As I was anxiously finishing my beer and looking around an empty and fusty pub in inner Budapest, the prospects of my fieldwork and research appeared rather gloomy. I, a student from Central European University, an academic institution that was founded by George Soros and is the meta-enemy of the populist government and the wider anti-Semitic nationalistic circles in Hungary, was waiting in a pub to meet a far-right group. I was told by a representative at one of their public events in the city center that they would be there. After asking the waiter whether the group of young men would appear anytime soon, he hesitantly responded in a mix of English-Hungarian that the pub was actually not empty; it also had a “reserved” basement. After adamantly requesting to meet those who reserved the basement, Andras – a young, buff skinhead appeared and greeted me with a friendly tone. He led me down narrow stairs that reminded me of images of München Brauereien in the 1920s: dark, dim, and loud. I was offered a seat in the middle of this interesting clique, surrounded by people who were gazing at me and whispering indistinctly in Hungarian. This was not the safest feeling of a researcher from an ‘unfriendly’ institution, foreign to these settings and people. Andras informed me that he was in the midst of interviewing prospective newcomers and ensured me that he would be back in a bit.
In such circumstances, pulling out your pen and printed topic guides clearly does not contribute to establishing rapport. Nor does the mimetic desire to be “closer to the object of your study”, for example by wearing Arrow Cross or Betyar symbols. In fact, it is easier to find exceptions rather than rules for building relationships with extremists. However, talking to Andras and his peers for more than two hours did not entirely meet my expectations. All of the seminars and discussions that I had attended at university had prepared me to expect loudmouthed, bigoted, and outspoken individuals who believe in the concept of the master race. But my experience was quite the opposite. Andras was very pleasant and showed no signs of contempt for this inquisitive outsider coming from a deplored institution. His friendly tone contained serenity and poise. For quite some time, Andras’ narrative seemed rather ordinary, vividly showing discontent with the “order of things”, yet without employing any clear-cut arguments which would imply his actual political allegiance. Indeed, his dissatisfaction with both Viktor Orban’s “anti-Hungarian” economic policies and the hypocrisy of liberal opposition could hardly be labeled as radical, let alone extreme. The intricate interplay between his tattoos and words, between authentic gestures within the group (specific greetings) and his views on topics like academic freedom or sustainability did not match my preconceived notions. It seemed as if Andras, or any of his peers, were wrongfully accused of being hateful and extreme – up until one point.
When talking about a prospective green and sustainable society for which “all the nationalists stand”, Andras casually advocated for eradicating ciganyok (gypsies) and all of the migrants from Hungary given their supposed incompatibility with an ecologically-friendly Hungarian nation. Outside of my safe, academic environment, in which I could openly contest such odious remarks, it was hard to say anything other than “could you please elaborate?”, to which Andras responded with a barrage of reasons based on presuppositions. As we finished our talk with a friendly handshake, my overall experience of the amicable far-right open to discussion was rather incompatible with my preconceived belief of the far right as angry and resolute.
In subsequent interviews, regardless of the group or even the country, I found myself anticipating “that moment,” when behind the banal, casual chitchat, hospitability, and impression of yet another friendly extremist, there is an outburst of hateful and utterly fallacious arguments. It fundamentally prevents the possibility for establishing a profound and genuine rapport on the interviewer’s side, regardless of the excitement one feels hearing the tropes that are in fact very rich data for one’s research. This feeling of concurrent enthusiasm and disgruntlement ultimately becomes a burden for any substantially hermeneutic undertaking. It also points to a number of other potentially burdensome implications of preparing for the field. For example, being ready to be added on social networks by fake accounts, thinking of emergency contacts, learning the topic guide by heart, and being (very) cautious with requests for recording, but also keeping in mind the often blurry borders between the objects of study, your research, and ultimately, yourself.
Some of these almost farcical moments in which a football ultra offers a very thorough and intelligent account on major problems in Hungarian agriculture at one moment, before advocating for eugenics at another, offer important lessons for far-right scholarship. They do not point to fallacies, but a fundamental ambiguity and idiosyncrasy of far-right discourse. By identifying and targeting these moments of ambivalence, qualitative researchers of the far right can empirically contribute to lacking analytical and conceptual accounts. This seems to be much needed in current academic scholarship on the far right. In the words of Nitzan Shoshan, the moral panic with which scholarship reacts to some of these countercultural currents and subcultural practices ultimately reflects its refusal to acknowledge and to question its own ideological mystifications about the social order and groups that reject it. This deficit of political and research imagination increases the risk of ‘that moments’ and oversimplified and prejudiced accounts of those who produce them.
Mr Balsa Lubarda is an Early Career Research Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate at Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy, Central European University. His profile can be found here:
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