With a degree in Applied Maths in Economic Planning, how does one get to the social history of 19th century British Poor Law in the 1970s in Hungary?! - could be asked with reason. The answer is probably typical for the time and the place: the early 1970s were the years of the first very cautious reforms in post-1956 Hungary; these reforms were driven by the lessons of the revolution and its aftermath which compelled the communist leadership to take serious steps toward establishing some legitimization for post-Stalinist communism through its gradual liberalization. The reforms of the time were, in principle, strictly limited to the economy; however, the very implementation of them enforced the expansion of 'permissive totalitarianism' to all other areas as well. A typical manifestation of tolerance-driven control from above was higher education. While formally maintaining the dominance of historical Marxism in the training, the University of Economics became the meeting place of the best dissident philosophers, reform-committed economists, sociologists, and writers, who were informally let within the walls to run one-time courses, temporary seminars, ad hoc research meetings with students, etc. This informal part of my training later proved at least as important as the otherwise high-quality courses in survey techniques, maths, statistics, and micro-economics. After all, the acquired fortunate mixture of orientations and skills concluded in a theoretically informed critical approach, backed with a solid knowledge in empirical investigations.In accordance both with the political needs of the Kadarist leadership to arrive at a stable and livable compromise with society still in silent opposition to the regime, and also, with the internal drive of sociology to (re)discover private life amid forced collectivism, the empirical studies of the 1970s centered around everyday living, health conditions, income inequalities, and the ways people worked in the formal and informal spheres of the economy. If one was not blind, it was a 'must' to see: one of the greatest taboos sociology had to break was the regime's denial of the existence of poverty. It was clear: the issue of poverty simply could not be skipped when thinking about reforms, and, thus, the reforms could not be limited only to production. Hence, it was the recognition of the then contemporaneous lack of an institutional system to provide protection for the poor against the socio-political system that worked to their detriment which led me backward in time - back to the history of the early years of pre-welfare state social policy. Obviously, the lessons of an excursion in social history could not be applied in a one-to-one form in the Hungarian social policy reforms of the 1970s and '80s. Still, the reform attempts and their failures strengthened my conviction: the power-relations of the time cannot be understood without a historical approach to them, let alone the phenomenon of poverty which, in other terms, is nothing else but the manifestation of sharp powerlessness.The deeper my involvement in the reforms was, the greater my intellectual curiosity became to explore the historically and socio-politically informed structural forces that, amid the communist condition, recurrently hindered any attempts to establish a purposefully designed and structured institutional order of social protection. Following as much from such a 'reform-disappointment' as from my critical theoretical orientation, I spent the late 1980s with an experiment to combine sociological research with direct political activism. As to the latter, I became one of the founding members of the first free trade union in Hungary and the social policy advisor of the Coalition of Free Democrats, the only liberal party on the present-day Hungarian political stage. On the research side, I saw a need to extend the social history approach to a comparative study of poverty, and thus initiated a follow-up research on the intergenerational reproduction of poverty in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Romania. Let me spell out just one lesson of the many that this exciting cross-country enterprise has brought about: this was the recognition of the fact that poverty is not merely a power dependent phenomenon, but the buried issues of ethnicity and regional traditions also play a great part in its actual formation. This comparative endeavor, together with the sharp conflicts that post-communist transformation brought to the surface around the so-called 'Gypsy question' in the region, turned my interest toward the relationship between class and ethnicity. Further, the politicization of majority-minority relations forced me to acknowledge that the classical theoretical frameworks all proved unsatisfactory when attempting to grasp powerlessness, poverty, ethnicity, social exclusion, and political marginalization with one momentum. Hence, I turned toward the new theoretical attempts that have evolved in recent decades to understand the interplay between social movements for identity recognition and the working of the democratic welfare states. My project at the Woodrow Wilson Center will be an adventurous and exciting attempt to interpret East Central Europe's "Gypsy question" within this framework of 'recognition and/or redistribution.'


B.A. (1971) Applied Mathematics in Economic Planning, Budapest University of Economics and Public Administration, Budapest; M.A. (1973) Sociology of Social Policy, Budapest University of Economics and Public Administration, Budapest; Ph.D. (1986) Sociology, Hungarian Academy of Sciences


  • Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Sociology, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 1986 - present (also: Deputy Director on Research and Higher Education, 1990-98)
  • Head of Department of Research on Social Policy, Institute of Sociology, HAS, 1987 - present
  • Professor of Social Policy, Institute of Sociology & Social Policy, ELTE University, Budapest, 1990-present
  • Regular Visiting Professor, Department of Government, Strathclyde University, Glasgow, UK, 1995-2000
  • Chair, Max Weber Foundation for the Study of Social Initiatives, Budapest - Glasgow, 1990-present
  • President of the Board, Active Society Foundation, Budapest, 1992-present
  • Editor-in Chief, East Central Europe/L'Europe du Centre-Est, Budapest - Los Angeles, 1998-present
  • Member, Board of Editors, Esély [Chance] (1989-present); Holmi (1990-present); Szociólgiai Szemle [Review in Sociology] (1992-present); Critical Social Policy (1994-present); Signs (1994-99); European Journal of Women (1997-present); Social Politics (1999-present)
  • Professor, External Faculty of Sociology, Social History and Social Work, John Wesley College, Budapest, 1993-99
  • Member of the International Expert Committee, Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna 1992-96
  • Consultant, European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research, Vienna, 1992-95
  • Research Fellow, Institute of Sociology, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 1971-86


Social history of poverty and social policy in East Central Europe; class, ethnicity, and gender relations amid post-communist transformation; conflicts of "recognition vs. redistribution" in an East-West comparative perspective

Project Summary

This project aims at providing an interdisciplinary approach to the recent radicalization of conflicts around the so-called "Gypsy-question" in Central Europe. Through analyzing the fundamental claims of Gypsies' present-day struggles for recognition, the study points to the contentions accompanying the continuous reinterpretation of Gypsy identity amid massive impoverishment and marginalization on ethnic grounds; it also explores the historical and socio-political causes behind the sharp rejection of policies for social integration on the part of the majority. In conclusion, the principles of an "identity-sensitive" welfare policy will be outlined with three major goals in the forefront: to serve the better fulfillment of the needs of ethnic minorities; to help to re-establish social cohesion; and to assist to strengthen the newly established democratic order of Central European post-communist societies.

Major Publications

  • Uram! A jogaimért jöttem! (Sir! I came for my rights!). Budapest: Új Mandátum, 1998.
  • "Recent Trends of Poverty in Hungary." Atal, Y (ed.): Poverty in Transition and Transition in Poverty. Oxford: Bergham Books, 1999, pp. 32-77.
  • "From Informal Labor to Paid Occupations: Marketization from Below in Hungarian Women's Work." Gal, S - Kligman, G (eds.): Reproducing Gender: Politics, Publics, and Everyday Life After Socialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000, pp. 200-225.