Cultural Overview

In much of the anthropological literature, Italy would be included within the Mediterranean ethnographic region, which has been frequently characterized in terms of a cultural system based on "honor and shame." These values are embedded in gender relations and local discourses of sexuality, usually entailing a strong emphasis on male reputation and on the control of women's sexuality (Gilmore, 1987). But although the codes of honor and shame have generated an extensive and interesting literature on gender and sexuality in the area, they are of limited use in the Italian context (Goddard, 1994). Indeed, any convenient characterization of gender ideals and relations is problematic, as Italy is highly diversified in terms of physical, cultural, and social characteristics.

Throughout the modern period the Italian peninsula consisted of numerous political entities, ranging from large kingdoms to small city-states, until the Risorgimento movement promoted and supported the unification of Italy under the leadership of Piedmont and the House of Savoy. Unification was accomplished in 1860, bringing together very different kinds of economic, political, and social structures. The incorporation of a semi-feudal south into the new Italian nation-state did little to accelerate the development of the area. On the contrary, the differences between the north and the south have endured and have long been the subject of debate and policy. Today, the standard of living of the southern population has improved dramatically compared with the poverty that prevailed after World War II. But the south remains different from the rest of the country. In a country with amongst the highest rates of unemployment in Europe, the south displays higher levels of unemployment and poverty. Here there are also higher levels of fertility than the rest of the country, more marriages, and larger families.

But despite the continuing significance of the differences between southern and northern regions, a simple north-south dichotomy fails to account for the complexities of Italy. Bagnasco (1977) has made a convincing case for the specificities of the central and northeastern regions, suggesting that there are in fact "three Italies" rather than simply two, each with their distinct history, culture, and economy. These regional differences are also evident at the level of the private domestic arena, there being important differences in family types and in patterns of gender relations between these regions.

Despite drives to create a coherent national whole since the Unification, most notably under the fascist regime, regional and local variations remain strong. There have been a number of centrifugal forces at work. Observers have pointed to the phenomenon of campanil-ismo, a term derived from campanile, the church bell tower, to suggest the importance of loyalties attaching to the vicinity of the local church. A number of political and anthropological works have pointed to the strength of attachment to the locality and of suspiciousness toward outsiders, including representatives of the state (e.g., Silverman, 1975b). Since the 1980s, the decentralization of government to the regions has enhanced regional differences and resulted in significant variations in local policy and the provision of welfare services and support (Bimbi, 2000).

On the other hand, there have also been powerful unifying forces. The Catholic Church and different strands of Catholic ideology have been widely influential and have shaped national policy, particularly with regard to the family, sexuality, and reproduction. The Church has upheld the centrality of the family and has exerted a strong influence on the kind of family and the associated gender roles that are supported by government. The influence of the Church has meant that, in fact, state welfare policy has never seriously challenged the "family paradigm" whereby the family is the principal provider of care, support, and welfare (Bimbi, 2000; Saraceno, 1994).

The term "familism" has often been used in connection with Italian society to refer to the importance of ideologies and practices that place the family unit firmly at the center of individual and social reproductive strategies and ideologies. Some authors have stressed the negative effects of what they have seen as the isolationist effects of familism (Banfield, 1958). Banfield's analysis of a poor rural center in the south of Italy in the 1950s argued that "amoral familism" prevented wider cooperation and was responsible for the backward conditions of the village. Others have focused on the relations of cooperation, pooling, and solidarity that familism is able to sustain and legitimize (Ginsborg, 1990; Goddard, 1996; Saraceno, 1994). Ginsborg uses the term "moral familism" to describe forms of collective action, such as those initiated by the families of the 110 victims of a terrorist attack at Bologna station in 1980 or the organization of a group of mothers to combat the sale of hard drugs to children.

Despite declining birth rates, and Italy has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, the family continues to be a strong and important institution (Ruspini, 2000). In central Italy the family has been identified as the keystone of a specifically Italian version of capitalism based on small firms and strong family-based solidarity (see Yanagisako, 2002). In the south, the family constitutes a refuge and a safety net in the face of unemployment and poverty (Goddard, 1996; Ruspini, 2000). In either case, the prevalence of the family and the influence of the Catholic Church on the ways in which the family is conceptualized and upheld have important implications for the opportunities open to men and women in Italian society.

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