Territorial borders between human groups are often clearly demarcated and visible, such as a river or a mountain that serves also as a physical boundary. These borders help to maintain social and cultural distinctions between different groups. However, there are also invisible yet highly influential social categories that create boundaries within the society. These categories of difference are involved in producing and reproducing social inequality. Even if physical borders are removed, certain social categories can still reproduce long-term exclusion of certain groups. While tearing down borders can be compared to building bridges over a river or constructing roads through mountains, it is important to recognize that addressing social inequality requires much more than dismantling boundaries, facilitating direct interactions, or establishing legal framework for equality.
This article addresses the problem of durable inequality trying to describe how socio-economic cleavages are reproduced within Romanian society by focusing on three main domains of social inclusion: (1) social structures, (2) social categories (or social representations), and (3) social interactions (also known as encounters). I focus on the Roma population to discuss the persistent disadvantages within the Romanian society and raise questions of more effective public policies and interventions to promote social inclusion. To promote social inclusion, systematic interventions are necessary in each of these domains.
Throughout their history in Romania, the Roma have faced various forms of social and legal disadvantages. They were enslaved for five centuries in Moldova and Wallachia. In Transylvania, which was part of the Habsburg empire for long, they were subjected to forced assimilation and pressured to adopt a peasant lifestyle. Social inequalities between the majority society and the Roma continued to exist despite the legal abolition of institutional forms of slavery and serfdom during the nineteenth century.
Even today, Roma remains the most excluded social group in Romania, as well as in Eastern Europe. Many of them live in extreme poverty, face ongoing ethno-racial stigmatization in everyday life, and are discriminated in various areas of public life. This article aims to provide insight into the causes and mechanisms of their social exclusion, more than 160 years after the abolition of slavery and the institutional emancipation of members belonging to this ethnic group.
The argument is structured as follows: firstly, key concepts are presented, followed by an examination of the socio-historical dynamics of changes in patterns of inclusion/exclusion, then, the discussion turns to each of the three domains mentioned above.
There is a historical decline in categorical exclusion.
The concept of categorial inequality has been coined by the sociologist Charles Tilly and developed further critically by Rogers Brubaker. This discussion owes much to their influential works: while the concept that social categories contribute to the creation of inequality is not entirely new, the contribution of these authors is valuable in comprehending the longevity of social exclusion and its persistence despite historical transformations.
When certain categories, such as masters versus slaves or landowners versus have-nots, are used to differentiate social groups, it can lead to situations where the benefits of an exchange are accumulated by members of one category who exploit or hoard opportunities for themselves, based on their category membership. The external categories that form the basis of intergroup relations are often matched or intersected by internal categorical distinctions within each group, such as gender (males vs. females), age (adults vs. children), or generation (youth vs. elderly).
Looking back in history, one could argue that strong categorical distinctions were commonplace, where social categories were sanctified by custom and tradition, resulting in inherited inequality in terms of one’s status and position within these categories. For instance, one was either born a master or a slave, and these social categories were also legally sanctified.
European social thought has been increasingly centred around the idea of universalism at least since the Enlightenment, which fundamentally rejects naturalized forms of categorical inequality between human beings.
Categorical exclusion, which was once the dominant form of maintaining social inequality, is now in decline. The transitions to the recognition of universal human equality from a system of legally secured status and privilege can be traced through historical examples such as the emancipation of serfs or the abolition of slavery. Although these processes have had and still have opponents and obstacles, they seem irreversible, and it is now commonplace to state that people are born fundamentally equal, despite the fact that the practical implications of this are rarely realized in social practice.
Today, the use of strong categorical exclusion as a selective filter is increasingly deemed unacceptable worldwide. Systems that have barred individuals from certain areas of public life and the economy based on their group membership, origin, skin colour, religion, or gender have globally declined over the past two centuries. Nevertheless, it is widely recognized that the theoretical notion of equality is difficult to translate into reality, and that social and economic inequality between individuals or groups persists stubbornly.
This tension arises from the apparent contradiction between the declarative recognition of theoretical, moral, and legal equality, and the fact that social inequalities persist through mechanisms of social exclusion, which can be seen as the weaker form of categorical inequality compared to earlier, stronger distinctions.
In short: while we see the decline of categorical exclusion in legal and institutional terms, we also witness the persistence or even emergence of new patterns of social exclusion, which prevents deep socio-economical inequalities from vanishing.
Why we see continued or even emerging new patterns of social exclusion?
Social science seeks to offer structural explanations for the enduring existence of inequalities, necessitating a departure from explanations that solely concentrate on individual attitudes or behaviours and bringing into discussion the broader transformations of society.
In the societies of our region, several important transitions have taken place over the past century. Here, I will only speak about the two most recent changes. The first is the end of the state socialist system and the transition to a market economy and multi-party democracy. The second transformation is the process of European integration, accession to the common market, with all its unforeseen consequences. Both these transformations impacted on the social exclusion of the Roma without eliminating it.
Research into the Roma policy of the socialist system in Romania has only recently begun, so it is premature to draw far-reaching conclusions, but it seems quite clear, that although the socialist modernization project articulated universal demands (in this sense being an inheritor of the Enlightenment values), unwillingly it still maintained social distinctions and actively contributed to the reproduction of existing ethnic categories.
Socio-economic marginalization did not disappear despite clear attempts to promote social mobility among Roma (expansion of healthcare, enrollment in schools, employment in industrial and agricultural jobs). In categorical terms: the regime did not officially recognize Roma as a “cohabiting nationality” (ethnic minority), it promoted their assimilation, but was unable to effectively absorb their workforce into the state-command economy. Radical change has not occurred, racism was even reinforced under the guise of civilizational discourse, and certain forms of exclusion observable today, such as growing residential segregation, can be traced back to this era.
After the regime change, although Romania officially recognized the Roma as a national minority, one sobering observation from post-socialist studies was that the first decade of the transition to a market economy brought a deterioration of the socio-economic situation of the Roma even compared to their previous situation. The market-generated inequalities proved to be rather harsh to those who had not conformed to expectations of efficiency and mobility.
This was also the case in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and according to the results of historical and comparative research led by the Hungarian sociologists Iván Szelényi and János Ladányi, new market-based forms of exclusion also emerged. Still, significant differences were observed among the countries included in the study. In categorical terms, for example, their survey showed that in Romania, among those who were seen as “Gypsies” by outsiders, a lower proportion of individuals identified themselves as Roma than in Hungary or Bulgaria, indicating that ethnic boundaries are more fluid here, people more readily transgress social categories, so the potential for mobility existed.
As soon these countries in our region to the common market has led to an acceleration of international labor mobility, with Romania being no exception. Migration had been gradually increasing even before EU accession, but it became universal at the moment of accession, affecting all social strata. This meant that groups who were previously less mobile due to their disadvantaged position were now also able to participate in international migration.
The appearance of Romanian Roma in Western European cities and “nomad camps” has led to political reactions such as the “nomad emergency” declared by Silvio Berlusconi’s government in 2008, or the wave of camp evictions and deportations led by Nicolas Sarkozy in France in 2010. These political and administrative gestures not only indicated that Western European states were not prepared to receive the “newcomers”, but also that the principle of equality and respect for human rights was not fully upheld even in the case of the old EU member states. The appearance of Romanian Roma and other Eastern European migrants also forces the citizens of host countries to inquire into the source of their own economic well-being and the reasons for persistent inequalities. Responses too often recur to xenophobia and offer racial and scapegoating answers.
Referring back to the previous discussion of the historical decline in strong institutional and legal categories, there is one notable exception, as Brubaker aptly observes: “Citizenship is the great remaining bastion of strong categorical inequality in the modern world; this inherited status continues to underwrite and legitimate immense structures of between-country inequality on a global scale.”
But can we deal with these persistent and reproducing inequalities within the existing structures of citizenship regimes? Can these between-country inequalities effectively be dealt with globally? Or even only within the European Union? If not, then how can we expect to address further developments of internal social exclusion through policies in single countries?
In conclusion, I will now turn to my cautiously optimistic proposal for potential interventions.
In this section I rely on the heuristic model proposed by Steven Vertovec. He distinguishes the three domains where diversity and social change can be analysed which he calls (1) configurations, (2) representations, and (3) encounters. I believe interventions should follow the path traced by this model which I found fully compatible with my previous discussion of categorical inequalities and social exclusion.
Considering the configurations, which is the structural domain, arrangements of historically inherited social hierarchy, power differentials, cultural distinctions, and economic wealth or the lack of it, the position of most Roma remained rather disadvantageous. We could see that neither the socialist assimilationism coupled with centralised command economy not the postsocialist decades of identity politics and transition to market economy within a Europeanised economic and political space could bring about a breakthrough in improving the plight of many Roma.
In this regard, the long-term economic and social disadvantage of Roma communities, their continuous demographic growth, and the relative political marginality of the Roma communities remain in place. Along with many remaining problems, the structural domain is where public policy interventions are least effective. However, this is the field that requires the largest investments in terms of infrastructural developments, including social housing projects that need to be intensified. The centuries of structural disadvantage cannot be unmade easily. Nor can these inequalities be dealt with without a massive social investment at the level of European Union.
On the ground we should not overlook some small, but not unsignificant changes that were generated not by external interventions, but by the actors themselves. For example, in the case of those engaged in international migration and returning home, we can witness household-level investments that affect the structural position of a community. Ignoring these changes would be a mistake since they can be also inspiration for priorities for interventions most wished and welcome by the Roma and also pave way to community level desegregation.
If we turn to the domain of representations, which are cultural and cognitive categorizations, and discursive practices that provide self-understanding for a social group also placing them symbolically within the broader social world. Representations permeate everyday speech, public life, media, and politics. Majority representations regarding Roma people continue to be burdened with prejudice and ethnic stigma. More effort to counter the stigma and replace it with recognition is unavoidable.
Even though in recent years, there has been significant progress towards the acceptance of the representations based on human rights, and their recognition, and the openly dehumanizing and racist language is increasingly unacceptable in the public sphere, there is a long way to go. Practices of exclusionary speech have not disappeared, as new forms of discourse draw on multiple sources, and hate speech has experienced a renaissance in the media especially since 2015, the so-called “migration crisis” moment.
A danger of the existing hegemonic representations is that they offer easy answers to uncomfortable questions, and most often slip into the field of scapegoating, victim-blaming or even xenophobia. In order to find solutions, we must confront taken for granted and most often misleading representations. Moreover, the continuous management and questioning of simplifying readymade answers is inevitable. This is the only way, since in a prejudiced environment, the representation of structural changes will remain encapsulated by negative narrative routines.
Encounters take place in the domain of social interactions, where everyday life unfolds, including personal meetings, social gatherings, cooperation, and various exchanges. Meeting routines encompass not only greeting forms, public conversations, and respect, but also humiliation, symbolic gestures of violence, and even the threat of physical violence. The domains of structural and representational changes are closely linked to the interactional system, as residential (de)segregation, for instance, can alter the patterns of encounters. Equality cannot be imagined without restoring full dignity of all participants in social encounters and reducing the risks of conflict generating interactions.
Fortunately, conflicts are rare exceptions, in most cases. Encounters primarily serve as local practice fields for structural changes and spaces for developing new routines. The transformation of residential segregation gives rise to new situations, such as the construction of new homes by return migrants and their move to central squares in the settlement. The behavioural routines of younger generations returning from migration also differ from those of their parents or grandparents, as the youth more readily experiment with new, more egalitarian forms of exchange.
Looking through the long history of persisting severe inequality, one could conclude: social exclusion replaced earlier categorial exclusion during the second half of the twentieth century, and forms of institutionalised servitude gave place to exclusionary social structures, representations, and unequal form of interactions. One can wonder: how will the twenty-first century bring about more equality in our society? Addressing systematically inequality generating social mechanisms in the three domains outlined here is the way forward.