Department of Sociology and Anthropology

The most interesting developments in sociology and anthropology in the last 20 years and the most interesting emerging developments

The development of social sciences happens in cycles rather than through incremental advancement or progress. Fundamental concepts tend to resurface in a slightly reconfigured context, so sociology and anthropology are prone to suspicion when it comes to scholarly innovations and discoveries. Sociologist Andrew Abbott argues that ideas and schools have a cycle of about twenty years, and some reappeared at twenty to thirty year intervals. “New” developments should thus be taken with an appropriate shadow of a doubt.

  • In general, the social sciences have been marked by an epistemological uncertainty, which led to the proliferation of non-positivist alternatives in methods and epistemologies and a softening of disciplinary boundaries in the past decades. The reflexive mood and growing historical awareness of social research escalated doubts concerning the universality of social theory. Some established outcomes of this are the reinvigoration of both critical theory and ethnographic modes of inquiry.


  • After a partial eclipse under the onslaught of postmodernism in the 1980s and 1990s, the “world-system” approach—initially proposed by I. Wallerstein—has regained confidence. It has coincided with the proliferation and deepening of global thinking and globalization research, and has been accompanied by a radicalization of social criticism directed toward an understanding of globalization as the increasing hegemony of market logic and neoliberalism. Sociology and anthropology have been at the forefront of critical analyses of globalization also as a consequence of the growing popularity of economic sociology and anthropology, which has made the institutional investigation of markets and capitalism one of its central concerns. Karl Polanyi’s idea of disembedded economy, its limitations and dangers, and the related older debate between substantivists and formalists have resurfaced and greatly inspired recent critical economic thinking brand-named by people such as Joseph Stiglitz.


  • With the compressed world of globalization and the constant need to identify forces that drive similar developments but also produce difference, comparative research has seen an unprecedented popularity: some would even say it has become a must. Partly related to this recognition, ethnography has been re-thought to accommodate spatialized and relational understandings of sites and communities, while keeping up its interest in radical realism, close-up experience and lived realities rather than abstracted ones. A proliferation of multi-sited research and of a theoretically and historically more ambitious “global ethnography” have followed.


  • Ours is the age of the urban. This translates into an explosion of interest in the urban and,  perhaps more importantly, in an acute sensitivity to the spatiality of the cultural, the social and the political, and to uneven development in general. Interdisciplinary urban studies has grown into one of the most dynamic fields.

The last 20 years have also witnessed a sophistication of the analysis of state socialism, its collapse and its aftermath, by pointing out the global context, of which both state socialism and its disintegration were a part. Sociology and anthropology have contributed to a more diverse understanding of human trajectories throughout socialism and postsocialism; have generated alternative forms of comparison than just the East-West one; and have altogether served to greatly complicate received wisdom.


The most important contributions of the department to the field

  • The department is one of the youngest, most diverse and dynamic units of CEU. Its very existence is an important contribution to recent debates of interdisciplinarity, the boundaries of epistemic communities and the meaning of the social. Bringing the study of sociology and social anthropology together was a conscious attempt to rearrange disciplinary boundaries, which has inspired renewed thinking on their relationship. Kalb’s work on the relationship of history and anthropology, Kowalski’s and Fabiani’s research in historical sociology, and Bodnar’s interest in the philosophy of comparisons among the three disciplines speak to these disciplinary reflections. Sociology and social anthropology have strongly Eurocentric traditions. The department’s commitment to a comparative-historical framework strives to question the Eurocentric inheritance of both disciplines. Fabiani’s work on intellectuals and the history of social science strengthens the understanding of the internal development and critique of European disciplines; Dafinger’s focus on Africa; Rajaram’s on South and South East Asia; Monterescu’s and Rabinowitz’s on the Middle-East; and Rigi’s on Central Asia, fortified by doubts on the part of analysts of east European social change (Naumescu, Vedres, Bodnar), produce a vibrantly diverse environment in which some of the classical categories of social theory are recast.

A non-Eurocentric approach is more than thinking globally; it interrogates the very foundations of received social science categories. It is in this larger context that the department has been forerunner in bringing postcolonial studies out of its colonial confines to bear on the study on non-colonial histories. Rajaram interrogates both classic (India) and less classic sites (Malaysia) of postcolonial theory and history, and Rigi extends the framework to accommodate the intersection of state socialism and postcolonialism in Central Asia.


  • The department is marked by a strong focus on articulating the connections between macro and micro structures and phenomena, which has underlined its unique contribution to studies of globalization. While the department is certainly not alone or singular in this, our combination of both sociology and social anthropology in a historical-comparative and non-Eurocentric framework leads to a rigorous, coherent and systematic approach to the macro-micro nexus. The intersection of urban and global issues, transnational migration as a lens for illumining state processes of nation-building (Caglar), class formation (Kalb), religious transmission and social change (Naumescu), the unfolding of development policies in rural communities of West Africa (Dafinger) and social network analysis (Vedres) are but a few examples of the general thrust of research in the department.


  • The wide emphasis on global and urban studies has inspired the establishment of the first Global and Urban Studies Program in sociology and anthropology in the region, and one of the few in Europe. Monterescu and Rabinowitz bring a classic anthropological theme, ethnicity, into interaction with a much less classic one, urban anthropology; Kowalski’s focus on urban heritage sites accommodates the study of history and memory; Caglar marries the study of transnational migration and cities to bear on new forms of citizenship; and Bodnar interrogates the globalization and transmission of urban forms, all creating a productive diversity of urban approaches.


  • The department has been instrumental in deepening our understanding of state socialism and what followed, both in terms of contextualization and methodological treatment. Naumescu’s work on religious processes and social change in Ukraine; Vedres’ examination of the economic and political landscapes of postsocialism with cutting-edge network analysis; Bodnar’s grasp on postsocialist urbanity; and Kalb’s and Halmai’s (eds.) recent comparative treatment of neo-nationalism in Headlines of Nation, Subtexts of Class (2011), with contributions from our PhD students, are some of the products of more globally minded interpretive thinking in postsocialist studies.