The third to last chapter of “The Art of Not Being Governed” is “Ethnogenesis: A Radical Constructionist Case”. One of the ideas is that there are no real “tribes”, but they are a handy abstraction for those “seeing like a state” (in the words of his previous book) and are made manifest by state action which molds people into the identities defined for them. He views such identity as more fluid and opportunistically adopted by the upland southeast asian peoples who are his primary object of study in this book. I’m quite ignorant about that area and am willing to concede to his greater knowledge. But the old orthodoxy has taken deep enough root in my mind that I can’t jump to applying his theory elsewhere. A footnote references the Bushmen/San of the Kalahari, citing “Land Filled With Flies” to the effect that san-Khoi designates a caste which includes dispossessed Tswana and other non-San speakers (Scott acknowledges this interpretation is controversial and references a review to that effect). My impression had been that genetic data really does support the theory he claims is mythical: that they are the remains of one of the “oldest” human populations (except both sides of any branching event are equally old). An example of people for whom genetic data does not support the story we had previously been telling ourselves are the Basques.
There are some other populations conventionally considered to be made up of assorted refugees from landless laboring like Russia’s cossacks and Florida’s (part African) Seminoles, but in the same paragraph includes the Gypsies. I had never heard such a claim given for them before, and James Scott provides no cite. Genetic evidence shows them to be distinct from European populations, and while they don’t have that much south asian ancestry remaining that is understandable given the long time they have lived elsewhere and doesn’t indicate a very high rate of European influx per generation. Ashkenazi Jews are another population settled in Europe they are often compared to, and like the Gypsies they may have intermarried to a significant degree in during their settler generations, but then became the predominately endogamous ethnic group Scott suggests is mythical. But I’m getting distracted from the Gypsies. Near the beginning of the book he also compared Gypsies to Cossacks (widely acknowledged to be communities created by runaway serfs). He actually does make a citation, to “Gypsies and Other Itinerant Groups”, but no details are given about the text. I’ll quote the sentences on them from that paragraph:
“The history of the [Gypsies] in late-seventeenth century Europe provides a further striking example. Along with other stigmatized itinerant peoples, they were subject to two forms of penal labor: galley slavery in the Mediterranean basin and, in the northeast, forced conscription as soldiers or military porters in Prussia-Brandenburg. As a result they accumulated in a narrow band of territory that came to be known as the “outlaw corridor,” the one location between the catchment areas of these twin, mortal dangers.”
The other populations he discusses fled from conquest to hills or other inaccessible geography and were considered distinct peoples from the peasantry they originated from. Gypsies make a lousy comparison since they are migrants into Europe and as Yuri Slezkine notes depended for their food on host populations they lived among (yet socially separate from). I’d never heard of the “outlaw corridor” and Wikipedia was no help (maybe Thaddeus Russell would know something). There were of course more indigenous populations subject to both forms of conscription, but I’ve never heard of them fleeing to become gypsies. They gypsies are famously subject to persecution throughout history, but nowhere does Scott mention how their sometimes prideful avocation of petty crime relates to that history, which is not quite the stigma applied to the “hill peoples” discussed elsewhere in his book. I would also suggest that their history of persecution is also fairly distinguishable from that of hill peoples. Scott admirably does not shy away from mentioning many “hill people’s” proclivity toward such state-like activities as slave raiding, but this again highlights how different Slezkine’s “Mercurians” are from the “warrior castes” that tend to come from hills.
Enough about gypsies. In one surprising bit Scott cites Benedict Anderson on “the creation by the Dutch colonial regime in Indonesia, virtually from thin air, of a “Chinese” ethnic group”. Is there genetic data on the overseas “Chinese” in Indonesia? My guess is going to be that they really are of Chinese descent.