Identity politics as a response to social conflicts

Principal investigator: Margit Feischmidt

Participants: Balázs Majtényi, Andrea Szabó, Béla Janky, Eszter Bartha, András Tóth, Zsolt Körtvélyesi, Attila Papp Z.György Horváth, Kristóf Szombati

Grant: HAS Centre for Social Sciences Incubator Programme

Period: 2013 - 2017

Research questions and objectives:

Economic and social contradictions, which can be traced back to local and global causes, have been renamed and embedded in a new narrative of politics and public discourse that emphasizes national identity and cultural particularism. Douglas Holmes's book Integral Europe (Holmes 2000) gives a convincing description of this turn of identity politics. Holmes derives the notion of integrationism from the European anti-Enlightenment tradition and interprets it as a reaction to the grief caused by global competition and the processes of European integration. The turn is related to the social process that marks the return to local communities and values ​​for the identification of a significant part of society, and in particular the lower classes. At the same time, the emergence of culture and identity issues is also the result of a change in the political system brought about by the rise of the far right and the crisis of the left.

Political scientists studying the historical trends in European politics have argued that one of the most significant events since the fall of the Berlin Wall is the stabilization of the political representation of an ideology called radical right or extreme right in most European countries. It is true of the Western and current Eastern European extremist right-wing movements that their political vision is centered on the threatened national community and their political action, is aimed at protecting the nation. This can be achieved by strengthening the majority or dominant culture and identity of a country. Their ideology is largely (though there are considerable differences in this regard) communitarian, and they reject in particular forms of individualism that they can identify with liberalism.

Our research examines the social causes and effects of this process, especially those affecting cultural and ethnic minorities. Due to the multidisciplinary nature of the program, the identity turn of politics is examined from sociological, legal and political science perspective.

Research history:

In interpreting ethno-nationalist identity politics we rely on sociological explanations, which identifies new forms of nationalism and political particularisms as “the choice of losers”. We also consider the anti-modernist elements of identity politics, which support the dismantling of industry and lifestyles related to it and highlight the partial nature or the crisis of modernization in the region. Another explanation also seems applicable to Hungary: this emphasizes the strength of a two-directional class dynamic following a significant socio-economic gap which has appeared between the upper middle class that has successfully integrated itself into the hierarchy of the global market and the unsuccessful lower middle class.

Another set of explanations, which are of particular importance for the empirical studies, resonate with supply theories. These consider the question of what characterizes the public life context and political functions in which the various forms of collectivism and particularism are placed in opposition to individualism and universalism. Agreeing with others, we see the fact of politics being taken over by attitudes of professionalism and management having become estranged from the masses of blue collar workers. The expression of class-based grievances by those having experienced abandonment and the reinstatement of fairness are carried through the adoption of a political language that is formed by political entrepreneurs of the far-right. We examine this process in several ways.

Research methods:

The interdisciplinary project explores the relationship between structural processes in society and identity policy responses from both an empirical and a normative perspective. The empirical part of the project combines sociological, social anthropological and political science approaches, while the normative part of the project primarily employs constitutional law and secondly political philosophical approaches. From a sociological point of view, we intend to examine social status, activity, education, place of residence, degree of segregation and political options for national issues, European integration, primarily through large European databases (European Social Survey, Eurobarometer, European Value Survey), relationships between minorities and minority politics.

As a result of a research already undertaken at the Research Center for, the focus is on the local causes of ethnic conflict, but this project focuses also on its comparative and transnational aspects. We are trying to combine qualitative and quantitative data in order to achieve a typology of conflict and policy responses that can be interpreted by appropriate methods in an international, primarily regional, comparison.

Research results in 2019:

The Rise of Populist Nationalism: the legal and cultural manoeuvring of social anxiety Social Resentments and the Anti-constitutionalist Turn in Hungary ed. Feischmidt, M and Majtényi B. CEU Press, 2019.

The authors of this book aim to understand the reasons behind and meanings of public discourses that reframe politics in terms of nationhood and nationalism in post-postsocialist Eastern Europe, with special emphasis on Hungary. The volume examines two themes (shift and legacy) by combining analytic and normative social science perspectives of, offering a concrete and contextual analysis of numerous theoretical questions related to the region. On one hand the change in the system of public law are examined within the framework of constitutional law. On the other hand social and political factors of this shift, i.e., the structural causes of the social demand for discourses and values of the nation, are treated. That is to say that the volume attempts to explain national identity politics—as marked by the prioritization of the nation, historical argumentation and cultural particularism, and which define public debate in Hungary from the Constitution through public life—as rooted in a recent political, economic and social processes. Further, the effects of legacy in memory and culture—which are considered by some to be an exclusive explanation—are considered, thereby reflecting on the possibility that the paradigms of structurally driven shift and historical legacy can be connected.

We focus primarily on Hungary, but we strive to pay attention to and reflect upon the Central- and Eastern European region and literature on other semi-peripheral areas affected by similar processes of political and economic transition. Furthermore, we acknowledge that a number of phenomena we examine are not results of the crisis, underdevelopment or the dependence of semi-peripheral societies (of course most of them are), and that parallel phenomena are to be found not only to the South and East, but in the Western and Eastern countries of Europe as well. The definitive paradigm in the international literature for interpreting the macro-processes in the region, transitology, as well as literature on post-socialism, supposes a uni-directional process moving from dictatorship toward liberal democracy based on the free market. Reality does not reflect a picture, but we may ask what exactly is being constructed in Hungary as it diverges from the visions of western and eastern liberals of a civic democracy in the Western mold. This has become a central question for analysts. In this volume we deal with only one element of the topic, namely the shift that has moved discourses using unique collective identities, emphasizing a closed and homogeneous national-ethnic community and utilizing historical legitimacy from the periphery of public debate increasingly into the mainstream.

Previous research results:

Understanding the rise of the far right from a local perspective. Structural and cultural conditions of ethno-traditionalist inclusion and racial exclusion in rural Hungary (Coauthor Kristóf Szombati)

The paper analyses the reconfiguration of social relations in rural Hungary after the collapse of socialism as well as the cultural idioms in which these changes were interpreted in order to unearth the connection between structural transformation, the re-articulation of ethnic and peasant traditions and the discourse on Roma as a threat to communal harmony. The locality in the focus of our case study is a village that played a major role in the rise of the far right Jobbik party. By applying an ethnographic approach, we seek to uncover structural forces, discourses and agencies that help explain the success of the anti-Roma mobilization campaign that ended with Jobbik’s electoral victory.


Feischmidt Margit, Majtényi Balázs ed. 2019. The Rise of Populist Nationalism Social Resentments and the Anti-constitutionalist Turn in Hungary. CEU Press, New York – Budapest 

Feischmidt Margit; Szombati Kristóf (2017) Understanding the rise of the far right from a local perspective : Structural and cultural conditions of ethno-traditionalist inclusion and racial exclusion in rural Hungary. IDENTITIES: GLOBAL STUDIES IN CULTURE AND POWER (1070-289X 1547-3384): 24 (3), pp. 313-331

Feischmidt Margit (2017) Nationalismus und die Darstellung der »Anderen« Die diskursive Konstruktion von Rassismus in der ungarischen Provinz In: Irene Götz ; Klaus Roth; Marketa Spiritova (Hrsg) Neuer Nationalismus im östlichen Europa Kulturwissenschaftliche Perspektiven. Munich: Transcript Verlag, pp. 245-266

Press coverage:

Contribution to the Special Panel entitled „The politics of affect: Anthropological perspectives on the rise of far-right and right-wing populism in the West” of the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Washington, DC in 2017 (edited by Heiko Henkel, Sindre Bangstad, and Bjørn Enge Bertelsen). Focalblog 2019/3