The Nation as Epistemic Regime:
On the Bucharest Sociological School, State Consolidation and Interethnic Relations

[The University of Bucharest]

This article analyzes Bucharest Sociological School from the perspective of state consolidation and interethnic relations. It outlines the constitution of a nationalist epistemic regime linking the Romanian people to territory across a multilayered field of discourse and national boundaries. As case studies, I highlight the monographic action, The Encyclopedia of Ro-mania, and the concurrent development of Hungarian rural sociology. These framed an oscillating policy of inclusion/exclusion towards ethnic minorities.

Keywords: Bucharest Sociological School; state consolidation; nationalism; epistemic


This article assesses some of the contributions of the Bucharest Socio­logical School to the project of Roma­nian nation-state consolidation during the interwar period. It focuses on modalities of addressing the issue of ethnic heterogeneity. The new political context following the formation of Greater Romania in 1918 gave powerful impetus to the established cultural project of Romanian intellectuals of creating a modern nation in a country where traditional communities still predominated. This challenge was now compounded by the existence of strong ethnic particularisms. What makes the Bucharest Sociological School so compelling case of national consolidation is the fact that its transformation of sociology into a „national science” by means of monographic sociological surveys remained cosmopolitan in intellectual outlook and eschewed narrow ethnic affiliations in its research practices. For example, many Hungarian researchers from Transylvania participated in the School’s activities.1

Far from preempting the defense of the national idea, these international and inter-ethnic exchanges illustrate an important facet of the state’s ongoing battle for the sovereignty of its powers. They contributed to the crystallization of a nationalist epistemic regime2 well suited to the dual task of national boundary maintenance and regulatory control over patterns of social loyalties and interactions.

My analysis seeks to clarify certain facets of this epistemic regime across a multidisciplinary field of discourse and political boundaries. To this end, I deploy two intertwined frames of analysis. First, the elaboration of what some scholars have termed a „sedentarist metaphysics”3, that is a set of discursive practices linking the Romanian people to territory. In this context, I highlight certain principles of Dimitrie Gusti’s (1880-1955) sociological system. These were applied not only in the monographic action, but also in his coordination between 1938 and 1943 of an unprecedented body of scientific knowledge about the nation in the form of The Encyclopedia of Romania.4The Gustian School’s comprehensive attempt to map national space also implied the intellectual policing of national borders in the form of methodological debates concerning domestic and international developments in the social sciences. In this context, I highlight the concurrent development of Hungarian rural sociology. Second, I look at the monographic action as modality of framing a dual, oscillating policy of assimilation and exclusion towards ethnic minorities.

Constructing a Sedentarist Metaphysics

Any analysis of these phenomena must start from a brief appreciation of Gusti’s institutional position as a crucial interlocutor between the state apparatus, the academic community, and the wider social-national reform movement that he helped to inspire. His roles as founder and leader of the Romanian Social Institute (1921-1939), Minister of Education and Culture (1932-1933), Director of the Royal Cultural Foundation ‘Prince Carol’ (1934-1939), and Head of the Social Service (1938-1939) have already been analyzed in other works. These official positions show that he was uniquely placed to act as a mediator between the intellectual and political fields. What, then, were the premises that guided the implementation of his vision of an activist sociology?

At the core of Gusti’s sociology was an organicist model of national culture overlaid by a determined empirical approach. This model originated with Herder and was creatively adapted by Gusti via the German Kulturwissenschaften5pioneered by Wilhelm Wundt, Karl Lamprecht, and Friedrich Ratzel. These scholars sought to build „nomothetic foundations” for the social sciences, in other words to fashion the principles of a single discourse applicable to every field of knowledge.6 Gusti’s explanatory framework thus militated against any epistemological division of social reality. Since reality itself had a „totalitarian character”, it followed that monographic sociological research must comprehend the nation in its „entire being.” The research data was organized around two core concepts: frames (cosmic, biologic, psychic, historic) and their interrelated manifestations (economic, spiritual, cultural, political).7

Considering that Romania was still a predominantly agrarian nation, the practical starting point had been the study of all „social subunits” of the village. The sociological monographs thus examined all conceivable characteristics of rural life including, but not limited to: geographic conditions, handicrafts and trade, social groups and relations, village government, and popular beliefs. While these comprehensive studies had to start at the village level, Gusti was adamant that the next step must be their gradual extension to cities, regional administrative units, ethnic regions, and finally to the nation as a whole. He also made clear that a genuine science of the nation could not ignore whether a nation „lives far from the influence of other nations…or is surrounded or even intermingled with nations that have tendencies to dominate, or feel called to achieve a mission at odds with the cohabiting nation.”8

The Gustian sociological system thus had certain affinities to Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary schemata, and therefore the advantage of explaining both diachronic and synchronic phenomena in a framework that was holistic. Underpinned by the disciplinary apparatus of the social sciences, backed by a wealth of empirical data, this method enabled the elaboration of nationalist truth-claims from a position of epistemic authority that willed itself unassailable. This is not to downplay the ideological diversity of the School, as well as the methodological differences that emerged as the monographic method matured; moreover, some of Gusti’s closest collaborators such as Henri Stahl (901-1991) or Anton Golopenţia (1909-1951) – to name just a few – evolved into formidable sociologists in their own right. Rather, I wish to emphasize that the more than 600 villages, towns, and regions that had been surveyed9 by 1938 resulted in a conceptual „hardening” of the „nation” as an object of intellectual inquiry and field for political intervention.

An important moment in the conceptual consolidation of the „nation” as a scientific object of study occurred with the publication of the Encyclopedia of Romania, an impressive six-volume undertaking, of which only four were published.10 The Encyclopedia synthesized the current state of research across virtually all fields of social inquiry. It drew contributions from distinguished intellectual figures across both sides the of great ideological divide about the national character between „traditionalists” and „modernizers”, as well as from numerous government officials. This testifies to the importance of this project for all actors concerned with national ideology and national consolidation As Anton Golopenţia explained, this was no „mere dictionary”, but the „unitary representation” of „that great political entity called Romania.” As such, it displayed a „new conception about the meaning and purpose of science [original emphasis].”11

The Encyclopedia was conceived as a true national monograph, in that it reversed the hitherto „bottom-up approach” of the monographic surveys. Its overall organization followed the „frames and manifestations” paradigm. Revealingly, the first two volumes, published in 1938 and 1939 respectively, were entitled The State and The Country (Ţara Românească).12 This should alert us to other moves having to do with defining the nation. The first volume debuts with an explanation by Gusti concerning the principles governing the „Science of the Nation.” Gusti’s exposition was immediately followed by an excursus penned by Nicolae Iorga on the „Origins, Character, and Destiny of the Romanian People.” Therein, Iorga traced the Thracian descent of the Romanians.13 A less primordialist approach would have proceeded with the Daco-Roman origins of the Romanians. The Thracianist argument was forcefully restated by the historian Constantin Giurescu in the section dealing with „The History of the Romanians”. Giurescu asserted that the history of the Romanians unfolded over a vast territory associated with the Thracians, „from the Vistula to Aegean Sea, and from the Bug to the Adriatic…,” but that „most of all the Romanians have been „tied to the core of this territory [emphasis mine].”14

The remainder of the first volume continues with an explanation of the state seal and then proceeds to analyze virtually all state institutions ranging from the Constitution to the penal system. It also includes chapters about the social organization of diverse social strata such as workers and peasants, as well as a thorough demographic survey based on age groups, sexes, population density, ethnicity, and religious denomination – to name just a few categories of analysis. Volume II goes into even greater depth, detailing the administration of the country based on regional administrative units (judeţe and plase). It then proceeds with monographic outlines of each judeţ, summaries structured yet again according to the principle of „frames and manifestations.” What is striking about this volume is the conspicuous absence of ethnic data and information in spite of the stated attempt to present a comprehensive picture of the country.

The Epistemological Defense of the Nation

This formidable disciplinary apparatus readily lent itself to deployment in support of of state borders and boundary-maintenance between Romanians and minority populations. In a programmatic article15 for the periodical Romanian Sociology, one of the flagship publications of the Gustian School, Anton Golopenţia advocated an important role for the social sciences in shaping foreign policy. Since the geographical extent of nations was not to be confused with their political organization within clearly defined state borders, significant groups of „kinsmen” (cosângeni) often lived within neighboring states. These neighboring states, along with the Great Powers, constituted the „political environment” of a particular state. Consequently, such groups of co-nationals could become „bastions” of state borders, especially „if they [were] settled adjacent to them.” The task of the social sciences was to gather as much information as possible about groups of „kinsmen” living across state borders, so that this data could be utilized in the „service of the State.” 16 It is not difficult to see how the same logic applied in reverse to national minorities living within in the Romanian state and, by extension, to the neuralgic issue of Hungarian irredentism.

The concurrent flowering of Hungarian rural sociology complicated this issue for the Gustian School. Hungarian village research was inspired by the populist (népi) movement. By virtue of their great sociographic literary works17, the populists stimulated the formation of village reform groups both inside and outside the border of Hungary. At the same time, Hungarian rural sociology owed much to the monographic method of investigation pioneered by Gusti and the Romanian Social Institute. Not surprisingly, this produced a deeply ambivalent attitude, characterized in equal measure by fertile intellectual exchanges and heated polemics.

The two schools popularized each other’s work. No less a personality than Lászlo Németh, one of the foremost theorethicians of populism, traveled to Romania and had appreciative things to say about in the Hungarian press about the activity of the Gustian School. The School also established close links with the Transylvanian village reform movement centered around such publications as Erdélyi Fiatalok, Hitel, and the more left-wing Korunk.

These intellectuals shared with Gusti an appreciation of the determinant social role of the peasantry and saw in their association with the Gustian School a good opportunity to secure their place as a minority in Greater Romania.18

At the other end of the spectrum of relationships with Hungarian intellectualls, we find arguments concerning the discipline of political geography and the geopolitical implications of its methodology. An article in Romanian Sociology, authored by D.C. Georgescu andentitled „Magyar Revisionist Arguments”19, conveys the flavor of these polemical exchanges. The article was in response to a study authored by a certain A. Ronai. Ronai had argued that the post-World War I redrawing of national borders based on ethnic criteria flouted the fundamental orohydrographic unity of the Carpatho-Danubian basin as the natural setting of a coherent Hungarian state. Such a state, he reasoned, was logically based on the readily available networks of communication and exchange between the geographical center located in Budapest and the Transylvanian periphery. Georgescu’s response was to label Ronai a naïve determinist. In his view, „civilization and technics” were well capable of emancipating human beings from their natural environment.20 By implication, the Carpathians were no obstacle to the integration of Transylvanian Romanians into Greater Romania.

The national-integrative aspects of all these intellectual démarches are underscored in the case of the Transylvanian Roma, though their circumstances were atypical in some respects. Although statistics concerning their preponderance vary, the Roma were clearly the least integrated minority. From a nationalist standpoint, they were perceived differently from other groups such as the Hungarians or the Germans, who were less prone to assimilation partly because they possessed institutionalized high cultures. The rural monographic surveys of the 1930s also examined Roma communities. The chief question addressed was their potential for integration into Romanian society.21

An article titled „The Integration of the Gypsies From Şanţ (Năsăud) in the Romanian Community of the Village”22 reveals the modalities whereby the Roma were implicated in a hegemonizing discourse of exclusion, purification, and inclusion. „The Gypsies are one of the most curious people”, asserts the opening sentence, by virtue of their „origin, customs, and language, and above all their nomadic ways.” This sets the stage for a typical civilizing fable with a clear disciplinary intent, and which shows the subordination of the Roma to both the methodological demands of Gustian sociology and to the policies of the local authorities. The integration of the Roma is sutured here by a mechanism of inclusion based on exclusion, underwritten by the articulation of difference. Interspersed throughout the wider village community, who often resented their presence because of their unruly behavior, the Roma of Şanţ bore witness to the salutary effects of a sedentary lifestyle. For the Romanians, being „much more numerous and superior in all respects”, succeeded in time „to impose on them certain forms of life which lessened the differences between them.”23 The key moment in the subsequent melioration of interethnic relations was marked by the almost ritualized expulsion of the Roma from the consecrated space – the newly built Orthodox church was located there – of the village center. The author recounts how the Roma were bought off, threatened by the mayor, and then finally „tricked” into moving to the geographical periphery of the village. Revealingly, the „trickery” was accomplished through the cooptation of the most stubborn resisters to the move into the local administrative structure.24 By way of showing the steady progress achieved henceforth, the article concludes by outlining a comparative socio-cultural typology asserting a convergence in the folkways and living standards of the two groups, which nonetheless retained a separate identity despite the occurrence of intermarriage.


The Roma of Şanţ may thus justifiably be regarded as a microhistorical case of „internal colonialism”25. In this instance, the ethnic integration of a peripheral group was clearly driven by a thrust towards administrative centralization backed by claims of ethnic superiority of the core group and the corresponding hierarchized allocation of social roles. Whether this model may also be extended to the monographic action as a whole remains an open question awaiting further empirical research and theoretical adaptation.

It is, however, clear that the epistemological defense of the Romanian nation conducted by the Bucharest Sociological School was instrumental in creating an integrative, hegemonic national ideology, ideally suited for state consolidation. At the same time, the fact that the Gustian School actively engaged in wide-ranging intellectual exchanges with both native and minority/across the border interlocutors shows that the interwar state consolidation was predicated on the continuing elaboration of nationalism as a traveling modular form embedded in transnational networks of knowledge and power.


Boia, Aurel, „Integrarea Ţiganilor din Şanţ (Năsăud în Comunitatea Românească a Satului”, Sociologie Românească, An. III, no. 7-9 (1938), 351-356.
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1 See Keith Hitchins, „Erdelyi Fiatalok: The Hungarian Village and Hungarian Identity in Transylvania in the 1930s”, Hungarian Studies 21: 1-2 (2007), 85-99.
2 An episteme is „the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possibly formalized systems” See Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, 2nd ed.,(London: Routledge, 2002), 106.
3 Liisa Malkki, „National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity Among Scholars and Refugees”, Cultural Anthropology 7:1 (1992), 31.
4 Enciclopedia României, (eds.) Dimitrie Gusti, C. Orghidan, Mircea Vulcănescu, and Dan Botta, Vols. I-IV, (Bucureşti: Imprimeria Naţională, 1938-1943).
5 These disciplines, such as Wundt’s „folk psychology” and Ratzel’s „anthropogeography”, complemented the more traditional sciences of the nation. The latter included political history, ethnology, linguistics, philosophy, and economics.
6 Woodruff Smith, Politics and the Sciences of Culture in Germany, 1840-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press 1991), 3.
7 Dimitrie Gusti, „Ştiinţa Naţiunii”, Sociologie Românească II: 2-3(1937), 51-54.
8 Ibid., 53-56.
9 This was accomplished first by the monographic teams and later by large interdisciplinary teams of researchers and social activists. By 1934, Gusti’s scope had expanded to include rural social work undertaken by the volunteer Royal Student Teams. The activity of the teams was preceded by a quick sociological survey of the villages selected for interventionist policies order to identify their principal problems. This gave new momentum to the established research strategy, solidified the theoretical bases of monographic research, and contributed to the institutionalization of sociology as a science. See Zoltán Rostás , Strada Latină nr. 8, (Bucureşti: Curtea Veche, 2009), 19-22.
10 The fifth volume was actually completed and typeset at the National Printing Office, but was included on the list of banned publications by the communist authorities and destroyed. See „Biographical Note”, in Dan Botta, Limite Şi Alte Eseuri, (coord.) Dolores Botta (Bucureşti: Editura Crater, 1996), 359.
11 Anton Golopenţia, Opere Complete, Vol. I. Sociologie, (ed.) Sanda Golopenţia(Bucureşti: Editura Enciclopedică, 2002), 132-133.
12 Volume III (1939) examined the national economy in terms of „frames and production”. Volume IV (1943) detailed the consumption and distribution aspects of the economy. Volumes V and VI would have concentrated on national culture.
13 Nicolae Iorga, „Originile, Firea Şi Destinul Poporului Român”, in Enciclopedia României, Vol I. Statul, 33.
14 Constantin Giurescu, „Istoria Românilor”, in Enciclopedia, Vol. I.,51.
15 Anton Golopenţia, „Contribuţia Ştiinţelor Sociale la Conducerea Politicii Externe”, Sociologie Românească II: 5-7 (1937), 193-195.
16 Ibid., 193-194.
17 For a classic example see Gyula Illyés, Poporul Pustelor [A puszták népe/People of the Puszta],trans. Emil Giurgică (Bucureşti: Editura de Stat pentru Literatură şi Artă, 1952). This autobiographical novel was first published in 1936.
18 Zoltán Rostás. „Şcoala sociologică gustiană văzută de la Budapesta”, Secolul 21, no. 1-6 (2012), 149-158; Hitchins, „Erdélyi Fiatalok”, 91.
19 D.C. Georgescu, „Argumente Revizioniste Maghiare”, Sociologie Românească I: 7-9 (1936), 66-71. For an article in the same genre touching on the issue of Bulgarian claims on Dobrogea see C. Noe, „Balcanismul şi ‘Revista Geografică Română’”, Sociologie Românească III: 7-9 (1938), 421-423.
20 Georgescu, „Argumente”, 68-69.
21 See also Viorel Achim, The Roma in Romanian History, trans. Richard Davies (Budapest: CEU Press, 2004),4.
22 Aurel Boia. „Integrarea Ţiganilor din Şanţ (Năsăud) in Comunitatea Româneasca a Satului”, Sociologie Românească III: 7-9 (1938), 351-365.
23 Ibid., 352
24 Ibid., 353.
25 I highlight certain aspects of Hechter’s seminal model. The emphasis here is on the thrust towards administrative centralization and the persistence of cultural distinctions rather than on the regional effects of uneven economic development. See Michael Hechter, Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 37-39.


ION MATEI COSTINESCU – Doctorand, Facultatea de Sociologie și Asistență Socială, Universitatea din București.




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