There are several different social groups known as Roma which share common historical and cultural elements, formerly called Gypsies, Tzigane, Zingari, Gitanes, Zigeuner, Bohemians and Gitanos. According to the prevailing approach, based mainly on linguistic – rather than historical – data, Roma groups left India approximately a thousand years ago and dispersed throughout Europe and the Americas.
In the period following the birth of modern nation-states, Roma individuals and groups did not possess the characteristics that most of the newly-born western countries wished to portray as key elements of their national identity. As a result, Roma came to be considered at best exotic deniers of modern civilization and at worst dirty, lazy social parasites.
These popular narratives of Roma were depicted in the travelogues and reports from the tours of various European ethnographers and amateur observers of social life. Later, Roma became the “subject” of research carried out by anthropologists, linguists and ethnographers of music and dance, who were fascinated by these primitive people living in the heart of Europe and attempted to record Roma customs, traditions and languages. These folkloric elements of “Romani culture” were taken up by proponents of late 18th and early 19th century nationalist ideology in order to give birth to the idea of a Roma Nation.
The field of Romani Studies came directly out of this research tradition. As a number of theorists of Romani studies have supported and still support the idea of a Roma Nation, it was and is necessary to construct – as with any other ethnogenesis – a Romani national mythology and set of symbols. Specifically, these theorists needed to give plausible answers to two questions:
- How did various scattered Roma groups who lived for such a long period of time separated from one another manage to preserve common cultural elements (language, customs, traditions)? And;
- On the basis of what scientific data can it be said that Roma have common roots?
In seeking to achieve this goal, scholars and academics from many different countries have carried out extensive research, the aim of which was to confirm the (questionable) Roma origins in India and the Roma peoples’ (supposed) common cultural identity.
Focusing almost exclusively on culture, a number of Romani Studies theorists and researchers seem to ignore or underestimate the economic and political processes and power relations that produce difference. They seem to adopt an approach according to which ethnicity/nationality is the critical social division and an essential element in people’s life that remains constant independent of time and place.
Us and Them
This strain of Romani Studies only helps to maintain or even enhance the distance between “Romani culture” and Gaje (non – Roma) culture by consolidating the “Us and Them” approach. This is accomplished by downplaying the internal social differentiations that exist among those belonging to “Us” and exaggerating those (supposed) differences (we have) with the others (“Them”).
Therefore, it is not at all strange that Roma groups are attributed with common characteristics and attitudes that have been largely vilified. Also, it is entirely plausible that some misconceptions concerning Roma groups still proliferate today, even among researchers, politicians and journalists seeking to improve Roma groups’ living conditions. Under such misconceptions, Roma are a nomadic people; a cohesive, homogenous group; they are thought to get involved in politics only to serve their own petty interests and therefore always vote for the leading parties; in this view as well, education is not seen as compatible with Romani culture and schools are thought of as institutions alien to the Roma.
These perceptions of the Roma, to a greater or lesser extent, continue to influence policies developed by international organizations. For example, the European Union (EU) considers Roma as the biggest ethnic minority in Europe. Does this mean that the EU has adopted a “jus sanguinis” approach? In other words, does the EU accept the idea that a nation is made up of individuals and groups linked together by blood ties? Even if we assume that the EU is purposefully using the term “minority” rather than the terms “ethnicity” and “nationality” as a way of identifying social identity, then we still end up excluding Roma from the specific identity of the countries in which they live. This does not help people who have deep historical roots in the places they live achieve full integration into local society. This is why most Roma in Greece, for example, refuse to take part in various international Roma forums. They do not wish to admit that they are not Greeks!
In my view, there is no single Roma culture and various Roma groups’ cultures are not so different from others. What Roma do have in common is a history of being victims of prejudice, discrimination and racism because of their distinctive physical and cultural elements which they still face to this day. In order to address these issues, brave social inclusion policies will be needed in key areas such as work, housing, education and health care. Furthermore, it will be necessary for international organizations as well as nation–states to assist those with key roles in social life (teachers, police officers and public administration) gain a better knowledge of the issues surrounding social inequality, social differentiation and human rights. Then they will be able to contribute substantially to Roma groups’ integration into broader society, as well as that of other social groups perceived as “different”, and this will ultimately lead to a better, more unified society.
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Dimitris Zachos is Assistant Professor of Pedagogy – Intercultural Education at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki – Greece. He has worked as a teacher, Principal and School Counsellor in primary education.