Who Defines Roma?

Roma identity as we know it today wouldn’t exist without the discourse created by numerous experts. The World Bank, for example, has published widely on Roma poverty, others have written on the genetics of Roma. The production of knowledge about Roma presents a curious consensus on who the Roma are and typically reinforces stereotypes. Consequently, Roma identity tends to be recognized by the strength of the stereotypes related to it.

Roma have been subjected to a variety of scientific practices such as counting, classifying, demographic predictions, mapping, photographing, and DNA profiling. All these practices are part and parcel of a trained vision that itself needs to be observed.

Many stereotypes are created by outsiders, of which the academic establishment is just a part, and then internalized and reproduced by Roma themselves. Policy analysis chiefly produces and circulates a standard image of Roma as a group of marginal and vulnerable people, if not at-risk or welfare-dependent. In doing so, policy analysts and policy makers—as well as academics and journalists—create and maintain negative definitions of Roma.

At the visual level, Roma identity is standardized even more powerfully than in the texts: images of Roma are abundant in stereotypes (the beggar, the naked children on the garbage dump, the shantytown resident, the displaced, the poor migrant) which narrow public perceptions. Not that these photographic instances aren’t part of reality, but emphasizing only this aspect perpetuates a deeply negative vision of Roma.

The interest in describing and representing Roma is both scientific and political: science presumes to represent Roma as a research object by constituting Roma group identity through its various disciplinary branches, while political entrepreneurs bolster their agendas by instrumentalizing Roma as a political object. Scientific or expert interests are at the same time epistemic but also mundane and profitable—but not for those categorized. Who would support research on Roma that doesn’t fit with predetermined profiles prepared by bureaucrats or policy makers?

The homogenous image of Roma presented by researchers is inaccurate because it is incomplete. On the one hand, not all individuals judged by the researchers as being Roma think of themselves as such. On the other hand, the problems that are believed to apply exclusively to Roma are not relevant for all of them and, moreover, are also applicable to many non-Roma.

Thus, perhaps the best way to understand the Roma “issue” is not to analyze the Roma (as ethnic identity is contextual and fluid) but to look at their various classifiers and modes of objectification. That the category of Roma is politically institutionalized through the contribution of the expert knowledge is easily observable with the political regime change from socialism to capitalism in Central and Eastern Europe. Before 1990, Roma were not part of the official and expert discourse; afterwards they became the main focus of the political and scientific scrutiny.

The scientific and expert “truth” established by Roma-related research is one that is conjectural, interested, and highly dependent on the political regimes in power. The way in which experts classify people (including Roma) can have important consequences for those who are classified.  The expert and scientific images of Roma do nothing but exacerbate more the existing social divisions by lending academic credibility to incorrect and dangerous perceptions that Roma are somehow fundamentally different to everyone else.

In my forthcoming book Expert Trademarks: Scientific and Policy Practices of Roma Classification (CEU Press), I aim to draw attention away from the Roma themselves and toward those who classify them and how.

Acknowledging the implications of scientific categorization for people’s lives was the most significant reason for me to write this book. The negative image of Roma has to be analyzed, challenged, and deconstructed. It’s time for experts to show more prudence in their assumptions, descriptions, and methodologies, and to begin to depoliticize Roma ethnicity.



YES! And the responsibility of journalists to understand this complexity when reporting on Roma issues is more than lacking. In France, the French press ignores the use of the word "Rom" or Roma as defined in 1971 by the International Romani Union and despite proper usage in Canada and other francophone nations, the word Rom in French has come to acquire a negative connotation and is applied to people as an ethnic label to describe socio-economic status for non-French citizens of this ethnicity. Why, when the anglophone press in Canada, the US, UK and elsewhere in addition to the Germanophone and Hispanophone press are both capable of doing this correctly and respectfully has the Frech media continued to be so ignorant and flagrantly commit gross negligence when reporting on Roma issues?

We need to define ourselves for ourselves and do it loudly and proudly, repeating it over and over again. Our identity will always be influenced by how others see us, but we can influence it more by the way we see ourselves.

Thank you for this article.

I think your points are very important. Moreover we should acknowledge that journalistic accounts of Roma does not occur in a vacuum but are made to sustain and reinforce public perception. Many journalists write what the public may find interesting (not to say shocking) and recognoscible. Furthermore, articles and media products on Roma are built on what the experts say about the topic, so here we have the whole cycle

In short it has already been confirmed that ROMA are the old Indian nationals, who in the distant past under the alien attacks were taken as prisioners and then sold in the alien slave markets as slaves. There in the alien lands they were converted to differrnt Religions but they somehow or other still maintained their old Indian Hindu Gods, Goddesses, language, culture and old customs and traditions to this day.
The non –Roma people give the stereotypes pictures of the Roma people as beggars, naked children on the garbage dump, the shanty-town residents, the displaced and poor migrants.
I would like to ask the non-Roma people who gave them slavery, illiteracy, unemployment, poverty and deprived them of their equal rights and respect ???
If the non-Roma people are put in such miserable conditions, I am sure their condition would be worse than the Roma people.

The Indian connection of Roma have become overtime the enduring narrative in a variety of scientific disciplines. The consensus is so large that even merely questioning it become difficult. I believe there are some problematic points in this narrative, especially when connections are sought in the field of biology and the stories told are those of endogamy and unchanged (and unchangeable) cultural norms. Then the categorization of Roma by pointing out their non-European origin may have consequences also if only acknowledging the resurgence of nationalism and of identity politics..

There is absolutely no truth in what you are saying, we maintained no old indian hindu gods or goddesses culture or customs because we never had one, because we always believed in one God. I don't know from where you have this rhetoric. We refer to God as Devlah or o' DEL - meaning DEV ELAH\DEV EL\DEV ELOHIM - you see, WE ARE THE ANCIENT HEBREWS exiled in former persian empire, and nobody wants to say it because it's dangerous. You understand then why everybody wanted us to become eliminated from the face of the world?

Mihai initiates the end of Roma silence in the academic and research thought. He is rightly bringing to our knowledge the four types of narratives of the academic discourse. The first one takes roots from the medieval age, which considers Roma as criminals, with low IQ, people without faith and human values. The second type of literature produce convictions which negates and denies different elements of Roma identity as language, culture, history, even that there is no Roma music. The third one is the visual packaging of Roma settlements by voyeuristic anthropologists aimed to support the diagnosis of contemporary urban standards versus "Roma living culture". Finally, the fourth type of literature talks about the genetics and its influence on human behavior. Hopefully, the modern research on genetics will get rid of Nazi literature and interpret the findings in objective scientific way. This is long way to go and we should not stop here. More critical concerns derive from institutionalized misjudgments and populist pre-solutions on "Roma question". While we waited the civilization to behave civilized the political and knowledge institutions idealized the nation’s homogeneity. This was the illusion of last century and seems globalized world strives to move out from monotonous racial and ethnic boxes. If the humanity success to walk away, it will for sure understand the Roma diversity and its human nature.

Thank you Nadir and I am glad to hear from you.. Indeed these are the main narratives that circulate within the academic discourse and that leave traces on public perception, although the second one is less acknowledged. My point is that these narratives often overlap and that is important - beyond establishing their points of convergence and divergence- to see what they leave out from the stories they say. Nevertheless, I think that narratives of difference, of absolute difference of Roma from others prevails over those descriptions which find a lot of common venues, encounters and similarities. I also hope that social science research will make the way out from thinking in ethnic boxes but I think it will take a while.

I don't think the problem is in the focus on or attention for Roma, but in th mere fact that they have become study objects. One can research elephants or turtles or butterflies. Maybe the experts' conclusions will also differ there and the animals cannot protest nor correct.
Roma, however, can! They can introduce themselves. They don't need experts to explain their views, ideas or traditions. The problem is that they are not allowed to speak for themselves. And so the problem is not the incomplete or incorrect way of working by experts, but in their very existance! Have you ever met an expert on gadje? An expert on Jews? An expert on blacks?
Yet I hope that your book will pay a contribution to this kind of expertism and to the beginning of equality.

I agree and disagree with you. I agree in that I admit that expertise in Roma, or in Roma issues is somehow problematic especially when this expertise become normative - says authoritatively who and how Roma are - or prescriptive - how should they be. I however disagree that Roma are not let to speak for themselves, they do but unfortunately in many cases they don't succed to put themselves or the group in a better light and merely borrow from the existing viewpoints and asses through the same lens. I have meet also experts in Gadje, in Jews or in Afro-Americans, but contrary to the experts on Roma their expertise come most often from a critical engagement with their field of studies. This critical scrutiny to expert and scientific literature on Roma, the one that is contemporary with us, is rather absent (with some notable exceptions). I also hope my book will change something in this regard and to provoke a critical reflection on policy and genetic studies on Roma, and more larger on the academic discourse on Roma.

I am absolutely happy the variety of different texts has taken this positive tone recently to depoliticize Roma ethnicity

Thank you all for comments and for sharing your thoughts!

I agree with Els de Groen comment. Very well said. Moreover, I do not see any healthy project designed for various organizations concerning the so called Roma integration.

Dear Mihai, very timely article!
Let me add one (usually neglected) aspect of Roma identity. It is quite situational and reflective defined vis-à-vis the non-Roma (the Gadzo). For centuries Roma were living side-by-side - and interacting with - non-Roma societies. Being "Roma" was largely synonymous to "being non-Gadzo". Seen in historical perspective, this pattern of identification was an outcome of the process of modernization, in which the way of living of Roma was increasingly in conflict with the emerging disciplining structures of sedentary societies and with the existing non-Roma hierarchies, both cleric and secular.
This process intensified with the consolidation of nation-states in the 19th and 20th century. The stronger the nation-states were getting, the more difficult it was to maintain one's independence from their structures. Or to be more precise, maintaining the independence was coming at an increasing cost (the denied access to the social services and security the states were providing to their "included" citizens in exchange for their lost independence).
To properly understand Roma identity (as well as the dynamics of Roma exclusion in the past and today) one needs to look into this story of modernization in Europe. It has important lessons for today's post-modern discourse.
I wrote a paper on this, if interested, will be happy to send you. Just drop me a line, andrey.ivanov@fra.europa.eu
Take care!

Dear Andrej,
Thank you for writing me and for your comment. I agree with you that today discourse on Roma cannot be proper scrutinized without taking a long duree perspective. Moreover, I think that we should be looking at co-construction of an oppositional identity Roma-non Roma and not approach it merely from a side or another. I try to do this in my book looking at the historical interplay between scientific and administrative practices of identification (and their controversies) and the constitution of the Roma group with all that entails including how individuals position themselves through self-ascription . I believe that while the issue of agency is very relevant is not always very easy to disentangle the actors - the agency in the case of Roma have largely been an issue of mediators (internal but most often external) that purported to speak for the group and in doing so they firmly constructed its borders and enhanced (self) recognition. In this regard , I believe that (self) representations about (of) Roma follow the logic of regimes of truth which are socio-political constellations that makes possible stabilization of identities and categories - such regimes of truth, past and present, are those that impinge into polar categories of Roma-non Roma.
I would be very interested to read your new paper, thank you for signaling it. Please, could you send it by email? My address is surdu@policy.hu
Kind regards,

Very interesting points. Andrey, I would also love to read your paper on this, could you please send it to me to: mirgaaa@gmail.com ? Thanks!

I do not agree that Roma can speak for themselves, but unfotunately in many cases do not succeed to put themselves or the group in a better light.
For 5 years I was a member of European Parliament in Brussels. As a non-Romni, a gadji, I hired a Roma assistant who was in charche of the Roma issues in our office. He did an excellent job.
I witnessed more talented Roma, but they were not given fair chances. They worked in the Commission, the Parliament or the Institutes, but especially when they are talented, independant people, they run the risk of being replaced by "easy", obedient ones.
There is a tendency to work with token Roma rather than with skiled ones. I have always strongly opposed this paternalism which is in my belief a synonym of racism.

I definitely agree with you that in most cases Roma are not promoted in mainstream hierarchies and when their voices tend to become independent they are quickly dismissed. I believe that the issue of spokespersons and how good or bad they represent the group is one which doesn't primarily deal with individuality but with institutional lens and with possibilities of discourse offered by these institutions. Overall I think that institutions are those which put the frame of what could be said and how Roma are to be represented and people comply with these frames.I don't think there are independent voices to speak for a public - they need a platform, political, civic, academic, an institutional support behind the voice. It is this institutional support that compels the alignment of voices including those of Roma. In order to utter a view about Roma, one have to adopt or to speak with the voice of the institution and to make concessions if his/her views diverge. In this light is my previous affirmation - once Roma become the object of powerful political and academic framers, those Roma aiming to speak for the group have to incorporate the views of the institutions they are supported by. And I have not seen yet institutions that have a balanced view on Roma.

I cannot wait to read this book! We need to turn from "examining" Roma and turn to examining, critiquing, and fighting the institutional racism endemic in the EU, US and elsewhere that actively (macro) and microaggressively denies equality of opportunity (educational, employment, etc) to Roma (and other marginalized groups).

We are losing a great deal of talent in the Roma communities that they cannot develop under the oppression of widespread prejudice and racism against them.

Can I ask why the term ROMA is used rather than ROMANI to name the people? Isn't Roma just one group, like Kalderashi, Sinti, etc...

Amazing! I guess you're a de-colonial thinker, acknowledging the current image we have of Roma is part of the hegemonic socio-cultural paradigm of western modernity, and there are more truths than the truth of western imperial knowledge. I'm very much looking forward to reading this book!

I must share my opinion from a Sinti point of view. This is also more of a traditional viewpoint from my experience. Sinti-Manouche (Django Reinhardt was one) do not like being called Roma as we arrived in Europe quite a while before the Roma did. We prefer to be called Gypsy rather than Roma and in Germany they always say "Sinti and Roma" to include both kinds of Romanies. Of course in Spain there are also the Gitanos, another type of Romany that are not Roma. In recent years, there seems to be a move to classify all Romanies as Roma. This is simply not accurate and would be like classifying all indigenous Native Americans as Algonquin. Roma is simply one type of Romany, though they are the most well-known. Sinti-Manouche, Romanichals and Gitanos are NOT Roma. So in closing all Roma are Romanies but not all Romanies are Roma.

Els (if I may) from 1,000 Roma experts (self-identified Roma) you will probably find one, max. two, with an objective and professional heart. One of the reasons that the Roma people are subject of studies is mainly because of financing. Wherever you go-you find 'experts' in Roma studies. The funny thing is that no one of them ever met a Roma, or received a Roma in their own house.

"Who would support research on Roma that doesn’t fit with predetermined profiles prepared by bureaucrats or policy makers?"

Apparently, no one. "Romarising" has been shut out by gatekeepers for years


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