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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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • Hi Ryan, Long time no see, I follow you articles on Shift News but can’t comment direct because they have’nt set up that feature yet. Just to let you know that since you departed absolutely nothing has changed, I MEAN NOTHING. Still the daily grind of another outrageous scandal being exposed every single day, and no one seems to give a fuck.Opportunism is at it’s peak, impunity is in your face whether you like it or not, and the same crooks are still stealing millions. However it does me a lot of good reading your articles which show me I have not yet lost the plot and there are like minded people like myself who are aware just what is going on here. Keep up the good work, eventually they will all get what they deserve.

    • Hi Mick,

      Glad to hear you’re still following my stuff. I remember feeling that sense of unbelief as far back as the Gaffarena property scandal. It seemed like a week didn’t pass without the sort of scandal that would cause resignations and bring down governments in a normal country, but nothing ever happened. It’s so much worse now, so blatant. It’s difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t lived there just how completely off the rails Malta is.

      I was in Gozo for a week at the start of this month. I never expected to return to Malta but was talked into it for work. I just passed through from the airport to the ferry, but even from the main road it looked like the entire island was a construction site.

  • If you hate it so, much why give a fuck? – Just leave. Most Brits would love to stay here but your imperialistic attitude that you know everything is the downfall of your own country. Look at what is happening in England NOW with Boris the beloved……

    • Andrew,

      Thanks very much for posting the usual “go back to your country” reply, that’s such a typical response when anyone criticizes Malta — even a taxpaying resident of the country, as I was for 6 years.

      You’ll be pleased to learn that I left Malta at the start of 2017. Also, I’m Canadian, not British. Justin Trudeau is our problem, but Boris certainly isn’t.

      Finally, it might interest you to know that I’m just finishing up a book about my experiences in Malta. Stay tuned for that. (-PS- you won’t like it)

      • Ryan Murdock, I’m pleased to have come across this site by chance. My roots are in Malta and despite having been away from my birthplace for 56 years, there will always be something of that island which I will forever own : memories, of course and some indefinable spiritual sense of life.
        All this notwithstanding, I could not agree with you more about the rot, corruption, seediness, ugliness, pollution that is present-day Malta.
        I would be very interested to know the take from a dispassionate, engaged bystander – my courteous request.
        Kind regards
        Mary Mills

        • Hi Mary,

          Thank you for checking out my site. It’s very sad to see the way Malta changed during my time there. The people will continue to pay the price for the corruption of Joseph Muscat’s government for many years to come.

          I’ve been writing a weekly column on these issues in The Shift since 2018. You can find it here if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

          I’ve also written a book that covers the years I lived in Malta. It includes the political takeover of the country by a kleptocracy, but it’s also about cultural impressions and day to day life. That’s making the rounds now, looking for a publisher.

          Best wishes, hope you had a nice Christmas.

          • Thank you Ryan. I would definitely like to get a copy of your book and will be looking out for its publication.
            And thank you for the link.
            I (sort of) follow what goes on in Malta through a daily glance at the ToM. Mostly. The machinations and wheels within wheels, I can to some extent imagine, but not have had time to go into.
            My thanks once again. Best wishes for 2022


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