This contribution discusses two types of complicity, ethical and cognitive, that complicate participant observation and relationships with social actors in the field

 This Budapest mall was the location of the encounter described in the opening vignette. Image used with the publisher’s permission. Photo credit Népszava / Huszár Dávid

“I was scared. I really was.” Thus begins my fieldnote entry from March 28, 2004, the day of my first visit to a field site where I was determined to witness the type of public expression Hungarians called gyűlöletbeszéd (“hate speech”). This site was one among many I had identified for data collection for my dissertation project dedicated to mapping the circulation and various competing uses and meanings of the term hate speech across various contexts and media. At the time, Hungary was in the throes of what I later called the hate speech debates, stretching roughly from 2000 to 2006 (Boromisza-Habashi, 2013). The debates centered on, and facilitated, the movement of the term from U. S. American into Hungarian political discourse and the eventual splintering of its meanings. Politicians and public figures engaged in endless – and ultimately fruitless – discussions about the relationship between free speech and hate speech and the possibility of introducing laws prohibiting hate speech. By the end of the first decade of the century, hate speech debates had largely fizzled out.

After a few minutes of exploring the dated but bustling mall surrounded by rows and rows of socialist era prefab apartment towers I finally mustered the courage to make my way upstairs to the pub where a public lecture hosted by Blood and Honor Hungary, the Hungarian chapter of an international neo-fascist network, was going to be held. The pub was largely empty, except for one box occupied by a small group of skinheads quietly conversing. In the back of the pub, I saw a door leading to a space that struck me as a concert or dance hall. A couple of skinheads were setting up a projector and a screen and lining up a 4-5 rows of chairs. I recognized the leader of Blood and Honor, a hulking man in his thirties with close cropped hair and deep lines on his face. I had seen him speak at a neo-fascist rally earlier that year. “Time for some education,” he announced to the pub and the skinheads, a few other folks who gathered in the meantime, and I followed him into the hall.

As prior to this event I had only attended large political rallies, walking into this much smaller space I suddenly became aware of the social consequentiality of my physical location. I made quick calculation: if I sit in the front row I will be – as I later wrote in my fieldnotes – “in the middle of the action.” Better yet, I won’t have to sit next to the skinheads who headed for the back rows. I proceeded to sit in the middle of the front row, right in front of the speaker, a thin, old man who, I later learned, was the chief ideologist of the group. As a young, white guy in his late 20s with light hair and bluish-grey eyes, and as a native speaker of Hungarian, I will hardly stick out in this crowd, I thought to myself with a bitter grin.

The Blood and Honor leader was the last person to settle into his chair right next to mine. The old man walked to the front, introduced himself, and began to lecture about the glorious Hungarian past. Not long after the beginning of his talk he suddenly pointed at me, called me to the front, handed me a photocopied document, and asked me to read a few quotes from it. Flabbergasted, and having no time to review what I was being asked to read, I did as I was told and read out three excerpts from centuries-old erotic poetry. After my performance, the speaker explained that he had found these poems in a textbook assigned to students at a teacher training college in Budapest. “This is the kind of smut they are teaching our kids in teacher training colleges,” he said. “I am here to teach you something that is not being taught, but should be.”

I sat back down in a daze, overwhelmed by the almost immediate loss of control over my presence in the field and by the onslaught of guilt. There could be no doubt: for a brief moment, I, a rookie ethnographer, became an accessory to a neo-fascist movement’s recruitment efforts. My ability to pass as a regular attendee at this public event created an opportunity for the speaker to position me as a promising recruit sympathetic to the movement’s cause.

The experience of accidental complicity with members of social groups whose actions, values, and beliefs the ethnographer finds morally objectionable is not uncommon. The type of complicity I experienced is the result of active co-optation by social actors in the field against one’s will. Sofia Villenas (1996) reported a similar, though much more incremental and longer lasting, instance of co-optation while working on her dissertation project studying a Spanish-speaking Latino community in “Hope City,” North Carolina in the 1990s. A proud Chicana, Villenas found herself being co-opted by town’s white, English-speaking leadership who used her presence and expertise to confirm their discourse about “problem Latinos.”

Reflecting on her experience, Villenas asked many of the questions I asked myself after the incident with Blood and Honor: What was the nature and extent of my accidental complicity? How did I put myself in a situation where I could be co-opted? When did I become aware of my complicity, and what prompted that awareness? What type of damage did my complicity cause, how much, to whom, and over what period of time? Could the damage be undone, mitigated, or remedied? Was I in a position to suspend my relationship of complicity?

From an ethical perspective, understanding one’s (accidental) complicity with research participants is particularly important when the researcher is engaged in the anthropology of the Deplorable (Moberg, 2019), the research endeavor “to consider seriously people whose values we not only do not share, but may find repugnant” (p. 138). Such work, including mine, is typically fueled by the conviction that, in order to “work towards a world that we wish to be, we must first understand the world that is given to us” (p. 150). To that end, ethnographers must reconstruct participants’ sense of their own actions for the purpose of conceiving of ways to counter those actions, all the while carefully avoiding ethical complicity by means of co-optation.

There is, however, a type of complicity with the Deplorable that is an essential element of multi-sited ethnography under the conditions of globalization, one Marcus (1997) called cognitive complicity. Such complicity positions both the ethnographer and research participants in the field as subjects to the same cultural forces originating from “elsewhere.” Both parties struggle to explain these forces, albeit with different goals in mind. Participants seek to contest and counter them while the ethnographer seeks to tell a coherent tale of how these forces reshape local cultural scenes. Nonetheless, the research encounter prompts both parties to reflect on certain global cultural forces – like a globally circulating metadiscursive term such as hate speech – as objects of shared interest because they must contend with those forces in their daily lives.

Later, when I interviewed the ideologist who co-opted my presence at the Blood & Honor lecture, he and I discussed at length the Anglo-Saxon origins of the term “hate speech” along with our shared interest in its meanings and context-bound uses. He was trying to convince me that “hate speech” was an Orwellian term, empty of referential meaning, used by the political left to silence the legitimate concerns of the radical right. How can the left preach freedom of speech, he asked repeatedly, while pushing legislation to outlaw expression they don’t like? Listening to him, I was grasping for bits and pieces of relevant information that would help me tell an ethnographic tale of Hungarian hate speech, including charting the term’s entry into Hungarian political vocabulary from English, accounting for the proliferation of its uses and meanings in the Hungarian cultural context, and assessing the term’s utility as a rhetorical device in antiracist advocacy. Formal and informal interviews that activated such cognitive complicity forced me into an ethical balancing act between genuine curiosity and appearing as a sympathizer, but they also became an indispensable element of my fieldwork. Learning about my radical right-wing respondents’ strategies for deflecting charges of “hate speech” with ease eventually led me to conclude that “hate speech” was no longer a useful term in antiracist advocacy because it failed to produce any degree of moral accountability in discourse (Boromisza-Habashi, 2021).

As I hope to have illustrated with these tales from the field, complicity adds to the general “messiness” of “Exploring” in the field, especially in the case of discourse-focused, multi-sited sociolinguistic ethnographies. Neither ethical nor cognitive complicity are completely under the control of the ethnographer. Instead of exerting control over fieldwork relations, ethnographers should aim to creatively navigate such complicities without making moral concessions.


David Boromisza-Habashi

Projet de recherche

Hate speech as cultural practice



Publié 2023-03-27
Comment citer cet article

Boromisza-Habashi, David, 2023, A front-row seat to fascists: Complicities in the field. Chroniques du terrain [en ligne]. Disponible à l’adresse URL:

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