Comparisons - Central European Villages Repeatedly Visited
The longer one stays in anthropology, the more daunting comparison becomes. On the one hand, if one opens up new field sites one always sees new possibilities for comparison between regions, or across different political systems etc. On the other, if one goes back to the old sites one cannot help noting changes and making comparisons in time. These temporal comparisons, unlike those in space, can also be made by local people. Certainly it has been my experience in Central Europe that those old enough to recall the socialist years still invoke this era often, more than a decade after it ended; and they often compare it favorably to their present conditions.
My comparative overview of two Central European villages might be easier if I had just two fixed points in time, to correspond to the two fixed geographical locations. But for me, Tázlár and Wislok, unlike, say, Raymond Firth's Tikopia, or even Paul Stirling's villages in Turkey, were easily accessible places, from my first visits in the 1970s down to my most recent in a new century. Since I visited Budapest for personal reasons anyway most summers, I did not feel compelled to apply for research grants. Tázlár is only a couple of hours by car from the capital, and even Wislok can be reached in a day. I therefore visited my friends regularly; we are growing old together (of course some are already dead).
This of course has consequences. I suspect that, had I not visited these 'informants' at all for some twenty years, as was the case with Firth and Stirling, my perception of discontinuities in their communities following the end of socialist power might be greater. There is also the danger that one always revisits the people to whom one is closest; even if these belong to quite different social groupings, some angles of vision are bound to be neglected. To try to correct for this, I spent a longer period (almost two months) in Tázlár in the summer of 2001; I have not yet been able to revisit Wislok for a similar period.
Some changes cannot be easily corrected, including changes in the person of the ethnographer and in the entire context of the fieldwork. In the 1970s, even in 'liberal' Hungary and Poland, many topics were simply 'off-limits' because of the political situation (e.g. the 1956 uprisings). I had minor skirmishes with the bureaucracy in both countries, and was never trusted by local officials. Even so, I remained a left-leaning Westerner, never a Party member but basically well disposed to socialism, and more sympathetic to its ideals than its local subjects were, the people I was studying. Needless to say that puts me in a different situation with some people today; but in the great majority of cases, such sympathies have had no bearing on our enduring relationships.