Co-ethnic philanthropy in Hungary

Principal investigator: Ildikó Zakariás

Grant, funding agency: NKFIH Solidarity in late modernity

Period: 2018 -

Research questions and objectives:

The research explores those forms of ‘doing good’ in which the ideology of a particular set of values, the ethnic / cultural nation, plays a central role. We depart from the assumption that actors continuously (re)interpret national ideologies, and create common meanings and practices of helping while interacting with others and the local context.  How do the concepts of solidarity and ‘doing good’ develop in situations where non-governmental actors (individuals, groups, organizations) want to promote the benefit of Hungarian minority communities and individuals living in neighboring countries? How are civil actions organized based on this intention? What are the consequences of these actions?

We examine the recipients’ experience of philanthropic assistance provided to the minority Hungarian communities, and the role of the various mediators in maintaining, transforming and shaping the helping process. The research also explores how personal relationships, intimacy, and care appear in philanthropic interactions: how philanthropic organisations and programmes construct it; what obstacles are encountered in the operation, and the responses of the parties concerned.

The research is based on my dissertation on this topic, and it is further developed along the theoretical framework of the research project Solidarity in Late Modernity NKFIH research (principal investigator Domonkos Sik, ELTE TÁTK). This broader research examines the different ideologies, institutions, target groups, and situations of solidarity in the light of late-modern theories. This research classifies solidarity according to the extent to which help is linked to the experiences of suffering; how these experiences of suffering are recognized by helpers; and what are its consequences for the dynamics and functioning of the helping process.

Research history:

The research is based on my PhD research carried out between 2009-2016. In the dissertation, I departed from Axel Honneth's notion of recognition and its critical reformulation by Nancy Fraser, and from the theoretical framework of postcolonialism. First and foremost, the intention and situations of philanthropy are born out of the helping intention embedded in particular ideologies and discourses. I have examined the extent to which this knowledge becomes the basis for recognition or its withdrawal.

Following these lines of thought, the following research questions were examined by this earlier research: What kind of ideologies frame ideas around helping, needs, and suffering on one hand, and deservingness, merits, attachements on the other in the analysed programs? What are the constitutive notions, statements, symbols of these? How are these questioned and problematised during helping interactions among donors and recipients? What narratives volunteers and donors construct to recreate and rewrite these ideologies? What are the rites of maintaining symbols and meanings around needs, suffering and merits, deservingness and attachements?

Among certain circumstances, these national ideologies may pave the way to recognition and solidarity towards the recipients. However, asymmetric positions of helping relations, hierarchies and denigration, as well as unilateral meaning construction may lead to denial of recognition. In such cases, groups and individuals initiate struggles to acquire recognition.

Accordingly, this earlier research explored the following phenomena: How do recipients perceive the positions that different ideologies offer to them? How do they understand the categories of needs and sufferings, deservingness and merits? To what extent do these imply denial of recognition? To what extent, in what ways do these provide the basis for solidarity? What are the strategies to deal with the threat of denied recognition? What is the role of national discourses in the struggle for recognition of the recipients? How do strategies of resistance unfold? What other framings are born, that may be considered as resistance?

Research methods:

First, a secondary analysis of the qualitative data collected in the frame of the PhD research Solidarity and Power In Voluntary Programs of Hungarian Ethnic Kin Support, between 2009 and 2014, will be carried out, along the theoretical framework of late modernity. Second, further qualitative interviews are planned, with organizers, volunteers, and recipients of these philanthropic programmes, in the spring and summer of 2020.

In the research qualitative data and analysis, semi-structured interviews, participant observation, document analysis has been applied. The semi-structured lifeworld interviews’ (Kvale 2005) primary importance lies in their capacity to show narratives of philanthropy constructed by the individual. Also, it reveals certain aspects of meaning production in interactions. Participant observation has been used to follow helping interactions. Spontaneous speech events in everyday interactions, as well as important collective events, institutionalised rituals have been in the focus of observation. Observations have been recoreded in a research diary.

The earlier research focused on four philanthropic programs. Three out of these are institutionally linked to schools, two-of them maintained by churches in Hungary, one maintained by the state. One out of these runs a foundation, the other two have no formal organisational basis. The target categories of supported communities are Hungarians of Transcarpathia, Hungarian speaking Roma in Transcarpathia, Moldovan Csángós, Hungarians from Across the Borders. One program has been founded after 1989, while the other two started operating in the second half of the 2000s. The fourth program, also being the largest, supports the Hungarian language education of Csángós in Moldova. This program intends to recruit donors, who may not only give regular donations, but also through a symbolic kinship, called „god-parenthood” may develop personal contact with the students and their families supported by the program. Godparents also have a formal association.

In the current research, I aim to contact these programs again, in order to follow the changes since the previous data collection (2009-2014), and also integrate the focal points and aspects following from the new theoretical framework.

Research results:

The ideology of national survival, and the ideology of „saving the Hungarianness” of the supported communities is a central pillar of organisational missions in three out of four programs.

The ideology consists of images on the authenticity of ethnic Hungarian minorities, according to which these communities are the bearers of a national culture that is „more real”, „more authentic”, „more Hungarian” than that of Hungarians in Hungary; these communities being under constant threat on the part of the majority state and majority society; the conscious and devoted struggle of these minority communities against this assimilation; and last but not least, the imperative of support on the part of the „mother country” are all reproduced in everyday speeches and rituals. Needs and suffering framed in these cultural terms are complemented with ideas on deservingness derived from national belonging and national sameness, in some cases, however, universalist ideologies of minority rights and culural heritage discourses are also embraced.

Nevertheless, other ideologies and discourses also shape ideologies invoked by the programs. In less visible, less performed, ritualised, spoken forms, and more on the level of dispositions, habituses and practices, needs and suffering linked to poverty and lack of modernisation are also prevalent in framing the imperative of support.  Merits and worthyness underlying the importance of helping may appear in diverse frames: it may be relegated to the discourse of national survival; the universalist ideology of Christian caritas; the policy discourse of „disadvantage”, or certain communitarian ideologies of solidarity. Worthyness may also be created through idealising the recipients in a „denationalised” frame, that is valuing their authenticity through formulating a critique of modernisation. Another tool for assigning worthyness is linked to ideas about children/childhood. This may interact with other frames of disadvantage, religious solidarity or national survival, reinforcing worthyness and merits.

Depending on the circumstances, these ideologies may be reproduced through practices, in a non-reflected way, through mechanisms described by Billig’s banal nationalism paradigm. However, in interactions these categories may also become problematic. In such cases, a constant effort is directed to rebuild and solidify ideologies of national survival. That this endeavour succeeds is in a great part enabled by the flexibility of this ideology, which has the potential to incorporate experience of difference produced by interactions. As such, notions of needs, sufferings as well as worthyness based on national categories motivating helping intentions may be rebuilt and reinforced.

The multi-layered ideological repertoir also enables the reconstruction of coherence between experience and ideologies through the possibility of shifting emphases and frames. This means that philanthropic interactions are both terrains of reproducing ideologies of national survival as well as of emphasising social-economic needs, and thus deepening commitment towards the poor. In such moments of ideologies becoming problematised by the participants, notions, symbols, ideas are reproduced not in banal, self-explanatory ways, in non-reflected activities and practices, but through „interpretative crises” that require cognitive as well as emotional work on the part of actors involved.


Zakariás Ildikó: Othering and Recognition: National Ideologies in Donor-Recipient Encounters in Hungarian Co-Ethnic PhilanthropyRevue européenne des migrations internationales, 2019/1 (Vol. 35), p. 215-237.  

Zakariás, Ildikó – Feischmidt Margit: Producing the nation through philanthropy: legitimizing co-ethnic and pro-refugee civic action in Hungary, forthcoming, Nations and Nationalism

Zakariás, Ildikó: Jótékony nemzet. Szolidaritás és hatalom a kisebbségi magyarok segítésében 2018, Budapest, Kalligram – Regio Könyvek

Zakariás, Ildikó: The Production of Solidarity: A Case Study of Voluntary School Programs of Ethnic Kin Support, In: Kleres, Jochen; Yvonne Albrecht (szerk.) Die Ambivalenz der Gefühle : Über die verbindende und widersprüchliche Sozialität von Emotionen, Wiesbaden, Németország : VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, (2015) pp. 145-169.