Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Gypsy Law

Cartoon gypsy Esmerelda in Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

Cartoon gypsy Esmerelda in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

Forthcoming from Peter Leeson (who previously brought us an analysis of pirate democracy), a new paper on self-governance among Gypsies (via Mike Munger):

Gypsies are nomads. They’re often separated from one another, which precludes direct monitoring. Further, Gypsies’ locations are changing continuously. In the past Gypsies arranged debris on roadsides and configured bits of torn cloth in nearby tree branches to communicate messages to passing fellow Roms (Yoors 1967: 126). Still, “As most of these Roms” were “constantly travelling about, the problem of communication with one another [was] a serious one” (Brown 1929: 158). Nomadism rendered direct monitoring impossible for all but a few and made society-wide communication very expensive for Gypsies. (pp. 12-13)

Gypsies’ inability to rely on government for many of their most important relationships means not only that they must enforce social rules regulating such relationships privately. More fundamentally still, they must create those rules in the first place. Romaniya superstition achieves this by folding worldly crimes—traditional antisocial behaviors, such as theft and contractual breach—into its “spiritual” crimes, such as using the wrong bar of soap to clean one’s head. Thus the “unbending notion of purity (and impurity) which governs most [of Gypsies’] behaviour” described above has two meanings: one “spiritual” and the other very much of this world (Liégeois 1986: 84). (pp. 15-16)

6 thoughts on “Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Gypsy Law

  1. I’m floored that someone would write a paper titled this in 2013 — “Gypsy” is considered derogatory and most activists strongly prefer “Roma.” This is like titling a paper “Negro law” (or actually probably worse). Haven’t read the paper yet, but the title makes me wonder how much the author actually spoke with Roma, and thus cringe at what the content might be…

    • I don’t get the impression that the author talked with actual Roma, it seems to be mostly a synthesis of previous research. The word “Roma” appears in the paper 107 times compared to 359 times for variants of “Gypsy.” Thanks for pointing this out.

      • I did a brief search for “Roma” in the piece too to see if he even acknowledged the issue (which I didn’t find), but did see that most of references that use “Roma” are for “Vlax Roma” (a dialect?) so I think the wordcounts aren’t the best indication here…

  2. Whether ‘[g|G]ypsy’ is derogatory depends on where you are standing and who you are talking with. As a recent and typically careful UK Department of Children, Schools and Families strategy document (http://www.school-portal.co.uk/GroupDownloadFile.asp?GroupId=922199&ResourceId=3161888) points out

    “Gypsy, Roma and Travellers are not one homogenous group”


    “The term Gypsy, Roma and Traveller is acceptable to most members of these groups but many English Gypsies prefer to be called Gypsies. However, Gypsy is a term that can be perceived as having negative connotations and is not acceptable to some. This is very much the case with families from Eastern and Central Europe and ‘Roma’ is the universally preferred term.”

    So. It depends. That government cares about this kind of issue but feels content to use the term widely (usually in conjunction with ‘Roma’, ‘Traveller’, and a few others terms).

    Does the paper address the issue of Roma vs Gypsy designation? How about the opening words of section 2.1

    ““Gypsy” is an ethno-religious designation. It refers to the Romani people, or Roma.1”

    and accompanying footnote 1 that provides more demographic detail. There is no discussion of one of them being a derogatory term… perhaps because in its denotation there, it just isn’t.

    • I’m mostly going off a recent presentation I heard by a Roma activist, Margareta Matache, who was definitely one who thought it was offensive. If I recall correctly, in Matache’s view the use of the term ‘Gypsy’ by governments was actually cited as one indication of continuing discrimination, so government reports using the term don’t exactly close the case. And if they acknowledge that Roma is the universally preferred term and that many do find “Gypsy” to be offensive, why not go with Roma? (I saw the footnote before posting my first comment and thought it missed the point, put the disclaimer re: not having read the whole paper in case there was some other discussion I missed.)

  3. Strictly speaking the second quote I offered does not actually imply that “Roma is the universally preferred term”. But logical quibbles aside, I agree that government usage is not diagnostic – although I did chose a UK government publication because they have no political axe to grind and they do try to get ethnic matters ‘right’ (whether or not they succeed…) Turning from government I note that very many support and advocacy organisations in the UK happily use the term in their names. While this makes my point well enough for the UK I acknowledge it may not travel. Turning to the US, I see that National Geographic is also content to use ‘Roma’ and ‘Gypsy’ interchangeably (http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/american-gypsies/). Though I don’t know what to make of this given that their amusing footnote:

    “*NOTE: although commonly used, the term “Gypsy” is often considered offensive and inaccurate, as Romani are not of Egyptian origin.”

    as if the worst thing someone could claim about you is that you are an Egyptian…

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