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‘Get a life’ or ‘Got a life’: new Travellers as a problem or a solution

Alan Dearling, Research Fellow, Vauxhall Centre for the Study of Crime, University of Luton. Prepared for the University of Greenwich seminar: New Directions in Romani Studies, 11/6/98. Potentially for publication in an edited collection of papers from the conference, edited by Thomas Acton for the University of Hertfordshire Press, 1999.

The problems of research

Increasingly, I’m alarmed that researchers and academics are turning new Travellers and members of the so-called DIY community into a ‘research problem’. They seem motivated more towards meeting their own ends as ‘professional researchers’, rather than the needs of the community(ies) they are observing. Certainly, research is about gaining insight into communities and making sense of social interactions, but at what cost to those being studied? I’d add that this problem appears to be getting worse at the very time when the research community is being urged (once again) to adopt more participative research methods such as group interviews, focus groups and participatory research appraisal (Hurley, 1998; Alderson, 1995; University of Hull, n.d)

Traditionally, researchers have tested theories and assumptions out on communities. This has been known as positivistic research. However, in Traveller communities, where assumptions about behaviour can easily lead to entirely incorrect interpretations, it is reasonable to expect researchers to adopt research methods which include, as a major element, day-to-day involvement in the lives of the people who are being ‘researched’. A particularly vitriolic attack on the role of ‘observers’ and ‘commentators’, and one which I have a lot of sympathy for, comes in Do or Die 7 (1998) in their review of the Big Issue book, Gathering Force:

"Our actions are packaged; wrapped up in sugar coating to make them more palatable for the middle classes to swallow. It is almost like people can’t be trusted to speak for themselves, but their actions have to explained by ‘respectable’ experts; interpreted and made safe." (Searle, 1997)

Blumer (1969) has warned the research community of the danger of, "…shaping the empirical world to fit one’s theories". As an antidote to this, the ‘naturalistic’ methods of research, including ‘ethnomethodology’ recommend that the world should be studied in "its ‘natural state’ undisturbed by the researcher" (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995). Obviously, this purist form of ‘naturalism’ is, in itself, a bit naïve. The researcher will always have an effect on the individual or group under scrutiny, and vice versa, the researcher will be influenced by the social group. Engagement in the social activity of the group builds trust; encourages ‘normal’ patterns of behaviour and can lead to the most complete level of understanding of social activity and different cultural behaviour. But, in its most extreme form, this can lead to the researcher ‘going native’ and becoming an active proponent of the group, rather than a participant/observer. The questions then are: Is this automatically bad? Is it entirely inappropriate?

George Orwell said,

"If a writer on a political subject manages to preserve a detached attitude, it is nearly always because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. To understand a political movement, one has to be involved in it. And as soon as one is involved one becomes a propagandist."

In the three longer publications about Travellers which I have compiled on my own and with others (Earle, 1994; Dearling, 1997; and Dearling, 1998) the aim has specifically been to act as a facilitator for new Travellers and members of the Direct Action and DIY culture to have their own ‘stories’ and history presented to a wider public. This makes the purpose of research, to:

  • help people write their own history and make sense of their own lives;
  • challenge stereotyping; and
  • provide the research community and interested others with first-hand accounts of (in this instance) the evolving world of new Travellers and those associated with them.

This could lead to the creation of a role for the researcher as ‘activist’. To me, this seems especially important at a time when more academic courses are allowing students and academics in a variety of disciplines including health care, social anthropology, sociology, geography and ethnography, to use new Travellers as their research topic. This very process turns individuals, people with a variety of lifestyles and cultures, into a research ‘problem’. It also seems to breed a whole range of theoretical and academicised rubbish. For instance what do we really learn about new Travellers and their lifestyle, from:

New Age Travellers are a ‘bund’ "an elective, unstable, charismatic, intensely affected form of societion" which the writer, Hetherington (1996) recommends should be viewed in terms of, "identity formation and the relationship to heterotopic space."

Compare this with the realities faced by Travellers and other members of nomadic community. For instance, Brian Monger from the King’s Hill collective is quoted in Thomson (1997):

"We got on our bikes...living here we’re taking pressure off homelessness. We’re part of the solution, no longer part of the problem. Also we go a long way to help with poverty because we grow our own food and can live on very little money...we want to create a woodland garden where people can live with nature rather than destroying it."

It doesn’t seem unreasonable that researchers should be able to help report these activities as well as the struggles of Travellers, whether it is legal and legislative problems, or difficulties associated with access to education, healthcare, stable sites or an economic means of surviving. As Bence-Jones (1995) puts it:

"…travellers are seen as a problem group rather than the difficulties they experience as a group."

In Rio in 1992, the British government’s representative put their signature to the Agenda 21 resolution which called all nations to,

"…support the shelter efforts made by the urban and rural poor, the unemployed and the low-income groups, by adopting regulations to facilitate access to land, finance and low-cost building materials."

Judging by what we hear from the Traveller Research Unit at Cardiff, Friends and Families of Travellers and in the counter-cultural media of Squall, Undercurrents, SchNews etc., the position of Travellers since the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act has worsened, rather than improved. And in my own No Boundaries (1998) many of the writers cite that decline in toleration as one of the factors which led them to leave England and experience life abroad. It is not a simple model of legal persecution through one piece of poor legislation. The lack of sites and stopping places for Travellers pre-dates the CJA. Even when section 24 of the 1960 Caravans Act was made mandatory in the 1968 Caravans Acts, most county councils made no effort to provide caravan site accommodation. In addition, planning laws have aggravated the situation by preventing rather than aiding most applications for Traveller sites or low-impact dwellings (see Thomson, 1997 and FFT, 1996).

Get a life or Got life?

Luckily, not all writers and researchers are compounding the problem. Many like Clark and Shuinéar, both in Acton (1997), do offer analysis and commentary which helps us to understand why Travellers, and new Travellers in particular, are vilified in the way that they are, and how their lives make perfect sense on their own terms. Clark talks of the ‘normalisation of the lifestyle’ and describes Claudia, who is,

"…just one New Traveller whose nomadism constitutes a ‘settled way of life’."

And Shuinéar looks at the way in which the concept of ‘otherness’ leads the mainstream society to attribute all their own fears onto Travellers, everything that they are, "unhappy or worried about in themselves." Thankfully, this interpretation would be far closer to how many Travellers themselves feel about the way they are treated. They do think of themselves as leading a life with rules, community, and one which is totally understandable for a variety of reasons, depending upon such factors as whether they chose a nomadic lifestyle, or felt that it was the only choice left. This also seems far more down-to-earth and commonsensical than Hetherington’s interpretation of new Travellers as:

"…out of place not because they belong somewhere else, but because they belong nowhere. They are not simply unplaceable, outside of time and space, they inhabit the disjunction between experiences of place and moral order..." (Hetherington, 1998)

Travellers and members of the wider counter-culture, are more likely to explain their motivation along the lines described by Miranda in No Boundaries (Dearling, 1998):

"For me, being a Traveller is about side-stepping the boundaries that the state tries to fence us in with. Some of the boundaries are obvious, like national borders, but others are implanted in our heads, encouraging us to be narrow-minded about the unfamiliar."

Clark, (in Acton, 1997) says that there are "media-inspired myths and stereotypes about them (New Travellers) as a group." Blaydon, (in Acton, 1998) is quoted as saying, "The media either portray Travellers as ‘medieval brigands’ or as ‘victims’." My contention is that the academicising process, with increasing numbers of university courses and research papers may not be adding to the ‘demonising’ of new Travellers, but it may well be further ‘problematising’ their existence. In this way, the media and some researchers and writers are potentially collaborating in a complex distortion of the Traveller lifestyle. Whilst the media may continue to call on new Travellers to ‘get a life’, and point to the problems they pose to society, many of the Travellers want to celebrate the fact that even against the odds, and in adversity, they have ‘got a life’ already! There’s even the contention that the Criminal Justice Act helped bring together many disparate groups such as eco-rads, squatters, Gypsies, hunt saboteurs, ravers, festival goers and new Travellers, and politicised them. (see McKay, 1996 and McLeish, 1995, quoted in McKay):

"In seeking to criminalize such lifestyles the State has succeeded in politicizing them."

At this point, I’ll share some of the words and phrases which I’ve either read or heard used to describe new Travellers in the past few years. In their own way, perhaps they offer some pointers to the problems associated with researching a group of people in society, who are by no means homogeneous by outlook, lifestyle or cultural background.

‘Got a life’ Travelling as a solution ‘Get a life’ Travelling as a problem

environmentally friendly or/ dirty, contagious and a health hazard

housing solution or/ scrounging welfare benefits

inclusion in a real caring community or/ should be marginalised and excluded

making a statement with attitude or/ incomprehensible behaviour

visionary and utopian or/ damaged misfits and criminals

challenging social norms in the way they live or/ threat to societal norms

sustainability and low impact or/ damage to natural areas

part of a tradition of nomads, entertainers and festivals or/ part of a reprehensible section of beggars, thieves, Gypsies and vagabonds

job creation or/ unemployed

environmental campaigners or/ dangerous protestors

The list would be easy to extend. Try it! For many who are, or have been part of the Traveller community, it is one which has offered many rewards which are hard to quantify: freedom; friendship; variety; opportunity to travel and interact with people in different countries and cultures; a chance to learn new skills such as woodland crafts or circus and performing skills; and ‘natural’ environments for bringing up and educating children. (Dearling, 1997).

A changing world

Books like my own; Travellers: Voices of the New Age Nomads (Lowe and Shaw, 1994); Senseless Acts of Beauty (McKay, 1996); Gathering Force (Searle, 1997), Fierce Dancing (Stone, 1996); and magazines such as Squall, SchNEWS, Frontline, Festival Eye, Greenleaf and Stonehenge Campaign Newsletter have all described how much the Traveller scene has quickly evolved during the 1990s. Arguably, the arrival of rave and the environmental protestors has provided the biggest impetus for change. Not all of the 1970s and 1980s Travellers have welcomed this infusion of new blood and ideas. Older organisation such as TSC and FFT have had to look again at who they exist to serve. There are many elements which have been stirred into the new Traveller ‘pot’. Now, towards the end of the 1990s, radical action, drug culture, dance, sound systems, festivals, spirituality, squats and vegetarianism, environmentalism, feminism, and adopting a world-view, are amongst the elements which make up the lifestyle and culture which is the new Traveller world. And, as ever, the real people who inhabit this world, if indeed it is a single entity, represent a wide spectrum of interests and backgrounds. The mix is even greater than existed in the days of the Peace Convoy in the 1980s. Many more people drift into Traveller-type lifestyles because it is one of the only communities which will offer some level of support and sympathy for the urban dispossessed; those suffering from multiple problems of deprivation, and those damaged by institutionalisation, whether it is in children’s homes or the armed forces.

Writing in what she calls the ‘Contradiction’ at the beginning of Copse: a cartoon history of road protesting, Evans (1998) says:

"HIS-STORY:...It is only the dominant form of history written by bourgeois white liberal males entrenched in the universities and the media that claims to be objective. This book (Copse) is subjective history, spoken history, a history of resistance, and history in resistance."

Surely it is up to researchers to act as a mirror so that members of these richly diverse communities can have their own voices heard? The new Travellers now have a history of their own and that society has its writers (Earle, 1994 and in Dearling, 1998) and artists such as Kate Evans (1998) and Gubby (in Dearling, 1998) and photographers, artists, musicians, and crafts-people (for instance, Big Green Gathering and Squall). As new members join the ever-widening Traveller fraternity, the lifestyle of traditional Gypsies as well as new Travellers from the past decades will help to inform their lives, in addition to the positive and negative motivations that these individuals themselves bring to their travelling.

Researchers do have a role to play, but in partnership, and in enabling. New Travellers, like traditional Travellers and Gypsies, should be assisted, and not in a patronising way, to make their own representations and make sense of their own lives and lifestyle. Neither new nor traditional Travellers want researchers in the next millennium creating their own versions of reality, as was done by the Gypsy Lore-ists such as John Sampson, whereby he invented a ‘purer’ form of the Gypsy Romani, to make up for the deficit which he perceived in the spoken language of Gypsies he observed! It is an age old conflict between real life, oral tradition and the academicised representation of that life. (Lee, 1998) New Travellers have got their lives already!


Acton, T. (1997) Gypsy politics and Traveller identity University of Hertfordshire

Acton, T et al. (1998) Land, People and Freedom National Council for Voluntary Organisations

Alderson, P. (1995) Listening to Children Barnardo’s

Bence-Jones, M. (1995) 1994 CJA and dominant attitudes towards Travellers unpublished dissertation (location not known)

Blaydon, B. (1998) Asserting changing identities in Acton. T. Land, People and Freedom National Council for Voluntary Organisations

Blumer, H. (1969) Symbolic Interactionism Prentice Hall

Carey, J. (1998) Fresh Flavour in the Media Soup Squall Web site

Dearling, A. (1997) Almost everything you want to know about the Travellers’ School Charity Travellers’ School Charity

Dearling, A. (1998) No Boundaries: new Travellers on the road (outside of England) Enabler Publications

Do or Die Collective (1998) Do or Die 7 Earth First!

Earle, F et al. (1994) A Time to Travel? An introduction to Britain’s newer Travellers Enabler Publications

Evans, K. (1998) COPSE: a cartoon history of road protesting Orange Dog Publication

Friends and Families of Travellers Support Group (1996) Confined, Constrained and Condemned FFT

Friends and Families of Travellers Support Group (1996) A Traveller’s Guide FFT

Hammersley, M and Atkinson, P. (1995) Ethnography: Principles in Practice Routledge

Hetherington, K. (1992) Stonehenge and its festival in Shields, R Lifestyle Shopping Routledge

Hetherington, K. (1996) Identity formation, space and social centrality in Theory, Culture and Society Vol. 13 (4) 33-52

Hetherington, K (1998) Vanloads of Uproarious Humanity in Skelton, T and Valentine, G Cool Places Routledge

Hurley, N. (1998) Straight Talk Joseph Rowntree Foundation/York Publishing

Lee, K. (1998) Orientalism and Gypsylorism presentation at the University of Greenwich conference

Lowe, R and Shaw, W. (1993) Travellers: Voices of the New Age Nomads Fourth Estate

McKay, G. (1996) Senseless Acts of Beauty Verso

Stone, C.J. (1996) Fierce Dancing: adventures in the Underground Faber and Faber

University of Hull (n.d.) Participatory Appraisal: Workshop Proceedings University of Hull

Searle, D. (ed.) (1997) Gathering Force The Big Issue

Thomson, T. (1997) Traveller Friends, Families of Travellers Support Group

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