03 February 2015 Published in Politics Written by 

Nation or an Ethnic Community - The Challenges of Roma Identity

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One of the most interesting anthropological and political topic in the late XIX and XX century was the study of the history of nations, their distinct cultures, and identities. Throughout the history, European nations have endured and surpassed challenges preserving their sovereignty and territory. Today, the subjective political world depends on the interests of the nation states and the power to dominate the international scene. Roma as a nation inhabited the European continent in the XII century[1] without any opportunity and tendency for territorial, cultural unification. However, the “white” continent continuously evolved throughout history, groups of people unified in nations protecting themselves and their interests through their national states. They protected their cultural heritage and upgraded for unity and unification, while Roma, who settled in the existing nation states as the “others” had to adjust to the conditions set by the majority of the countries that they settled.

This paper aims to analyze and deconstruct the concepts of formation of a nation, cultural development and identity with the emphasis on the Roma in the process of creating a multi-state nation with unified culture and identity. In this paper, I also present facts and the literature arguments that establish the standardization of widely accepted understandings of the concepts mentioned above.


In the first part of this paper, I analyze the fundamental notions of a nation building processes of states supported by empirical examples of national states, which, throughout history, unified their territory based on the theory of ethnos and demos i.e. Eastern European and Western European creation of countries. In the same part, I analyze the migration of Roma, the political organization, and the Roma nationhood process.

In the second part, I analyze the fundamental concepts of cultural standardization, and I will propose a framework for cultural development in three phases: cultural beginning, cultural maturity, and cultural extremism. In this section, I will also present empirical examples from European cultures with reflection on the culture of Roma.

The third part of this paper is based on the tools that evaluate the identity and the creation of identity based on prejudices, generalizations of individual experiences, the media and the educational system as inevitable and powerful generators of narratives that are accepted as “standard”. In the third part, I will also deconstruct the meaning of the identities [Gypsy and Roma]. At the end of this paper, I will present my concluding remarks and summary of the main arguments in the reflection on the Roma.


Nation Building and Roma

In the definition of nations and states afore the era of modernism[2], the debate focused on the central issue that aimed to ease the classification of ethnicity and nationality. Which of these concepts is created earlier? Is the state or the territory established first as a political actor? Or people with their characteristics (traditions, customs, ideology, etc.)? The idea of creating nation states evolved in parallel with the modernism and still it is one of the leading ideas in defining modern nations[3]

Within Europe, there are two types of constructions of modern states, based on ethnos and demos or culturally unified and politically unified states[4]. According to the division of John Plamenatz, there are Eastern European and Western European establishment of countries. According to the Western European model of the nation building Eric Hobsbawm is one of the scholars defining the creation of the France as a modern state. According to his concept, territory creates identity and nation. Prior to the existence of France as a country, there have been groups of people that built the national-state. All the different types and kinds of people and religions in France unified and identified with a common nationality, the French nationality[5]. France, as other Western European countries show an example of creation of a state based on the demos or creation of a nation from different nations (tribes) who together create nationhood, citizenship, and nationality. According to this example, Western European countries conduct the process of nation building. Some countries used the same method but in a different era throughout history.

On the other hand, the East European concept of nation states is based on the ethnos or the nationality of people who identify with a common culture, myths, folklore, etc. The term nationality in the Eastern bloc is also the construction of the Communist regime that classified minor nationalities or (public administration groups) and the majority nationality or the common nationality[6]. Typical example is Yugoslavia as a nationality and all the other administrative groups or in that time nationalities living in Yugoslavia such as Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Slovenes, etc. Eric Hobsbawm and John Plamenatz elaborated this concept of Eastern nation building process. They associated this concept with the migration of Slavs from the Carpathians around the eastern part of Europe[7]. The nation building process in Eastern Europe is based on people who share a similar concept as the Western European countries but with greater emphasis on the common origin and uniqueness (ethnocentrism and dominance) of the people of the territory where they settled. Slavs after settling the region of Eastern Europe formed their states and nationalities.

The distinction of ethnos and demos still exists in Europe and people who are part of minorities in the European states are still looking for a better life, living together with the majority. In the great wave of settlement and creation of nations, it is noted that Roma have already migrated to Europe in the XII century. Roma are people with Indian origin and a shared history that starts with the great migration from Kanauch, India to Europe and other continents[8]. In the migration, Roma settled in European countries where other nations have already settled and developed. When Roma people settled on the European continent, they were not welcome due to racial profiling in the "White Continent". Although Roma were not aware of their common origin and history, they have never had affinities for territorial and national unification in Europe. In the era of modernism[9], when the territories were defined and nations were developed, Roma were dispersed across the European continent without any political, cultural and economic agenda for their identification, while European nations have already developed the process of nation-building and join allies for common interests. Roma throughout history, especially in the era of European kingdoms, were assimilated and used as slaves in order not to be expelled from the territories where they settled and to be part of the statehood process of some countries in Europe[10].

"Romanihood" or the Roma movement begins with the establishment of the first Roma Congress in 1971 near London (Orpington) where 23 representatives from nine countries attended[11]. The greatest achievements of the Roma movement are visible from the first congress in which for the first-time debates were implemented for social problems of the Roma, education, language, culture, and war crimes. In the first Congress also the anthem was adopted "Gelem Gelem" by Zarko Jovanovic, the Roma flag which represents the Roma as their national symbol and the use of the term "Roma"[12] (In Romanes "man"). In addition to the first congress, seven more congresses followed with the same model, discussing the major problems that Roma face in Europe. As a promised product of the congresses the International Romani Union was established, which stood for recognition of Roma as a national minority in European countries, adopted a declaration of Roma the non-territorial nation and an action plan for the construction of the Roma nation[13]. According to the European developments and the constant oppression by European nations to Roma, it is clear that the global trends and centers of power downplayed the political influence of the congress. The "Romanihood" after a good start in 1971, in the late 80's lost its track of joint action for a common European Roma agenda of interests as trans-national community. The universality of Roma identity as shown in almost all the European countries hinders the visibility and decreases the opportunity for a joint agenda of Roma because Roma are minority in all the European states and democracy is a game of numbers. Today, Roma as an ideal social solution consider the collective advocacy, which is conducted through institutions of non-governmental nature, while at the individual level, the Roma have their representatives in the governmental bodies and members of legislation who lack of understanding the interests of their people and work to maximize the personal interests. In anticipation of a better and stable life Roma hope that the European Union will respond or to include Roma in the processes and high politics of the Union. However, Roma have always been a scapegoat for the failure of European policies, and they are targeted through media[14], feeding the public with stereotypes and prejudices, in an attempt to justify failures of policies towards Roma.


Creation of Culture, Cultural Development and Roma

In order to elaborate the concept of culture and the elements that create the culture and cultural specifics, science defines culture through several disciplines and genres. Culture as a concept in this paper is analyzed to ease the comparison between the cultures of European standardized nations and Roma culture. The term culture often used in anthropology and academicians who started to construct of the understanding of the term. Edward Taylor, one of the first scholars who influenced the definition of culture, defines culture as a complex concept, which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs and other habits of man as part of a community[15]. This definition is the one of the first attempts to standardize the specifics of the people in one umbrella term, which helps in the understanding of culture. In the social developments of the XIX century, Herskovits[16] Mead[17] and Malinowski[18] top anthropologists at that time, redefine the term and base the term on artifacts, customs and behavior of members of the community.

Further analysis of the concept and the elements of the term culture, the authors continue to standardize the culture in cognitive, philosophical, political and other aspects. Modern and widely accepted definition of culture is based on William Haviland[19] as a “set of abstract values, beliefs, and perceptions of the world that lie behind people’s behavior, and which are reflected in their behavior”[20]. In other words, culture does not only refer to the behavior of the members as a single element, but the values and beliefs of members who generate that behavior. In addition, international institutions such as UNESCO standardize the use of the term culture[21]. UNESCO defines the term culture as a set of specific spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or social group, which besides art and literature includes lifestyle, mutual coexistence, value systems, traditions and beliefs. The abovementioned definitions are only a small part of the wide range of interpretations of scholars engaged in the study of culture as a social phenomenon present in peoples. According to my proposed frame of cultural developments, every nation recognized in one country passes through three stages of cultural development as follows:

  1. Cultural beginning: Developing statehood that results with standardizing and uniting the people and the common goals, values, and interests
  2. Cultural maturity: represents aggregate of widely accepted set of values that govern the way of life and daily functioning (known as "acceptable" behavior of a member of the group) and
  3. Cultural extremism: is a stage of superiority to others, denying other cultures and generating prejudices for the "dirty" people present in the same territory.

The cultural beginning for the European nations started in the beginning of the Renaissance era. The age of the Renaissance offered growth in many areas, but the biggest development is recorded in art, literature, science, religion and self-awareness[22]. These attributes make up the Cultural Revolution in Europe and the starting stage of the cultural development. British pride of William Shakespeare, the French Pierre du Rosard, Italian Leonardo da Vinci are only part of a larger range of people who are known as the creators of the cultural values of the European nations. The transition from cultural beginning to cultural maturity is carried through several successful European movements.

The stage of cultural maturity for the European nations started immediately after the revolution that sparked the Renaissance era. Romanticism, Realism, and early modernism were the periods when European nation states advanced the level of their shared values and developed a sense of belonging. In these periods, attention is paid to the ethno symbolism and the aggregate of people in the communities creating the language, history, traditions, symbols, traditions, legends and myths[23]. Cultural maturity as a period in history is considered to be the biggest motive for unification because nations were given an opportunity to unify the common values of the people with the same origin in one territory.

Cultural extremism as a third stage of cultural development is a stage of imposition of identity and superiority. To counteract the superiority of nations in Europe that developed prior to the First World War, the European Union introduced the European identity and unity of the peoples of mutual progress[24]. On the one hand, the European Union has reduced the intensity of superiority and dominance of large nation states and initiated a cooperation to avoid wars, but on the other hand, the European crisis and the great wave of immigrants increased impatience and dissatisfaction in all European countries. Euroscepticism in European countries peaks while extreme nationalist parties gain more trust from the people and create a narrative that connects to the "purity" and the origin of the majority[25].

The cultural heritage of Roma remains a mystery to many cultural anthropologists and ethnographers. The Great Migration of Roma in XII[26] caused a century to look for a permanent home and adjust to the cultural values set by the majority in the countries where they settled. The process of adaptation and coexistence with the majority is noted as long and incomplete because of the ethnocentrism of European nations as owners of the territory in which they live. By the period of the beginning of the First World War, Roma who migrated to Europe were divided according to their traditional crafts. Kovaci, Dzambazi, Kalderaši, Kale, Sinti, Romungro and other groups of Roma received names as a result of separation between them according to their occupations[27]. Some countries accepted Roma who had skills for some craft because of their productivity and contribution in the countries where they settled. During the First World War, Roma were mainly settled in several European nation states in segregated suburbs.

In 1907, for the first time it was recorded the term "Gypsy policy", which refers to a segregated Roma camps, where they had to work permanently and live there[28]. Already in 1926, "Gypsy index" was introduced, which concerned the Roma living in Austria. Federal police in Eisenstadt, Austria[29] presented the system, which registers Roma with their fingerprints. This system was introduced because of the frequent migration and limiting Roma to live in camps in Austria[30]. This practice was widely accepted and implemented by other countries for "purity" of the territory. In this period, Roma were unable to practice their cultural and symbolic values because of the dominance of the majority in the countries where they lived. During the Second World War, Roma were treated as slaves with limitations. They were recorded as criminals or potential deviants of the common good in the European nation states. During the Second World War, Roma face the most brutal treatment and genocide in Hitler's Reich. Roma up until 1971 have not received any opportunity to organize for unity of values as a nation that lives in Europe.

According to the frame, Roma as a nation are not in a position to pass the three levels of cultural development due to the collateral damage, agony and torture that was inflicted on them for centuries as divided and colored people. History notes that Roma are people who adapt or assimilate with the majority and their values[31], because of the assimilation, Roma lost their language, traditions, customs, symbols, etc. However, the promising oral transmission of cultural values of the Roma from generation to generation remains one of the biggest sources for preservation and survival of Roma culture. In addition, new generations are more dedicated to the preservation of identity, historiography, research and promotion of knowledge about Roma.


Evaluation of identity and etiquettes

Creation of identity is a process that is based on the combination of display and belief in cultural values such as symbols, customs, language, myths, and traditions. Prejudice (sometimes even jokes) also represent one of the most powerful tools to strengthen the belief that people are such as people present them. Generalizing prejudices have always been a fun and to some extent construction that is considered to be true and accepted for a particular nation[32]. Besides prejudices, generalizing individual experiences is also a powerful tool that is transferred to the people who had personal experience with individuals of other nations. Particular attention is paid to media and the educational system as a powerful tool for the creation of a single picture of a country, nation, region, etc.

Atlas by Yanko Tsvetkov is one of the proofs that the trend of stereotyping nations is becoming more and more popular[33]. This atlas presents stereotypes of different people of all possible states in Europe. Besides standard widely known positive stereotypes about the accuracy of the Swiss, the discipline of the Germans, tea at 5 o'clock of the British and the loving character of the French, this atlas show negative stereotypes of nations across Europe based on the individual experiences of the creators of the maps. Among other methods of image creation for people over the Internet, this is the "fun" and "real" for some people who had no interaction with a member of that nation or was in that state.

The media and the educational system still represent the most powerful tools because they are constant and unavoidable creators of public opinion. History lessons indirectly create narratives to students in primary education in which they believe to be true without examining the arguments. Every country has its "enemies" in the history and "enemies" are shown as occupiers, usurpers or barbarians. Such attitudes and written text are generational transfers and "standard truth" for the mass that undergone through the educational system. In addition, media is inevitable and constant in the construction of reality and stereotypes of information transfer media[34].

These tools also contribute in generalizing prejudices about Roma. In the case of Roma, the construction used "Gypsy", which most European countries and the European Community[35] consider the term acceptable for public use and public documents is one of the commonly used terms for Roma. This term is widely used by non-Roma and Roma for the representation of Roma in their countries or European level because the term is exotic and more profitable. The term is identified with the identity, values and empowerment of Roma until 1971 when the first World Congress was organized.

This term comes from the Greek term "Athinganoi" that referred to the religious sect in the IX century in Greece, which was believed to have been the Roma. This term varies into "Atsinganoi" used for newcomers "unclean" people in Byzantium. Moreover, it is used throughout a long period in Byzantium showing Roma as dirty and people who are banned to interact.

In the era of the Byzantine Empire, this term reaches the final version "zigeuner", "tzigan", "tigan", "zingari", "cigan"[36] that is intended for "black" in the "white" continent. On the other hand, the term "Gypsy"[37] comes from the crusades in which there were people who defended Egypt but they were visibly different from the population of Egypt. These people defending Egypt are called "gyptians" or "egyptiens" by the crusaders[38] settled in Europe. These terms that are originally not created for Roma are used in addressing Roma in European countries. These forms of offensiveness and humiliation of people are used for Roma because Roma are settlers in Europe.

Roma with the arrival in Europe got an already created identity that were identified from non-Roma up until 1971. Still the media, educational systems and the stereotypes of European countries strengthen this situation for Roma because it is profitable and exotic. New generations knowing ethnographic and historiographic facts tend to turn the tide and fight against Gypsism.



This paper argues the academically established indicators for analyzing the nation building process of a nation with an emphasis on the Roma as a nation and their attempts to create a nation. It is significant to underline that the European nations created the process of building of a nation and a nation state a lot earlier and faster, their values and unity are considered to preserve the “state” identity, while Roma are in a different situation than the majority of the people in the states where they settled. Considering Roma as a nation, it is also important to highlight that they were faced with the challenge of political organization and leadership until the first International Congress of Roma in 1971. Nevertheless, Roma as an entity that exists in Europe after a genocide and daily depravation of liberty is seen as a “movement” with the hope of greater visibility on the European scene regarding the vulnerability of the problems faced by Roma today.

In addition, one of the arguments analyzed in the article is culture, with empirical and theoretical explanations of the process of cultural standardization and preservation of the “white” continent and reflection on the same process with the Roma. In the migration period, the Roma faced political and cultural challenge, knowing that they will be prevented from manifesting and preserving the culture in the already extreme domination of the nations in Europe. Empirical facts in this work enforce the position of arguing the historical challenges of the Roma, as a nation, which is disabled to practice and preserve its cultural values and features. Taking into consideration the culmination of the development of European cultures throughout the centuries, the culture of the Roma remains vibrant with its specifics and individual in its manner of survival, although they were slaves of the “pure” continent.

This paper analyzes the tools, which create and maintain the labeling of people, i.e. the Roma. The deconstruction of the terms, which are widely accepted as “normal” or “standard” regarding the Roma identity, shows that there is an identity, which was preserved with legitimacy, politically correct and sustainable, while there is also a form, which was historically abused and created to restrict the possibilities of the “unclean” people in Europe.

In the past 10 years, the ziganism represented a term which was challenged by young Roma to every factor in the society through a democratic debate and academic methods, and to prove that there is no such thing as a gypsy identity and a gypsy nation, but a Roma identity of the Roma nation with a rich cultural background and a strong faith in the future. This paper represents an anthropological and political viewpoint, which can cause various interpretations with other explanations about the methodological approach, which is being used for demonstration of the scientific and empirical facts and perspectives.

[1] Courthiade, Marcel (2003) “The Gangetic city of Kannauʒ : original cradle-town of the Rromani people” Wydawnictwonaukowe Poznan

[2] Pericles, Lewis (2000) “Modernism, Nationalism, and the Novel” Cambridge University Press.

[3] Breuilly, John (1993) “Introduction In Nationalism and the State” Manchester University Press

[4] Yack, Bernard (1999) “The Myth of the Civic Nation”, Beiner, Ronald (ed.): “Theorizing Nationalism”

[5] Simon, Patrick (2012) “French national identity and integration: Who belongs to the national community?”

[6] Hobsbawm, Eric (1990) ”Nationalism in the Late Twentieth Century”, Cambridge University Press

[7] Plamenatz John (1973) ”Two Types of Nationalism” Kamenka, Eugene (ed.): “Nationalism: The Nature and Evolution of an Idea”, Australian National University Press

[8] Ibid

[9] Pericles, Lewis (2000) “Modernism, Nationalism, and the Novel” Cambridge University Press

[10] Hancock, Ian (2002) “We are the Romani People. Amesam e Rromanedžene” Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press

[11] Ibid

[12] Kenrick, Donald (1971), “The World Romani Congress – April 1971″, Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society

[13] Ibid

[14] More information on: (http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/131118/14-unbelievably-racist-things-politicians-said-about-roma) last accessed 10.12.2014

[15] Tylor, Edward (1871) “Primitive Culture: Researches in the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art and Custom”, London: John Murray.

[16] Herskovits, Melville (1948) ”Man and his Works: The Science of Cultural Anthropology”, New York: Knopf.

[17] Mead, Margaret and Metraux, Rhoda (1953 eds.) “The Study of Culture at a Distance”, University of Chicago Press

[18] Malinowski, Bronislaw (1931) “Culture”, Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. 4, New York: Macmillan

[19] Haviland, William (1995) “Cultural Anthropology” Mifflin Harcourt P

[20] Ibid

[21] UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, 2001

[22] Jensen, Lamar (1992) “Renaissance Europe: Age of Recovery and Reconciliation” University of Michigan

[23] Smith, Anthony (1991) “The ethnic origins of nations”, Wiley-Blackwell; Reprint edition (January 8, 1991)

[24] McCormick, John (2010) “Europeanism”, Oxford University Press

[25] More information on: (http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb80/eb80_first_en.pdf) last accessed on 10.12.2014                                                              

[26] Courthiade, Marcel (2003) “The Gangetic city of Kannauʒ : original cradle-town of the Rromani people” Wydawnictwonaukowe Poznan

[27] Hübshmanová, Milena (2003) “Roma – Sub Ethnic Groups”. Rombase. Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz

[28] Baumgartner, Gerhard (1987) Sinti und Roma in Österreich. In: Pogrom 130, pp. 47-50.

[29] Baumgartner, Gerhard (ed.) (1995) 6x Österreich.Zur Geschichte und aktuellen Situation der Volksgruppen, Klagenfurt.

[30] Ibid

[31] Hancock, Ian (2002) “We are the Romani People. Ame sam e Rromanedžene” Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press

[32] Pelinka, Anton (2009) “Handbook of prejudice” Cambria Press

[33] More information on: (http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/feb/17/stereotype-maps-tsvetkov) last accessed on 10.12.2014

[34] Ibroscheva, Elza, Ramaprasad, Jyotika (2008)”Do media matter” Journal of Intercultural Communication

[35] More information on: (http://ec.europa.eu/justice/discrimination/roma/index_en.htm) last accessed on 10.12.2014

[36] Hancock, Ian (2002) “We are the Romani People. Ame sam e Rromanedžene” Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press

[37] Ibid

[38] Ibid

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