masculinity, jazz, the paradoxes of modernity, or poverty, while one of the latest issues, Fuckapitalism, revolves around the political economy of sex. The journal also published a few special issues and a dozen books, for instance, Bourdieu’s Masculine Domination.

A plan to celebrate the 30 year history of Replika had to be rethought during the pandemic, and was replaced with an “online sociological jam session series.” As chief editor, Miklós Hadas explained that their sorrow was turned into motivation: this has resulted in a four-month-long Zoom university, primarily targeting Hungarian social science students.

The weekly presentations and interactive discussions each started with an introduction of the presenter’s professional trajectory and closed with reflections on the current state of Hungarian sociology. The first two thematic lectures were concerned with the Eurocentrism of Western sociology and its ignorance of the topic of race. The following presentations discussed global and Hungarian jazz culture in light of social distinctions and racial hierarchies, the sociology of relationships and how these are shaped by capitalism, the diverse and fertile legacy of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the curious case of social indicators in current societies, and the “industry of public opinion.” The audience was provoked to formulate questions and engage the presenters in debates.

This review will summarize the main points stemming from the presentations, leaving out many gripping details.

Modern sociology and the “rest of the world”

Is it plausible that before the birth of modern sociology – or outside Western Europe – no one wrote systematically about societies?  Before answering this question, József Böröcz, professor of sociology at Rutgers University, discussed the preconditions for the interpretation of Western civilization as the telos of history: the idea that world history has a direction, that this direction can be known, and that we have knowledge about this direction. Böröcz then explained how the misinterpretation of Darwin has led to a model that describes differences between cultures through time, maintaining that some societies are “behind” compared to others in a linear, unidirectional vision history. In this vision some societies exist today in the past, while the West represents the highest stage of evolution in the present. Böröcz suggested many fascinating authors who wrote on societies before or outside Western Europe. This presentation was also held in English at Tampere University, Finland. In another lecture, Böröcz focused on the concept of “race” missing from classic sociology.

Culture and social change – through jazz and human relationships

Ádám Havas argued that looking at jazz not primarily as a musical but as a cultural practice enables us to dig deep into distinctive class, ethnicity, race, and geopolitical relations. Seen in this way, jazz also helps understanding the cultural distinctions in Hungarian society from a global perspective. Havas, Head of the Social Sciences Division at Milestone Institute (Budapest, Hungary), detailed the key term of his upcoming book, “jazz-diaspora,” and illustrated it with the career of the jazz violinist from the American South, Eddie South. He was a student of the Hungarian violinist Jenő Hubay in the 1920s, and also learned elements of Roma and Hungarian music. Later he moved to France and met guitarist Django Reinhardt. His evolution as a musician demonstrates how jazz is not an American import but a more complex and indeed global phenomenon. Havas further demonstrated this complexity through examples of the impact of jazz on the ethnical and racial understandings of cultural hierarchies in Hungary.

In his following presentation, reflecting on the way class, race, and other hierarchies are illustrated through the genre, Havas discussed the case of Jewish and Roma identities in Hungary. He detailed the example of “Hungarian Gypsy” jazz musicians, who became the “elite” group of jazz in Hungary.

On Bourdieu

A whole series of lectures was dedicated to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. The first monograph about his work in Hungarian appeared only in 2018. In his lecture for Replika Open University, its author, sociologist Ágoston Fáber, outlined the concepts in Bourdieu’s sociology. According to Fáber, Bourdieu “was as much a Marxist as anything else,” and had criticized neoliberalism from the perspective of classical leftist themes (poverty, inequality, systematic disintegration of solidarity, etc.), but never reflected on the possibility to overcome capitalism. Fáber also commented on the dilemma whether Bourdieu’s sociology is deterministic, emphasizing that the possibility for humans to become actors is missing from his works.

In another lecture, Fáber also discussed the question of marriages ending – mostly narrowing the phenomenon down to the Western European, middle-class youth – focusing on the enhanced reflexivity in social interactions characteristic of late modernity. As he understands it, the constant need to “prove one’s worth” creates a state of perpetual monitoring and rationalizing of our emotions in relationships – whereas love is un-reflected and lacks criticism. This results in relationships no longer being self-evident and becoming constantly suspicious.

In his upcoming book A Theory of Plural Habitus: Bourdieu Revisited, Miklós Hadas writes about the French sociologist from the perspective of having been one of his students. Hadas, who is head of the Culture and Communication Doctoral School and co-director of the Centre for Gender and Culture at Corvinus University (Budapest, Hungary), focused in his presentation on how the notion of “habitus” has changed in Bourdieu’s work from the 1950s until his death in 2002. In sum, Hadas showed that for Bourdieu distinctions (for instance, those of gender) remain constant (reproduced) in our societies despite many significant changes, as Bourdieu maintained in one of his last writings, Masculine Domination.

In his next presentation, Hadas focused on criticism of Bourdieu’s sociology. He showed the “habitus” to be homogenizing and of limited applicability, as it is based on class background, without proper consideration of the structural changes in society. Although Bourdieu attempted to tackle the question of pluralizing habitus, he did not have time to proceed with this work.

Using sociology – in a problematic way

The last part of the open university revolved more around sociology as a profession. Before the closing discussion focusing on the state of Hungarian sociology, Anikó Gregor, adjunct professor at Eötvös Loránd University (Budapest, Hungary), spotlighted the question of indicators in sociology and the “industry of public opinion.” In the first presentation, Gregor elaborated on “audit culture” as a series of control techniques for governing, and on “indicator culture” as a standardizing and uniformizing method in cases such as university rankings, the PISA-test, democracy indexes, and so on. These create showcase countries, ignoring the historical background, decontextualizing the interpretation of numbers, and stigmatizing entire regions based on moral codes stemming from developmental idealism (an argument similar to that of Böröcz).

Gregor also discussed Bourdieu’s criticism of public opinion research. Similarly to the rankings discussed previously, surveys lack the context of personal opinions, therefore obscuring unequal power relations and reproducing existing class structures. In the context of Central and Eastern Europe, Gregor argued that public opinion surveys have mostly been used by political elite groups in order to maximize their power, to the detriment of sociology as a profession.

Still fresh after three decades

Although Replika Open University was mostly calibrated to resonate with sociology students, it was a great opportunity for everyone to get a glimpse of non-mainstream approaches in social sciences. It sought to be “planting seeds” – as comedian Bill Hicks said – with the hope of growing our small oasis.

Photo from the Replika Open University organized on September 11-12, 2021.

Between September 11–12., Replika Open University was organized yet again, this time offering offline lectures.

Attila Kustán Magyari is a journalist based in Finland. He received his BA in cultural anthropology from Babeș-Bolyai University (Romania) in 2017, his MA in Global and Transnational Sociology from Tampere University (Finland) in 2021, and is currently pursuing a PhD. His main research interests are right-wing populism and conspiracy theories. His book, Ébredők. Bevezető az összeesküvés-elméletek világába [Awakers: An introduction to the world of conspiracy theories], was published in 2021 with Polis (Cluj-Napoca, Romania).