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Interviews with rival Czech academics about the Institute of Ethnology, the Roma, and social inclusion

25.5.2015 10:36
Marek Jakoubek and Jaroslav Skupnik (PHOTO: Archive of M. Jakoubek, website of the Department of Arts, Charles University, collage Romea.cz)
Marek Jakoubek and Jaroslav Skupnik (PHOTO: Archive of M. Jakoubek, website of the Department of Arts, Charles University, collage Romea.cz)

Does an "ethnic" approach to the integration of Romani people represent the threat of their isolation and nationalism? Is it artificial and risky?

Or is an "ethnic" approach the natural one to take? The disputes that are currently ongoing at the Charles University Institute of Ethnology can be viewed as shaping the theoretical basis of the current discussions about the future form of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion.  

"What is absurd is that on the one hand you have European projects for Romani integration and on the other hand support for ethno-emancipation. Those two approaches contradict one another - the same people are drawing on grants for the support of both integration and separation," says Docent Marek Jakoubek, the director of the Institute of Ethnology.

"To deny someone their right to ethnic emancipation - moreover, in a situation where an ethnically-emancipated majority identifies itself on the basis of ethnic principles and perceives the Roma ethnically - is a harshly discriminatory approach," says Dr Jaroslav Skupnik, Jakoubek's ideological opponent and one of the academics whom Jakoubek let go from the Institute at the beginning of this year.  

News server Romea.cz has interviewed both of these professors. Their remarks cover the "ethno-emancipatory" and "social" approaches to Romani integration, the current changes and events at the Institute, the previous controversies and disputes over research conducted by Tomáš Hirt and Jakoubek, and much more.  

Institute of Ethnology is changing

Both the opponents and the proponents of the current management at the Institute of Ethnology agree that it needs a change in order to revive what has long been a stagnant academic workplace. The students who have focused on the question of the future direction of the Institute and who recently held a two-day strike over the issue are also aware of the need for change.    

The main reason for that protest was the students' disagreement with the new director of the Institute, Marek Jakoubek, and his sacking of instructors Jaroslav Skupnik and Martin Soukup. It is Jakoubek's concept that is supposed to change the situation at the Institute.

Jakoubek says the Institute was "ripe for closure" befor he arrived there in October 2014. He describes how it is overstaffed, how there is no relationship between input and output there, and how its research activity is inactive, inefficient, and stagnating.

"It is no secret that the Institute of Ethnology was called a little island of socialism. It had preserved itself and perpetually, in the good old-fashioned way, slid along from year to year. It no longer had any direction and it lost contact with events not just in the world, but also within this country and within the department," Jakoubek says.  

His ambition is clear - he wants to turn the Institute into the country's best ethnological workplace. Skupnik, however, does not much agree with the work of the new director to date on this plan.  

"It sounds interesting, of course, but the question arises whether it's not a shame that something is being destroyed that, while it may have been problematic, did actually function," he says. Skupnik also disagrees with the emphasis first and foremost on publication and research, which is the focus of both Dean Mirjam Friedová and of Jakoubek himself.

Jakoubek vs Skupnik. Skupnik vs. Jakoubek

The many critical voices being raised against Jakoubek speak without exaggeration of a personal vendetta - that Jakoubek used the pretext of the necessary reorganization of the Institute to get rid of his longtime critic. He unequivocally rejects those allegations.  

"Skupnik was my critic 10 years ago. The issue was my research in Romani settlements. I then stopped studying Romani people, and since then I have published four monographs, both domestically and internationally, about Bulgaria. If some people are still living in those old disputes I feel sorry for them, but I am no longer interested in them," Jakoubek says.

The director emphasizes that he designed the criteria for evaluating educators prior to being appointed director and is now just applying them. Moreover, the criteria apply to all staffers, not just Skupnik and Soukup.

Skupnik is sceptical about the claim that his removal has to do with criteria according to which he and other instructors have been assessed by the new management. He points out that last fall he and his other colleagues were very highly evaluated.

"The impression I have is that this is tendentious. There's a need to get rid of people. If someone doesn't achieve good results as an educator, then the teaching evaluation is used for that purpose. If someone does achieve good results in that area, than something else is used. If someone has good publication results, like my colleague Soukup, then what is said is that while he is publishing, the work is not high quality. I don't actually know what this scale of criteria looks like, what it precisely contains," Skupnik says.  

"I am of the opinion that in my case this has to do with the fact that the director and I have been engaged in disputes for years in which I and several other people have repeatedly drawn attention to his professional sins from an ethical point of view and from the point of view of his expertise. However, no one is admitting this, of course," Skupnik claims.

Jakoubek is drawing on his experience at the Anthropology Department at the university in Plzeň. He believes that Skupnik would never have been able to earn money there, because reportedly it is not possible to make a living on instruction alone.

"Skupnik doesn't receive grants and has written nothing at all during the last five years. A scholar like that has no business working for any university. Once I had ascertained how things were working here in Prague, I stopped wondering why the department has such financial problems," Jakoubek says.

Skupnik, however, does not consider Jakoubek qualified to judge the quality of his work. He says he has received two large grants, one from the Czech Science Foundation and one from the Grant Agency of the Academy of Sciences [which closed this year - editors].

"My last publication, the Anthropology of Kinship, did come out back in 2010, but it is considered completely essential to the development of the anthropological field in this country. Personally I would prefer to publish less than to plagiarize or self-plagiarize, which director Jakoubek has been charged with doing," he says - a charge that Jakoubek says is untrue.  

The end of more than one myth?

The research theses of Jakoubek that are the basis for Dr Skupnik's criticism of him and his previous disputes with him concern research in Romani settlements, particularly in eastern Slovakia, and are now being revived during the current discussions around events at the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion. The discussion was unleashed by the recent dismissal of that Agency's director by the Czech Minister for Human Rights, Equal Opportunities and Legislation.  

Two perspectives on combating social exclusion and on integration are facing off here, the "ethnic" or "ethno-emancipatory" one and the "social" one. The "non-ethnic" approach is based on the previous work of Tomáš Hirt and Marek Jakoubek, who are colleagues.

Jakoubek sees the essential problem as being that while very few people have read the work he and Hirt have produced, many people "know" what's in it. "This is not an easy topic, it's not a topic for the media. It bothers me when someone claims I have written something that I never wrote - for example, that 'the Roma don't exist'. That is a thesis that makes no sense, but like many others it has a life of its own," he says.  

The director admits that at the time he did not foresee the possible consequences of his academic work, which was never intended for the general public and was part of an anthropological debate that he believed would remain within the framework of the academic community. Skupnik, however, disagrees with that assessment.  

Skupnik says scholarship is not created in a political vaccuum. On the contrary, what scholars say impacts the everyday lives of specific people and extends into society.

"There was more than one objection raised during those controversies. Objections were raised, for example, to [Jakoubek's] scientific practices, which included plagiarism, the selective use of quotes, self-plagiarism, and unsubstantiated generalizations. His works are dubious with respect to his methodology, to his professionalism, and to his theory," Skupnik claims.  

Many antigypsyists, neo-Nazis, and promoters of the "non-ethnic" concept of the social integration of Romani people in the Czech Republic have been drawing from Jakoubek's theses and continue to do so. He has long since gotten used to the fact that many people label him an antigypsyist, a hater, and a racist.  

Jakoubek says he has long been involved in Romani topics and has many Romani friends, and claims he cannot influence the fact that some people have taken his theses out of context and interpreted them for their own purposes. "If Čunek wants to wave our books around on television, it would be difficult for me to stop him. I would be able to prove that what he said is something different than what those books say, that there is no doubt that he never actually read them. Given me time and I will demonstrate to you that what is said about us is not true because it is simply nowhere to be found in those texts," he explains.  

According to Skupnik, however, very often what has happened is not at all an absolute misinterpretation of Jakoubek's theses. Rather, what he alleges has happened is that many "interpreters" have stripped Jakoubek's musings of their academic, verbal ballast and publicized them in a very clear form.    

"Then, suddenly, what pops out is exactly what Jakoubek has been charged with. The core of his reflections is indeed the ethnocentric notions he holds about the topic he is researching," Skupnik says, who does not deny that Jakoubek has the right to freely conduct research as a scholar and draw whatever conclusions he likes, but who says the procedures used to arrive at those conclusions must correspond to standard scholarly processes.    

Skupnik believes that Jakoubek's processes are not actually up to academic standards. "The feeling I have from these works is that they are a parody of scholarship, or a kind of trolling," he says.

The end of the (non)ethnic myth?

"Even today I would still insist on the non-ethnic concept because what we wanted to do first and foremost was to show that the Roma are not a racial group. That's an idea that Hitler, for example, was behind, and an enormous number of people died because of it. What commonly happens is that on the basis of skin color, people deduce someone's moral character and profile - for example, the opinion that the Roma steal because 'they have it in their blood'. We have done our best to disrupt that notion," Jakoubek says.

The director says that in his view there is almost no professional debate underway about Romani people in the Czech Republic - the discussions are too contaminated by politics. He also does not consider Romani Studies to be an area that might be beneficial to this debate either, criticizing in particular its linguistic discourse and its programmatically ethno-emancipatory discourse.  

Jakoubek does not, however, avoid discussing these issues with Romani Studies scholars. "We have not yet succeeded in holding academic debates with Romani Studies - I don't know what Hirt thinks, but for me it would be something that I have always really hoped for. However, it would have to begin with people actually reading our works," he said.

Ever since the time of the controversy, which took place primarily in the pages of the journal Český lid (The Czech People) in 2008, Jakoubek has not been involved in Romani topics. "Jakoubek is no longer focused on the Roma. However, does that mean he won't make the same mistakes in another subject area? His position as director is immeasurable significant, even if it may not directly impact Romani Studies [at Charles University]," Skupnik says.  

The ethno-emancipatory vs. the social approaches to integration

Advocates of the social approach - or the so-called "non-ethnic" approach - are convinced that ethnicity should not play an essential role in the integration of the Romani minority. On the contrary, they emphasize the social reasons for the exclusion of Romani people, which they say are shared by everyone who is socially excluded irrespective of ethnicity.

The other approach, the ethnic one - also called "ethno-emancipatory" - considers ethnicity an integral component of people's identity and one of the causes of Romani people's social exclusion. Why does Jakoubek believe the "non-ethnic" approach to social inclusion is better than an ethnic one?

"What is absurd is that on the one hand you have European projects for Romani integration and on the other hand support for ethno-emancipation. Those two approaches contradict one another - the same people are drawing on grants for the support of both integration and separation," he says.

The director considers support for Romani ethnic identity to be nationalism, saying:  "This is ordinary nationalism and Romani nationalism is just as bad as Czech nationalism. There is no greater eyesore, in my opinion, than Czech nationalism, and support for any nationalism is the road to hell. We should do our best to live together here. Our aim must be the redefinition of the Czech nation along civic, not ethnic, lines so that Romani people, too, can be a part of it."

Jakoubek does not deny that Romani people's ethnic origin lies behind many of the difficulties they experience in everyday life in the Czech Republic. "Changing people's mentality is a long-term process. However, it can be begun by making it disadvantageous to be a racist and advantageous to behave differently - but that is, to a significant degree, a matter of our laws," he says.  

The director says he considers it important for Romani people to be served in restaurants just like any other customers, for them not to experience problems when seeking employment, etc. Skupnik fully agrees with this condemnation of nationalism, saying he believes that nationalistic posturing and the effort to organize society on the basis of nationality are extremely conflict-ridden paths to coexistence, as is demonstrated by the conflicts based on nationality and ethnic purges underway worldwide.

However, Skupnik does not equate such posturing with ethno-emancipation - in his view, that is not the same as "isolationism" or a program based on nationality. He sees the situation as follows:  Czechs, who have now emancipated themselves into the form of the dominant ethnicity in this country, are denying opportunities for ethnic emancipation to other groups even as they persist in perceiving them in ethnic categories - the Roma, in the view of the dominant ethnicity, are now supposed to become like formally de-ethnicized "New Czechs", just like the Empress Marie Theresa once wanted to create "New Hungarians" or "New Peasants".

"Ethnic identity is an important component of an individual's identity, and the opportunity for ethnic emancipation is a condition of civic, individual emancipation. To deny someone their right to ethnic emancipation - moreover, in a situation where an ethnically-emancipated majority identifies itself on the basis of ethnic principles (not every citizen of the Czech nation-state is a Czech - only a 'member of the Czech nation' is a Czech, whatever that means) and perceives the Roma as an ethnic group - is a harshly discriminatory approach. If the Roma really do not exist, then it is to the degree that the Czechs do not exist, and vice versa - if the Czechs exist, then so do the Roma, and with the same rights," Skupnik says.  

According to Skupnik it is absurd and ridiculous to reject an "ethnic" approach toward Romani people if we do not doubt the naturalness of such an approach in relation to Czechs. He is evidently quite divergent from Jakoubek when it comes to the role played by recognizing the right to ethnic emancipation when it comes to solving social problems.  

This is largely an academic discussion. In the current struggle over the future of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, however, it is of the utmost relevance. 

Jana Baudyšová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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etnicita, FF UK, integration, Jaroslav Skupnik



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