The Rise of Heteronomous Academia on the EU’s Borderlands

Social science may in fact serve the interests of powerful elites and reproduce existing structures of domination if values are not critically analyzed. Social science is also an inherently political enterprise in these respects.
– George Steinmetz[1]

Over the past decade, in Hungary, we have witnessed a great number of demonstrations and one could have signed countless petitions with a gradually declining enthusiasm against the so-called “illiberal policies” of the Fidesz government. Indignant citizens of Budapest recurrently chant the worn out protest-verse “We won’t let [allow] it!” when attending the winter-season demonstrations with a strikingly constant ardour, as if anything was at stake other than their self-esteem as assertive citoyens capable of inducing political change. Despite the striking failure of these protests and the progressive radicalisation of illiberal policies, neither has the intensity of the acts of resistance increased, nor have the collective strategies been subject to any substantial change. To account for why the radicalisation of the regime’s science-related policies have not yet provoked a radicalisation of resistance, especially in the academic branches of social sciences and humanities (SSH), this essay relies on the seemingly provocative concepts of simulated protest,[2] heteronomous academia[3] and informalities.[4]

Assessing the matter of academic freedom from a sociology of science perspective,[5] the present essay makes a case that the relative autonomy of the semi-peripheral Hungarian science production is threatened externally by the interwoven forces of neoliberalism and illiberalism on the one hand, and internally by the rule of informalities[6] characterising domestic academic funding and recruitment practices. This historically conditioned particular setting provides the structural basis for the dominant form of resistance we term here simulated protest, which satisfies the individual need to exercise civic courage through over-aestheticised protest-rituals and yet serves to maintain the status quo of the dominant institutional elite by diverting attention from internal challenges towards (what are indeed serious) external attacks.

The ambiguity of this type of protest lies in transposing the modes of resistance into symbolic registers, creating a narrative of heroic victimisation to the detriment of a reflexive assessment of internal hierarchies, as – despite their biased narrative – dominant agents in fact do not only suffer, but in many cases enable, reinforce or openly profit from the newly implemented measures. In spite of all the swan-songs sung by official sociologists and leading domestic intellectuals about “the end of academic freedom”, the expansion of an institutionally solidified heteronomous science-apparatus largely remains undisputed. Like slow-boiling frogs, well-meaning agents also realise too late the urgent need for actions of solidarity, while the government succeeds in carrying on its “restructuring policies” that range from creating parallel institutions producing system-legitimising “science” to gaining direct control over the whole academic network.[7]

“Jumping out of the hot pot” in this context would entail a radical revision of the internal hindrances to autonomous scientific production, including the questioning of prevailing hierarchies, the relations between the positions held, the distribution of funding, the status of epistemological positions, and the quality of scientific production. The most important issue at stake would be to have at least a certain, still absent, vision of the role of social sciences in the present post-state-socialist context,[8] other than adherence to the fictitious ideology of value-neutral social science, and to the categorical imperative of (individual) survival facilitated by informal networks.

Self-disclosure and heteronomy

The commonly used term “academic freedom” will here be replaced by “academic autonomy”, which puts additional emphasis on legal guarantees of autonomy primarily from the state and the church that minimise the role of external influences with relation to the academe.[9] Scientific autonomy, as outlined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, presupposes that the functioning of scientific institutions and practices resist external (most often political or economic) pressures. The term “auto-nomos” (where auto means “own” and nomos refers to “law”) underlines the need for a given field of activity to abide by its own inherent rules. In the case of social sciences, these rules imply the competition of different actors for the most accurate description of social realty. When science is forced to surrender to the logic of heteronomy, scientific discourses will start to revolve around questions such as “How well does the functioning of science serve the interests of political, economic or industrial actors?”.

But all this is still far from guaranteeing the autonomous functioning of science.  Autonomy in this case also presupposes the existence of an institutional apparatus ensuring that the appointment and recruitment of scholars, the distribution of funds and symbolic profits are exclusively based on scientific merit, in other words, on the autonomous definition of “scholastic excellence”. Bourdieu’s reflexive understanding  of the social sciences serves here as a heuristic tool to overcome the simplistic – and yet dominant – narrative of current events in Hungary, one positing a conflict between an undifferentiated and undivided autonomous academic community on the one hand, and the evil government, embodied by the Ministry of Technology and Innovation, on the other.

Public discourses, including the overwhelming majority of institutional statements, open letters and petitions, apply a strikingly simplified definition of academic autonomy; it associates autonomous science exclusively with the status quo ante bellum, i.e. the state of affairs before the governmental attacks started about a decade ago. This one-sided definition deliberately and systematically ignores some specific criteria of autonomous functioning that in the present could prevent the joint forces of illiberalism and neoliberalism to take over academe. In order to make sense of why social sciences in particular fall prey to these forces, the following passage, by Pierre Bourdieu, deserves to be quoted in full:[10]

The idea of a neutral science is a fiction, an interested fiction which enables its authors to present a version of the dominant representation of the social world, neutralised and euphemised into a particularly misrecognisable and symbolically, therefore, particularly effective form, and to call it scientific.

This quote, we believe, casts light on at least two crucial tendencies apparent in the current Hungarian context. First, it brings us closer to why illiberalism and neoliberalism are becoming particularly good bedfellows, especially in granting support to the STEM field in the hope for relatively short-term economic outputs convertible to market profits as a result of seemingly inherent apolitical scientific procedures. But more importantly, this passage also points to the heteronomous functioning of social sciences when repeatedly taking refuge in a self-imposed representation of “value-neutrality”. This representation, upheld by the elite at the top of the domestic hierarchies, inadvertently discloses its severe subordination to the political agenda dictated, metaphorically, by the Ministry of Innovation and Technology, helping it maintain its institutional privileges. Heteronomous practices, discourses and representations constantly give away their true modus operandi once confronted with the de facto tendencies of academic restructuring and the premises of autonomous science production conceptualised as a logic that “knows and recognizes only the ‘intrinsic force of the true idea’”.[11]

To support this claim of ongoing self-disclosure, three illustrative cases are brought from the recent past of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Amidst the protests against the subsequent detaching of the Academy’s research network from the Academy itself, the latter published an article entitled “On the usefulness of human sciences”. The authors argued in favour of the applicability of humanities in machine linguistics and also promoted the “coaching” of corporate leaders. Such a statement, produced by actors of the academic field that would ideally draw its autonomy from engaging with specialised, relatively long-term basic research, may be simply erroneous or distasteful. However, some developments related to the event called “The Celebration of Hungarian Science” point well beyond matters of tastes and distastes by bringing up issues of academic servility and (self)censorship, when a presentation on “The role and success of men and women in IT”[12] was banned by the Academy due to its alleged “political connotations”. A curious sequel to this occurrence is that the professor who would have made the presentation – now senior research fellow at Oxford – deliberately avoided the use of the term “gender” given the hostile political climate also illustrated by the exile of Central European University and the banning of gender studies at ELTE, Hungary’s biggest state-owned university. This political censorship from within can be hardly allotted to the grotesque domestic ways of “celebrating science” or “value neutrality” but, yet again, should be conceptualised as illustrative of a surrender of science to the forces of heteronomy. 

With the very recent founding of a “streamlined” Family Research Centre, compatible with the government’s political agenda, within the Academy’s Institute of Sociology, heteronomy in academe has reached a new peak. In a context where “family research” serves as a governmental counter-discourse par excellence to bash “gender studies” (generally associated with liberalism, multiculturalism, relativism and the CEU), the foundation of a “family research centre” within the Hungarian Academy of Sciences is not only ethically questionable; it is also a clear sign of governmental policies permeating the consecrated realms of science. The Centre’s official credo propagating “value-neutral” science on its homepage is anything but neutral, given that its creation is inseparable from an evidently over-politicised context. Therefore, “value-neutrality” should be better understood as a justificatory ideology for official sociology that aims “not to realise itself as a science but to realise an official image of science”.[13] 

The above examples illustrate what may be termed the dual subordination of the academic field in Hungary. The subordination to illiberalism that ardently opposes and bans system-critical scientific practices (see example 2), and the structuring force of neoliberalism that propagates seeming value neutrality, favours applied research over critical science or basic research and shapes the profile of the field of SSH accordingly (see example 1). The overall success of these forces cannot be accounted for without referring to a third crucial characteristic of post-state-socialist societies, namely: informalities. In his seminal article “Informality Rules”, Böröcz stresses the decisive role of informal networks in gaining economic and/or political influence. He argues that “informality is so widespread in the post-state-socialist Central European societies today that conducting any business, economic or otherwise, is virtually impossible without bowing, or even succumbing, to it”.[14] While debunking the conventionally shared idea that in the 1980s in Hungary informalities were confined to the economic sphere of the “informal economy” or euphemistically, the “second economy” in the shadow of the official one, Böröcz sets forth a number of cases and references in politics to prove that informality in fact permeates all spheres of social reality in sharp contrast to institutional formal institutional procedures.

Informalities should be seen as the bridge between the above mentioned external forces of heteronomy and the growing expansion of heteronomous practices inside the academe in Hungary. A recent empirical study[15] examining the overall scientific performance of researchers affiliated to the research network of the Academy has shown a striking contrast between positions held and output produced. For example, only 29% of the holders of the highest “doctor of science” (DSc) title conform to the minimum eligibility criteria for their position implemented in 2019 imposing the publication of at least two indexed (Q1 or Q2) original articles in the course of their full academic career. If one extends the analysis to affiliated researchers according to other, more subtle indicators, such as the predominance of multiple co-authored articles, the strong bias for domestic journals and the over-production of Hungarian articles issued by institutional/domestic publishing houses,[16] or simply by taking a look at publication outputs backed up by state-funded grants, one will find that the extent to which quality control in an international sense is virtually non-existent even at the top of domestic academic hierarchies is astonishing.

When the logic of staff recruitment in universities and research institutions shifts towards informalities to the detriment of scientific excellence, the result is a staff largely deriving from counter-selection and thus unable to put forth a moral or scientific superiority over agents loyal to the government and appointed to high institutional positions in order to break the alleged liberal hegemony in SSH. When taking social, informal and other criteria into account at the expense of scholarly excellence is the rule, rather than the exception, in recruitment, mediocrity becomes an important selection criterion; job openings in institutionalised SSH are almost always consciously tailored to pre-selected candidates, which serves to discourage competitive scholars even from applying. The counter-selective recruitment process is one of the best-kept and worst-kept secrets[17] in academe at the same time as it rarely exits the walls of universities and research institutions, while a great deal of practices of all parties concerned are consciously shaped to conform to this mechanism. Ask any researcher in camera, and they will confirm the predominance of this practice in Hungarian academia, which is in line with Böröcz’s diagnosis about the normative rule of informalities within post-socialist societies.

The Collective Delusion of Simulated Protest

The essence of simulated protest lies in sublimating acts of resistance into over-aestheticised, symbolic actions confined exclusively to point a finger at the external enemy represented by the government. The distinction made by Robert Merton[18] between “latent” and “manifest” functions is of great use here, as it draws attention to unintended – and often unconscious – irrational consequences of social actions. Similar to the social logic of Hopi rain dance ceremonies,[19] simulated protest rituals should be understood as performative actions presented by local intellectuals to collectively experience civil courage without engaging in open conflicts via direct protest activities that would require higher individual stakes (e.g. strikes, boycotts). Protests become simulated when they are no longer oriented towards or measured by their effectiveness, but simply settle for conferring moral superiority over the “enemy” to those involved in it.

Consequently, these protest actions fulfil in-group (latent) functions instead of putting significant pressure on the government despite the fact that many well-meaning scholars and intellectuals also attend these demonstrations.  For several years now under the self-proclaimed illiberal Fidesz regime, these actions follow a strikingly permanent scenario: 1) the government announces the imposition of some measures without consulting with the institution in concern; 2) this is followed by public incredulity or outrage about the planned actions that range from banning, through financial or administrative bleed out, to merging, outsourcing or “restructuring”; 3) online petitions and open statements that echo phrases such as “we are observing with concern” or “we find it unacceptable” start to circulate; 4) solidarity protests are organised at the institution under attack, including performative actions such as a ritualised burial service for the death (yet again)  of academic freedom, collective singing or lifting up of books or, at times, black umbrellas, depending on the season, etc.; 5) the representative of the Ministry engages in pseudo-negotiations with the institution in question, typically in the political and academic (!) summertime off-season when organising strikes, for example, would be futile; 6) further “warning” demonstrations are organised; 7) appeals are made to the “West” in open letters in the name of essentialised “European values”[20]; 8) the law passes; 9) the “West” ignores, and 10) the whole circle starts again with other institutions – without any changes in substance.

Again, what is striking here is the constant re-occurrence of the exact same plot. Without calling into question the severe external pressures including the strike law in Hungary that create an unfavourable legal environment for organising collective resistance, we have to stress that the pressure from within academia is just as intense: the bitter experience of the scholars who argue in favour of engaging in open conflicts with party-loyal academic actors, the ruling academic technocracy or governmental figures is often isolation or exclusion. An empirical study that would provide a differentiated image of the motives and strategies of “official” scholars is yet to be done. However, radically questioning the dominant representation according to which scientific autonomy is under attack exclusively by external forces is a crucial aspect in the struggle for academic autonomy. Out of the many tangible dangers of missing out on self-reflexive critique, it will suffice to mention four aspects:

1) Since the exit option is only available for (upper-) middle class students, the tendencies of counter-selection will most likely grow within the domestic academic field, as those who refuse to leave can either choose uncritical adaptation to the rules or continue to engage in simulated protests for purely individual reasons dictated by the ethos of the libido academica.[21]

2) In the case that academics in top positions are not forced to conform to autonomous standards of excellence, the conversion of informal relations and administrative work into domestic academic positions will become the unquestioned norm or doxa of academic career strategies.

3) As a result of missing this critical reflection, needed more than ever in the past decade, those agents will gain access to academic positions who, in many ways, have already adopted the heteronomous way of academic functioning.

4) Without collectively engaging in a critical reflection on recruitment in academia, adaptation to the heteronomous forces of illiberalism and neoliberalism will continue to dominate the institutional field, only further reinforcing heteronomous structures.

Based on what we have said here, it may be concluded that the sociology of science within the Hungarian context could be paradoxically conceptualised as a heretic activity aimed at debunking practices and dominant representations upheld by the elite, that are constantly undermined via internal censorship, simulated protest actions with no pragmatic outcome, or the false image of “value neutral” science represented by some branches within academia. To quote George Steinmetz[22]: “Even if we cannot yet make explicit guidelines for the critical deployment of social science, we have at the very least determined that social scientific positivism and intellectual prophetism should be avoided and that scientific autonomy needs to be defended. That is already a start.”

However, we by no means argue that neoliberal academic overproduction and the scientific hegemony of the Global North should be uncritically embraced.[23] Neither do we make the case that opportunistic “games” for individual gains would be the only game in town affiliated researchers play. What it indeed implies is that scientometric indicators faithfully reflect the overall tendencies of (counter)selection in recruitment backed up by informal networks which are destined to replace scholastic excellence as dominant selection criterion. This critique, confined to sharing some reflections about the internal obstacles of purposeful resistance concerning the field of social sciences, has been taken the perspective of Pierre Bourdieu’s principles of scientific autonomy, especially by openly agreeing with him about the urgent need to exert critique from within exactly when academic autonomy is under siege by external forces.

If one believes that ongoing reflexive practice is the only way to make scientific institutions less exposed to the forces of heteronomy, the statement that “critique has no place when science is under attack”, as some researchers often claim, cannot be more erroneous. One reason why science in Hungary is particularly exposed to attacks is that its actors and institutions have so far missed to the opportunity to eradicate heteronomous tendencies from the inside and ground their practices on scholarly excellence. Although the briefly outlined examples were taken from the Hungarian context, the processes presented above may serve as a model for other regions, namely Southern Europe, Latin America or even Western Europe as well.

Ádám Havas, sociologist, jazz researcher and editor at Replika social science journal. For further information on his scholarship, please consult: An earlier version of the Hungarian article was published by the online journal Mérce on June 17 2019. The essay is available at:

Ágoston Fáber, editor at Replika, holds a PhD in sociology from the Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary. For further information on his scholarship, please consult:

1Steinmetz, George (2018). Scientific Autonomy, Academic Freedom, and Social Research in the United States. Critical Historical Studies (2018 Fall): 298.

[2] Havas, Ádám (2019). Szimulált ellenállás: A tudományos mező alávetettsége és autonómiájának esélyei. Mérce June 17 2019.

[3] Steinmetz, George (2018). Scientific Autonomy, Academic Freedom, and Social Research in the United States. Critical Historical Studies (2018 Fall): 281-309.

[4] Böröcz, József (2000). Informality Rules. East European Journal of Politics and Societies 14(2): 348-380.

[5] See Steinmetz (2018).

[6] See Böröcz (2000).

4 Besides the internationally best known development, i.e. the forced exile of the CEU, other academe-related examples could also be cited such as the ban on gender studies programmes at universities; the forced incorporation of the so-called 1956 Institute into the politically streamlined Veritas Historical Research Institute; the stripping of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences from its research network; a new university model to be extended across Hungary which hands universities over to foundations; and most recently, the plan to take away the  civil servant status of researchers in the already detached research network.

5 The authors wish to thank Professor József Böröcz for his insights regarding this article and the editors at LeftEast for their comments and support.

[9] The heteronomous forces shaping the Hungarian academe are embedded into larger processes of racialised global capitalism, such as the growing marketisation of knowledge and the growing influence of corporate interest groups on academic research. Nevertheless, due to our focus on the internal constrains regarding the protection of autonomous science, we use the term “heteronomy” throughout the text instead of “regulatory autonomy” (Lynch and Ivancheva, 2015: 72), a useful concept that grasps the effects of neoliberal policies on academic hierarchies.

[10] Bourdieu, Pierre (1975). The specificity of the scientific field and the social conditions of the progress of reason. Information 14(6): 19-47, p. 36.

[11] Bourdieu, quoted in Steinmetz, 2018: 293.

[12] The original title was “Gendered behavior as a disadvantage in open source software development”.

[13] Bourdieu, 1975: 37.

[14] Böröcz, 2000: 348.

[15] Sasvári, Péter László and Urbanovics, Anna (2019). Merre tovább egyetemi tanárok, avagy az új publikációs minimum aspektusai a társadalomtudományban. In: Újítások és újdonságok. Sozial und Wirtschafts Forschungsgruppe, Grosspetersdorf, pp. 5-30.

[16] Sasvári et al. (2019). Exploring the influence of scientific journal ranking on publication performance in the Hungarian social sciences: the case of law and economics. Scientometrics 119: 595-616.

[17] Bourdieu, Pierre (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, p. 173.

[18] Merton, Robert K. (1993). Manifest and Latent Functions. In: Ch. Lemert (Ed.), Social Theory. The Multicultural and Classic Readings, Boulder etc. (Westview Press), pp. 328-334.

[19] Ibid., p. 48.

[20] Melegh, Attila (2005). On the East–West Slope: Globalization, nationalism, racism and discourses on Eastern Europe. Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, pp. 90-97.; Böröcz József (2005): Goodness is elsewhere: The rule of European difference. Comparative Studies in Society and History 48(1): 110-138.

[21] Bourdieu, Pierre (1988). Homo Academicus. Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press, p. 144.

[22] Steinmetz, 2018: 309.

[23] See e.g. Lynch, Kkathleen and Ivancheva, Mariya (2015). Academic freedom and the commercialisation of universities: a critical ethical analysis. Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 15: 71-85.


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