Roșia Montană and the storied reality of place: A book promotion essay for “Social Conflict and the Making of a Globalized Place at Roșia Montană” (Bucharest, 2020)

The conflict over a proposed large-scale gold mine in the Apuseni Mountains of Romania has been broiling for more than two decades. Roșia Montană has become known in Romania and abroad through a rich collection of stories (Maines and Bridger 1992). There have been archaeological stories of Roman galleries possibly destroyed by the new mine, or on the contrary, providentially saved by the mining company. There have also been technological and environmental stories about looming cyanide disasters or ridiculously safe mining technologies. A plethora of stories have enveloped the resettlement of some Roșia Montană residents and the staunch refusal of others to leave their places (Alexandrescu 2020). A first puzzle that my book seeks to elucidate is: what is the process through which so many contradictory stories originate from one place? These stories are not mere snapshots of a given place, but complex assemblages of experiences, life projects and movements (both physical and social) in relation to that place. The second question that the book seeks to clarify is how can a social scientist classify these stories in a meaningful way? Classifying narratives means to acknowledge their diversity, on the one hand, and to begin to think systematically about the mechanisms of their emergence, on the other. More importantly, stories are often springboards for action for both decision-makers and locals so that it becomes essential to understand how stories come to be. But there are no simple answers to either of these questions.

In response to the first question, the book takes the reader on a historical voyage from the times in which Roșia Montană was a mining town embedded in a dominant economic regime (e.g. the mercantile economy of the Habsburg empire or the centrally planned socialist economy of Romania). During those times, the place was known for producing gold and silver ores and everything in it was geared towards this aim (Thompson 1932). Since the turn of the millennium, the mining place was gradually loosened from these historical dependencies. The state-owned company ceased its operations in 2006, but no private investor stepped in quickly enough to continue the extraction of gold. The place was made available for sale to intrepid investors but the proposed mines were  radically different from all previous mining operations.  The planned Roșia Montană mine engendered opposition and never materialized. The place became structurally “free floating”,  loosened from the local and national economy but not integrated into a global regime of extraction. It was around this time that different stories about Roșia Montană began to proliferate.

The explosion of stories was noteworthy, but their very richness posed a conundrum: how can so many stories be classified without falling into either trivial classifications or ideological bias? We grasp these narratives by means of two anthropological processes – experience-distancing and experience-nearing– inspired by Clifford Geertz (1979). Geertz (1979: 227) distinguishes between experience-near and experience-distant concepts as follows: “an experience-near concept is, roughly, one which an individual – a patient, a subject, in our case an informant – might himself naturally and effortlessly use to define what he or his fellows see, feel, think, imagine, and so on, and which he would readily understand when similarly applied by others. An experience-distant concept is one which various types of specialists – an analyst, an experimenter, an ethnographer, even a priest or an ideologist – employ to forward their scientific, philosophical, or practical aims”. This conceptual pair offers a refreshing look at how local experiences, such as those of a mining community, interact and are transformed in the encounter with extra-local investors. To further increase the theoretical purchase of Geertz’s distinction in the case at hand, I refashioned experience-nearing and experience-distancing as ongoing processes. Nearing involves getting ever closer to the experienced lives and intentions of communities and their members, including their ambiguities and uncertainties. Experience-distancing is the opposite processe, in which local idiosyncrasies are stripped in order to achieve purified and general accounts of what a particular locale is about.

In the case of Roșia Montană, the stories emerged when investors dislocated the mineral deposit from its historical contingencies and fashioned it as a global mining asset. Other stories emerged, however, when the exploitation of this asset became recognizable to transnational activists as an instance of environmental injustice. Through experience-distancing, the same place was framed (re-made) either into an asset coveted by transnational investors or a symbol of grassroots environmental opposition. However, neither of these images (world-class mine vs. sustainable peasant economy) really fit the observations of careful observers (e.g. Velicu & Kaika 2017, Alexandrescu 2017).  Distancing was countered by experience-nearing, the process by which local residents sought to (re)gain control over their lives. They mobilized their memories or properties to thwart the interests of the experience-distancers, often in unexpected ways. This explains why, in certain instances, Roșia Montană residents sold their properties to the mining company, but sometimes retained a bargaining chip (e.g. piece of land) unsold in the project area.

Experience-distancing and -nearing explain how so many possibilities opened up for the people in and around Roșia Montană with no one story (corporate or otherwise) holding sway over the experience of this place. This explanation was grounded in the innovative theoretical framework developed in this book which analyses the scholarship on this topic by stage of conflict and focal points of analysis  (see Fig. 1 and Alexandrescu 2020, 19-20, Table 1.1).

Table 1. 1: The stages of the Roșia Montană conflict and its attendant scholarship (all references are quoted in Alexandrescu, 2020)

Stage of the Roșia Montană conflict Focal points of the analysis Representative works













The local and regional stage

Roșia Montană as historical mining place & early UNESCO proposal Slotta et al. (2001, 2002a, 2002c)
Resettlement of the project-affected population Alexandrescu (2011, 2013), Balica and Velicu (2005), Buzoianu & Țoc (2013)
Evolution of the conflict punctuated by contingencies, surprises & shifting definitions of justice Alexandrescu (2012, 2017), Velicu (2012a & 2012b) Velicu & Kaika (2017)
Anthropology of subjectivity under post-socialism & the new capitalism, moral economies Szombati (2006, 2007), Velicu (2012b, 2014, 2015, 2019)
Social movements around RM (including support vs. opposition) Anghel (2013), Ban and Romanțan (2007), Buțiu & Pascaru (2009), Samuelson (2012).
Social representations of the conflict Pop (2008, 2014)
Globalization & developmentalism and their local effects on the RM community Chiper (2012), Kalb (2006), Pascaru (2007), Ispas-Pascaru & Pascaru (2010), Pascaru (2013a & 2013b), Pascaru & Plesa (2015), Szombati (2007), Waack (2009)
Corporate social responsibility applied to RMGC Burja & Mihalache (2010)
Alternative development paths for Roșia Montană Vesalon and Crețan (2013), Mihai et al. (2015), Ștefănescu & Alexandrescu (2019).
“The Romanian Autumn” as a generalized response to the RM conflict Goțiu (2013), Katarzyna Jarosz (2015), Margarit (2016), Soare & Tufiș (2020)
The national stage National framing of the conflict over Roșia Montană Fairclough and Mădroane (2015), Heemeryck (2018), Samuelson (2012), Ștefănescu-Sebastian (2014)
Digital networks and involvement in protest Mercea (2014)
Europeanization Ban and Romanțan (2008), Kühnle (2008)
The transnational stage Transnational protests Bejan et al. (2015), Branea (2015), Margarit (2017)
Roșia Montană as UNESCO heritage site Dawson (2017)

Source: author’s literature review

The quoted table also reveals that most of the analyses take the social movement framing and critique of the corporate mining project either as object of research or as guiding interpretation. This shows the importance of understanding the emergence, type and use of these stories for explaining social actions related to the Roșia Montană conflict. In contrast to this literature, the present book places the corporate and social-movement framings of Roșia Montană on the same epistemological plane (i.e. as experience-distancing processes) and contrasts both these framings with the ambivalence and uncertainty of local experience-near constructions.  Moreover, Geertz’s framing was the most apposite interpretation for this author’s research experience at Roșia Montană between 2005 and 2008. Experience-distancing and -nearing are general processes that explain the effects of globalization on local places. They do not confer an epistemological privilege (the assumption that one’s perspective is more accurate than alternative visions) to either global knowledge producers, such as corporate or environmental justice actors or to essentialized community residents. Through its attention  to the constant movement of the angles of vision that constitute the experience of place, the book brings a contribution to a nuanced understanding of how places are transformed under the conflicts of a globalized but locally contested extractive economy.


Alexandrescu, Filip (2020), Social Conflict and the Making of a Globalized Place at Roșia Montană. Bucharest: ProUniversitaria.

Alexandrescu, Filip and Bernd Baldus (2017), “Chapter 13: Escaping the Iron Cage of Environmental Rationalizations: Microsocial Decision-Making in Environmental Conflicts”. Pp. 206-223 in Microsociological Perspectives for Environmental Sociology, edited by Bradley H. Brewster and Antony J. Puddephatt. London, New York: Routledge.

Geertz, Clifford (1979), “From the Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding.” Pp. 225 – 241 in Interpretive Social Science: A Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow and William M. Sullivan. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Maines, David R. and Jeffrey C. Bridger (1992), “Narratives, Community and Land Use Decisions.” The Social Science Journal 29(4): 363-380.

Thompson, Edgar T. (1932), “Mines and Plantations and the Movements of Peoples.” American Journal of Sociology 37(4): 603-611

Velicu, Irina and Maria Kaika (2017), “Undoing environmental justice: Reimagining equality in the Rosia Montana anti-mining movement.” Geoforum 84 (2017): 305–315.

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