Practicing encounters

Gabriella talks about the action research in a Hungarian village

Gabriella Benedek

Gabriella Benedek

Gabriella Benedek, social development practitioner is a member of the Foresee research group and is leading the team that is conducting action research in the Hungarian village Kisvaros for the ALTERNATIVE project. Foresee is an interdisciplinary team, with people from different backgrounds, ranging from sociologists and psychologists, to criminologists, lawyers and mediators.

The organization, with its training, consultancy, research and networking profile aims at contributing to the prevention and reduction of social inequalities and promoting the principles and practices of alternative dispute resolution in school-, prison- or community setting.

Interrelated conflicts

‘We are doing field research in a village in Hungary with several of different cultures living together’, Gabriela explains. ‘By the word culture, I mean religions, ethnicities, political views or ideologies, different attitudes to the development of settlements and so on.’
The village of Kisvaros was chosen because it is an “average village”, where research is sustainable. ‘Of course there are many places in Hungary, and in Europe, where the conflicts are tenser. For the sake of research however, we wanted to explore the typical conflict lines without falling into extremes’, says Gabriella. ‘This is none the less a crucial question for Hungary and Europe to explore conflicts with a systemic approach: ethnic, social and political aspects together. ’

Gabriella finds that defining the conflict in the village is very difficult. ‘During our action research, we discovered that we have to see the whole village, bearing all of its diverse cultures in mind. As they are interrelated, it would be a mistake to pick out only one conflict-line.’

‘Some people think it is dangerous to talk about it’

The action research is conducted in a specific way, developed by the Foresee group. Gabriella: ‘We agreed that we wanted to be there very intensely, we wanted a platform for a local support group that would help the research group. In our first year in the field, we had to establish contact and build trust gradually. We wanted to gain understanding about the situation, so we had a series of in depth interviews. Participation has to always be voluntary and it was also something we had to strive for. We need a lot of trust and we work very hard to keep it. It requires a lot of patience, the issues are very sensitive and also very politicized. It is easy to get labelled, and nobody wants that.’

The researchers use video and film participation to conduct their research. ‘The eye of the camera reflects what happens. It is very important that the villagers know this is an important part of the work’, says Gabriella. ‘There was a lot of curiosity when we eventually shared some of our findings, so we held a workshop for the local people featured in the research. The most important part is that we come from the outside, so when we film them, the locals can see what is going from an outsider’s point of view and reflect on that. On their relationships, their conflicts, the developments. We provide a platform where they can start a dialogue or ask themselves what is going on. Some people think it is dangerous to talk about it, they are aware it might change the status quo. There is a lot of resistance to change, but the researchers cannot decide for people what they can and cannot do.’

‘He wrote a rap song for us!’

The researchers do all the filming and the villagers know this is an important part of the work: it is not just a representation but an intervention at the same time. The researchers have even been asked to work on a video clip for a local rapper. ‘He wrote a rap song for us! ´ Gabriella explains. ‘We also received a controversial request for the local elections, to make a campaign film for one group of the competing candidates. Of course we cannot do that, we cannot show more support for one group over the others. But it is a good sign that they thought of us as a resource. Some people accept us, some of them question whether speaking openly about problems will cause more harm. Will this not make the conflicts even bigger? Isn’t it better to keep silent and hope for the wounds will be cured as time pass by?’

‘They might discover they enjoy being neighbours’

‘There was one story told that really illustrated what the research is all about for me’, Gabriella says. ‘There used to be a separate settlement of Roma on the outskirts of the village. The cottages in the settlement were demolished as a part of a development plan and some people could move in to the village to better housing conditions.’

‘One family got moved to a house in the village, in the middle of a street of locals. The neighbours were afraid. They found out living together was not all that bad and that they had expected a lot of things to happen which did not. They were expecting much worse. The family was accepted because of everyday contact, between their lives and the lives of their neighbors. They experienced firsthand that things are much more lively and complex than they hear in the media or from rumors they heard. When people get together one to one, on a personal level, they might discover what it really means being neighbours. Apart from experience, these personal stories are the stepping stones to the encounters and dialogues about things that matter. ’

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