On the edge of attention

Dr. Csilla Kalocsai's journey to applied anthropology

Change has been a constant in Csilla Kalocsai’s life: “I grew up in socialist Hungary. There was a lot of change. And people’s lives, mine included, changed in a very grandiose way.” It is fitting, therefore, that she should join us to speak about behaviour change. She has a lifetime of experience with it, both personally and academically. Growing up in a rapidly changing society, where identities and behaviours were fluid and new ideas were coming into Hungary from all across the world, Csilla has always had a natural interest in social change, and its manifestation in culture.

“When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to study culture. And not in an art historian sense or in a literary sense,” she says. “I wasn’t interested in high-brow culture; I wanted to study everyday culture.”

At that time, anthropology as a discipline had not yet arrived in Hungarian universities, and a friend recommended the study of folklore. Thankfully, the year Csilla graduated high school, the very first cohort of undergraduate anthropology students was formed in Hungary, with Csilla an enthusiastic member. Academia suited her well, and she continued her studies as a Master’s student, completing an ethnographic study on the emerging lesbian community in Hungary. Her thesis was the first research work to be published on the topic. Immediately after, she accepted an offer to pursue her PhD in a significantly more comprehensive and renowned anthropology department than the one in which she had studied.

“I had a few offers of places to do my PhD in the USA,” she says. “I chose Yale, and it was a very powerful, very intense learning experience. A very vivid intellectual space. I worked hard.”

Csilla chose to take her research in a new direction for her PhD. Still grounded in Hungary, and focused on social change, she studied the influx of transnational business, and the successful creation of a young professional workforce there. This research ultimately drew Csilla, quite organically, into the world of applied business anthropology.

Csilla met applied anthropology at every turn throughout her PhD. “A lot of the work in anthropology on transnational business came from applied anthropologists, so I paid a lot of attention to what they were saying in my research,” she says. She also ran a mentorship program and organized a roundtable about applied and academic career paths for graduating students. Csilla was preparing for a career as an academic; however, at the conclusion of her study, her choice of path shifted. “When I had finished my PhD, I looked at it and I realized that there were so many applications that could have been developed out of my dissertation, and I had never really thought about them as I was writing it and framing it into an academic study. It could have initiated policy change. It could have been at the national level, at the corporate level, it could have changed work culture… There were a lot of possible implications.” Inspired by this revelation, she chose to start a research consultancy, and was fortunate to be offered her first project just a few months after she finished her PhD. Coincidentally, the project was begun by Peeps Speaker Bruno Moynie. Csilla was hired to do an analysis of a set of interviews Bruno had conducted on food and sustainability, and to consult on its design applications. She fell in love with the work immediately.

“It was an important and interesting project to delve into, and it was very refreshing to do applied work and take part in the design process, as a member of a multi-disciplinary team. I got the chance to do things that I had never done before,” she says. These new experiences, opportunities for creativity and, most importantly, practical social effects, were exactly what Csilla had been missing in academia.

Speaking with Csilla, there’s no doubt she was born to work as an anthropologist. Working in a second language away from her home country doesn’t faze her. She says the language and culture difference force her to remain constantly “on the edge of attention,” which she is confident improves her work; in fact, Csilla is happy to have had the opportunity to step away from her home, and to pursue research in a different cultural environment. “Here, I take nothing for granted; I question everything,” she says. “And that is what anthropologists should do — make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar.”

Csilla says it’s the fulfillment her work brings to her life that feeds her passion for applied anthropology. “It is great to produce social critique, and it is great to publish the work, but I was writing about social change without actually having the chance to implement social change! I wanted to be a part of that process,” she says. With some of her projects, Csilla has already had the opportunity to be a part of such social change. One such project concerned health care access for the Roma refugee population in Canada; her research resulted in a community-based service innovation that allows better accessibility to health services for this population. She is confident that her research work on sustainability will help lead to positive change as well.

As she will share in her Talk, behavioural change is not something that is easily affected, but Csilla is committed to inspiring just that.

Written by Aliah El-houni, Peeps
Photography by Nation Wong, Peeps

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TAGS /Anthropology / Kalocsai / Peeps Talk /