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amoral familism

The Moral Basis of a Backward Society was written by Edward Banfield (1958) following his research based in southern Italy. The book painted a picture of a family focused society in which the idea of a public sphere was underdeveloped. For Banfield this culture was key (though not the only explanation) as to why southern Italy was underdeveloped. For the southern Italians in the study life was a zero sum game. Success was at the expenses of other villagers and this meant there was little interest in working to solve social problems. The ethos of the village he described as one of amoral familism.

This was a provocative book and for me the term amoral familism was ugly and it was not surprising that it provoked criticism. Silverman (1968) provided a key critique. He argued that the culture Banfield has observed had strong structural roots in the local agricultural system. In addition Banfield had missed forms of association, including religious holidays and unions organisation, which rebutted some of his thesis.

Interest in Banfield goes beyond the particular context of Southern Italy and raises questions of structure and agency in social science. The key questions are how accurately can we describe cultures and what perspectives we should have on what we see? It also raises a moral issue regarding social research. Banfield was criticised for blaming people for their predicament and for sure the book lacks the empathy you would expect from an anthropologist. However a question worth thinking about is the consistency with which look at structure and agency. We may be more ready to see agency when we want to celebrate, and too ready to see structure when we want to avoid blame.

Banfield, E. (1958). The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. New York: Free Press.

Silverman, S. (1968). Agricultural organization, social structure, and values in Italy: Amoral familism reconsidered. American Anthropologist, 70(1), 1-20.