Scholars’ Conversations: Péter Berta, Materializing Difference

This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster(jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca) or sign up here.

Scholars’ Conversations:

Péter Berta, Materializing Difference

by Tim Rosenkranz

I had the fascinating opportunity to interview Péter Berta, Honorary Research Associate at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. His recent book, Materializing Difference – Consumer Culture, Politics, and Ethnicity among Romanian Roma (University of Toronto Press, 2019), won the 2020 Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award from our ASA Consumers and Consumption Section.

Péter told me about his book’s journey from fieldwork to publication. He gives us a fascinating glimpse into the world of Gabor Roma’s tournament of value and the relation between luxury consumption and intra-ethnic politics. 

Tim: What does “consumption” mean to you in your work?

Péter: Studying changing (and often competing) consumer ideologies, practices, and identities offers a unique analytical lens through which a deeper and critical understanding of the complex interactions between and interdependence of subjects and material worlds can be achieved. Focusing the analytical gaze on the multidimensional politics of consumption also provides me with a dynamic and nuanced picture of how intersectional relationships among power, gender, class, race, and ethnicity have developed as well as how these relationships shape and are shaped by structural factors and the lived identities of consumers.

Tim: Your book Materializing Difference is a fascinating ethnography of the Gabor Roma in Romania. How did you come to work with this community? What sparked your interest in the specific circulation of silver beakers and roofed tankards?

Péter: I first encountered Gabor Roma in April 1998 when I was travelling around Romania— and more particularly, the Mureş County in Transylvania—looking for local Roma communities where I could begin a twelve-month field research planned for a year later. My initial plan was to examine practices and ideologies related to death and mourning, as the continuation of earlier research. However, after I began the field research, it soon became clear that these phenomena are surrounded by such intense anxiety and so many linguistic and other taboos that it is exceedingly difficult to gather information. Accordingly, after a short while I decided to seek another focus for my research. 

This is how my choice fell on intraethnic politics, an ethnicized and gendered phenomenon that has special significance in the world of the Gabor Roma, and especially in one of its symbolic arenas: the consumption of beakers and roofed tankards (interpreted as a “tournament of value”) made of antique silver, defined as luxury goods. Nothing illustrates the special political and economic significance of these objects among the Gabor Roma better than the conspicuous difference between the price range associated with them on the global antiques market and the prices paid for them among the Gabor Roma. While on the antiques market the price of these pieces currently rarely exceeds US$9,000 to US$11,000, within the Gabor Roma ethnic population they usually change hands for many times that sum. The price of the more valuable objects may reach, or occasionally even exceed, US$200,000 to US$400,000! Of the sales transactions I analyzed, the highest purchase price was handed over in 2009—one of the most influential and wealthy Gabor Roma collector paid US$1,200,000 for a silver beaker that was considered to be exceptionally valuable. These beakers and tankards are involved in many identity projects among the Gabor Roma. They are imbued with multiple political and social meanings, as well as personal, family, and ethnic population-level identity and emotional values. The consumer subculture organized around them is a contemporary second-hand culture based on patina-oriented consumption. 

Tim: That is fascinating! How did you turn this observation into analysis?

Péter: The fact that in my search for a new analytical focus my choice fell on analysis of the dynamic interrelatedness between luxury consumption and intraethnic Gabor Roma politics appeared to be a logical choice given that one of the central topics of male discourse at Gabor Roma social gatherings and in everyday meeting situations was the group of silver beakers and roofed tankards – their ethnicized ownership histories, negotiations on two or more pieces’ comparative political significance and economic value as well as on their local or regional rankings.

In the course of field research and writing the book, I was concerned mainly by such questions as: How do consumer goods and practices shape and mediate human relationships? In what ways do these goods and practices possess social, economic, or political agency? What role does consumer culture—especially luxury consumption, as well as commodity aesthetics, biographies, and ownership histories—play in the production of social and political identities and hierarchies? How do (informal) consumer subcultures of collectors organize and manage themselves? The research aimed to reveal the inner dynamics of the complex relationships and interactions between luxury goods and their consumers, as well as among consumers themselves, and to investigate how these relationships and interactions contribute to the construction, materialization, and reformulation of social, economic, and political identities, boundaries, and differences in the Gabor Roma ethnic population.

On a more theoretical level, I tried to demonstrate that agency is not an exclusive attribute of the world of either subjects or things—these two spheres are created and acquire social meanings and significance in the context of the interactions arising between them, and therefore subjects and things are simultaneously products and producers of these interactions, as well as of each other. When writing the book, I also placed great emphasis on investigating how, after 1989, the political transformation in Romania led to the emergence of a new, post-socialist consumer sensitivity among the Gabor Roma, and how this sensitivity reshaped the pre-regime change patterns, meanings, and value preferences of luxury consumption. 

It was clear for me right from the outset that the study of intersectional relationships between luxury consumption and intraethnic political inequalities and hierarchies is not part of the mainstream of research in Romani studies. For this reason, when deciding on the analytical framework and focus, I made a special effort to link my research closely to some of the central research questions, contemporary directions, and new theoretical developments of wider fields such as the sociology and anthropology of consumption and the new material culture studies. This is one of the reasons why my interest turned towards such practices, phenomena, and methods as the politics of commodity aesthetics and ownership histories; bazaar-style consumption and risk management; the construction, commodification, and consumption of (fake) authenticity attributed to commodities; contemporary second-hand cultures based on patina-oriented consumption; and the biographical method and the method of multi-sited commodity ethnography. 

Tim: How long did you take in publishing since you first conceived the project?

Péter: I began field research among the Romanian Gabor Roma in April 1998. Between 1998 and the publishing of Materializing Difference, I spent a total of over thirty-three months in Transylvania conducting multi-sited ethnographic research, in the Gabor and Cărhar Roma ethnic populations. In addition, when I was back home in Budapest, I often met Gabor Roma families whose members were trading in Hungary; I joined them in mapping offers on the Budapest antiques market, and in their intermediate trade. The first results of the research appeared from 2007, among others in Social AnthropologyResearch in Economic Anthropology (volumes 30 and 34), Museum AnthropologyMuseum Anthropology Review and Journal of Consumer Culture.

Almost twenty-one years passed between the beginning of field research and appearance of the book. I received professional support of inestimable value for finishing the manuscript from University College London: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where I spent two years under the guidance of Professor Alena Ledeneva on a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship.

In the matter of publication, it was an important consideration for me that the fields of sociology and anthropology should occupy a prominent place in the profile of the chosen publisher. Materializing Difference should appear as part of a prestigious series of sociological or anthropological titles. And the publisher should be effective in the global distribution of digital copies. The University of Toronto Press proved to be an excellent choice in all three of those respects. 

Tim: What book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in your work?

Péter: It is difficult to mention only a few of the great number of writings that had a big influence on me in elaborating the analytical framework of the research. One of those was Arjun Appadurai’s Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value (1986), a classic study throwing light on the subtle dynamics of the social life of commodities that I first read on a 24-hour bus journey between Budapest and London. The new analytical perspectives and research directions it outlined, and such analytical categories it introduced as “methodological fetishism,” “tournament of value,” “bazaar-style information search” basically influenced the way I approached the social, economic, and political aspects of luxury consumption among the Gabor Roma, and second-hand cultures in general. Appadurai demonstrates brilliantly that monitoring the biographies of things—their ownership histories, transnational/transcultural movements, transformations of their meanings and values—is crucial to a more nuanced understanding of the contexts, human relationships, and processes surrounding them (such as colonialization, globalization, or the spread of capitalism). 

Another book that was also closely related to the analytical perspective of things-in-motion and the biographical method, and that also had a big influence on me was Christopher B. Steiner’s African Art in Transit (1994). Steiner superbly analyzes the politics of value and authenticity of commodities circulating in the globalized market of authentic tribal art (in local and global antiques markets, auction houses, and museums) and offers insightful examples of how the manipulation of ethnic provenance attributed to commodities works. African Art in Transit—just like Appadurai’s classic study—convincingly highlights how the de- and re-contextualization of commodities migrating transnationally/transculturally take place and why it is worth tracking their movement as well as the metamorphoses of their symbolic and material features. 

Tim: From your perspective on the scholarship of consumers and consumption: What are areas that need more attention? Or what are new/emerging phenomena that should be studied?

Péter: Investigating the connections between luxury consumption and the intraethnic politics of difference, I characterized the Gabor Roma ethnic population as a translocal consumer community of practice. Following this train of thought, it would be useful to learn more about the complex and dynamic relationships between consumer goods, practices, and ideologies imbued with identity value and consumer communities of practice. I have in mind here, for example, a more detailed examination of brand communities and ethnicity, class, nation, or gender-based consumer subcultures, as well as of the politics of consumer tastes that characterize them.

In the light of my present research, I find the analyses that examine the dynamic interrelatedness of power, gender, consumption, and ethnicity in arranged marriage cultures, as well as the proliferating research on the relationships between consumption and the wedding industry especially interesting. In harmony with this, I am attempting to give space to these topics in the book series I edit published by Rutgers University Press and titled The Politics of Marriage and Gender: Global Issues in Local Contexts.

Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge today for research on consumption is to follow and analyze how COVID-19 is reshaping hitherto dominant consumer practices, ideologies, and patterns in the different social contexts, as well as the consumer communities of practice themselves. In my opinion, this new research direction should focus principally on a deeper understanding of how consumption is changing in social distancing and how this change affects the complex relationships between consumers, products, and markets as well as the various consumer identity projects.

Tim: After such an intriguing ethnographic project, what comes next? What is your current research about?

Péter: My current research focuses on the politics of arranged marriage among the Gabor Roma living in Romania. The project aims to give a detailed critical analysis of the European media, human rights, and political discourses dealing with the presumed motivations and consequences of arranged marriage among Roma, and it also examines the ideologies the Gabor Roma use to justify and rationalize the political, social, and cultural significance of arranged marriage interpreted as an essential and inalienable component of their collective cultural heritage, ethnic identity, and belonging.

The project pays special attention to the complex interactions between transnational economic migration, intraethnic politics of difference, and arranged marriage, and to the inner dynamics of the legal classification struggles between Gabor Roma customary law and European Union/Romanian state/church laws. In short, the project aims to reveal the changing ideologies, practices, and strategies through which a translocal post-socialist informal economy—the Gabor Roma market of arranged marriages—works and flourishes despite the formal disapproval and prohibition represented by the laws of the Romanian state, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and the European Union. The first results of the research will be available in Arranged Marriage: The Politics of Tradition, Resistance, and Change, a volume edited by me and to be published by Rutgers University Press in 2021. 

About the interviewer:

Tim Rosenkranz is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research explores the global commodification processes of national destination marketing that turn nations into tourist destinations.

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