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Who Defines Roma?

A man
Mihai Surdu is a 2013 Roma Fellow for the Open Society Foundations. © Nannette Vinson

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.

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