Roma as a research topic: a necessary trivialisation
Of course, the French minister Valls is not the only one to worry about the Roma integration topic. Scientifists too.
Last October a controversy broke out within the Cornivus University of Budapest. A lot of academics and key figures, engaged in the fight against discrimination against Roma, sent a letter to the Rector of the University. They ask him to remove from the university library a book published in 2004: Post-communist Europe and its National/Ethnic Problems: a course-pack. The author of the work is Géza Jeszenszky, ambassador, a Hungarian politician and moreover professor in the same university. He argues that the major part of the distress into which the Roma population is plunged, is largely a result of their mental disorders. This is due to endogamy existing within many families concerned. The protest raises several issues with which the Urba-Rom network researchers have to face. Beyond the legitimate political controversy created by this book, it leads us to reflect on our own scientific practices.
A first assumption comes from the custom of "endogamy" as a practice. It puts Roma in a position of total otherness, both culturally and genetically, compared to the dominant west-European model. This split is for the most part inaccurate as gadjé are perhaps more endogamous and Roma far less endogamous than what they say. It is much more a question of self-conception than a demonstrable social fact. However, in Jeszenszky’s text, it is a statement registered as evidence (without any demonstration), just like when he affirms a few lines earlier that Roma are "easy to recognise because of their dark hair and skin". It seems to us that this evidence is lead by a strong willingness to clear politicians of their responsibility by supporting the idea that family structures play a key role in replicating situations of poverty. This opinion remains deeply ingrained in researchers and experts of the "Roma issue". Moreover, Prof. Jeszenszky justified his affirmation later by academic literature on this topic.
This is the point: Géza Jeszenszky could commit his legitimacy as a researcher to bring an "anthropological" justification to situations of great poverty and thus record and give credence to ways of thinking by which Roma are necessarily a special population et by which the essence of being "Rom" is a relation to the world that is marked by the seal of being typical. If he can say this, it means that researchers in social sciences have a common responsibility for the construction of these modes of thinking. Many scientific traditions, in sociology, history, anthropology or geography, emerged in the academic field by this obsession of dividing and classifying things: from this point of view the culturalist (or ethnocultural) argument often just took the place of racialism, without questioning the logic of such a scholar construction of otherness. This intellectual position, with a mark of "good sense", still awakens some echoes in society but it remains scientifically unfounded and of course politically dangerous.
If the "Roma/Gypsy" figure has held significance in the collective European imagination since the 19th century, as such it remains an empty one. Many researchers have been showing for a long time the limit of generalisation when it concerns different groups that are forced to be related to this category. However, their contribution is not well known by society and policy-makers. Furthermore, refusal of generalisation by specialists doing case studies on small groups does not prevent from reflecting upon the researcher’s responsibility. A field researcher, except if he refuses to investigate practices that are considered immoral by society, always takes the risk of having his conclusions been misused, because they are extended to the Gypsies / Roma all over the world. A striking example of this risk is an anthropological paper published in 1990: "Stealing from the gadjo. Some notes on Roma Ideology", Etudes et documents balkaniques et méditerranéens, vol. 15, 1990. Leonardo Piasere and Jane Dick Zatta subtly analysed the moral economy of theft among a small group of Slovensko Roma. The anthropologists take care not to extend the result of their observation to the "Roma/Gypsies" as a whole but, in spite of themselves, they gave an anthropologic guarantee to the increasing degree of generality of theft as a cultural activity common to all Roma/gypsies. To check this, it is enough to read Barbagli’s works and especially: Barbagli M., Immigrazione e criminalità in Italia, Il Mulino, 1998. p. 142.
We consider that the most relevant position to take in front of the surrounding anti-gypsyism is indeed the trivialisation of practices of the said Roma/Gypsy groups, concerning not only "Roma" but taking into account the broader society, with a comparatist gesture. For it allows to go beyond artificial and stereotyped considerations and to reposition phenomena observed in their political, economic and social context of European societies. In the present case what is at stake is to consider the responsibility of public authorities in the marginalisation of the so called"Roma/Gypsy" groups. It is precisely this responsibility Géza Jeszenszky tried probably to minimise by using a culturalist approach to marginalised populations.
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