Roma as ethnic group, nation, or others’ construct: The relevance of Fredrik Barth

  • Will Guy
Keywords: Roma, ethnicity, culture, boundaries, nomadism, nationalism, defining criteria, identity


My article emphasises the significant impact of the publication in 1969 of Barth’s Ethnic Groups and Boundaries for those researching Roma. At the time, much of the literature – and policymakers too – viewed these complex and varied communities in an essentialist way in spite of their multiple differences and historical adaptation to their specific political and social environments. In particular, it was often assumed that all “genuine” Roma shared a common culture in which nomadism was a defining feature. This was to generalise from prevalent patterns in Western Europe, ignoring the fact that the vast majority of these people lived in Eastern Europe and had long been sedentary. Such misunderstandings had important policy implications, particularly after the collapse of Communist rule prompted many Roma to migrate westwards. Writers on nationalism had earlier recognised that nations were often a construct from disparate groups rather than homogeneous entities – a highly relevant factor in discussing contemporary attempts at forging Roma nationalism. Whether Roma can be regarded as having a common ethnic identity, in spite of acknowledged cultural differences, remains a highly contentious issue.