‘How much Palinka can I drink with these people?’

Gábor talks about his work in the Hungarian village of “Kisvaros”

Gábor Héra

Gábor Héra

Gábor Héra is a Hungarian PhD student at the Sociology of Science Doctoral School. His research has primarily focused on the issues of Roma integration, discrimination, prejudice, mediation and restorative justice. Through the Foresee research group, Gabor is an action researcher for project ALTERNATIVE in the Hungarian village of Kisvaros.

‘I joined Alternative because I am interested in Roma integration’, Gábor says. ‘It is the focal point of my research and my dissertation. Of course Alternative also focuses on other subjects, but in Hungary the Roma integration really is a point of interest. I also joined because I have an interest in projects with field work. I am not the kind of guy to sit in a library. I am a sociologist, therefore I use the methods of sociology.’

The people you talk about in your presentation are the audience

As an action researcher, Gábor has the opportunity to really dig into it when it comes to the field work. ‘Field work has proven to be crucial to Alternative. The action research is a core element and it is very attractive to me. It has an empowering element to it, you get information from the field, but you have to give something back as well. Presenting my findings in Kisvaros, the Hungarian village where we are conduction our action research, is tough. The people you are talking about in your presentation, they are in the audience. The conflict you are describing is their conflict. It is very different from presenting to an audience that has no link to the project or the research.’

id=Gábor’s

task in the action research was to see if it would be useful to use mediation in this type of conflict and then relay the information to the mediators. ‘At the end of the project, I would like to present this knowledge on usefulness of mediation’, Gábor explains. ‘On why there would be an interest or not. We often focus on restorative practices in community work, of which the Roma-non-Roma conflict is a subtopic. We need to figure out what sort of RJ practices have a possibility of working. It will also be very interesting to compare our results with those of the other countries and of the other action research sites. Especially with Northern-Ireland, where I think there are some similarities. I feel that we can learn from each other.’

‘I need to gain their trust’

The action research in Kisvaros has been going on for several years now. That has an impact on the personal involvement of the researchers. Gábor: ‘When you are conducting the same interview with the same people for over three years, you build relationships. You are in contact with these people day after day, week after week. I would not say what we build up is a friendship, but there is definitely a relationship.’

‘At some point during the research, I went to a charity ball’, Gábor says. ‘All kinds of prominent people where present, as well as others, like children from the local school and the church. The action researchers were there from 5 o’clock in the afternoon until midnight, some seven hours. In that time, you smoke cigarettes with these people, you drink Palinka. You become tipsy and at some point it might become a little difficult to define the line between me as a researcher and me as a person. At that point you start to wonder, how much Palinka can I drink with these people? I need to gain their trust, but I am a researcher, so part of my job is to say stop in time.’

Finding the line between person and researcher

It is inevitable to form personal relationships when the action research asks for an intense immersion in the field. ‘There are a few people who I will stay in contact with’, Gábor says. ‘A few weeks ago I conducted an interview with the former mayor. It lasted for 5 hours. I was really tired afterwards. But we talked as human beings. He was the mayor when we entered the village and was very supportive. Last October, he lost the election. He is sad about that and is also dealing with some personal problems. We had to talk about all of it, because these things cannot be separated. They are all important to the research. We are not friends, but we did build up a relationship that is stronger than the one I have with other people.’

Although forming personal relationships helps with the work, it can also become an added difficulty. ‘It was very hard for me to find that line between person and researcher’, Gábor says. ‘Not only because of the time you spend in the field, but also because you simply get along better with some people that with others. It is impossible to say to a research subject to just “go to hell”, even though you might wish to do so at some point. Everything is also construed as a message. If you do an interview with a Roma, you are accepting them as a person. If you come into contact with them, it can look as if you are siding with them, or as if you like them more.’

‘We must uphold the anonymity’

During the action research, the researchers tried to be open with the people from the village, but they were not 100 percent successful. ‘We were there for more than two years, so the mayor at the time let us in and agreed to work with us’ Gábor explains. ‘Because of that, some of the people supposed we were working together with the mayor and the council. And I agree with the new mayor, who says we were linked somehow to the previous mayor. I conducted lots of interviews with the, former, opposition of the council, who are in power now. They were not honest, because we were let in by the mayor, they did not trust our objectivity. We are lucky though, because the new mayor let us continue our research. So the findings of our action research will finally be okay, because now we have both sides. If we had conducted the interviews only before the elections, we would have gained false information.’

It is clear there are challenges for researchers working in the field, but there are also difficulties for the research subjects. Some that cannot be foreseen beforehand. ‘I had a local resident who I would see regularly’,

Gábor

says. ‘We would talk about the project and the research, he is Roma, so we would have a lot of discussions and he would express his opinion very clearly. His message was clearly represented in the filmed part of the research and it was also the main focal point of the criticism the new mayor has of the project. The guy clearly speaks about racism, which the mayor does not like. It has an impact on the village. So when we interview him, it could get him into trouble. When you involve someone in the research, you might not be aware of the consequences this could have on this person’s life. This is a hard question ethically speaking, because of course this person is explained what the project is about, is made to understand what will happen and needs to sign consent forms. But that does not mean there are no consequences for this person. The guy may be at risk of losing the possibility to join the public work program, which would in turn lead to him losing his social benefits.’

Identifying subjects is risky, yet protecting anonymity also has its dangers. ‘The people we do not film, but still interview, remain anonymous’, Gábor explains. ‘We gain a lot of information, but it is hard to know if what they are saying is true. When person A speaks about a situation and person B speaks about the same situation, but tells a different story, we cannot call that person out, asking why it is a different version. By doing so, we would be implicating person A. So even when we know we are being told lies, we must uphold the anonymity.’

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