Materializing Difference: Consumer Culture, Politics, and Ethnicity among Romanian Roma

With a Foreword by Fred R. Myers. Toronto – Buffalo – London: University of Toronto Press; (Anthropological Horizons Series)

390 pages + 34 colour photographs (as a separate colour section)    

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Winner of the "2020 Consumers and Consumption Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award"  awarded by the Sociology of Consumers and Consumption Section of the American Sociological Association

Honourable Mention: The 2021 Society for Romanian Studies Book Prize

Short Description: 

How do objects mediate human relationships, and possess their own social and political agency? What role does material culture – luxury consumption as well as commodity aesthetics, biographies, and ownership histories – play in the production of social and political identities, differences, and hierarchies? How do (informal) consumer subcultures of collectors organize and manage themselves? Drawing on theories from anthropology and sociology, specifically material culture, consumption, museum, ethnicity, and post-socialist studies, Materializing Difference addresses these questions via analysis of the practices and ideologies connected to Gabor Roma beakers and roofed tankards made of antique silver. The consumer subculture organized around these objects – defined as ethnicized and gendered prestige goods by the Gabor Roma living in Romania – is a contemporary, second-hand culture based on patina-oriented consumption.

Materializing Difference reveals the inner dynamics of the complex relationships and interactions between objects (silver beakers and roofed tankards) and subjects (Romanian Roma) and investigates how these relationships and interactions contribute to the construction, materialization, and reformulation of social, economic, and political identities, boundaries, and differences. It also discusses 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.


„In this wonderful book, Péter Berta extends an anthropological tradition, with its roots in Malinowski, that reads circulating objects as generating both politics and status, exemplified by a keen look at the poignant situation of the Roma and a brilliant object-centered ethnography of the painful journey of post-socialist societies such as Romania.”

Arjun Appadurai, Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University

„Nuanced, critical and sophisticated in its analysis, Materializing Difference is an exceptional ethnography. Through its fine-grained examination of the entangled trajectories of people and things, it shows how prestige goods are agentive in the social, political and economic lives of the Gabor Roma, and may be said to bring their identity as a distinct community into being.”

Paul Basu, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS, University of London

„Péter Berta’s Materializing Difference is a fascinating and theoretically rich ethnography of the life of antique silver beakers and tankards among a group of Roma in Romania. By tracing the meanings, provenance, and value of these objects among families in this ethnic group as well as across boundaries with various other groups, he shows the distinct meaning systems that define Gabor Roma identity and family face. By showing the interplay between the lives of objects and people, Berta also reveals the extent to which the two are entangled with one another.”

Russell W. Belk, Schulich School of Business, York University

Materializing Difference is a fascinating examination of the bundle of relations emergent between and within prestige objects (silver beakers and roofed tankards), second-hand goods and the lives of the Gabor Roma of Transylvania. Outlining the practices and ideologies that shape these relations, Berta provides readers with an insightful ethnographically grounded exploration of consumption, social relations and the politics of difference.”

Joshua A. Bell, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

„In our age of over-consumption, there are few questions as pressing as the meaning of all the stuff that fills our lives. Péter Berta’s penetrating analysis will ensure that you rethink how things come to have value — and why that matters. In short, this book is a prestige object you’ll want to possess!”

Chip Colwell, Department of Anthropology, Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Materializing Difference is a very strong ethnographic study that marshals an impressive amount of deep fieldwork. The explanation of the unusual prestige economies of Romanian Roma and the interethnic trade in silver beakers and tankards is particularly fascinating.”

Shannon Lee Dawdy, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago

  „Ornate objects and their baroque biographies come to life in this wonderfully crafted reading of life among people routinely thought to be itinerant and therefore less bound than others by the trappings of material anchors. Not so, we learn, from the pen of a brilliantly practiced ethnographer. Romani worlds are richer for this study.”

Bruce Grant, Department of Anthropology, New York University

„Péter Berta’s ethnography is thick and his theoretical insights are penetrating, clear, and concise. This work is not only a major contribution to Romani Studies, but it also adds significantly to the study of commodities transaction in particular and the symbolic role of material culture in general. The volume will certainly become a landmark in European anthropology for quite some time to come.”

Frank J. Korom, Department of Religion, Boston University

„Superbly researched, Péter Berta’s account of the symbolic power of prestige objects among Gabor Roma offers insights into the workings of post-socialist informal economies – a world apart from the Western antique silver markets and yet, surprisingly measurable.” 

Alena Ledeneva, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

Materializing Difference is an ethnographic fulfillment of arguments made by Susan Stewart in her classic On Longing. More, it updates those arguments relevant to the ways that identities are sustained today by the affective commitment to crafted objects. Where ethnography goes, and what it can argue, depends more than ever on a noticing and a sustained attentiveness to more than nostalgic attachments to crafted things that track in unsuspected ways what sustains lives in motion, on margins. 

George E. Marcus, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine

Materializing Difference is a major contribution to research on consumption, post-socialism, and communities of practice. It is also a significant advance in state-of-the-art research on Roma.”

Jeremy Morris, School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University

„[Materializing Difference] is a detailed and determined account of the social life of antique silver objects among Romanian Roma. As part of the new generation of material culture scholars, Berta follows the pathways and significance of second-hand silver beakers and tankards as prestige objects that intersect the political rivalries, prestige, and personal relations of Gabor Roma. It is a fascinating story, where an ethnic population fashions its own prestige system out of materials that have considerably less value on the European antiques market, but imbue these materials with their own histories and significance in a system of partially restricted circulation. (…) Berta eschews a simple big picture and attends to the complexity of the political lives and agency of prestige objects and their ownership histories. Berta’s knowledge of the diverging literatures of material culture and consumption studies combines with an extraordinary explication of Roma consumer taste and thinking about these objects, the collectors and markets through which they circulate, and the fluidity of these relationships. For those who want to see how to put theory to the test of research, Berta provides an exemplary case.” (An excerpt from the Foreword.)

Fred R. Myers, Department of Anthropology, New York University

Materializing Difference offers a refreshingly delightful, exciting, and informative reading experience for academics across the social sciences and humanities. Anyone who feasts on the calibre of expert storytelling that accompanies the valuation of those objects (’things’) introduced on the Antiques Roadshow will devour this fascinating book. Péter Berta’s quest is to plumb the complexities of the acquisitions and trade of prestige objects in order to tell his story of their mysteries: why they exist and how their existence has contributed to the social and cultural life of those Roma groups intimately engaged in their changing valuations, ownerships, and transfers.”

David J. Nemeth, Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toledo

„I am pleased to recommend Péter Berta’s Materializing Difference to both scholars of Roma and of material culture. After following his work for several years, I am glad to read this rich and mature analysis of prestige objects among the Gabor Roma of Transylvania, based on in-depth ethnographic fieldwork. Berta elegantly analyzes the symbolic and ethnic value of these objects in a mobile network that illuminates current post-socialist issues of consumption, patina, and exchange."

Carol Silverman, Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon

Reviewed in

1.) American Anthropologist 2021 (Jerome M. Levi)

2.) American Ethnologist 2021 (Andria D. Timmer)

3.) American Journal of Sociology 2021 (Fiona Greenland)

4.) Anthropological Forum: A Journal of Social Anthropology and Comparative Sociology 2021 (Erin B. Taylor)

5.) Anthropological Quarterly 2021 (Elena Popa)

6.) BUKSZ - Budapest Review of Books (in Hungarian) 2020 (Töhötöm Árpád Szabó)

7.) The British Journal of Sociology 2021  (Clayton Childress)

8.) Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals 2021 (Ágota Ábrán)

9.) Consumption Markets & Culture 2020 (Ela Veresiu)

10.) Contemporary Sociology 2021 (Joel  Stillerman)

11.) Departures in Critical Qualitative Research 2020 9(4): 121–124. (Adina Schneeweis)

12.) Ethnic Studies Review 2021 (Simina Dragoș)

13.) Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 2020 (Ada Ingrid Engebrigtsen)

14.) European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology 2021 (Liviu Chelcea) 

15.) International Sociology 2021 (Jeremy Morris)

16.) Journal of Anthropological Research 2020 76(4): 534–535. (Cristina A. Pop)

17.) Journal of Consumer Culture 2021 (Alanna Cant)

18.) Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe 2020 28(1): 109–112. 

(Raluca Bianca Roman)

19.) Journal of European Studies 2021 51(1): 75–77. (Stephen Pogany)

20.) Luxury: History, Culture, Consumption 2021 (Adelina Stefan)

21.) Material Culture 2021 53(1): 104-106. (Leah Valtin-Erwin)

22.) Nations and Nationalism 2020 26(4): 1131–1132. (Nemeth J. David)  

23.) Slavic Review 2020 79(2): 418–420. (Adriana Helbig)

24.) Social Anthropology 2020 28(1): 186–188. (Iryna Skubii)  

25.) Social Identities 2021 (Yulia Karpova)

26.) Sociological Inquiry 2021 (Tatsuya Murakami)

27.) Studi Culturali (in Italian) 2021 (Stefania Pontrandolfo)

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