Italian Sociology

Alberto Gasparini. Encyclopedia of Sociology. Volume 2. 2nd edition New York, NY: Macmillan Reference USA, 2001.

The birth of sociology in Italy is variously dated, depending on the causes that are adduced for it or on the perspective from which it is viewed. Indeed, even the conceptualization of sociology differs; hence, in a certain sense it is more important to determine when each “sociology” was born. We can distinguish two types of sociology and two corresponding ways of providing cultural and professional training. The first type is positivist (or neopositivist) sociology, tied to quantitative empirical research, which aims to discover the laws and the causal relationships that can be drawn from the data and from experience; the second type is humanistic sociology, which interprets its role as a critical science, raises questions, is more an approach to science than a science proper, and places social phenomena in their historical context. The two places for training professional sociologists are the research center and the university, respectively; each type of institution has an ambivalent and fluctuating relationship with the two sociologies.

Both types of sociology and both kinds of training, together with their origins, take on specific meanings according to the historical period; and hence they depend on the process of complexification of Italian society and the parallel development of different Italies (at least the three indicated by Bagnasco 1977).

The Origins of Italian Sociology

Many historians of sociology see Italian sociology as deriving from the political thought of Niccolò Macchiavelli (1469-1527), because of his interest in leadership and its connection with the structures within which the prince must exercise his will. The political sociology of Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, Scipio Sighele, Roberto Michels, and Camillo Pellizzi can also be seen as belonging to this current of thought. This school, largely academic in origin, is based in political science, the philosophy of politics, and the philosophy of law. Associated with and grafted onto it is a sociology of law, also rooted in the universities, reflected by the great number of articles published in the first issues of Quaderni di sociologia (Notebooks of Sociology), a review founded in 1951. Philosophy (Roberto Ardigò), political science (Gaetano Mosca), and law (Carlo Francesco Gabba, Rodolfo Laschi, Enrico Ferri, Icilio Vanni) became “godfathers” to Italian sociology. This may be explained by its dominant themes: the legitimation, explanation, and order that accrue to leadership and political structures as they develop. There were also economists, often (though not always) with a socialist background and orientation—Ginseppe Toniolo, Achille Loria, and Pareto—always attempting to study society in macroscopic terms in a way closely linked to political science.

Besides these currents concerned with the sphere of public action, there was the study of the private sphere as it deviated from the established order, as examined from the perspectives of political science, philosophy, and economics. Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Morselli, Scipio Sighele, and Alfredo Niceforo—some of them with medical training—studied the criminal personality, constructed typologies of the “delinquent man,” elaborated pseudobiological explanations of deviant behavior, and thus attempted to interpret the relationship between society and the deviant (the duty of society being to lock up and prevent the deviant from causing further harm).

The sociological bent of these Italian protosociologists, who were generally university professors, was rooted in the work of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. Hence, in their work we find a search for the laws underlying the social phenomena studied, the confidence that one can understand these phenomena by means of an inductive method borrowed from the natural sciences, and the belief that it is possible to describe and explain social reality with the positivist method. Italian sociological positivism (from 1865 to the rise of Fascism) worked out a paradigm of social analysis that was fairly homogeneous and characterized by naturalistic determinism in the form of evolutionary organicism. It was carried out by means of a positivist inductive method, although the basis of determinism varied during the history of positivism. For Lombroso, Niceforo, and others, the bases of such determinism were in biology and evolution (the theories of instinct and atavism), while for Pareto the structure of social activity took its model from economics. Another distinctive characteristic of this positivism was to consider society, social phenomena, and subjects in normative but exclusively objective terms. Roberto Ardigò worked along these lines as a theorist of human action, but after a certain point he became increasingly aware of the importance of “nonlogical” actions, of interiorization, and of socialization—the possibility of a voluntaristic theory. It is thus possible, in his case, to speak of a positivism of the subject, which foreshadows the work of Pareto.

The positivist approach was used by Socialist and Catholic scholars, as well as by liberals. This perspective was shared by the founders of Rivista italiana di sociologia (Italian Review of Sociology), which was published from 1897 to 1922.

Positivism, mainly a French and English current of thought, began to decline when its naturalistic-determinist presuppositions were left behind and other variables had been introduced, thus leading to interpretations of society in more complex terms (Mosca, Pareto, Michels, Gaetano Salvemini); also, it was questioned when a progressive and optimistic determinism was replaced by a pessimistic determinism (as in Michels, with his iron law of oligarchy). Positivism was reborn with the formation of the Chicago School of urban and ecological studies at the end of the 1930s.

In Italy, positivism was replaced by the idealism of Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile, who were strongly critical of positivism’s main ideas and naturalistic research methods. The polemical debate in 1900-1901 between Pareto and Croce in the pages of Il giornale degli economisti (The Journal of Economists) is emblematic.

The technologically hard core of positivism is the research method, particularly “the experimental method that has given such brilliant results in the natural sciences,” as Pareto wrote in his “Discorso per il Giubileo” (Borgatta 1917; “Discourse for the Jubilee”).

This explains why, among the positivist sociologists, there were many demographers and statisticians (including Angelo Messedaglia, Loria, Niceforo, and Livio Livi) during the years of Fascism (1920-1940) and why the preeminence of idealism—the point of reference for sociology—lay primarily in statisticians such as Corrado Gini, Vittorio Castellano, Marcello Boldrini, and Nora Federici.

Gini, in particular, was active in founding the Istituto Centrale di Statistica (Central Institute of Statistics) in 1926; this agency was set up to organize census taking in Italy. In 1928 he founded the Comitato Italiano per lo Studio dei Problemi della Popolazione (Italian Committee for the Study of Population Problems), the school of statistics at the University of Rome (1929), the Italian section of the Institut International de Sociologie (1932), the Società Italiana di Sociologia (Italian Society of Sociology) in 1937, and the Facoltà di Scienze Statistiche, Demografiche e Attuariali (Faculty of Statistical, Demographic, and Actuarial Sciences) at the University of Rome (1936). In this period Gini also founded, or was a founding member of, many journals, such as the Bollettino bibliografico di scienze sociali e politiche (1924; Bibliographical Bulletin of Social and Political Sciences), La vita economica italiana (1926; Italian Economic Life), and Gems (1934).

To sum up, Italian sociology was born through the importation of positivist ideas, paradigms, and methodological creeds, and it tried to solve the problems that society or the classes in power considered important in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth—the existing forms of power and their legitimation, as well as the control of deviance. Its content therefore concerned the philosophy of law, political doctrines, socialism, the social thought of the Catholic Church, criminality and alienation, and related matters. In the first half of the twentieth century, in particular during the Fascist period, the study of demographics and statistics remained alive, as did the study of the charismatic components and fatal distortions of power (Michels) and investigation of the irrational and subjective element in society, in the form of residues and derivations (Pareto).

The themes and problems of concern were closely linked to the period in which Italian sociology developed. Socially, Italy was still traditional, and sociology was developed within the universities, in the context of more or less formally recognized courses.

1945 to the 1960s

The postwar period witnessed a profound rupture in Italian society, in its culture, and hence in its sociology. That society became much more complex, and its emerging culture became part of sociological study. Thus problems such as those in the South of Italy—urbanization, migration, the large concentrations of workers—were brought to the forefront. In addition, Italian sociologists were very receptive to foreign ideas and schools of thought. Thus, alongside the survival in academic circles of the influence of Comte, Spencer, and Darwin and the work of Gini, Livi, and Castellano, the American influence became dominant and the German tradition regained importance, primarily in research institutes.

In other words, there was first an accumulation of theory and research that was incorporated into university sociology courses; later came the first chair of sociology, which was awarded to Franco Ferrarotti, at Rome in 1962. Scholars did not yet have sociological training, since no academic structures for that purpose existed; therefore they came from fields such as classical studies, political science (still very much oriented toward law), economics and commerce, medicine, law, and so forth.

One effect of this complexity was the subdivision of sociology into many branches: development and modernization; urban and rural sociology; the sociology of labor, of the economy, of migrations.

This period lasted from the end of World War II to the founding of the first faculty of sociology at Trento and the reform of the faculties of political sciences; it saw the incubation of a new direction in Italian sociology. Since that time there has been the development of the faculty of sociology at the University of Rome, and many other universities have acquired significant faculty strength in sociology. Let us now examine these currents.

The Sociology of Development and the Mezzogiorno. One of the problems the new Italy had to face was how to the reduce the developmental gap between North and South, in particular how to enable the society of the South and of Sicily and Sardinia to overcome their state of underdevelopment. Even before World War II the “Southern question” had been posed and announced by the actions and writings of Guido Dorso and Salvemini, among others. But it was only after 1946 that the problem became a subject of study and institutional intervention. Some of the institutions that deal with intervention and training, as well as with sociological research on the problems of the Mezzogiorno, are the Associazione per lo Sviluppo dell’Industria nel Mezzogiorno (SVIMEZ; Association for the Development of Industry in the Mezzogiorno), the CENTRO per la Formazione e studi per il Mezzogiorno (Center for Professional Training and Studies of the Mezzogiorno), the Associazione Nazionale per gli Interessi del Mezzogiorno (ANANI; National Association for the Interests of the Mezzogiorno), the Movimento di Collaborazione Civica (Movement of Civic Collaboration), the Unione Nazionale per la Lotta contro l’analfabetismo (National Union for the Fight Against Illiteracy), and UNRRA-Casas (Instituto per lo Sviluppo dell’ediliza Sociale; the Institute for the Development of Public Housing).

Projects and plans were drawn up within and in cooperation with these agencies. They include the pilot project for the Abruzzi, the Sardinia project, the Center for Studies and Initiatives in western Sicily, the Center for Community Development at Palma di Montechiaro, and the Molise and Avigliano projects. It was in these institutions that sociological and anthropological studies on development, modernization, and the community were carried out. Tullio Tentori (1956), Guido Vincelli (1958), Danilo Dolci (1955, 1957, 1960), Gilberto Antonio Marselli (1963), Lidia de Rita (1964), Maria Ricciardi Ruocco (1967), Luca Pinna (1971), Gualtiero Harrison and Maria Callari Galli (1971), and Giovanni Mottura and Enrico Pugliese (1975) are among those whose works reveal a social commitment together with testing of the theories of modernization. They show an awareness of their limits as well, as elaborated by the English-language sociological tradition; moreover, there was a strong element of utopianism in this mixture of social commitment and scientific rigor.

It was not just the ideas of American and northern European scholars that were studied and applied to the modernization of the South of Italy; scholars themselves were committed to the task. At the same time, some classic research was carried out, important both because it was cited by Italian scholars and because it was rejected by them (in particular by Alessandro Pizzorno and Marselli). One of the books that became an object of controversy was Edward C. Banfield’s The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958). Other frequently cited foreign research works included Joseph Lopreato’s “Social Stratification and Mobility in a South Italian Town” (1961), Feliks Gross’s “Value Structure and Social Change” (1970), and Johann Galtung’s Members of Two Worlds: A Development Study of Three Villages in Western Sicily (1971).

Sociological study of modernization also entered the universities through sociology courses that took their place alongside courses in rural economics. The most important center for these courses was the Faculty of Agriculture at Portici, and the most significant sociologists were Marselli, Pugliese, Mottura, and Emanuele Sgroi.

The Sociology of Work and Economics. The sociology of work and economics arose in the research agencies, in research centers of large industries, and in labor unions.

One very important research center for the training of Italian sociologists was Olive Hi’s Ufficio Studi e Relazioni Sociali (Research and Social Relations Office) at Ivrea. Adriano Olivetti, building a company and a community, surrounded himself with sociologists, economists, communications experts, and planners. Ferrarotti, Pizzorno, Luciano Gallino, Paolo Ceri, and Antonio Carbonaro worked and studied at the facility. They, and many more, devoted themselves to industrial relations and the rationalization of staff selection in large industries operated by enlightened and paternalistic entrepreneurs like Olivetti. Very often, however, the left-wing slant of their training and their impression of being manipulated led these sociologists to leave the research center after a short stay and to continue their sociological training at universities in the United States. In this cultural climate, which also was indebted to nineteenth-century models of integration of the company, the community, and territorial planning, the review Comunità(Community) published essays with a strong cultural and social commitment. The publishing house of the same name made available to the Italian public the classics of German and, especially, American sociology.

Another forum for the training of sociologists (especially in the sociology of labor) was the research offices of the labor unions (and, to a lesser extent, of the political parties). In particular, future sociologists such as Aris Accornero, Guido Baglioni, Gian Primo Cella, and Guido Romagnoli were directed toward studies of factory work. The factory and labor union conflicts were the main subjects of their volume, with a consequent tendency to identify the “organization” with the factory (a pamphlet on the sociology of organizations by G. Bonazzi is, significantly, entitled Dentro e fuori la fabbrica (1982); Inside and Outside the Factory) and the labor union. These sociologists had few contacts with foreign scholars; when they did, such contacts were oriented toward France and particularly toward the Institut des Sciences Sociales du Travail (Institute of the Social Science of Labor) in Paris.

Urban Sociology and the Sociology of Planning. Other institutions in which sociologists (this time urban sociologists) were trained in the 1950s and 1960s were the planning offices set up by the territorial governments (large municipalities and provinces in northern Italy), particularly the Istituto Lombardo di Studi Economici e Sociali (ILSES; Lombard Institute of Economic and Social Studies) in Milan and the Centro Studi Sociali e Amministrativi (CSSA; Center for Social and Administrative Studies) in Bologna. The former trained the sociologists Pizzorno, Gianni Pellicciari, Massimo Paci, Alberto Martinelli, Guido Martinotti, Paolo Guidicini; the latter, Achille Ardigò, Paolo Guidicini, Giuliano Piazzi, and Pietro Bellasi. There was also the Ufficio Studi Sociali e del Lavoro (Office for Social and Labor Studies) in Genoa, where Luciano Cavalli carried out his Inchiesta sugli abituri (1957; Survey on Slums).

ILSES dealt with research on neighborhoods, on participation in neighborhoods, and, in general, on the structure of the city. The approaches were borrowed from the concepts and research of the Chicago School and the group that had formed around Paul Henry Chombart de Lauwe. Thus, among other things, Ernest W. Burgess’s model of concentric areas was verified for Italian cities (in Rome and Milan), as was Hoyt’s model of sectors. The results of these researches found expression in anthologies on the Chicago School: such as Guido Martinotti’s Città e analisi sociologica (1968; The City and Sociological Analysis); manuals of urban sociology, such as Franco Demarchi’s Società e spazio (1969; Society and Space); and a manual of urban research based largely on that carried out by ILSES and CSSA, Paolo Guidicini’s Manuale della ricerca sociologica (1968, 1987; Manual of Sociological Research).

The sociologists who worked at ILSES developed close contacts with the United States (particularly Martinotti, Paci, and Martinelli) and with the United Kingdom (Guidicini).

International Sociology. Sociology entered the universities where both theoretical and empirical sociologists were trained but no attention was given to international sociology. International sociology in Italy was developed by the Istituto di Sociologia Internazionale di Gorizia (ISIG; Institute of International Sociology of Gorizia), founded by Demarchi in 1969. This branch of sociology seeks its identity in the synthesis of ideas from political sociology; the sociology of international relations; and the sociology of ethnic relations, of borders, of towns, and of territories. Relations were developed with scholars from the United States, from Eastern Europe, and from the countries of the European Economic Community. From the United States, the institute took the research methodology of multivariate analysis, under the direction of Edgar F. Borgatta; it was one of the first institutions in Italy to adopt these techniques. Its researchers later held important positions in various universities: Renzo Gubert, Alberto Gasparini, Raimondo Strassoldo, Bruno Tellia, Bernardo Cattarinussi, and Giovanni Delli Zotti.

Among the cited research organizations, ISIG is one of the few that carries out an active program that is not encompassed by university activities. There are at least two reasons for this. First, Italian sociology has tended not to be interested in international relations. Second, there has been an acceleration of international interdependence; in recent years there has been great change in the relations between Western and Eastern Europe, and between Europe and the rest of the world. Under the direction of Alberto Gasparini, ISIG has responded to the need for such study, with an emphasis on Eastern Europe and the countries of the former USSR.

Academic Institutionalization of Italian Sociology. The most intense activity of the research agencies occurred in the 1950s and 1960s; it was scientific in the full sense of the word, since concrete problems were tackled empirically, starting from a theory (generally developed abroad) and ultimately returning to the theory. This way of doing research, and of training for research, is quite different from the method adopted in the universities, because it is tied to concrete problems and specific deadlines.

Moreover, in this period, together with the ideas and plans designed to establish sociology in the universities (the first chair in sociology was awarded to Ferrarotti in 1962), sociology was taking on an identity as an academic discipline. The first issue of Quaderni di sociologia (Notebooks of Sociology) was published in 1951, edited by Nicola Abbagnano and Ferrarotti, and in 1957 the Associazione Italiana di Scienze Sociali (AISS; Italian Association of Social Sciences) was founded. In 1959 the Centro Nazionale di Prevenzione e Difesa Sociale (National Center for Prevention and Social Defense) in Milan, together with AISS, organized the Fourth World Congress of Sociology at Stresa; and from then until 1974 Italian sociologists (Angelo Pagani and Guido Martinotti) held the post of secretary of the International Sociological Association. Italian sociology was now mature and ready to enter the universities with its own sociologists, their empirical experience, and their theoretical preparation; hence it was able to extend the discipline.

Sociology in the Universities (Since 1960)

Italian sociology, as a discipline and as scientific research, has developed strongly. The heart of this development lies more in the universities and university teachers than in the nonacademic institutes that played such a large role until the 1960s. All this happened with the consolidation of sociology in the university system (which had the function of training young researchers and became the channel for legitimizing the scientific character of sociological research). Subsequent developments included the publication of dictionaries and encyclopedias of sociology, the foundation of the Associazione Italiana di Sociologia (Italian Association of Sociology), and the formation and coordination of sociological interests in specific areas.

Sociology in the Italian Universities. The complexity of Italian society requires a strong sociological reading of reality, and the nonacademic agencies discussed above could not long meet this need. Moreover, a strong impulse to legitimize sociological analysis came from the student protest movement, which in the mid-1960s reached Europe from the United States.

Thus sociology entered the universities mainly with the establishment in Trento of the Istituto Universitario di Scienze Sociali (University Institute of Social Sciences, later the Faculty of Sociology) in 1962 and with the reform of political science faculties in 1968.

The Faculty of Sociology at Trento. The Istituto Universitario di Scienze Sociali was officially founded on September 12, 1962, on the initiative of the Provincia Autonoma di Trento (the Autonomous Province of Trento), the Istituto Trentino di Cultura (the Trento Institute of Culture), and of Professor Giorgio Braga, lecturer at the Università Cattolica in Milan. The governing body is composed of ten professors: three jurists, two economists, one statistician, one mathematician (the director, Mario Volpato), one ethicist, and the sociologists Braga (vice director) and Franco Ferrarotti. The first sociologists to teach there were not from the Milan area. Later Milanese came to Trento: Francesco Alberoni and Guido Baglioni. The first teachers at Trento were from several regions: Giorgio Braga (from the Università Cattolica in Milan), Franco Ferrarotti (Rome), Filippo Barbano (Turin), Sabino Acquaviva (Padua), Franco Demarchi (Trento), and Achille Ardigò (Bologna). The students who enrolled in the first year (226), and even more in the immediately following years, were strongly motivated to study social problems and came increasingly from regions far from Trento.

The Faculty of Sociology, with its four-year program, grants two types of degrees in sociology: general and special. The general course in the sociological disciplines trains teachers and researchers who will work in universities, international institutions, and centers of research on economic and social problems. The special sociology course prepares students for management careers in public administration and in private firms (in particular, for research, public relations, and personnel), social insurance offices, agencies for agricultural development, welfare agencies, labor unions and political parties, business consultancy agencies, marketing research offices, and town planning bodies.

As can be seen, this university planning aimed at the extension of the university; moreover, it set out to deal with a society that was both complex and predictable in its organization of problems and phenomena to be studied and, if possible, solved.

Things changed with the arrival of the student protest movement. At the University of Trento, different models of teaching and organization were experimented with, leading it to occupy a unique position in the Italian university system. A “critical university,” managed by a joint committee of teachers and students, was formed. The director of the institute and experimenter with this model was Francesco Alberoni, who attracted other teachers interested in this project, in particular from Milan. This situation lasted until 1970; meanwhile, it triggered experimentation at other Italian universities and to some extent contributed to the reform of the faculties of political science. In subsequent years, when the institute was transformed into the first Faculty of Sociology in the Italian university system, corsi di laurea (degree courses) in sociology emerged, often within existing facoltà di magistero (education faculties) at Rome, Naples, Salerno, and Urbino.

The Reform of the Faculties of Political Science. Sociology was offered in twenty-three Italian universities in 1964-1965, a total of thirty-eight courses taught by twenty-seven professors. It was episodically and marginally introduced into the faculties of law, letters, arts, economics, and political science, and often the same person was asked to teach several courses; for example, Alberoni taught four different courses in sociology at the same time at the Università Cattolica of Milan. The courses were scattered throughout Italy: four courses each in Rome and Milan (Università Cattolica); three courses each in Bari and Florence; two courses each in Bologna, Cagliari, Milan (Università Statale), Naples, and Palermo; and one course each at the universities of Catania, Ferrara, Genoa, Messina, Milan (Polytechnic), Padua, Pavia, Pisa, Salerno, Siena, Turin, Trieste, Urbino, and Venice. For the most part the teachers were “masters”: Achille Ardigò, Gianfranco Morra, Anna Anfossi, Franco Leonardi, Camillo Pellizzi, Giovanni Sartori, Luciano Cavalli, Renato Treves, Francesco Alberoni, Sabino Acquaviva, Eugenio Pennati, Agostino Palazzo, Franco Ferrarotti, Vittorio Castellano, Antonio Carbonaro, Filippo Barbano, Angelo Pagani, and Alessandro Pizzorno.

At the end of the 1990s, the situation has completely changed, both in terms of the number of universities in which sociology is taught (now forty-two), obviously expanded by the establishment of new universities—and in terms of the number of courses and teachers (now 827). Moreover, some very substantial centers of sociology have been established, and sociology is taught in all the Italian universities. The universities with the greatest numbers of sociology courses are (in descending order): Rome (eighty-four), Bologna (thirty-nine), Turin (sixty-three), Milan (forty-three), and Trento (fifty-two). Those with fewer than twenty but at least ten courses are Padua (seventeen), Naples (sxteen), Calabria (fourteen), Florence (thirteen), Salerno (twelve), Catania (eleven), and Palermo (ten).

One very important technical reason for these profound changes in the teaching of sociology was the reform of the faculties of political science. The first faculty of political science in Italy was established in 1875 at Florence (and called Cesare Alfieri). It was designed to train public officials and, in general, it prepared men for an active life and public debate. As time passed, while it kept these functions, this faculty tended to become transformed into a faculty of social science. After World War II the need was increasingly felt to reform the faculties of political science, detaching them from other faculties (particularly from the law faculties) and giving them an updated cultural core. Subsequently such faculties were divided into two two-year courses of study: The first is based on fundamental courses (including sociology), and the second is organized into five indirizzi (courses of study)—international, historical, economic, administrative, and social. In this last course (political-social) some true sociological curricula are offered; they are obviously more concentrated in the faculties of political science at Rome, Bologna, Turin, Padua, and Milan. At present, the political-social course of studies is available in the following universities: Turin, Milan (Università Statale and Università Cattolica), Pavia, Trieste, Padua, Bologna, Florence, Pisa, Cambrino, Rome (LUISS), Naples, Bari, Messina, Catania, and Palermo.

The Future of Sociology in the Universities. At present, the teaching of sociology is concentrated in the Faculties of Sociology at Trento, Rome, Naples, Milan, Urbino, Salerno; in the degree courses in sociology at others universities; and in the several faculties of political science. Sociology courses are also offered by other faculties (such as economics and commerce, architecture, medicine, letters and philosophy, and arts), but the current tendency is to reduce this spread. There are at least two reasons for this: the “zero growth” of sociology (i.e., sociology departments have the right only to replace sociologists who leave the university or switch to other disciplines) and other disciplines’ expansion of their number of chairs.

In the future, there will therefore be a tendency to strengthen sociology where it is already strong (in the faculties of political science) or through the creation of new degree courses in sociology; however, it is likely to disappear or to be excluded from the mainstream where it is peripheral (in the faculties of economics and commerce, architecture, and others). There are other ways in which the universities can train sociologists, such as Ph.D. programs (they are at the moment thirty-one: thirteen in the North; twelve in the center of the country; five in the South, one in Sicily and Sardinia) courses or schools of specialization for those who already have a degree and special-purpose schools or diploma courses for those who plan to attend the university for only two years after their secondary schooling.

The 1990s: In the Shadow of International Change and Social Change in Italy

The themes explored by Italian sociology, like those of any national sociology, are closely tied up with the contemporary state of society.

Italian society in the 1990s is undergoing profound changes. Of these, the most evident has resulted from the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and its satellites. The Christian Democratic party, whose raison d’être was as a bastion against communism, lost this purpose and no longer found itself “condemned to govern.” Because of the increasing secularization of Italian Catholicism, the Christian Democrats also lost their function as the party of the Church, and it became widely acknowledged that the party was corrupt, as were the other parties. “Tangentopoli” (“Bribe City”—the name given to the massive system of the political fixing of public contracts in return for cash from industry) was uncovered, and “Mani pulite” (“Operation Clean Hands”—the attempt to eradicate it) was launched by the magistrature. The alliances between large organizations and their joint vested interests (large-scale capitalists, big trade unions, protected labor), the “Soviet” component of the state economy (state-owned industries), and the big political parties lost legitimacy with the birth of new political players (the Northern League), new economic players (Small and Medium-Sizes Enterprises), and new trade unions (smaller, autonomous, and more trade-specific) that claimed resources and reduced the size and authority of the large organizations.

The fall of the Iron Curtain has de-ideologized international relations between Eastern and Western Europe, establishing national or ethnic identity as the criterion of statehood. But in Italy, the fall of the great central organizations has made obvious the importance of the role of highly fragmented local political, social, cultural, and economic forces. The burgeoning importance of ethnicity and local parties (more in the North than the South) and demands for federalism (especially in taxation) and even independence point to a new society, with the marks of the postmodern.

Growing of affluence has put an end to internal emigration and emigration abroad and directed interest toward women’s rights, communications, and information technology, and new religious solutions within and outside the traditional Western religions. By contrast, however, the welfare state, designed and constructed by the society of large organizations and by “big” government, has entered a massive solvency crisis, burdened as it is with a level of debt that is unsustainable in comparison with other developed countries and that it cannot pay. Solutions have been sought in cuts in public spending and pensions, the growth of the service sector, the involvement of individual citizens, and the campaign for convergence to the Maastricht criteria.

Sociology has responded to these changes with the expansion of some areas of study and the contraction of others. The former have shifted to incorporate related disciplines such as political science, theology, computer science, constitutional law, and migration; the latter have been subsumed into disciplines such as economics. Research institutes have regained an important position, both inside and outside universities, and the spread of sociology courses in universities has stopped.

One relatively new theme for sociological research and reflection is national identity, both in terms of establishing whether an Italian national identity actually exists in the minds of Italians and in terms of exploring the local identities that may drive toward claims for independence or forms of federalism. A classical study in this regard is Gian Enrico Rusconi’s “Se Cessiamo di Essere uma Hazioue” (“If We Cease to be a Nation”), which carries the emblematic subtitle Regional Ethno-Democracies and European Citizenship. Here the theme of national identity is combined with ethnic and European identity, and accentuated localism with accentuated cosmopolitanism. Work has also been produced in this field by Carlos Barbe, Loredana Sciolla, Carlo Tullio-Altan, and Riccardo Scartezzini. The futures studies journal Futuribili has devoted an edition to the future of Italy and the Italians entitled “The Italians Are Here, When Will Italy Be?”

Another theme of political sociology centres on changes in the structure of parties and consensus in the wake of the “discovery” that the existing political system is illegal. Much research has been conducted into the mechanisms of political corruption (Donatella Della Porta, Mauro Magatti, Vaclav Belohradsky), the renewal of the political class, and the formation of new ruling classes as a result of the transformation of the original illegalities into new legalities (Belohradsky 1994). These political transformations have changed the way voters feel about politics. Increases in the numbers of floating voters and nonvoters have given new life and direction to electoral sociology. Opinion polls have become a tool of fundamental importance, and sociologists are studying voting behavior in specialized institutes set up outside universities. Another dimension in the relaunching of political sociology is international relations, especially the study of post-communist Eastern Europe, including scenario building and forecasts of the workings, duration, and results of the transition there. In this field, too, research and studies have been carried out and conferences organized by institutes, both independent of universities or based in them. The funds used for these initiatives are provided by European programmes—such as Phare, Tacis, Intas, and Democracy—with the aim of creating international scientific and fact-finding networks.

Such scientific institutions have been set up in a large number of Italian towns, first and foremost ISIG in Gorizia, which has specialized for the last thirty years in the ethnic, border, and international questions in the Balkan-Danube area and the former Soviet area. ISIG has established a Forum for European Border Towns, an Ethnic Minorities Observatory, an Italian Futures Studies Academy, and a Permanent Forum for peace initiatives specializing in pilot studies, databases, and the organization of parallel diplomatic meetings for the solution of conflicts. These initiatives frequently result in the publication of journals and books. Heading the journals are Futuribili, (along the lines of Futuribles and Futures,) devoting each issue to special themes. ISIG Magazine is a journal, published in English and Italian, that also deals with particular themes on a monographic basis. Books frequently tackle international subjects: International Solidarity and National Sovereignty (Picco and Delli Zotti 1995) discusses the increasing intrusion upon national sovereignty by international organisations (the UN, NATO, and the EU); “The Future of the Moment Before” (Gasparini 1993) deals with Russia and its future. Other studies analyze: the factors driving toward the formation of a new Russian empire and the persistent character of Russian religiosity and mysticism; the Balkans and the solution of conflicts through international solidarity to bring in a new order based on protectorates (Mroljub Radojkovic, Kosta Barjaba, Alberto Gasparini); ethnic groups and borders in Europe (Luca Bregantini, Alessandro Pannuti, Moreno Zago, Alberto Gasparini); Arab and Israeli nationalism in the Middle East (Elie Kallas); the transition of the former socialist countries in Eastern Europe.

Other themes undergoing strong development are connected with the modern affluent society: They include women and their position with regard to work, equality, self-fulfilment outside the family, and the family as an institution (Chiara Saraceno, Laura Balbo, Pierpaolo Donati); poverty, and extreme poverty in cities rather than widespread poverty (Paolo Guidicini, Giovanni Pieretti); and the role played by poverty in immigration from the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean Arab countries (Umberto Melotti, Maurizio Ambrosini, ISMU). Connected to these developments and to the relationship between politics and civil society as seen in an increasingly crisis-bound welfare state are studies (Pierpaolo Donati, Ivo Colozzi, Guido Lazzarini, Giuliano Giorio) that seek solutions to the crisis through the service sector and that explore Europe and its new forms of citizenship. Other emerging themes indicating change in Italian society and the need for certainties in an uncertain situation are to be found in the relaunching of studies on Italian religion and religiosity (Roberto Cipriani, Franco Garelli, Stefano Martelli, Salvatore Abruzzese) and the solutions offered by traditional religions and new movements (also dealt with in an edition of Futuribili).

Another important theme is the relationship between communications and a changing society, with specific reference to the role of communications in mass emergency risk management (Bruna De Marchi, Luigi Pellizzoni, Daniele Ungaro, Alberto Abruzzese, Laura Bovone, Mario Morcellini). Community studies show a prevalence of territorial belonging and a decline in metropolitan expansion in favor of restricted urban areas forming a city system in which individuals retain their own identity while relating to other people (Alberto Gasparini, Reuzo Gubert, Gabriele Pollini).

Finally, a theme reemerging after the explosion and subsequent decline of the studies launched in the early 1970s by the Club of Rome is prediction. Here again, ISIG and Futuribili are at the fulcrum heart of an interest that is particularly strongly felt at a time of uncertainty and transition toward a society that is as yet unclear (Eleonora Masini, Giorgio Nebbia, Alberto Gasparini, Luca Bregantini, Moreno Zago).

In contrast to these themes, produced by contingent and transient situations, others have been declining in the 1990s. Less attention has been devoted to large companies, and the factory and the trade union movement have lost some of their importance as an area of study. The same applies to the study of social classes. These fields have felt the effects of a crisis in the culture of the defense of workers’ rights and in the paradigm—very often a Marxist one—use to explain social classes and the relations between them.

In short, the profound external and internal changes overtaking Italian society have worked to the advantage of some themes of study and undermined the previous importance of others. As was the case with postwar sociology, the driving force in this development has been institutes outside universities (especially in international studies) or at least consortia and niches inside universities but only loosely tied to their teaching function. This has produced a strong movement to strengthen existing journals and create new ones; these include Futuribili, Ikon, Polis, Quaderni di sociologia (Notebooks of Sociology), Rassegna italiana di sociologia (Italian Review of Sociology), RES (Ricerca e sviluppo per le politiche sociali: Research and Development for Social Policies), Religioni e società (Religions and Society), La Società (The Society), Sociologia del lavoro (The Sociology of Work), Sociologia della comunicazione (The Sociology of Communication), Sociologia e politiche sociali (Sociology and Social Policies), Sociologia e professione (Sociology and Profession), Sociologia e ricerca sociale (Sociology and Social Research), Sociologia urbana e rurale (Urban and Rural Sociology), Studi di sociologia (Sociology Studies), and Teoria sociologica (Sociological Theory).