‘Gypsies’, ‘Nomads’, ‘Roma’. Categorisation processes of Roma and Sinti in Italy: Reflections on an Upcoming Special Issue of Nomadic Peoples

By Marco Solimene and Stefania Pontrandolfo. Marco and Stefania are the guest editors of a Special Issue 22.1 (March 2018) of Nomadic Peoples on Roma in Italy.

The conceptualisation of spatial mobility in its connection to identity issues has generated a great deal of research among anthropologists working with nomadic populations and studying their relations with sedentary societies. The post-modernist critique in socio-cultural anthropology has given rise to epistemological reflections, drawing on which a series of works has examined dialectic relations between emic elaborations of identity by specific groups, State’s bureaucratic-juridical categories, common sense understanding and academic theorisation. These studies have analysed the practical implications of the processes through which specific groups are categorised by others as ‘nomadic’, and allegedly opposed to sedentary societies. They have also highlighted the connection between such processes and governmental discourses.

NP 22.1 cover
Cover of the forthcoming Special Issue. Image by  Helga Ágústsdóttir

The situation of people categorised under the umbrella terms ‘Roma’ and/or ‘Gypsies’ provides food for thought and invite to further reflection on these issues. Categorising the Roma as ‘Nomads’ has historically represented a dogma in European common sense and political discourse. This dogma produced (and further reflected) discrimination, marginalisation, persecution and attempts to annihilate a population that was considered as a threat to nation-states and their sedentarist metaphysics. Though extremely resilient even in  academia, the equivalence between Roma and nomadism was eventually approached with a critical eye. A series of works highlighted the existence of populations, such as Spanish Gitanos, whom European imagery conceives as prototypes of the Gypsies, but who have nonetheless been sedentary for centuries. Other works argued that mobility and nomadism do not necessarily coincide and that so-called ‘Nomads’ may switch between mobility and settlement depending on economical and political contingency. Scholars also sustained that the category ‘Nomad’ often turned out to be a politically correct synonym of the term ‘Gypsy’ but that, nonetheless, it maintained the same labelling power: not only did it reproduce the same negative connotations but it also triggered the same orientalising and exoticising effects.

‘Microarea’ for Sinti in Northern Italy. Photograph: Laura Secchi

The critical reflection of the association between ‘Roma’ and ‘Nomads’, however, led to paradoxical results when appropriated by the political debate; the Italian contexts provide an exemplar case for our argument. In Italy, Romani groups that actually carry out peripatetic strategies have been misrecognised and their existence silenced; meanwhile, the meaning of the term ‘Nomads’ has shrunk to the point of being used mainly to indicate the population forced into camps created by the authorities to house alleged Nomads. As a result, Nomads (the ‘real’ ones) became invisible, their existence neglected and their mobile lifestyle obstructed as an anachronistic and dysfunctional remnant of the past. On the other hand, sedentary groups were rendered nomadic by being forced into camps for ‘Nomads’, whose inhabitants were then subjected to a regime of spatial and social immobility. In one way or the other, what we are facing are governmental discourses that have labelled the Roma as social waste and positioned them within a specific frame of power relations.

img468 copy_preview
‘Nomad Camp’ on Rome’s periphery. Photo: Marco Solimene

The Special Issue Gypsies’, ‘Nomads’, ‘Roma’. Categorization processes of Roma and Sinti in Italy results from a long-standing collaboration between the University of Verona and the University of Iceland. Dr. Marco Solimene’s participation in a mobility programme coordinated by Dr. Stefania Pontrandolfo at the University of Verona in spring 2016 offered an important occasion to further conceptualise and develop the project. All contributors to the volume had then the opportunity to reflect and confront with each other and other scholars, by participating in the panel entitled Transformations and strategic uses of political and cultural categorizations concerning Roma and Sinti populations in Italy over the last fifty years, co-convened by the editors of the Issue, at the IUAES Inter-congress in Dubrovnik in 2016.

The fact that this was an IUAES Commission on Nomadic Peoples panel and that the Special Issue comes out in the Journal Nomadic Peoples, is no coincidence. The processes through which nomadic and peripatetic communities are categorised by state bureaucracies, civil society, supranational actors and academia are among many important topics that the journal has addressed over the decades. Moreover, almost thirty years ago, Nomadic Peoples provided an important and original platform for scholars in the field of Romani Studies to discuss and confront the possibility of looking at some Roma groups through the lens of the concept of peripatetic communities proposed by Berland and Salo and Rao[1].

Our project is thus embedded within the journal’s intellectual tradition but it also re-actualises the debate on categorisation processes concerning Roma in light of the developments that have occurred within academia, the changes in Europe’s economic and political context and the new challenges Roma groups face, having been both sedentarised in Nomad camps and forced into mobility by policies of straightforward rejection over the last few decades. This Special Issue addresses a critical discussion on the transformations, manipulations and strategic uses of ‘Gypsy’, ‘Roma’ and ‘Nomad’ categories in Italy over the last fifty years. We aim to offer an in-depth reflection on categorisation processes, the ways in which categorisations are used in different contexts and by different social agents, and their practical effects on Roma and Sinti communities. Especially, we want to provide a fresh insight into the ways the people who are categorised as Nomads face mobility and nomadism, as an everyday practice and identity, and/or as a card to play in the political game with more powerful ‘others’.


Images of the fairground livelihoods pursued by some Italian Sinti. Photographs: Laura Secchi.


[1] Berland, J.C and M.T. Salo (eds) 1986. Peripatetic Peoples, special issue of Nomadic Peoples 21-22 (o.s.); Rao, A. (ed.) 1987. The Other Nomads. Peripatetic Minorities in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Koeln: Boehlau.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s