The Turks and Tatars from the Romanian Dobruja region as ambiguous ethnographic subjects: reflexivity on a research angle shif

This text is a reflective exercise on the shifting research approaches in the ethnography of two Romanian minority groups, which possibly coincides with an ontological shift in an anthropologist’s vision on a profession. These two groups – Turks and Tatars – inhabit partly Bucharest and mainly Dobruja, a historical and geographical region in Romania and Bulgaria, covering the area between the Danube and the Black Sea. A number of populations – Aromanians, Bulgarians, Turks, Jews, Greeks, Tatars, Roma, Russians, Lippovans, Ukrainians, Germans, Italians, Hungarians, Serbs, etc. – currently inhabit the Northern Dobruja region, in addition to the Romanian majority one, due to a variety of contexts ranging from trade, work-related mobility, religious reform, fleeing from war to “power consolidation” – such as the case of the Ottoman Empire, by populating the region with Tatars from the North of Black Sea and with Turks from Asia Minor. As pictured by a colleague, the current legal framework related to the political representativeness of the above-named minority groups is quite avant-gardist – each minority group can benefit from a deputee seat in the Chamber of Deputees from the Romanian Parliament.

A romanticized image of the region pictured by Swiss anthropologist Eugène Pittard (1920) in his fieldwork from the beginning of last century accounts for “an extremely rich laboratory of comparative ethnology, through the extraordinary mosaic of races”, and ends into a biological description. Decades later, as part of a new disciplinary focus, the region is scrutinized in terms its cultural diversity: ethnographic examinations of the region (Iancu, 2009), in terms of its ethnic mix and inventive ways of staging ethnicities and keeping them alive are available. In parallel, centrality and periphery when it comes to Northern Dobruja as a border region are re-questioned: after its annexation to Romania in 1878, demographically, Northern Dobrogea served as an “Internal America” for Romania, a dynamic frontier zone of new settlements for expanding the national economy and ethnic boundaries. Therefore, the successful incorporation of the region into Romania by political elites is thought to be incorporated by ethnic colonization, cultural homogenization, and economic modernization. (Iordachi, 2002)

For the beginner anthropologist, the region became a research target in the early 2010s, in terms of its potential for the examination of lost and reinvented material and immaterial heritage forms. The religiosity of Turkish and Tatar populations was intriguing at the microlevel, in terms of rituals and their inter-generational transmission. During the fieldwork stay with a family in village FM, inhabited by a majority of ethnic Turkish population, various manifestations of everyday religiosity could be witnessed: the host recited out loud prayers in parallel with the chant from the minaret, and dismissed the need of fasting the Ramadan. Then, the pan-Turkish association identifying itself as the initiator of a heritage revival project for the village was relevant for the examination of power games and mobilization of resources (the village FM was targeted by the respective association as a possible site for its transformation into an open-air inhabited museum). The cleavage between the imagined project and knowledge practices of the local population seemed relevant. The caution for not essentialising ethnic identities, certainly, permanently accompanied this research.

After the experiences gained within various fieldwork sites, this research called for a warning of not being able to encompass a “field” with the ethnographer’s version of a truth. This liminal moment in the perception of ethnography shifted the examination from the community to the institution. Namely, the research shifted to the institutional level, to the headquarters of non-political and political institutions, such as the Democratic Turkish Union of Romania, or the Governmental Department for Interethnic Relations. A performance of identities at discursive level could be examined, or the material culture displayed at the headquarters of the Unions.


©Marie Goy – student, participant at a summer school that the author organized in Bucharest and the Northern Dobruja region, in June 2014. Display at the Democratic Union of Turkish-Muslim Tatars of Bucharest (UDTTMR) – the blue flag is the one of uyghurs – one Turkish population of China, also belonging to the Turkic peoples of Central Asia.

Moreover, the identifications of various generations as Turks and Tatars could be questioned in terms of a parallel with the current Bolivian context and related claims for indigeneity, in the light of a recent research experience in this context: as part of claims to justice under a new political order, more and more people are identifying themselves as indigenous whereas in the recent past they would more likely have seen themselves simply as campesinos, peasants or urban mestizos. (Canessa, 2007). Thus, upon an examination of economic or political actors (national, local, transnational, EU or non-EU-related) shaping visibility and mobilization, the claims associated to identifications as Turk or Tatar in post-socialist Romania could be analyzed.

This shift of outlook from the community and micro-level approach to the institutional one accounts for a partial shift in the understanding and practice of ethnography. Then, one would ask if this choice of a new research site accounts for a shift in complicity or detachment with the ethnographer’s subjects, raising new moral and ethical questions. I would aspire to a reconciliation of community and institution as complementary research fields, and future fieldwork experiences will measure the possibilities for this complementarity.


Raluca Mateoc – PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Latest grant – Survival strategies, Ethnicity and Empowerment in Romanian Countryside – was awarded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Research interests: everyday memory of socialism(s), micro-level religiosity, urban living practices, and music subcultures.


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