Pál Nyíri

Senior Core Fellow

Period of stay:

October - December 2022 (2022/23)


Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Project Title:

Migration and Values in Postwar Europe


When you arrived at the Institute you probably had a concrete idea or plan of what you would like to achieve during your stay. Were you able to pursue these plans? Did there emerge new, unforeseen directions?

Since I had unexpectedly had to assume the role of head of department (Department of Art & Culture, History, and Antiquity, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), I was unable to dedicate all of my time to research as I had hoped. Nonetheless, I was able to continue fieldwork among Chinese lifestyle migrants. I also became increasingly aware of the growing diversity of middle-class non-European immigrants in Budapest, throwing into sharper relief the contradictions between the Hungarian government's anti-immigration rhetoric and its practical facilitation of immigration. More importantly, it strengthened my interest in redrawing the global map of migration as the new global middle classes migrate to previously unpopular locations.

More generally speaking, who or what influenced your work and research path the most?

That's a difficult question, and I can only give a long and meandering answer. I started doing the research that I am essentially still continuing when I was 20 years old (exactly 30 years ago) and studying chemistry at Rutgers University in the United States. My girlfriend then was a Chinese Malaysian, and I was surrounded by Chinese graduate students in my lab. I became interested simultaneously in the Chinese language and in the experience of being a Chinese outside China, in a multiethnic society. So I started studying Chinese and Indonesian (which is a particular version of Malay) and decided to quit chemistry and study something like Asian studies or international relations (at that time I thought, I might want to be a diplomat). So via Mary Kirk, who was then the director of the Institute of International Education's office in Budapest and for whom I had worked over a summer, I got in touch with a history professor at Rutgers, Vermes Gábor, to ask for advice. He introduced me to a professor of Chinese politics, King Chen, who in turn advised me to try and publish some original work as it would help me get into a graduate program in the field I wanted (I needed a scholarship, too). So I came back to Budapest over the summer and, to my surprise, saw a significant Chinese presence. I began hanging out with them - and that's how it started.

My first publication came out in the Hungarian Observer, an English-language magazine of Hungary's foreign ministry, which was edited by the right-wing writer of historical fiction, Szentmihályi Szabó Péter. Then I gradually got to know Hungarian China scholars and politicians who were interested in the China issue. Polonyi Péter introduced me to the journal Valóság and helped me get a more or less scholarly publication out. I learned that Kőszeg Ferenc, who was then an important SZDSZ speaker on human rights issues, was interested in Chinese immigration, so I looked up his number in the directory and called him from the phone box in front of my house. Sik Endre invited me to become part of his new research group on international migration at the Institute of Sociology, as well as the new NGO aiming to help migrants, Menedék. Meanwhile, I got a master's degree in Asian studies at the University of Oregon, where I had a number of inspiring professors, including Stephen Durrant, Michael Fishlen, Dick Kraus, and Cynthia Brokaw.

I wrote my PhD while working full-time as a technical brand manager at Procter and Gamble in Brussels. After I got my degree, Frank Pieke took me on as a postdoc in Oxford. That was when I realized that what I was doing was called anthropology, and from then on, my inspiration came mostly from anthropologists who developed the transnational approach to migration research, notably Nina Glick Schiller and Aihwa Ong, as well as from historian Prasenjit Duara. Finally, I must mention Yehuda Elkana, who was a source of enormous inspiration both as an intellectual and as an organizer of academia.

And in terms of what influenced my research path after I became a professional academic: mostly curiosity about how rapid social change in China produced wave after wave of mobile citizens who related to the world differently, then partly accident - for example, after I moved to Australia I did some research in Southeast Asia because of the relative convenience of access -, and also partly, political and moral concerns about the persistence of nationalism in both receiving societies and mobile populations.

To which debates or schools of thought do you see your research contributing?

Migration research continues to be overly dominated by a fundamentally economistic approach, whether neoclassical or Marxist. In this view, migration is ultimately a reflection of economic inequality (or injustice), and other factors are secondary. While it is true that new populations are beginning to move to find a way out of poverty, we should not ignore the massive shifts caused by the rise of middle classes outside the West. In their migrations, non-economic factors such as the quest for personal freedom or a better environment play a larger role than before, and they are creating new connections across the globe.

How do you see your field of research today? How is it evolving?

Most social researchers struggle to understand the postliberal world and the tidal wave of nationalism and repression. Anthropology's focus on the "proximate", as Xiang Biao calls it, can often help explain how individuals become supporters or victims of such movements. Still, I am concerned that this sometimes has the effect of naturalising the evil they commit.

How is life after IAS CEU Budapest (if we may ask)?

Life is back to the daily duties of head of department and worries about the world, plus anticipation of my son's going to secondary school next year. Plus there is now our cat Ödön, the most tangible result of my stay at IAS.

If there were one book or film you could recommend to the reader, what would be that and why?

Pankaj Mishra's Age of Anger is the best effort to understand the global tide of nationalism I have read so far.