Gypsy and Traveller Ethnicity: The Social Generation of an Ethnic phenomenon/Questioning Gypsy Identity: Ethnic Narratives in Britain and America

By Nemeth, David J. | Romani Studies, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Gypsy and Traveller Ethnicity: The Social Generation of an Ethnic phenomenon/Questioning Gypsy Identity: Ethnic Narratives in Britain and America


Nemeth, David J., Romani Studies


Gypsy and traveller ethnicity: The social generation of an ethnic phenomenon. Brian A. Belton. London: Routledge. 2005. 210 pp. isbn 0-415-34899-4. Questioning Gypsy identity: Ethnic narratives in Britain and America. Brian A. Belton. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press. 2005. 203 pp. isbn 0-7591- 0533-2.

The simultaneous appearance of these two books and their detailed exploration of the social generation of Gypsy and Traveller ethnicity qualifies as a significant publishing event in Gypsy studies. With the innovative theorizing expressed in these two publications, the author positions himself to become a strong, fresh, intellectual force in Gypsy studies scholarship. Brian A. Belton, an English Gypsy himself, is presently Senior Lecturer at the YMCA George Williams College, London.

His life-long interest in British Gypsy and Traveller ethnic identities, including his own, generated his Ph.D. dissertation ('The social generation of Traveller ethnicity', University of Kent at Canterbury, 2000). This has been revised and published in England as Gypsy and Traveller ethnicity (hereafter GTE). Belton's other book under review here is Questioning Gypsy identity (hereafter QGI). Of the two books, QGI has more recent bibliographic citations than GTE and yet refers to GTE as a 'forthcoming' publication. Aside from this single reference Belton makes no mention in either book to the existence of the other. As we shall see, the difference between the two books on close reading too often boils down to little more than the difference between a 'whilst' and a 'while'.

GTE's subtitle 'The social generation of an ethnic phenomenon' echoes the dissertation title that spawned it, and aptly captures the outcome of Belton's search for 'a concrete foundation on which to build an ethnic identity' for Gypsies and Travellers (p. 52). He foreshadows his theorizing on the social construction of ethnicity by deliberately making no distinctions between Gypsies and Travellers in GTE 'as there seems to be no agreement about the boundary between these labels and some doubt concerning the integrity/ authenticity of either' (p. 7). Here, he cites Annemarie Cottaar extensively and also Wim Willems, both leading scholars of the 'Dutch school' of revisionist Gypsy social history. Their investigations of the historical origins of caravan dwellers in the Netherlands resulted in some radical conclusions that form a critique of traditional Gypsy studies.

Following their example, Belton seeks to articulate the social construction of Gypsy ethnicity in England in the historical context of government legislation against caravan dwellers. He writes in this regard: 'I would suggest that much of the effect in this Dutch context reflects and replicates the impact of legislation and attitude in the English situation' (p. 100).

Belton argues through selected sources and examples that all theories of ethnicity, emphasizing those encountered in the literature of Gypsy studies, are to a greater or lesser degree 'not unproblematical'. He offers up his own theory as 'a new paradigm' (p. 144) that 'provides a model for a broader understanding of the travelling population across western Europe, North America, and the post-industrial world' (p. 2). Belton systematically develops this theory and reiterates its major points in multiple ways over the course of 146 pages and five chapters (supported by four lengthy appendices, extensive end notes, and an index).

His introductory chapters demonstrate, with a few glaring exceptions, his familiarity with the large and diverse body of Gypsy studies literature related to ethnicity and identity issues. He attacks most of the standard works in Gypsy studies and their authors for focusing uncritically on forms of categorization and identity rather than on more profound questions of origin and cultural meaning. For Belton, Jean-Paul Clebert is a scholar whose work represents all that seems wrong with a 'romanticist' Gypsy-studies paradigm, one that over-emphasizes ethnic categories and differences. …

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