Speaking from the Semi-Periphery: Decolonizing Geographical Knowledge Production in Socialist Hungary, 1960s to 1980s

In recent months I’ve prepared a new research plan/paper on the stuff I’ve been doing, connected to my work in the 1989 After 1989 project:

The “spatial turn” in the history of scientific knowledge has called into question abstract notions of scientific development and specifically national disciplinary and institutional narratives. The past two decades has seen a growing number of studies in the historical geographies of scientific knowledge (HGSK), aiming to understand where knowledge is produced and disseminated, and how the content of knowledge changes in motion and adapts to local contexts and social interests (Livingstone 2003; Powell 2007; Withers 2009). Recently, increased globalization has summoned an upsurge of research focusing on interconnectedness through knowledge networks and circulations, transnational histories and global comparative studies, arguing against the “methodological nationalism” of previous research in favour of alternative transnational concepts (Keim et al. 2014; Conrad 2016).

On the other hand, postcolonial and decolonial approaches have contested Eurocentric or Westcentric epistemological frameworks and discursive formations, providing a reassessment of multiple or alternative modernities and elucidating the hierarchical orders of knowledge regimes (Chakrabarty 2007; Boatca and Costa 2012). However, much of this original literature on postcolonialism focused either on the global centre or the former colonial world, silencing in-between semiperipheral contexts such as Eastern Europe under transitory and provincialised terms such as “postsocialism,” while there has been little theorizing between the “posts” (Chari and Verdery 2009). This marginalization process has also led to the concealment of Second-Third World relations and the interdependency of centre and periphery contexts in an interconnected global context (Ward 2010; Mark and Apor 2014).

While the perceived non-colonial background of Eastern Europe provided excuses for many in the region to distance themselves from postcolonial studies (Moore 2001), historical studies have nevertheless shown the existence of long-term structures of hierarchical dependency and East-West “civilizational slopes” even since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (Wolff 1994), which have well endured into socialist and postsocialist times (Melegh 2006). This continuity is well captured by the self-Orientalizing development and geographical concepts in social science, geography and economic history (Petrovici 2015). These can be exemplified by various contexts: the enduring dichotomies of “Eastern” and “Western” development (Éber et al. 2014), the “catching-up” neoliberalist transitology (Stenning and Hörschelman 2008), the “civilizing mission” of European Union accession (Böröcz and Sarkar 2005), the subaltern adaptation of development policy models, and the uneven reproduction of Western academic hegemony.

This research argues for “decolonizing” diffusionist and neoevolutionist theories that have been appropriated as the dominant narrative of the global centre and imposed upon the Eastern European context (Boatca and Costa 2012). Simultaneously it argues for a global perspective of transnational interconnectedness in understanding Eastern European developments in the production of geographical knowledge. It does so by using contemporary literature in critical geography and international relations, and specifically in postcolonial, decolonial theory and world-systems analysis to deconstruct internalised structures of dependency and global hierarchies inherent in Eastern European geographical epistemologies. By “speaking from the semiperiphery,” it aims to reassemble local knowledge production on global geographical concepts, in light of overlooked global historical interconnectivity between “East” and “West.” The research aims to apply these theoretical insights to understanding how Hungarian reform economists tried to position the country in various global imaginations between the 1960s and 1980s in the context of integrating into the world economy and thus breaking away with Cold War concepts amidst increasing global competition and economic restructuration due to crises.

After World War II, the imperialist and nationalist-revisionist ambitions of the Hungarian state elite crumbled with the demise of the previous “high imperialist” era. The Communist takeover and the process of Sovietization created a new setting under the imperial and colonial influence of the Soviet Union, and a rise of economist experts succeeding the pre-WWII primacy of geographers. Stalinist orthodoxy summoned a dichotomous Cold War imagination of separate “capitalist” and “socialist” worlds, soon to be called “world systems,” while the production of geographical knowledge and textbooks on regional geography also followed this essential dichotomy. But the détente period after de-Stalinisation and the gradual opening up of diplomatic and trade relations due to an economic upturn in the world economy and the process of decolonisation led to reconfigurations in global geographical and development imaginations.

The maintaining of the Eastern European “buffer zone” necessitated the Soviet Union to foster trade relations both with the West and the so-called Third World. Eastern European reformers in Poland and Hungary pushed towards “market socialism”, as acquiring advanced technology and foreign currency from the West implied finding ways to finance development either through foreign loans or export-oriented growth, and facilitated exporting expertise and investments into the Third World and searching for state-led development models abroad, such as in Spain, South Korea and Chile (Bockman, Feygin and Mark forthcoming). These reformist ambitions generated a virulent debate and the emergence of new geographical concepts connected to the country’s shifting foreign trade policies and lobbying activity in international organizations (UN, UNCTAD, GATT) in order to manoeuvre between “East” and “West.”

While the concept of the “Third World” was disregarded by Eastern European socialist countries, they aimed to reposition themselves between “developed” and “undeveloped” countries in an urge to “catch up” with the West. By the 1970s in Hungary, some new concepts such as “semi-periphery,” “small economies” (Kádár 1971), “open economies” (Kozma 1980) had emerged in the Centre for Afro-Asian Research (1965-) and the Institute for World Economy (1973-) at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which consequently developed the new field of area studies. In turn, some Western concepts, such as Wallersteinian world-systems analysis and the concept of “semiperiphery” were influenced by Eastern European economic historiography. In later developments, the series of Fejlődés-tanulmányok [Development Studies] published in 1978–1989 and journals such as Világtörténet [World History] introduced the new fields of development studies, world-systems analysis, centre-periphery thinking and postcolonial theory into the fields of area studies and international relations.

This research thus aims to understand through historical materials of scientific publications and policy papers connected to these institutions how alternative geographical conceptions of socialist globalization emerged and permeated global imaginations in area studies. The theoretical-methodological novelty of this research lies in connecting the approaches of transnational or global history, political economy and the history of ideas: Hungarian semiperipheral knowledge production is conceptualised in the interconnected contexts of centre-periphery relations.


Boatca, M., Costa, S. (2012): Postcolonial Sociology: A Research Agenda. In: Rodríguez, E. G., Boatca, M. (eds.): Decolonizing European Sociology: Transdisciplinary Approaches. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing.

Bockman, J., Feygin, Y., Mark, J. (forthcoming): The Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Alternative Globalisations 1950s–1980s. Manuscript.

Böröcz, J., Sarkar, M. (2005): What is the EU? International Sociology, 20(2): 153–173.

Chakrabarty, D. (2007): Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Chari, S., Verdery, K. (2009): Thinking Between the Posts: Postcolonialism, Postsocialism, and Ethnography after the Cold War. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 51(1): 6–34.

Conrad, S. (2016): What is Global History? Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Éber, M., Gagyi, Á., Gerőcs, T., Jelinek, C., Pinkasz, A. (2014): 1989: Szempontok a rendszerváltozás globális politikai gazdaságtanához. Fordulat, 21.: 10–63.

Gille, Z. (2010): Is there a Global Postsocialist Condition? Global Society, 24(1): 9–30.

Kádár, B. (1971): Kis országok a világgazdaságban. Budapest: Közgazdasági és Jogi Könyvkiadó.

Keim, W., Celik, E., Erche, C., Wöhrer, V. (eds.)(2014): Global Knowledge Production in the Social Sciences: Made in Circulation. Corchester (UK): Ashgate.

Kozma, F. (1980): A nyitott szerkezetű gazdaság. Budapest: Kossuth.

Livingstone, D. N. (2003): Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mark, J., Apor, P. (2014): Socialism Goes Global: Decolonization and the Making of a New Culture of Internationalism in Socialist Hungary, 1956–1989. The Journal of Modern History, 87: 852–891.

Melegh, A. (2006): On the East-West Slope: Globalization, Nationalism, Racism and Discourses on Central and Eastern Europe. Budapest: CEU Press.

Moore, D. C. (2001): Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique. PMLA, 116(1): 111–128.

Petrovici, N. (2015): Framing Criticism and Knowledge Production in Semi-peripheries: Post-socialism Unpacked. Intersections, 1(2):

Powell, R. C. (2007): Geographies of Science: Histories, Localities, Practices, Futures. Progress in Human Geography, 31(3): 309–329.

Stenning, A., Hörschelman, K. (2008): History, Geography and Difference in the Post-Socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-Socialism? Antipode, 40(2): 312–335.

Ward, S. (2010): Transnational Planners in a Postcolonial World. In: Healey, P., Upton, R. (eds.): Crossing Borders: International Exchange and Planning Practices. London and New York: Routledge. 47–72.

Withers, C. W. J. (2009): Place and the “Spatial Turn” in Geography and in History. Journal of the History of Ideas, 70(4): 637–658.

Wolff, L. (1994): Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford University Press.


Where were the oldest universities outside “Europe”?

The “university” is a very Eurocentric term: it is said that because there were no “corporations” in the “East”, the archetype schools of higher education did not exist there, which is, of course, not true (apart from the academies of antiquity, noteworthy is the Byzantine unversity, which was not based on “corporation” but “charity trust”). Due to this conception, European expansion could be traced in geographical space by the establishment of European learned societies, the so-called “unversities”. I’ve just discovered that the first universities outside “Europe” were founded mainly by Spanish monks in the 16th century in colonial Latin America. The oldest is in Santo Domingo, today the Dominican Republic (Universidad Santo Tomás de Aquino, 1538), which makes it the first university established in the Western hemisphere. The oldest one still in operation is in Lima, Peru (Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 1551) and the oldest in North America is in Mexico (Real y Pontificia Universidad de México, 1551). The first university in Asia was founded in The Philippines (Universidad de Santo Tomás, 1611), but colleges were developed from 1589 on (some became universities afterwards). This was 25 years after the route accross the Pacific Ocean was discovered in 1565.


“The Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas, established by the Dominican missionaries in 1611 and raised to the rank of a University in 1645 by Pope Innocent X through the petition of Philip IV of Spain, is currently the educational institution with the oldest extant University charter in Asia.”

Secular globalization as Westphalianism versus Islamism?

I simply can’t believe this entry on Fundamentalism by Bassam Tibi in the SAGE Encyclopedia of Political Theory (2010).

It propagates as the process of “secular globalization” the so-called “Westphalian system of nation-states”, which is actually a historical myth of Eurocentric scholars. As if it was a natural process. And as if globalization happened only because of and at the time of “European expansion”. And as if it was simply “expansion”. And the text strips all historical context of imperialism and colonial realities, and transmutes it into a “secular process of globalization”. Then opposes it with only one thing: Islam fundamentalism. As if fundamentalism cannot be something else from “Islamism”. And it also constructs the false Eurocentric dichotomy of “secular” and “religious” states, suggesting that the latter is fundamentalist. Oh yes, and how about when Europeans highlight their “Christianity” against “Islam”, isn’t that an ironic appeal then?

“The overarching context of fundamentalism is the reality of a worldtime of globalization. In fact, each civilization is based on a particularism of its own time documented in its own calendar. Additionally, one can speak of premodern civilizations while avoiding evolutionary thinking. There are also civilizations that are not secular and therefore religion based. The historical roots of contemporary and modern globalization are the process of the European expansion. The related processes are viewed as an expansion of the international society established in the aftermath of the Peace of Westphalia signed in 1648. This globalization is a secular process that results in the mapping of the world into the system of the secular nation-states. It was believed that this mapping was also a part of the universal process of Westernization and secularization. Today, the religious fundamentalisms uprising in non-Western civilizations against the West belie this assumption. Anti-Westernism is, for instance, the substance of Islamist fundamentalism as the vision of a restoration of a religious order against secularity and the West, as well.” (p. 537)

“The concept of divine order is envisaged to challenge and subsequently replace the prevailing Westphalian order of sovereign states. This order is by its origin Western, as a state system was created in the aftermath of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but it is the state system of today imposed on the entire world since the wave of decolonization that completed the mapping of the globe into a Westphalian system. This secular political world order is now threatened by religious fundamentalisms, in particular the Islamist one (Philpott, 2002).” (p. 539)

How could they possibly publish this? Outrageous!

Muslims condemning things

There’s this great tumbler called Muslims Condemning Things, which is about samples of muslims and their communities condemning violence, oppression, terrorism, etc. It shows great evidence, and acts as an excellent reminder for us about biased Eurocentric and orientalist conceptions of “islam” and the “East.” People can write them to contribute with cases they have found. As the site says:

“People are always asking, “Why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism /  fanaticism / violence in the name of Islam?” They do. Here’s proof. Inspired by Muslims Wearing Things.”

Contribution of Arab geography to European “discoveries”

“Finally, maritime geography was the last kind discovered during the Ottoman Empire simultaneously with European “geography discoveries.” Columbus’ journey to the New World was motivated by Arab maritime geography. Vasco da Gama used Arab cartography during his journey to Africa and guided by Mal’im Cana. Marco Polo’s journey was guided by Arab sailors. Portolans, Rahnamjats were used by Europeans sailors. Oceanography was founded by Arab maritime geographers and continued on by European modern geographers. The spirit of Muslim Spain was reincarnated in the new Portugese and Spanish Christian geographers and Sailors.”

Contributions of Arab geographers.

List of Muslim geographers.

Islamic cartography.

Hanafi, Hassan (1992): World-views of Arab Geographers. GeoJournal, 26(2): 153-156.

When did capitalism start?


Well. Is this a timeline of the rise of capitalism, or a timeline of the rise of Western European hegemony? Even Karl Marx wrote of “capital” (or capitalist mode of production) and not capitalism, so what is “capitalism” in the first place? Wasn’t it a term constructed somewhere in the second half of the nineteenth century in Western Europe, canonized by mostly German authors? (Was this a mere coincidence?) Wasn’t it a term fixed as the successive stage after so-called feudalism (another relatively Eurocentric term), in the transition from feudalism to capitalism debate? Wasn’t it seen as the highest form of modern European development (even if in negative light, such as imperialism) to be overthrown by European modernization ideals, such as communism? Wasn’t it in the same way during the Cold War seen as the essential idea behind liberal democracy, civil society, etc., as the anti-thesis of so-called socialist countries? Wasn’t it seen as neoliberal agendas in the so-called Second and Third Worlds from the 1970s and after 1989/91? So which one was capitalism? Are they the same thing?

Furthermore, what does “capitalism” consist of in the first place? This latter one is an intriguing question, since capital, capitalists and capital development existed since ages. Even Max Weber notes that you could find it in Babylonia, Ancient Greece, Rome, medieval China or Japan. Democracy was “said” to have existed in Ancient Greece. Modernism was “said” to have begun in the Renaissance. Rationalism was “said” to have kicked off with the Enlightenment. And capitalism? 1492? 1571? (see G. O. Flynn and A. Giráldez) The industrial revolution (and which one)? The 19th century? We all know, that these are highly debated. However, the worst you could do is draw a timeline of the spontaneous emergence of “capitalism”, referring to “something” that popped out in universal space and exists until today.

I could equally say, that “capitalism” was a concept deriving from Confucianist ideas in the 18th century by French physiocrats, who translated “wu-wei” into “laissez-faire”. Why not say this?

Of course I get the provocative idea of the timeline, but this binary logic of whether or not capitalism existed is dumbly posed in the first place. Or there are like ecological critiques that would suggest that exploitation and developmentalism per se existed since “modern man”, and capitalism is just an acceleration of these processes. 😀 In all, I wonder what that 1600-1700 AD suggests…

Quote from “What is Global History?”

I’ve just skimmed through this new book on global history by Sebastian Conrad (2016, Princeton University Press). It seems to me a very clean, careful and useful book, and I immediately found some great passages and quotes for digestion. Here’s one on balancing Eurocentrism, pages 168-169 from the chapter “Positionality.”





“Let us, therefore, move to the third aspect that we wish to explore, conceptual Eurocentrism. On this level, Eurocentrism means the projection of a particular set of concepts, values, and chronologies onto the past. Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued that “insofar as the academic discourse of history—that is, ‘history’ as a discourse produced at the institutional site of the university—is concerned, ‘Europe’ remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of all histories, including the ones we call ‘Indian,’ ‘Chinese,’ ‘Kenyan,’ and so on. There is a peculiar way in which all these other histories tend to become variations on a master narrative that could be called ‘the history of Europe.’” Ironically, even accounts that try to bracket the historical influence of Europe and to emphasize in its place indigenous dynamics and trajectories, can be Eurocentric in their vocabulary, and in their general logic. For example, recent popular works that see a Chinese fleet under Admiral Zheng He reach California in 1421 and Florence in 1434 stake a claim to Chinese priority, but they identify as stepping-stones to modernity the same events as do traditional Eurocentric accounts—namely, the discovery of the Americas and the Renaissance, both of which they now attribute to China. Among academic works, Andre Gunder Frank’s invitation to ReOrient already in its title indicates a shift from Eurocentrism to an emphatic Sinocentrism. While Frank reduces the dominance of Europe to a brief interlude, his account is based on the same parameters—markets, trade, and economic growth—that also governed Eurocentric orthodoxy. The result here is a simple reversal, minus any profound challenge to the underlying concepts and historical narratives.
In essence, the reason for this is that the modern disciplines that originated in Europe were soon adopted around the world. Over the course of the nineteenth century, under the pressures of global integration and Western hegemony, the parameters and concepts of European academic fields assumed hegemonic status beyond the societies for which they were originally devised. European history was treated as the model for universal development in places like Argentina and South Africa, India and Vietnam. This view was engrained in the conceptual tools of the modern social sciences and has thus been reiterated and reproduced constantly, and frequently unconsciously. Ostensibly analytical terms such as “nation,” “revolution,” “society,” and “civilization” have transformed a parochial (European) experience into a (universalistic) theory that pre-structures the interpretation of all local pasts. “Only ‘Europe’, ” as Chakrabarty has summarized this logic, “is theoretically [. . .] knowable; all other histories are matters of empirical research that fleshes out a theoretical skeleton which is substantially ‘Europe’.” In historiographical practice, the use of European terminology and the underlying philosophy of history developed in and for Europe have resulted in narratives of a long progression from feudal to civil society, from tradition to modernity. The historical differences and particular trajectories exhibited by non-Western societies are typically described in a language of lack and failure, in a rhetoric of “not yet,” and treated as deficits.”