After five years of field studies in Roma settlements in Eastern Slovakia, cultural anthropologist, Marek Jakoubek has sparked controversy. He claims that the Roma are not an ethnic group, arguing that they do not identify themselves as such. Jakoubek's claims have caused fury in some circles. He presented his ideas at a conference about multiculturalism in Prague this week.
The focus of the conference was multiculturalism with a special emphasis on the Roma people. Marek Jakoubek from the University of Plzen was the most provocative speaker. I spoke to Mr. Jakoubek about his research in Roma settlements:
"My research has shown that there is a national Roma high culture that is in contradiction with the cultural principles that we find in Roma settlements. So I came to the conclusion, that people here who call themselves representatives of the Roma cannot actually represent people from the settlements and ghettos because they don't share anything with them besides skin colour and what I am talking about are cultural differences."
Although Mr. Jakoubek is an academic, I was curious to know how he would apply his theories on a practical level:
"I would be in favour of de-racializing the problems with the Roma, there are problems here but they are socio-economic. There are people in ghettos and that is a problem and ethno-emancipation is not going to help that. They do not define themselves as an ethnic group, they define themselves in kinship groups, for instance."
"So I would de-racialize the problems and I would focus on solving social and economic problems. Furthermore, I would study, analyze and try to understand traditional Roma culture. Whether this culture can be maintained is a question because some of its characteristics are unconstitutional such as arranged marriages and the lower standing of women."
There have been many sharp criticisms of Jakoubek's works- many of his observations about the class division in Roma culture could be applied to other ethnic groups and this does not mean that they are not ethnic groups. Moreover, the Roma people do have a common language and folklore. Given the fact that the Roma are often stigmatized and discriminated against based on their ethnic identity, many say that is a bit odd to suddenly claim that this identity is not relevant. Sociology student, Katerina Janku, finds Mr. Jakoubek's approach somewhat arrogant:
"He is kind of ethnocentric in the sense that he only accepts high scientific means of debate. He says, see I have published a book, if you don't agree, publish a book. These questions of Roma identity are very sensitive ones. If you come to people and ask them, "Are you Roma?" They say yes or they say, I don't know but it is a question of methods and I think that Marek Jakoubek does not reflect on that enough."
The conference was attended by students, social workers, activists and academics. There were a wide variety of experiences, views and approaches expressed- but somehow I could not help feeling that a certain presence was missing. There was not a single Romany person in the conference hall. Sociology student Katerina Janku offered her sociological insight on the nature of public debate:
"I observe the means by which people communicate and because I research socially disadvantaged people and I have found that they sometimes they have different communication means and through this and only through they are excluded from the public debate and I don't think it is fair. It is a tool of power to be able to argument and many people do not know the language and so they feel excluded."