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Gypsy's an ethnic group? - Marx and Barth analysis of ethnicity

Updated on July 8, 2013

Should Traveller-Gypsies be regarded as an ethnic group or a class?

Both Barth’s theory of ethnic groups and Marx’s theory of class could be considered applicable in the case of Traveller-Gypsies, especially when taken from the viewpoint of the dominating society. However, when the Gypsy perspective is taken into account it seems as though the definitions are made a little more obviously applicable or not. Although each theory does have claims to validity in terms of the Traveller-Gypsies, it would seem that to classify Gypsies in terms of Barth’s theory of ethnicity would seem a much more plausible explanation than classifying them in terms of Marx’s theory of class.

Marx believes that class is determined in the context of historical modes of production. Modes of production according to Marx are primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and communism. In Britain today it is claimed that both feudalism and capitalism are in operation, though capitalism primarily. Within capitalism Marx identifies four classes ranked in order of wealth and social standing; bourgeoisie, petit bourgeoisie, proletariat, lumpen-proletariat. Primarily though, Marxist discussions centre around the Bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) and the Proletariat who are without property and work for the bourgeoisie (Marx, 2001 [1848]: 24). If Traveller-Gypsies are a class of peoples as opposed to an ethnicity it must be possible to categorise them into one of these class groups. Marxist theory also allows for ‘classes for themselves’ which defines a class aware of it’s standing in society and not merely succumbing to social pressures enforced upon them. This is opposed to the more commonly assumed position of ‘classes in themselves’, those classes who adopt and reinforce what society claims to be correct values; those unable to raise beyond the positions society enforces. Marist theory is considered an invaluable resource in attempts to define class but class theory may not be of much use in defining Traveller Gypsies.

Traveller-Gypsies have most commonly been regarded as belonging to the lowest class by the ruling population. This idea could been seen to conform to Marxist theory as Gypsies could then to classified as lumpen-proletariat, failing in the eyes of the masses as they seem not to contribute to the whole of society as they evade taxes and responsibilities expected of all of societies members. However, there are many cases against this a-typical, somewhat judgmental, view of Gypsies. Primarily, this is not how they would see themselves, although they may use this stereotypical view to their advantage in situations. Gypsies would prefer self-employment far above wage-labour of the dominating society; ‘the Gypsies history is also the history of their refusal to be proletarianised’ (Okley 1983: 53). Gypsies have been defined as ‘self-reproducing ethnic group with an ideology of travelling…a preference for self-employment and a wide range of economic activities’ (Okley 1983: 5). Nevertheless, the Traveller-Gypsies do occasionally work for wage-labour but only when they have to. Those Gypsies most likely to work for wage-labour within the sedentary population are those Gypsies considered the observably poorer amongst Gypsy groups. This could be due to the lack of Gypsy skills amongst these families which requires that they conform to Gorgio (non-Gypsy) society more so than others, and more than would typically be preferred. There is also the claim that literacy ‘occurred least among the wealthiest families’ as those families most successful in Gypsy skills and methods of work do not need to comply with Gorgio requirements for work (Okley 1983: 56). Gypsies could also be classified as Petit-Bourgeoisie under the Marxist definition as they work independently yet are ‘dependent on a wider economy within which they circulate supplying goods, services and occasional labour.’ (Okley 1983: 49). The idea of Gypsies as the lowest class also suffers as they are able to employ Gorgio ‘down and outs’ to work for them cheaply when needed. Thus, Gypsies are also employers, marking them in Marxist terms as Bourgeoisie. The wealthier Gypsies also occasionally buy land. Most likely definition of Gypsies within Marx theory of class would be that they are a class for themselves as opposed to the common class in itself which the wider society would usually conform to. A class for itself is a group which is aware of itself and the position they occupy in society, it is a level a consciousness not normally afforded to most classes. The Gypsies seem to fit this category most of all as they seem able to portray themselves in different way in order to take advantage of situations and they are able to leave Gypsy society when they wish to and enter into Gorgio society. So it would seem that Class may not be an appropriate method of defining the Traveller-Gypsies, it may be that ethnicity is a more reliable means of defining them.

Barth’s work focuses on ethnicity and attempts to define which categories are relevant in ethnic classifications. In essence, Barth concludes that ‘ethnic groups are categories of ascription and identification by the actors themselves’ (Barth 1969: 10). This differed from the conventional opinion of ethnic groups comprising of several categories of which self-ascription is only one, they only require to be largely biologically self-perpetuating, share cultural values, and make a field of communication i.e. language (Barth 1969: 11). However, Barth argues that these other fields assume cultures develop in relative isolation rather than in association with other ethnic groups as most seem to be in today’s societies. The required self-ascription of ethnicity allows for boundary changes within a culture as those behaviours considered important by the group itself are the only features of importance and these can adjust with society changes. Barth claims that belonging to an ethnic identity ‘implies a claim to be judged, and to judge oneself, by those standard that are relevant to that identity’ (1969: 14). This allows for people to be considered as outside an ethnic group by the definitions of all those within it, even if that person wishes to be included. Ethnicity in this sense can be defined in terms of what people are not as ethnic identity need not exist if there is not an opposing group which one does not conform to. Physical boundaries are especially irrelevant when it comes to ethic identity as most now at least trade with others in close proximity, thus only ethnic boundaries are of relevance and must imply differences in behaviour such as persisting cultural differences (Barth 1969: 16).

Barth’s theory of ethnicity seems to match more fully the realities of Gypsy social life. Barth claims that ethnicity is culturally inherited which is precisely how Gypsies obtain their socialisation and Traveller-Gypsy skills in order to survive within their self-defined favourable ways. Barth also claims that self-ascription plays a central role in ethnic definitions. Gypsies mark themselves off from Gorgio through their own consciousness as a separate group. ‘when self ascription is the primary focus, then only those aspects of culture the group emphasises as important have a bearing on recruitment and identity’ (Okley 1986: 66). The groups self-ascription also includes specific cultural choices, leaving anybody born a Gypsy to freely pass into Gorgio society if they wish. The attempts of the sedentary society to identify Gypsies have not coincided with how they define themselves. Biology is not a determinant as Gorgio’s would have assumed, principle of descent is imposed on a group with some flexibility in personnel. Despite Gypsy idea that only those with at least one Gypsy parents can be called a Gypsy, acceptance into the group does not require this as Gypsy-Gorgio marriages are common. Traveller-Gypsies can also be seen to conform to Barth’s idea of Pariah groups. These groups are defined as groups ‘actively rejected by the host population because of behaviour or characteristics positively condemned, though often useful in some specific, practical way’ (Barth 1969: 31). This is how Gypsies are often seen, despite any claims of their being a nuisance to society, they do in fact fill niche roles within society which others would not. Pariah groups also seem to allow for Gypsies as it accounts for individual Gypsies ability to join the Gorgio society as they wish; ‘where Pariahs attempt to pass into the larger society, the culture of the host population is generally well known: thus [individuals can escape the] stigma of disability by dissociating with the pariah community and faking another origin’ (Barth 1969: 31). So it seems Gypsies conform more to Barth’s idea of ethnicity than Marx idea of class.

In conclusion, it would seem more likely that the Gypsies can be classified in terms of an ethnic group rather than a class. Marx idea fails to account for Traveller-Gypsies as they seem to fit into all categories of Capitalism. Their being an ethnicity would account for this as ethnic groups need not conform to merely one class category. Baths explanation of ethnicity seems to apply almost fully to the Gypsies. Therefore, it seems the Gypsies choice to be a separate ethnic groups, as self-ascribed, would account for their existence as they are.


Barth, F. 1969. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries - The Social Organisation of Culture Difference. Oslo: Scandinavian University Press.

Marx, K. 2001 [1848]. Communist Manifesto. [e-book]. London: The Electronic Book Company Ltd.

Available at: ebrary

[Accessed 24 November 2011]

Okely, J. 1983. The Traveller-Gypsies. Cambridge University Press.


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