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How social prejudices format social theory. The case of 'amoral familism'

  • March 9, 2020

How do prejudices in the social sciences circulate and how are they perpetuated? The reception of the concept of amoral familism sheds light on this process. The American political scientist Edward Banfield first proposed this concept in 1958, in his book The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, to explain the lack of economic development in the Italian hill village Chiaromonte, in the southern region of Basilicata. Banfield defines amoral familism as an ethos, by which the inhabitants of the village act: 'Maximise the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise’.

Scholars well acquainted with southern Italian society have from early on critiqued Banfield, pointing out that he downplayed power dynamics within those communities and ignored the role of social networks beyond the family. For a long time, the impact of these critiques was limited. Only since the 1990s, as a reaction against the renewed popularity of the concept, they have become more systematic and, by the incorporation of postcolonial analysis, more theory-aware. The relative lateness of such theory-embedded critiques is a consequence of the cultural and political power dynamics that operate within the social sciences. Scholars of peripheral societies are generally aware of the problems of their society, and therefore often accept how scholars of societies deemed more advanced explain them. In the case of southern Italy, there is moreover a long-standing tradition to explain its problems by an alleged incapacity for social cooperation of its inhabitants.

What is remarkable is how a concept, ostensibly formulated for a very specific context, has acquired such a broad appeal as an explanation of social defects, although exclusively in peripheral societies. Robert D. Putnam re-appropriated the concept in his famous Making Democracy Work (1993), to explain administrative inefficiency in southern Italian regions, guaranteeing the concept a new lease of life and international visibility.

Amoral familism has stretched out well beyond the small Italian village. It has been taken at face value to explain Italian chain migration to Australia; democratic instabilities in Africa; competition in modern South Korean society; social relations in Russia, or political activism in Kosovo. The presence of amoral familism in each of these cases is thus given forward to explain a variety of social and economic problems in historically and culturally very diverse places. Further, the lack of development in Kosovo, South Korea or Russia, is being compared to a standard of development that is very much US specific. Oftentimes, it even appears that amoral familism is co-opted by local scholars in each of the respective places.

Arguably, other concepts or theoretical frameworks have had a similar trajectory as amoral familism. The Egyptian Peasant, a book by Henry Habib Ayrout published in 1938, pictured the life of the Egyptian peasant and was regarded as a major work on the subject. As Timothy Mitchell argued, the book made ‘the peasant’ a field of expertise that aimed to deal with the theory and description of folk societies by anthropologists. We also see how the same tropes and narratives illustrated in The Egyptian Peasant were repeated in the same form and shape in later works of Western travelogues and academics on Egypt. Keeping faith with the idea that knowledge and power are co-constitutive, amoral familism is a clear example of how certain concepts become ‘universal knowledges’ or regimes of truth that travel uninterrupted across historical periods and geographies.

The research of The Moral Basis of a Backward Society suffers from several weaknesses, such as the author’s limited knowledge of southern Italian society and its history, and errors in the organization of his fieldwork. At a theoretical level, the concept of amoral familism exemplifies a long-standing tradition in the social sciences to contrast the virtues of advanced societies with their absence – or the presence of cultural defects – in societies deemed less advanced. The acknowledged model of such theories is Max Weber’s analysis of the role of the Protestant ethic in the rise of capitalism in Great Britain. Banfield also refers to another classic, Tocqueville’s representation of the United States as a society characterized by social cooperation, the positive Other of the individualism of amoral familism. Max Weber and Tocqueville, however, were cautious in advancing cultural explanations. Tocqueville was moreover well aware of the cultural tensions between the cooperative habits of American citizens and the individualist ethos of a democratic society.

Banfield and Putnam see cultural practices as reified, deeply embedded in society, a view increasingly contested by anthropologists, cultural historians and cultural studies scholars who interpret – like Tocqueville - culture as unstable and conflictual, prone to external influences and power relations. More specifically, Banfield and Putnam ignore the forms of social cooperation present in southern Italy that belie their theoretical model. They downplay the structural factors – class system, institutional environment – that condition behaviour patterns and social practices and values.

At the heart of Banfield’s theory lies moreover a curious paradox. He considers the self-interested attitudes of the inhabitants of Chiaromonte as a vice, while much of the modern social sciences – starting with Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations - is based on the myth that the search of self-interest as a moderate social passion is a crucial feature of a well-functioning society. In practice, the pursuit of private interests, omnipresent in our society, frequently does not lead to the desired public good and produces dysfunctional outcomes. The concept of amoral familism neutralizes this unpalatable fact. It acknowledges that the defence of private interests may be socially problematic but relegates this problem to peripheral societies.


* Michel Huysseune explores further the argument of this blog in the article ‘Theory Traveling Through Time and Space: The Reception of the Concept of Amoral Familism’, International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 33, p. 365–388

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Michel Huysseune
professor of Political Science and senior researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB).
Vjosa Musliu
FWO Postdoctoral Fellow at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB)