Studying Immigration in Budapest

February 14, 2018

Seth Feldman in Budapest.When sociology major Seth Feldman ’18 stepped off a plane into Budapest, he was walking into a hotbed of immigration debate.

Last spring, Feldman spent a semester in the heart of Hungary’s beautiful and busy capital, studying globalization and political transition. By the time he returned to Whittier College, he had found his senior project: investigating anti-immigration sentiment in that country.

“I’ve always been interested in how people act in relationship to their place and their group in society, and the forces that are outside of ourselves play such a role in who we are and what we do,” Feldman said. “Studying those forces and understanding them brings us closer to our experience as human beings.”

When he flew back in January for further field research, he returned to a country preparing for parliamentary elections, in which right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban is running for a third term. Orban, known as a strong opponent to the European Union’s migration policy since his government fenced off the country’s southern borders in 2015, has stepped up the anti-migrant campaign.

Budapest was a bustling research site for Feldman, to say the least. Almost 2 million people live, commute, work, shop, and dine in a city of 200 square miles. That’s before factoring in tourism: in 2016 alone, 10.5 million overnight stays were booked in Budapest and central Hungary. Returning to these familiar and busy streets, Feldman ran around for two weeks, from cafes to offices to research institutes to Parliament, gathering more than 20 hours of interviews from a wide range of people, from students to politicians.

“It was wildly successful—way, way more successful than I thought it was going to be,” Feldman said.

He’s interested in how Hungarians’ values and identity affects their feelings about isolationism. Surrounded on all sides by the countries of two continents, Hungary has a long and complex history with its neighbors, including Ottoman and Austrian occupation, losing much of its territory at the end of World War I, involvement in WWII, and soviet control or intervention.

Then came the migrant crisis in 2015. More than one million migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea and by land, many fleeing violence in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

“In the migration crisis, it was [Hungary’s] job to be able to regulate this influx of migrants that they absolutely were not capable of doing and they didn’t want to be capable of doing, since they’re Euro-skeptics,” Feldman said. “They want to protect their Hungarian majority in their country.”

Speaking with his interviewees, Feldman experienced a whole new political spectrum that leans further right than United States politics. People who consider themselves leftists shared rhetoric that Americans would think of as radical right wing, he said.

“It’s really good for Americans to understand their idea of politics and their idea of right and left, and kind of their whole framework on ideologies, is completely mismatched when you’re thrust into a different country’s norms,” Feldman said. 

Shedding one’s ethnocentrism—evaluating someone else’s culture through the lens of your own, and believing yours to be superior—is an experience Feldman feels everyone should have. 

“I think it really comes down to a lifelong process of trying to understand and widen your perspective as far as you possibly can. I think that’s the most important thing that human beings can do.”

Feldman’s sociology coursework prepared him to tackle research like this. A project like this feels like the culmination of every class, he said.

That’s definitely by design, said Associate Professor of Sociology Rebecca Overmyer-Velazquez. The curriculum equips students with the skills they need to pursue whatever passion drives their academic interests.

“That is really what I think a small college like Whittier is best set up to do, which is to support our students to become knowledge creators… To really have them be confronted with complexity, with the messiness that is data, and to be forced to make meaning out of that” Overmyer-Velazquez said. “By the time they get through spring semester and they’re about to graduate, they become experts in a way that is kind of mind-blowing to them.”