Academic journal article Romani Studies

Staging Strife: Lessons from Performing Ethnography with Polish Roma Women

Academic journal article Romani Studies

Staging Strife: Lessons from Performing Ethnography with Polish Roma Women

Article excerpt

Staging strife: Lessons from performing ethnography with Polish Roma women. Magdalena Kazubowski-Houston. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. 2010. ISBN 978-0-7735-3749 (cloth), isbn 978-0-7735-4556-4 (paper). x + 264 pp.

Reviewed by Martin Fotta

When a few years ago one of my PhD supervisors lent me a copy of a then newly published book that promised to describe the dynamics of theatre production that involved Roma women in Poland, I flicked through it, skimmed the index and then stuck it on a shelf. There was so much more to read for my PhD, and the book's main themes - collaborative research and theatre production - did not seem directly relevant. Besides, the book's approach sounded like a sort of post-i990s anthropological navel-gazing. Thus, after two weeks had passed, I returned it to my supervisor and thought little more of it.When I finally read Kazubowski-Houston's Staging strife, however, I was pleasantly surprised how refreshing the book was in the context of the anthropology of Roma/Gypsies and how in the process of reading it my mind constantly returned to my own fieldwork and to my position as a scholar more generally.

Like most ethnographies, monographs of Romanies usually rely on a specific authorial legitimacy: an ethnographer arrives in the field dependent, peripheral, but open to learn, and through a trajectory that involves a combination of effort and events that, in hindsight, are seen as having redefined one's relations with informants, she not only becomes accepted, but emerges endowed with a knowledge of the community's culture that is in some ways even superior to that of the people themselves (Gay y Blasco and Wardle 2007: 144-50). Introductions to most ethnographies start with narratives of such transformations of child-like creatures into authorities on 'their' communities and in this way legitimise scholarship that follow. Staging strife is not like this: its claims to authority are at best ambivalent and, in the rare instances when KazubowskiHouston tries to explain why the Roma she met acted the way they did, it offers several plausible explanations without settling for the one that would be the most coherent for whatever reason. In part, this is because the book focuses on the process of doing ethnographic research while the project she had set out to do failed in many ways. And here lies one of the book's key lessons, one that speaks to some current debates in anthropology: any analysis should treat both successes and failures symmetrically, and, moreover, failure should be viewed not as a limitation but rather as an invitation to rethink our concepts, especially if that 'failure' is due to informants' obstinacy to, or reshaping of, our original research interests.

While collaboration between anthropologists and informants has a long history, it is only in the past two decades or so that collaborative or participatory research has become more explicit and deliberate. It aims at decentring the power relationship between ethnographer and informant, with the latter no longer the object of study, but instead a research participant. Such collaboration can occur at any, ideally every, stage of the research process: conceptualization, fieldwork and data production, analysis and interpretation, or presentation and dissemination of results. In the wake of the post-colonial critique and the crisis of representation in anthropology, collaborative approaches promise to produce research that is more politically and ethically sound and that, moreover, generates different results than those produced by more 'standard' approaches. Speaking from within the anthropology of Roma, Heather Tidrick (2010: 128-9), while encouraging researchers to conduct 'gadžology', that is, to explore how institutions marginalize Roma, suggests that collaboration could lead to new theorizations and unsettle the ways in which academics-asinstitutions help replicate existing power imbalances through their knowledge production (see also Tremlett 2013). …

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