August 16, 2010 at 2:49 pm | Posted in Books, Development, History, Philosophy, Research, Third World | Leave a comment










The Moral Basis of a Backward Society

Edward C. Banfield (Author)

In Montegrano, Italy, Banfield lamented the curse of “amoral familism.”

“the inability of the villagers to act together for their common good or, indeed, for any end transcending the immediate, material interest of the nuclear family.”

The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (Banfield, 1958)

Ed Banfield seems not to have realized what the world could be like until he settled down here in what was then (as, indeed, now) one of the poorest parts of Italy. It shocked him, as indeed it might have, for any number of reasons. But Banfield focused on just one: “the inability of the villagers to act together for their common good or, indeed, for any end transcending the immediate, material interest of the nuclear family.”

Until then, Banfield had been an American innocent–one thinks of the Ugly American in Graham Greene’s novel, all good intentions and unintentional mischief. The difference is, of course, that Banfield did not remain an innocent: with his unflinching clarity of vision, and his shrewd capacity for synthesis, he used this inquiry to launch himself into one of the most important careers in political science in the 20th Century.

In hindsight, one may be tempted to say that he could have known better. He does quote from “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” by Carlo Levi. But in addition to Levi, others had seen what Banfield came to see: one thinks of Verga or Silone (one is tempted to add Sciascia, but most of his work came later). Indeed, closer to home, he might have learned from Norman Lewis’ great “Naples ’44.”

Banfield’s encounter with Montegrano clearly informs his later work: In Montegrano, Banfield lamented the curse of “amoral familism.” This might seem to suggest a distrust all others outside of families and perhaps clans.

Footnote: for further background on Banfield, there is a wonderful appreciation by his sometimes co-author, James Q. Wilson, in The Public Interest for Winter 2003.

Antecedents to this study lie in two areas: the study of social capital and the study of giving to and volunteering for charity. A large body of work now exists on the theme of social capital. Alexis de Tocqueville is cited as remarking on the civic associations of America in the 1800s. More recently the concept of social capital, if not the exact words, were reported by Edward Banfield in The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (Banfield, 1958). Banfield’s book was a study on a poor village in Southern Italy and explored the reasons for the low level of development there. Banfield surmised that the fundamental reason for the village’s low level of development was the incapacity of local residents to work together. The term social capital was first used in the 1980s by Pierre Bourdieu and James Coleman, though Coleman received credit for establishing the analytical framework of social capital in his exploration of education (Bourdieu, 1986 and Coleman, 1988). Coleman’s work has served as a theoretical framework for studies in education and social capital through to the present.

This book is very relevant to the question of the effect of culture on development. I have lived half my life in an Anglo culture, and the other half in a Latin culture- very similar to that of Southern Italy. I can absolutely assert that the findings in this book are a true description of ‘amoral familism’ and the effects on a society.

Product Details:

· Paperback: 188 pages

· Publisher: Free Press 1st edition

· February 1 1967/1958

· Language: English

· ISBN-10: 0029015103

· ISBN-13: 978-0029015100


Various writers such as Robert Kaplan, V. S, Naipaul, et al, going back to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” depict a nightmarish Third World of amoral familism.

Daniel Lerner’s classic study The Passing of Traditional Society” describes village Turkey is similar hues of localism blocking modernity.

Francis Fukuyama’s “Trust” is in this vein.

Does perhaps the “arrow of causation not run the other way: they live a life of “amoral familism” and clannishness because they are desperately poor and unprotected and not the other way round?

This “reverse causation” would bring in a “things fall apart” (Achebe) causality structure that antedates the “amoral familism.”

“Amoral familism” is, in this telling, a consequence of things having fallen apart and not the cause.

Max Weber, a century ago, explained the backwardness of countries like China or India in terms of values that were dyseconomic such as the wrong kinds of asceticism. (see his “The Religion of China”, “Religion of India” books).

As Asia is now experiencing one of the greatest economic booms in world history, this kind of “cultural determinism” seems implausible as it does in the writings of Professor David Landes of Harvard, the contemporary version of this Weber-type “values thinking”.

The Moral Basis of a Backward Society

Edward C. Banfield (Author)


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