How an Idyllic Italian Village Was Crippled by Family-Centrism

Photograph by Edward C. Banfield. Copyright Laura H. Banfield.

Zocalo Public Square has published an essay of mine on Banfield’s classic text, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958).

More than 60 years ago, an American family arrived in a seemingly idyllic town in Southern Italy. Stone buildings resembled “a white beehive against the top of a mountain.” Donkeys and pigs idled in the ancient, winding streets. A town crier tooting a brass horn announced “fish for sale in the piazza at 100 lire per kilo.” There were two churches, two bars, and a movie theater. Shops offered locally made shoes and olive oil, and locally-sourced meat. Nearly everyone farmed and tended animals and knew one another, at least by name or reputation.

Yet Chiaromonte’s 3400 residents were anything but content. They were crushingly poor and simmered with resentment. Why? In great part, as the Americans learned during their stay, because they were too family-focused.

Political scientist Edward C. Banfield went to Italy in 1954 to better understand poverty. Researchers then tended to assume people were poor due to lack of education or because they were victimized by the government or capitalism. Banfield himself had been a reporter and had traveled across the United States during the Great Depression, so he knew the reality was more complex. In order to understand why people are as they are and do what they do, Banfield believed one needed to learn how they viewed the world and their place within it.

This may sound self-evident, but it cut against the academic grain of the day. The University of Chicago, where Banfield earned his doctorate and had a teaching appointment, was known for its shoe-leather sociological research. Its Prof. William Foote Whyte, for example, wrote Street Corner Society in 1943 after four years studying a slum in Boston’s North End.

In 1956, Banfield and his wife Laura (who spoke Italian) spent nine months in Chiaromonte and interviewed dozens of residents. They pored over census data and official records, enlisted some residents to keep diaries, and conducted psychological surveys on others. Two years later, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society described what they had found and concluded that Chiaromonte’s poverty and grim melancholia (la miseria) were rooted in its people’s “amoral familism.”



Joseph F. Freeman III Review of The Unheavenly City


As a young, recently minted Ph.D., Lynchburg College’s Joseph Freeman wrote a peach of a review of Banfield’s The Unheavenly City for Political Science Reviewer (now defunct). The Intercollegiate Studies Institute kindly has posted the PSR archives online and you can read Freeman’s review at

A hat tip to Robert Schadler for telling me about this review. Schadler had Banfield for a one-on-one reading course at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1970s. He also was managing editor of Political Science Reviewer for a decade. These days, Schadler is a Senior Fellow in Public Diplomacy at the American Foreign Policy Council, and the President of Educational Enrichments, an information service based in Washington, DC.


James Q. Wilson Reviews Edward C. Banfield’s Here the People Rule

Here-The-People-Rule-200Banfield’s Here the People Rule (1985/1991) is a collection of his best essays on government and politics in the United States.

Perhaps his most famous student, James Q. Wilson, reviewed the book in the Public Interest,which is freely accessible here. (By the way, the archives of which are available at

Full citation: “Edward Banfield, American Skeptic,” Public Interest, issue 107, Spring 1992, at

Kevin R. Kosar Reviews Edward C. Banfield’s Government Project

Government ProjectPublic Administration Review published my retro-review of Banfield’s first book, Government Project:

A Nearly Forgotten Classic in Public Administration: Edward C. Banfield’s Government Project, Public Administration Review, September/October, 2009.

As the neo-progressive wave in politics rises higher and higher, Banfield’s Government Project provides a cautionary tale of the challenges that well-intended policymakers and public administrators face in tackling social problems.

It is an easy reading book that nearly anyone can read and enjoy. (Dry, academic treatise it most certainly is not.)

So what’s the book about? Well, it describes and analyzes the one of the federal government’s attempts to help poor farmers during the Great Depression.

But that’s not all it is about. As Banfield put it:

The most characteristic feature of modern society, perhaps, is the great and increasing role of formal organizations of all kinds. Primitive societies were (and are) held together chiefly by the nonlogical bounds of custom and tradition; in modern society the relations of individuals are to a large extent consciously and deliberately organized by the use of intelligence, and the rules of logic. . . . This attempt to organize society along rational lines is a stupendous experiment. Nothing in history promises that it will succeed. But like Faust we are bound by our bargain, and so the study of formal organization and planning—of the techniques by which control may be exerted deliberately and intelligently—is a matter of profound importance. If it is placed in the widest possible framework, then, Government Project may be regarded as a study of one of mankind’s countless recent efforts to take command of his destiny.

How’s that for a subject of import?

Citation: Kevin R. Kosar, A Nearly Forgotten Classic in Public Administration: Edward C. Banfield’s Government Project, Public Administration Review, September/October, 2009.