David Scheffel is a Canadian anthropologist and community developer. He was born in the former Czechoslovakia and emigrated with his family as a teenager in 1968. Svinia in Black & White is a book which can be considered a document of his return to Eastern Europe in his maturity to do field study and also to implement a development project aimed at improving local conditions in a Slovakian village. While migrants are often nostalgic or emotional about their native lands Scheffel is not idealizing the realities of Eastern Slovakia; in this the book he offers critical analysis of the postsocialist developments of an ethnically spitted rural settlement supported by hard-nosed ethnography.
Svinia is a village in the Prešov area. The Roma of Svinia (‘the Blacks’ as they are labeled by the local non-Roma) live in ghetto-like rural slum (‘osada’) which is separated from the ‘civilized’ part of the village inhabited by the ‘white’ ethnic Slovaks. The Roma are segregated economically and socially. The economic conditions in the osada are characterized by extreme poverty and unemployment, bad health and housing conditions under which no local ‘while’ would accept lo live. These conditions are preserved by lack of basic physical infrastructure (e.g. access to drinking water) and the lack of basic skills of the inhabitants (e.g. literacy). The separation between the ‘white’ and ‘black’ segments of the community is also socially maintained by prevailing judgments among ‘whites’ regarding their ‘black’ neighbors. These negative views are, as Sheffel puts, “racist stereotypes” to a western audience. The essence of these views is “the assumption of their [the ‘blacks’] inherent inability to live up to basic standards of civilized behaviour” (p. 28). Social interaction between whites and blacks are sanctioned accordingly, which results in an unofficial apartheid. Everyday social contacts between the two segments of the community are reduced and the ‘whites’ treat ‘blacks’ in social encounters in denigratory manner. Moreover local institutions are openly discriminatory towards Roma (e.g. all Roma children end up in separated classes with the character of a “special school” ‘osobitná škola’). Although conditions in Svinia are exceptionally bad (Scheffel also refers to more positive examples in the area), there can be no doubt that the problems faced by Roma living in one of the other “hundreds poverty-stricken settlements located on the very margins of Slovak society” (p. 12) are rather similar. Therefore this study is relevant for understanding processes beyond the locality described.
In the introduction of the book Scheffel raises the question ‘What went wrong in Svinia?’ and he returns to the answer in the concluding fifteen pages. The body of the book is divided into tree chapters, each of them addressing this question from a different angle in order to explain the present plight of the Roma in Svinia. Chapter one ‘A fragmented community’ (p. 17-46), offers a general overview of Svinia as a whole and introduces the main features of the local ethnic relations. Scheffel also presents the circumstances of commencement of the fieldwork in 1998. The episode describing the difficulties of finding accommodation for himself and his family (p.21-23) stands to exemplify the general distrust towards strangers which is characteristic to local ‘whites’. Villagers continued to dislike particularly his interest and work among the local ‘Gypsies’. The existence of this traditional xenophobia is documented in earlier periods, but tensions in local ethnic relations even intensified during the more recent past. Scheffel provides brief description of the differences in demographic pattern of the two segments of the population and also overviews the role of local institutions (education, religion, and local politics) in reproducing the asymmetrical ethnic relation. This chapter highlights the prevalence of the exclusion of the Roma throughout the local social life.
Chapter two is guiding the reader ‘Inside the osada’ (p. 47-138). Considering that this is the main ethnographic chapter of the book no short summary can do justice to its complexity. Nevertheless it provides counterbalance to the previous chapter because it offers a painful account of the prevailing negative aspects of the life on the Roma settlement. Internal exploitation, violence, addiction to alcohol, and drugs, and the neglect of the environment are presented throughout each of the subchapters addressing relations to the environment, economic strategies and social stratification, sexuality and reproduction, family and community relations.
Chapter three entitled ‘Roma marginality in historical perspective’ (p. 139-211) is a historical overview of the changing patterns of policies and social interactions between Roma and the majority society. It also introduces a more theoretical discussion on the effects of the socialist modernization at the national and local level. Through a discussion of the postsocialist developments leads the reader into the concluding reflections about: What went wrong in Svinia?
The concluding section of the book Scheffel argues that the present situation of the Roma is an outcome of the ambivalent modernisation of the socialism. He emphasizes the deterioration of inter-group relations because of the disappearance of personalised ties characteristic to premodern pattern of ethnic relations: “[A]s the reliance on concrete individuals gave way to a wholesale dependence on the state and its local agents, the careful cultivation of inter-ethnic bonds came to appear superfluous” (p. 216). Trough the process of postsocialist decentralisation municipal authorities emerged as an important level where of decisions are made and enforced. This recent EU-inspired process is not necessarily favourable to Roma. Perspectives are particularly grim in settlements where the local ‘white’ majority can effectively block access to funding for institutions specialised for dealing with ‘the blacks’.
Scheffel interpretation of the situation is critical and lucid; he offers a diagnosis which is hard to argue against. Nevertheless the book could have benefited from references to the recent sociological literature on ‘the underclass’. His findings seem to be consistent with the conclusions of the comparative research project led by Iván Szelényi. An engagement in the theoretical discussions generated by these publications would have also placed this book in a regional context. Having said this, this monograph remains an important contribution to the anthropological study of East European Roma.