From Reciprocity to Market Economy: A Hungarian Village Thirty Years On

My project is a restudy of an Eastern Hungarian village (current population 1295) where in 1980/81 I carried out anthropological fieldwork on strategies of choosing godparents and the related patterns of reciprocal labour exchange and mutual help. Currently, these reciprocal relationships are said to be in decline while new forms of association have come into being. Seeing the two as different types of sociability, my research will focus on examining the interconnections between the decline of one type of village sociability and the rise of what can be seen as a different type and on whether and how these processes are related to the introduction of capitalist market economy in Hungary after 1989.
In the course of the original research I found that besides ritualised best friends (koma-s), reciprocal labour exchange involved neighbours and relatives. The villagers assisted each other in regularly occurring tasks (such as harvesting maize or slaughtering pigs) as well as participating in efforts occurring only once in a lifetime such as house-building and helping out at ritual events such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. The entire village was engaged in these activities. Although these activities were economic in nature I found no evidence that anyone came out ahead of the others. Instead, social capital was used to gain prestige and reputation and the system both enacted and reinforced community and solidarity while both using social capital and shoring it up. The labour and material assistance given contributed to the rising living standards of all concerned.
Revisiting the village in 2008 I was told that the pattern of mutual help and obligations I recorded in 1980/81 had broken down. Wedding preparations that used to last three days have been boiled down to just one day, involving much less communal cooperation, people no longer help each other to build houses, rather they use hired help. Neither do they bury each other as they used to do, instead the village has a contract with a company that digs the graves. Officials of the village called my attention to severe unemployment and pointed out that villagers do not find it worthwhile to engage in agricultural production beyond the subsistence level. At the same time the village is home to a plethora of organisations such as Polgárőrség [civic guard], Faluház [“Village House”], folklore circle for women, club for the elderly, a fishing and a hunting association, a so-called Teleház (part of the nationwide system of Telecottages) as well as a football team and a volunteer fire brigade.
My field research will attempt to reconstruct how the decline in the system of reciprocal mutual help and obligation came about and with what consequences for the community at large. I will also focus on the current situation and especially on the activities of the new associations with a view to finding out how the economic and political transformations of the past 20 years have affected people’s ability to survive economically as well as to create viable communities and how they themselves understand these changes.

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