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Norms in the Margins and Margins of the Norm

The Social Construction of Illegality


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Abstracts Panel 7

Panel organizer: Bjørn Thomassen (University of Roskilde, Roskilde, Denmark)

Blurred spaces, Negotiable Norms and the Governmentality of Crime: the Case of Italy

This panel focuses on the blurred spaces emerging between the legal and the illegal, and the social, legal and political modalities whereby norms and ethics are opened to constant negotiation.  In Italy the boundary lines between clientelism and corruption and between familism and nepotism are notoriously fluid. Social practices related to clientelism or familism, however, cannot simply be stamped as “amoral”, as long ago suggested by Banfield. Rather, it is exactly in the interface between legality/illegality and the formal/informal that norms and moralities are contested, negotiated and produced; and this negotiation has very much characterized Italy since its Unification at both the micro and macro levels.
In recent years ways of dealing with crime and illegality in Italy have greatly influenced the positioning and the development of minority groups and immigrant communities. Some immigrant communities have indeed specialized in economic activities at the margins of legality. In the literature and in the media attention to this phenomenon there is much focus on “big crimes”, often related to drugs, prostitution and human smuggling. However, what characterizes the Italian scene today is equally a proliferation of “small”, “semi-legal” activities, such as street selling and a whole array of non-registered jobs in the service sector, of vital importance to Italian society and economy. Such phenomena often take place in the open, visible to everyone. The Italian police sporadically intervene against for example street vendors, but the phenomenon is structural and de facto accepted. It therefore also seems to be the case that the Italian setting actively produces persons (immigrants or not) as criminal or “semi-criminal”.
In this context, the panel also wishes to highlight the larger “governmentality” of crime in Italy, e.g. the ways in which legal professionals and local and state authorities occupy themselves with crime and illegality. These ways may seem illogical and inefficient but are indeed part of a “meaningful” production of crime and criminals (especially petty criminals) and also a productive power of employment and institution building. It is not the case, as stereotypes would indicate, that in Italy “nobody cares about the law”. Italy has extremely high numbers of legal regulations, court cases and lawyers (besides holding the European record for duration of court cases). Crime and illegality are indeed very much bespoken and produced in the interface between citizens, police, legal professionals, government and state authorities; and it is this interface and the construction and deconstruction of norms within it that this panel wishes to address.


  • James Walston (The American University of Rome, Rome, Italy)
    Clientelism, Corruption, Organized Crime and the Law: New Roads to Rome?

    The paper will re-examine my own empirical analysis of the various norms used in Calabria in the 1970s and before, compare them to today’s norms and draw theoretical conclusions on the changes and constants in nature and function of norms in southern Italy. It will use the distinctions between social and legal rules distinguishing between the law, quasi-legal clientelistic practices and clearly criminal practices like corruption and most of the activities of the organised crime groups, in this case the Calabrian mafia or ndrangheta. The initial hypothesis is that while many single practices have inevitably changed, the underlying norms and the relationship between them have remained fundamentally the same.
  • Ferro Trabalzi (The American University of Rome,Rome, Italy)
    Illegality and Competitiveness: The Paradox of Regional Development in the Age of Globalization. The Case of Buffalo Mozzarella in Campania

    Buffalo mozzarella is the most successful agricultural enterprise in Southern Italy. The product is exported worldwide and the industry gives jobs to more than 20,000 people. The cheese is produced between Caserta and Salerno, two counties heavily marked by the presence of the Camorra, the rhizomic organized crime network that controls the territory and, increasingly, many urban economies in Italy.  How is it possible to transform a local product into a global success in spite of the endemic presence of Camorra?  What are the relations between globalization, competitiveness and organized crime? What is the role of the state? This paper discusses these questions relative to regional economic development in areas controlled by organized crime looking at practices of production within the industry of buffalo mozzarella.  The paper shows that, locally, the boundary between illegal and legal behavior is both fluid and socially contested and that contemporary research should rethink its categories of analysis abandoning easy moralisms and outmoded certainties.
  • Francesca Cantarella (Legal Office, Francesca Cantarella, Italy)
    The Construction of Crime and the Criminal: Pathologies of the Italian Legal System

    This paper discusses the functioning of the Italian legal system, especially with respect to crime and immigration. While political discourse from both Right and Left stresses the need for “security” and “control” of immigration, the larger legal-political framework systematically only increases the number of “irregular persons” whose only chance of making a livelihood is to engage in “irregular” jobs. Consequently, attitudes towards immigrants are becoming systematically tied to “crime” and “illegality”.  The Italian state spends enormous resources to sustain judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and a large bureaucratic apparatus, repeatedly running trials that aim to punish petty crimes committed by immigrants. Most of these crimes (such as street selling) do not represent any threat to security, nor do they violate social norms or trust among citizens. Yet currently this is where police is explicitly asked to concentrate their efforts. This political prioritizing effectively impedes investigations into graver crimes, mostly committed by “Italians”, that do in fact erode norms and trust among citizens. The question is how to break these vicious circles.
  • Isabella Clough-Marinaro (John Cabot University/The American University of Rome, Italy)
    Rome's 'Legal' Camps for Roma: The construction of New Spaces for Illegality

    This paper examines the new generation of ‘villages’ (camps) for Roma built during the last seven years by Rome’s city government as spaces founded on state-engineered violations of the law, aimed at containing and controlling a group constructed by the state as inherently criminal. These ‘villages’ are only accessible to individuals who have no criminal record, yet their isolation from the city’s residential and commercial areas leaves their residents few alternatives to illegal or semi-legal income generation. Not only do these spaces produce small-scale criminal activities, they also appear to generate ambiguous relationships between  public officials, police officers and ‘professional’ criminals. Thus, far from ensuring legality, they are loci in which various dimensions of illegality and power intersect and merge. This framework provides the context within which to analyze how camp residents articulate their own position and participation in these activities.
  • Fiona Rose-Greenland (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, US)
    Crimes against Archaeology: Illicit Cultural Practices and the Struggle for Italian Antiquity

    Unearthing old objects was for centuries a core practice of local cultures. In fields and villages throughout Italy, artifacts were removed from the soil and re-incorporated into the social realm as votives, chits, and treasure – often staying near the locus of discovery. Women and men knowledgeable about old things and old places were respected repositories of history. The 20th century brought significant changes: archaeology became a professionalized discipline, regulated by the state, and artifacts became scientific objects belonging to the Italian nation. Today, unauthorized excavators risk prosecution, fines, and imprisonment.
    What is the effect of the legal binding of archaeology – on people, practices, and objects? How does a state construct a legal category of crimes against patrimony? In this talk I will focus on the transformation of the meaning of excavation practices, and the changed social status of people who, by continuing traditional ways, now find themselves on the wrong side of the law. My research looks closely at the illicit trade in antiquities, and how and why a market comes to acquire the epithet “black.” My analysis draws on ethnographic data from a small town in central Italy, where local culture and history alternately support and resist legal boundaries around archaeological practice.

Discussant: Piero Vereni (University of Rome - Tor Vergata, Rome, Italy)


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