Theory Travelling through Time and Space: The Reception of the Concept of Amoral Familism

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The American political scientist Edward Banfield formulated the concept of amoral familism in 1958, in The moral basis of a backward society and defined it as follows: ‘maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise’. With this concept, he intended to explain the political ineffectiveness of the inhabitants of a small town in southern Italy. From its publication, Banfield’s book has engendered an impressive amount of controversies, remarkable for their longevity, since they initiated in 1958 and are still on-going. This article provides a critical overview and theoretical reflection
on these controversies. After contextualizing in the introduction these controversies in a broader theoretical and historical context, I first provide an overview of Banfield’s research and its early reception (until the mid-1970s) in the international academic community, mainly amongst anthropologists and rural sociologists. A second section addresses the Italian reception, including the revival the concept underwent following the publication of Robert D. Putnam’s classic Making democracy work in 1993, and the importance this book attributed to
the concept. A third section analyzes how within Italy scholars also provided important critical assessments of his fieldwork and critiques of his concept informed by postcolonial theory. In the conclusion, I propose to interpret the longevity of the concept and the persistence of the controversies it engendered.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)365-388
Number of pages24
JournalInternational Journal of Politics, Culture and society
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2020

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  • amoral familism
  • Edward Banfield
  • southern Italy
  • postcolonial theory


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