The István Hajnal Circle – Hungarian Social History Association

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The István Hajnal Circle is a learned society that aims to cultivate and popularise social history in Hungary. Its membership includes historians teaching at universities and working in research institutions, as well as archivists, librarians, museologists and university students who all regard it highly important to know the past in greater depth than the mere reconstruction of the history of political events. The Circle intends to pursue social history that is open to novel research perspectives in history as well as to various approaches of the social sciences. However, it favours research that is also based on empirical research and the critical inquiry of primary sources.

The Circle was named after István Hajnal, one of the most prominent social historians in interwar Hungary. Hajnal specialized in the history of writing and the history of technology from the Middle Ages through the early modern to the modern age. In Hungary, he was one of the first to seek to employ an interdisciplinary approach by applying the methodologies of both sociology and history simultaneously.


The antecedents of the István Hajnal Circle go back to the late communist era. In the mid-1980s a couple of historians, mostly belonging to the younger generation, endeavoured to create an independent forum in Budapest for discussing issues of social history and social sciences. The scholarly perspectives of these academically non-mainstream researchers reached far beyond that of those scholars who comprised the backbone of contemporary Hungarian academic history. They did not agree with conceiving history primarily centred around politics. They rather committed themselves to new historical perspectives and were dissatisfied with the ‘aristocratic’ segregation of professional academic historians from social sciences. The István Hajnal Circle grew out of these initiatives and was formally founded as an Association in 1989. 

From its onset the Circle has acknowledged that there exist numerous, equally valid interpretations of the past. Consistent with their epistemological openness, these researchers have often applied a wide variety of methodological assets, ranging from comparative methods, to structural approaches and micro-history or different narratological perspectives. Interdisciplinarity has been usually realised through combining history with sociology, cultural anthropology, psychology, or literary theory.

Researchers belonging to the Circle endeavoured to adapt novel Western (mainly French, British and American) scholarly approaches and results. Thus it is not surprising that the representatives of the related disciplines already appeared on the first few conferences (and later in the membership of the Association). A further path-breaking step was that, contrary to academic history’s often unuttered aversion to scholars of ‘local history’, researchers of the Circle paid distinct attention to local social history. Therefore it is not surprising that numerous archivists, museologists and librarians also enrol on the conferences of the Circle.

Heterogeneity has always characterised the Association’s activity: the majority of the membership comprises of historians working as researchers at universities, as well as other professionals employed in public collections. What is more, Ph.D. students from various doctoral programmes contribute to the wide variety of those participating in conferences and occasionally even having membership status in the association. Furthermore, the opportunity is offered to Ph.D. students to share their research plans and agenda with the wider scholarly public. The participation of young scholars also offers the possibility of a generational change and the continuous refreshment of scholarly perspectives. In addition, the growing interest and recognition of social history is shown by the ever-increasing number of colleagues affiliated to the Circle. It started with a few members in the early 1990s. The Circle involved more than 70 members in 2000, and its membership at present includes 163 registered scholars.

The Hajnal Circle is a prime organiser of research. It convenes annual conferences which have been organised in various Hungarian towns since 1986. In fact, the annual, thematically organised conferences constitute the backbone of the Association’s activity. Moreover, a fairly good number of publications and additional scholarly programmes also attest to the wide range of the Circle’s public and research agenda. The Circle plays a role in the editorial work of a book series, entitled Estate Society – Bourgeois Society (Rendi társadalom – polgári társadalom). It is also a forum for papers presented at the annual conferences, thus, it indicates the thematic range of the conventions. Examples from the last two decades include Children in History [“Gyermekek a történelemben”] (2001); The Social History of Consumption [“A fogyasztás társadalomtörténete”] (2004); Social Space [“A társadalmi tér”] (2005); Cultural Turn in Historiography [“Kulturális fordulat a történetírásban”] (2006); Generations in History [“Generációk a történelemben”] (2007); The Social History of Politics [“A politika társadalomtörténete”] (2008); The History of Communication [“A kommunikáció története”] (2009); The City and Its Society [“A város és társadalma”] (2010); Denominational Society, Denominational Education [“Felekezeti társadalom, felekezeti műveltség”] (2011); Markets in Society and in History [“Piacok a társadalomban és a történelemben”] (2012). The proceedings of the conferences are regularly reviewed in Hungarian historical journals (for instance, in Aetas or Korall) which further strengthens the diffusion of the discipline.

The Association also maintains a close cooperation with the editorial board of the social historical journal, Korall, occasionally even financially supporting the publication of the periodical. However, most of the István Hajnal Circle’s expenditures are related to the above mentioned conferences and publications. Incomes are mainly gained from membership fees. Besides these, the Association has also applied for public funds – since the establishment of the National Civil Fund (Nemzeti Civil Alapprogram), the Circle has successfully acquired its financial support several times. The Circle occasionally functions as a political forum voicing important issues concerning the public life of professional historians, as it happened when the 1956 Institute and Oral History Archive was slandered because of arguably political reasons.

All things considered, the Hajnal Circle has largely contributed to the institutionalisation of social history in Hungary already indicated by the fact that social history was quite capable of gaining a foothold in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and in Hungarian universities. The global challenges of the 21st century make it necessary for social and mainstream historians alike to go beyond disciplinary boundaries. It creates an environment favourable to groups like the István Hajnal Circle with its pluralist methodologies and numerous active members.

Finally, the Circle is much more than a simple association for professionals interested in social historical research. Anybody who has ever participated in any of the conferences organised by the Circle can bear witness to the friendly atmosphere of these occasions as well as to the openness to new ideas and people. The summer conferences are also worth remembering as collegial and friendly meetings with a warm atmosphere.


For more details, see: URL: (last accessed: 01.02.2014)

Further readings:

  • Interview with Gábor Gyáni, Népszabadság, March 3, 2006
  • The thematic issue of Századvég, vol. 7(Spring 1997), no. 4,  including
  • Gyula Benda, “A társadalomtörténet-írás helyezete és perspektívái” [“The status and perspectives of social historiography”]
  • György Kövér, “Milyenek vagyunk? – A ‘Hajnal István Kör – Társadalomtörténeti Egyesület” tíz év múltán [“How are we? – The ‘István Hajnal Circle – Social History Association’ after ten years”]
  • Gábor Gyáni, “Mai várostörténet-írásunk: teljesítmények és irányzatok” [“Contemporary urban historiography: accomplishments and approaches”]
  • Tamás Csíki, Károly Halmos and Árpád Tóth, “A magyar társadalomtörténet-írás története a kezdetektől napjainkig” [The history of Hungarian social history from the beginnings to present day”], in Zsombor Bódy and József Ö. Kovács (eds.), Bevezetés a társadalomtörténetbe. Hagyományok, irányzatok, módszerek [Introduction to Social History: Traditions, approaches, methods], Budapest, Osiris, 2003, 208-240.
  • “A Korall körkérdése a társadalomtörténet-írás helyzetéről 1-2” [“The General Inquiry of the Journal Korall into the state of social history in Hungary”], Korall, vol. 2 (2001), no. 5-6, 186-238; Korall, vol. 3 (2002), no. 7-8, 187-207.
  • Zoltán Cora, “Social History in Hungary: The István Hajnal Circle”, ISHA Newsletter, vol. 3 (February 2013), no.1, 12-15.