Gypsies, Roma, and Irish Travellers: Histories, Perceptions, and Representations, A Review

Project: ResearchResearch Council


Amidst the prejudice suffered by the Gypsy, Roma/Romani and Irish Traveller communities today, various organisations have recognised the need to communicate some of the history of these peoples in Britain. Some of this work comes under the heading of Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month. Cultural historians and scholars of historical representation, however, recognise that much of what we know in the twenty-first century of these communities in the past is contingent on fragments, the texts that survived in archives. These texts include (but are not limited to) scholarship, official reports, literature, popular fiction, newspaper articles, art, and photography. Much of what remains was written or made by people who were not Gypsies, Roma/Romani, or Irish Travellers. As well as uncovering the history of these communities, then, academics study the context in which those texts were written, who wrote them and why. For instance, one way of finding out about these communities is to examine court records. But does research that uses this source in order to reconstruct the past unavoidably reinforce prejudices about criminality? The proposed review examines how researchers in the arts and humanities have encountered, articulated and overcome these issues in their work.
In the nineteenth century, representations of these communities proliferated, and amateur and professional scholarship simultaneously turned to them. That scholarship was necessarily framed by the discourses of its period, whether they concern folklore, race and extinction, migrancy, or morality. It is on research into these communities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that this review therefore concentrates. It is only since various academic disciplines, but in particular the humanities, began routinely to examine their relations of power with their objects of study, and not to take their expert objectivity for granted, that research into Gypsies, Roma/Romani and Irish Travellers considered the ways in which knowledge about these communities in the past is constructed (rather than being transparent, or merely waiting to be uncovered). In other words, how do we know what we know about this subject? The review begins with two key hypotheses. The first is that research into attitudes towards and historical constructions and representations of these groups has been influenced by research in to other marginalised groups, including the representation of Jews in Europe, and the use of methodologies or critical practices developed as part of what is loosely termed 'postcolonial studies'. This term refers to a deconstruction of the power relations and complex identity constructions that are a result of imperialism. The second hypothesis is that very few studies in this area are constrained by traditional disciplinary boundaries, most having met the ethical, political, and textual challenges of researching these communities in the past by engaging with sources and techniques from similar, yet separate, modes of study. For instance, historians and geographers draw on each other's work, as well as on practices from literary studies.
There are three main elements to the project: a desk-based collection of research into historical attitudes towards and constructions and representations of Gypsies, Roma/Romani and Irish Travellers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Britain; analysis of this research using defined research questions and consultation with an expert panel; and a one-day workshop exploring the impact of historical/cultural representations on the experiences of these communities, helping to point the way towards future historical research.
Effective start/end date1/02/1231/10/12