Legitimacy, Statistics and Research Methodology - Who Is Romani in Hungary Today and What Are We (Not) Allowed to Know About Roma

22 July 2004

Ferenc Babusik1

The question of who can be considered Romani in Hungary goes well beyond issues of ethnic identity or, in a wider sense, the cultural anthropological aspects of ethnicity. As will be shown below, the terms "Roma" and "Gypsy" themselves indicate a divergent web of problems burdened by various in-terests. This article discusses the topic from a number of fundamental aspects: legal, statistical, methodological, theoretical, minority policy and prac-tice among research organisations – all independ-ent from the issue of how the group in question, the Roma, identify themselves.

Let us begin with the least complex issue, the legal regulations. Prior to the political changes in 1989, and until 1993, ethnic classification in Hungary was not limited to ethnic self-definition. Ac-cordingly, primary and secondary school statistics registered individuals of Romani origin, and teach-ers evaluated the educational development of Romani pupils separately. School statistics were centrally processed and were available to the pub-lic. Furthermore, school statistics reflected the judgement of teachers rather than the self-defini-tion of the respective Romani students or their fami-lies. Before any humanist or human rights concerns are raised against this procedure, it has to be said that it was the prevailing distortion of census data that led to the method of "external judgement". Namely, according to census data gathered once every 10 years (and based on self-identification), the number of Roma in Hungary was half the number calculable on the basis of the school data. Such dis-tortion was apparent even in the 2001 census.

It is thus evident that the inherent contradiction in the question "Who is Romani?" must not be ignored. Clearly, those who deny their identity, for example, for reasons stemming from fear of discrimination,2 but whose parents are Romani and, moreover, whose Romani environment considers them to be Romani, may "drop out" of the Romani public community. This means that, from a politically correct and a le-gally unassailable standpoint, these individuals are by definition no longer "Romani" while continuing to be treated as "Gypsies".

The 1992 Data Protection Act imposed strict safeguards on data related to the ethnic or racial origin of the individual, by making access to and processing of such data subject to authorisation by law or the written consent of the individual. This legal regulation is in force to date and, for internal political reasons, is unlikely to change. Under the law, state bodies are not allowed to officially pos-sess information about data concerning ethnic identity, unless they have the written consent of the data subject. The 1993 Hungarian Act on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities (Minorities Act) clearly made ethnic classification the exclusive right of the individual. Self-identification has thus be-come the sole legal ground for defining ethnicity. These new legal regulations have fundamentally changed the system of data gathering, and conse-quently any research concerning Roma. It is no accident that the Central Statistical Office is pre-pared to perform its first data gathering with a di-rect focus on Roma since 1989 in 2005-2006, following a fairly lengthy legal and methodological preparatory phase.

The theoretical and legal debates notwithstanding, and given the huge distortion of the number of Roma in Hungary census data today, empirical sociology may come to rely on statistics based on the judgement of the environment about the ethnic status of the indi-viduals. There has been a need to work out proce-dures that would simultaneously comply with both legal and statistical reliability requirements. Hungarian so-ciologists Gábor Kertesi and Gábor Kézdi first elabo-rated a method by which it became possible to estimate the actual Romani population in Hungarian settle-ments.3 In my own experience, this method of popu-lation estimation by settlement is the most valid one. It works as follows: The authors estimate the total Romani population using the last school statistics to take account of ethnicity (1993) – the census returns are dubious regarding the actual number of Roma, but they do provide fairly reliable information on age-dis-tribution, average family size and the number of chil-dren per family. The number of Romani children in primary and secondary education offered a reason-able basis for an assessment of the total Romani popu-lation beyond school age. However, in the small village-type settlements of Hungary, several settle-ments may constitute one school district, and children from a number of surrounding villages go to school in the same settlement. Consequently, in a few hundred cases, the Kertesi-Kézdi estimation by settlement is incomplete. Furthermore, data concerning larger towns, and Budapest in particular, cannot be consid-ered absolutely reliable, since assessments setting out from the school data were inaccurate in the larger districts.4 In spite of all its weaknesses, this popula-tion-assessment method has produced the only data series describing the level of Romani population in most Hungarian settlements. This can be used as a basis for research using as a sample reference point settle-ments with a known figure of the Romani population.

Before briefly describing the theoretical debates on the definition of "Roma", it is worth mentioning a na-tional data gathering and data processing practice con-cerning Roma that contains all the contradictions re-sulting from the legal constraints. Hungary's Labour Centres (LCs) operate at the county level and in the capital. Their manifold tasks include reintegration of socially and economically vulnerable strata, including Roma, into the labour market. The existing legal regu-lations prohibit both employers and LCs from identify-ing and registering the ethnic status of their employees or the unemployed. A contradiction, however, arises from the fact that the state budget provides a targeted allocation for the integration of Roma in the labour market. That is, if the state is to pursue integration of Roma in the labour market, it has to identify in some way the members of its target group. The LCs re-solve this contradiction by applying a special "trick": They enter into contracts with the local Romani or-ganisations and the Gypsy minority self-governments which then, as representatives of the Romani minor-ity, gather information about who is unemployed and what qualifications they have. Romani organisations, which are also bound by the legal regulations on data protection, have data about those individuals who reg-ister with them in order to find a job. The Romani organisations may then hand over lists of potential employees to the LCs, but these lists cannot reveal data about the Romani ethnicity of the individuals listed by name. Data on enterprises that employ Roma in larger numbers is gathered in a similar way. Ulti-mately, through this procedure, the LCs "know" in practice who is Romani, though formally, according to the law, they possess no such information. During research I carried out in 2001 on enterprises em-ploying Roma,5 I came across this practically in-soluble contradiction: Although it is in the interest of the LCs to know these enterprises better, they are unable to reveal data for the purposes of research since de jure they cannot possess it.

Serious theoretical debates on "who is Romani?" began in the years following the adoption of the Minorities Act. Two opposing standpoints are worth mentioning in this regard. One is mainly associ-ated with the Hungarian sociologists István Kemény, Gábor Kertesi and Gábor Kézdi. Gábor Kertesi's work has been briefly outlined above. István Kemény is seen as the "elder statesman" of Hungarian research on Roma, in appreciation of a number of national studies he has conducted since the 1970s. These authors have argued that empirical research and data accuracy have greater significance than the subtle philosophical debate on the essence of ethnicity.6 In their view, since ethnic self-identification results in major statistical distortion, Romani ethnicity can be determined through the judgement of the external environment. The authors are aware of the problem that, as a result of this procedure, Roma who do not con-sider themselves Romani, and who are not consid-ered Romani by their own environment, "drop out" of the public community of the Roma. Nonethe-less, the method seems to produce more accurate results. In trying to determine who is Romani, Kemény, Kertesi and Kézdi very frequently rely on non-Romani informers.

From among those who represent the opposing standpoint, the sociologists Iván Szelényi and János Ladányi stand out.7 They criticise the method of Kemény, Kertesi and Kézdi because, in its classifi-cation of Romani ethnicity, the most important im-plicitly present criteria for arriving at a judgement is the socio-economic status or, more precisely, the marginalised position of the individuals. The core of Szelényi and Ladányi's concept is that the judge-ment of the non-Romani environment is based on factors such as poverty and marginal status. Thus, if Roma are primarily perceived as the representa-tives of a poverty culture, then this group may in-clude numerous non-Roma in a marginal situation, and vice versa: prosperous and educated Roma will be excluded from this category. Kemény's group, however, argues that a change in the social status and the level of integration with it will not result in ethnic re-classification quasi-automatically or as a strong tendency.

The above-mentioned debate also appears at the level of views held by Romani politicians. Politicians who accept the view of Szelényi and Ladányi assess the number of poor and marginal Roma to be much lower, thus emphasising that the majority of Roma have been integrated as "productive citizens". On the other hand, politicians who are interested in in-creasing state support for Roma tend to accept the view of the Kemény group – after all, the nation-wide representative surveys regularly indicate a large number of Roma living in severe poverty.
It should be noted, furthermore, that the very ter-minology involved in this discussion is under dis-pute. The words Roma [Roma] and cigány [Gypsy] are used as synonyms in Hungary, although there is no consensus on the correct un-stigmatised name. The Minorities Act, the various government documents and minority self-governments use the term cigány, as does the bulk of the referenced Hungarian literature. However, political usage in-ternationally prefers Roma as the name for this eth-nic group. International convention agrees that all peoples have the right to use the name of their choice. A great part of Roma in Hungary, the Romungro or "Magyar Cigányok" (Hungarian Gyp-sies) or the Beás, frequently do not call themselves Roma, yet the term Roma has come to be increas-ingly accepted in political usage.

I will now outline my own research experience, in which I have tried to find a way out of the afore-mentioned theoretical contradictions and the trap cre-ated by the legal regulations. In the process I present below, I have successfully carried out several na-tion-wide and regional research projects.

No objective data is available concerning the number of Roma in Hungary by locality, and the only valid data series in this regard are the estimates by

Kertesi and Kézdi that reflect the situation as of 1993. Since there is no data about migration of Roma within the country, and, in the absence of any other data, no estimation is possible, the only available route is to mechanically extrapolate the 1993 data for the subsequent years. The work of László Hablicsek, leader of the Demographic Research Institute of the Central Statistical Office, served as the starting point. The study developed a demographic forecast of the total population and the Romani sub-system until 2050.8 The forecast, which describes several sce-narios overall, has a neutral version, according to which, in the period ahead, the situation of the Romani population will neither change catastrophically nor improve radically. Based on this assumption, data can be extrapolated for a period of approximately 10 years following the date of the estimation (since the possi-bility of error in the projection will rise sharply after the 10th year). Thus the Kertesi-Kézdi data about the number of Roma according to settlements can be extrapolated up to 2009 without major errors.

The research set out with a selection of settle-ments in which the numbers of the Romani popula-tion were estimated according to the extrapolated version of the Kertesi-Kézdi data. In these settle-ments, the local Gypsy minority self-governments and the staff of schools produced their own estimations
by settlement. Analysis of the surveys so far indicates a substantial difference between the two data series: one prepared by the Gypsy minority self-government and the school authorities, and the other based on theo-retical data by settlement. Meanwhile, the median of the three data lines regularly represents the extrapo-lated theoretical data by settlement. This means that the exact number of Roma in a given settlement can-not be established through this method either, but a fairly accurate picture of the number of Roma at mi-cro-regional and regional levels appears. Since the ul-timate aim of wider-ranging research is exact accuracy of assessment at the micro-regional level, it can be said that this method can soundly be used in drawing up settlement patterns for data gathering.

In the next step, the survey is partly based on self-definition of Roma and partly relies on the confidence generated by the involvement of the ethnic commu-nity in the survey. Our research team sent interview-ers of Romani origin to the settlements selected on the basis of the above-described assessment. One of their tasks was to establish the distribution of Roma in a given settlement – identifying streets, town ar-eas or districts where Roma live in larger numbers and locations where they live in fewer numbers. Help was sought from local Romani organisations who were familiar with the respective settlement. Once the settlement was mapped out, Romani interview-ees were selected proportionally to the settlement "map". People were asked if they would declare themselves to be Roma/Gypsies. In our experience, irrespective of their level of assimilation, those inter-viewed would identify themselves as Roma/Gypsies to an erudite interviewer of Romani origin, who is more integrated than assimilated.9

As demonstrated above, this method moves along the scale from judgement by the external environ-ment to self-definition, but at the same time operates with the socio-psychological phenomenon of willing-ness to associate with an ethnic community. In my experience, this procedure can be used with reason-able accuracy, while remaining within the bounda-ries of the legal regulations.
Nevertheless, attention needs to be called to a prob-lem: If the predictably high level of internal migration resulting from changes in the economic environment is taken into consideration, then, by circa 2010, even this method will not be suitable for representative re-search on Roma. Reshaping the legal framework will probably be insufficient to resolve this question. The strong inclination toward assimilation that drives nearly half of the Romani population of Hungary to conceal their identity in public surveys (a disposition catalysed by justifiable fear) will likely jeopardise the collecting of accurate data in the future.


  1. The author is director of Delphoi Consulting social science research group.
  2. Personal research experience indicates that the memory of the Romani Holocaust is still alive. Many Roma tend to link the act of “census taking” to the extermination of Roma by the Nazis, and, consequently, they refuse to publicly acknowledge their ethnic identity.
  3. Kertesi, Gábor and Gábor Kézdi. “A cigány népesség Magyarországon (dokumentáció és adattár)”. Sociotypo, Budapest, 1998.
  4. In the larger settlements or districts, that is, where the internal migration of the Romani community in both directions is strong, the population assessment based on the number of children is inevitably imprecise, because the annual school statistics are incapable of following actual migration.
  5. Babusik, Ferenc-Dr. Adker Judit. “Roma vállalkozások kutatása.” In: A romák esélyei Magyarországon. Kávé Kiadó, Delphoi Consulting. Budapest, 2002.
  6. Gábor Havas, István Kemény and Gábor Kertesi, “A relatív cigány a klasszifikációs küzdotéren” in Kritika, 1998/3; Gábor Havas, Cigányok a szociológiai kutatások tükrében = A cigányok Magyarországon, Ferenc Glatz, ed. MTA. Budapest, 1999.
  7. Ladányi, János and Iván Szelényi. “Ki a cigány?”. In Kritika. Budapest, 1997/2; Ladányi, János and Iván Szelényi. “Az etnikai besorolás objektivitásáról”. In Kritika, 1998/3.
  8. László Hablicsek. A Roma népesség demográfiai jellemzoi, kísérleti elõreszámítás 2050-ig. KSH Népességtudományi Intézet, Budapest, 1999.
  9. In this study I use the term assimilated to mean a person who strives to dissolve into the majority society, while integrated represents an individual who has managed to emerge from an underprivileged position whilst being proud of their ethnic identity.


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