Amoral Familism and the Med

The island of Malta — my home for 6 years

If you want to understand Malta — and the southern Mediterranean in general — then you’ll want to come to grips with the theory of Amoral Familism.

As far as I can tell, the term was coined by the anthropologist Edward C. Banfield, who conducted ethnographical research in the town of Chiaromonte in southern Italy in 1955.

Banfield wrote that the fundamental rule of amoral familism was, “Maximize the material short-run advantage of the nuclear family, and assume that all others will do likewise.”

To put it into slightly simpler terms, this family-centred worldview holds that any action undertaken to benefit one’s family or oneself is justifiable. And everyone expects everyone else to do whatever benefits their family or themselves, regardless of whether it is legal or ethical.

Amoral familism leads to a complete disregard for the effects of one’s actions on others — neighbours, strangers, future generations — and to a complete lack of personal responsibility for one’s actions.

This theory was applied to Malta by the Dutch anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain, and his work provided an invaluable key as I shaped my island years into a coherent narrative to place them between the covers of a book.

Boissevain lived in the small southern village of Kirkop in 1961, and the doctoral thesis he published about festas and the cult of the saints became the seminal work of Maltese anthropology: Saints and Fireworks.

It was one of those books that so many people told me about but no one seemed to have. I’d been trying to track it down for years, but it was out of print, and copies were flogged for enormous sums online. I happened to be browsing second hand bookshops on London’s Charing Cross Road in late 2015 when Tomoko spotted a copy, and it confirmed so much of what we’d come to suspect.

Amoral familism provided the framework for understanding the strangely twisted society I found myself living in.

I saw it in the way people dumped rubbish in the “no man’s land” of public spaces.

I saw it in illegal building construction, done with total disregard for the laws and regulations that protect the quality of life of others, or the environment.

And I saw it in Malta’s pervasive system of patronage and nepotism, and the belief that a network of influential friends or relatives in government or a political party should give you favours, cash, permits, etc in return for your vote.

These are the key books you’ll want to look for if you’re interested in this topic:

The Moral Basis of a Backward Society by Edward C. Banfield (1958)

The Moral Basis of a Backward Society by Edward C. Banfield


Saints and Fireworks by Jeremy Boissevain (1963)

Saints and Fireworks by Jeremy Boissevain


Factions, Friends and Feasts by Jeremy Boissevain (2013)

Factions, Friends and Feasts by Jeremy Boissevain


Amoral familism isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s rather grim. But it does explain life in Malta remarkably well.



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