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.


Richard Hartshorne’s racism

In my research, I’ve done some investigation on the debates of American geography between the 1920s and 1950s. Today, I’ve just encountered an incredible quote from the eminent American geographer, Richard Hartshorne, author of a once almost biblical text on the history of geography, The Nature of Geography (1939), and who was active during the noted period. This is the guy in his authentic environment and his tome.

According to textbook narratives and all academic pieces on him to date, as a political geographer he was generally troubled by environmental determinists and eugenicists of the time, and I previously thought of him as a sort of liberal, who was against racial prejudice and the tenets of physical anthropology. As the story goes, many geographers such as Hartshorne became increasingly disillusioned by these insidious thoughts, the abandonment of which was further encouraged by the growing mainstream American antipathy for Nazism and Fascism in Europe in the mouth of WWII. This is the American narrative.

Now, here’s the quote from the first page of the 1938 article in question:

“However, in place of this problem of national minorities the United States has more permanent problems of racial minorities – problems in a form essentially unknown in Europe. The differences between French and English, Germans and Poles, or even Swedes and Finns, Rumanians and Magyars are essentially cultural, not biological. Germans have become French and Poles have become Germans in two generations. So far as appearance is concerned, the barber and the tailor can make the change in a day. But no amount of education can change into white Americans the descendants of the negroes who arrived in Virginia before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, just as no beauty shop can make a fullblood negro look like a white person.” (p. 276)

Hartshorne’s racial definitions here are purely statistical, and he does not provide any analytical arguments for the distribution of races, only a descriptive account on the data and some basic geographical factors connected to regional divisions in labour and industry. He uses the definitions and data of the United States Bureau of the Census, 1930. As he explains:

“We shall not enter into the argument regarding what is meant by “race.” Our interest is in social and political situations that arise from obvious biological differences, and we can therefore accept the ordinary interpretation of racial terms as used in this country. In the United States apparently the only definition of a negro is one who is known to be a negro; i.e. one who, either because of obvious physical characteristics, chiefly color, or because of known origin, is recognized as having any degree of negro ancestry, regardless of how much white ancestry he may also have.” (p. 277)

The same is the case with the other races identified, the Mexicans, Indians and “Orientals”. For example, Mexicans are said to be Indians speaking Spanish, who could be “recognized on sight”. The only thing he argues against concerning some very racist ideas is climatic determinism in the “negro case”:

“But it is clear from the map that this is not a direct reflection of climate, as some foreign observers have supposed. The large number of negroes in Northern cities cannot be dismissed as exceptions; nor can the absence of negroes in many Southern districts be explained climatically.” (p. 277)

Why is this whole stuff flabbergastingly interesting? Well… as previously noted, my humble impression is that

there is still almost complete silence on the racial ideas of American geographers who were NOT commemorated as well-known eugenicists or environmental determinists of the time.

You can read about the racisms of Ellsworth Huntington, Griffith Taylor, or maybe the more moderate Ellen Churchill Semple. Neil Smith has written on Isiah Bowma416QJHWKYYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_n’s racism in his The American Empire (2004), but I could find only some littered personal accounts on the racism of other important geographers, like Carl Ortwin Sauer (this calls for another post). There aren’t even traces of reflection on these issues in any of the most prominent accounts on the history of American geography, like in David Livingstone’s The Geographical Tradition (1992), Ron J. Johnston’s (and James D. Sidaway’s) Geography and Geographers (2015), Richard Peet’s Modern Geographical Thought (1998), Geoffrey J. Martin’s American Geography and Geographers (2015) or his All Possible Worlds (2005), just to name a few, and nor in Reflections on Richard Hartshorne’s Nature of Geography (1989).

In sum, it seems to me that the reevaluation of the racial thought of a wider field of American geographers is yet to be done in light of contemporary racial discourses and political thought.

By the way, here are the maps, just for fun.

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Hartshorne, Richard (1938): Racial Maps of the United States. Geographical Review, 28(2) p. 276-288.