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Prostitutes and Lemon Trees: John Dickie’s ‘New Mafia Historiography’ Fails Without Social Science –The Class Character of Crime

Prostitutes and Lemon Trees: John Dickie’s ‘New Mafia Historiography’ Fails Without Social Science –The Class Character of Crime

Tom Verso (April 10, 2013)
Future Mafiosi – Evil Incarnate

With ‘friends’ like the new Mafia historiographers, Terroni don’t need ‘enemies’. ----Donna Gabaccia, the Keynote Speaker at the 2012 Italian American Studies Association, is the former president of the Social Science History Association (SSHA). As the title suggests, the scholars in SSHA do not make a clear ‘either/or’ distinction between historiography and the social sciences. Indeed, their website states: “The quality of historical explanation is improved by the use of social science theories and methods.” ---- Standing in stark contraction to the SSHA philosophy is John Dickie, the Keynote Speaker at the 2012 American Association of Italian Studies (AAIS), who argues that Mafia History is qualitatively improved since historians have separated themselves from the “fuzzy lines of sociological jargon.” ---- While Dickie is a ‘document historian’ par excellence and a ‘must-read’ for south of Rome students; nevertheless, a careful consideration of his work demonstrates the folly of attempting to write history in the absence of social science concepts. Thus, for example, as a document historian, he provides detailed descriptions of the different attitudes about prostitution held by the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Neapolitan Camorra. However, failing to provide a rigorous sociological theory of prostitution in the respective societies, his explanation of the difference is superficial at best. Further, as is typical in post-Marxist academia, the class character of crime generally is not even mentioned let alone described, analyzed and entertained as a causal hypothesis. In short, after all the document research done, Dickie falls back on the traditional ‘white hat good cowboys vs. black hat bad cowboys’ explanation of crime south of Rome.


 Preface – the word ‘Mafia’

The word Mafia has become a generic, almost metaphoric, term for crime organizations. Thus, in Sicily and the United States, what is often referred to as the Mafia, is in fact called “Cosa Nostra” by the members of the respective organizations. Further, Dickie writes:

“[The word] mafia is commonly applied to criminals far beyond Sicily and the United States, There are other criminal associations based in other regions of southern Italy, and all of them are sometimes called ‘mafia’: the Sacra Corona Unita, in Puglia; the ‘Ndrangheta, in Calabria; and the Camorra, in the city of Naples and its environs.
[Also,] it has become an umbrella label for a whole world panoply of gangs – Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Chechen, Albanian, Turkish and so on…” (Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia p 21).
Dickie, in his book and AAIS talk, similarly uses the word ‘mafia’ generically for ‘crime organizations’. Thus, the title of his book is Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia, and he writes: “This book is selective in that it is a history of the mafia of Sicily”. Clearly, he uses the words ‘Mafia’ and ‘Cosa Nostra’ interchangeably to denote the same organization.
Similarly, the title of his AAIS presentation was Women in the mafias. Mafia is in plural form implying more than one organization called mafia; specifically Cosa Nostra, Camorra, ‘Ndrangheta are collectively called mafias
The student of Italian organized crime must read critically and always be sure which organization is being described or if the description is applicable to all the various Italian crime organizations.
Professor Dickie posits that in recent decades a significant change has occurred in scholarly mafia writing. Before the 1980s mafia writing took the form of sociological theorizing. Such “fuzzy” sociological writing lacking empirical historical document research was inaccurate and misleading.
More recently, the combination of mafia informants providing hitherto unknown information about mafia organizations and digging into ninetieth and early twentieth archives, historians have established a far more factual basis of mafia characteristics and behavior. Dickie says:
"It has only been since the 1980s that organize crime has been perceived as having a history worth researching and recounting. The birth of the ‘new historiography’ of organize crime is closely related to judicial investigation since the 1980s and the corresponding mafia informants. 
This break though in historiography constituted a significant break with an anthropological culturist approach to criminal organizations. (AAIS YouTube video of first 30 minutes of presentation:
“What has emerged in the last few years is a much fuller historical description of the Sicilian mafia…[replacing] the fuzzy lines of sociological jargon. (Cosa Nostra… p. 19)
Professor Dickie’s criticism of early mafia scholarship lacking empirical documentation seemingly is correct, and historians have since made great strides in providing more factual information based on Mafiosi testimonies and archive research. However, in the ‘throw-out the baby with the bathwater’ department, he seems to have come to the conclusion that past shortcomings of social science implies no need for social science at all. Accordingly, his narratives are informative and very interesting; but lacking social scientific concepts and contextualization they fall far short of meaningful causal explanations of mafia organizations and crime.
History and Social Science … Description and Explanation
Knowledge of the past is inferred from the study of remnants of the past. Thus, for example:
- evolutionary biologists reconstruct past life forms based on fossils;
- archeologists reconstruct past human societies based on tools, potshards, etc.;
- historians reconstruct past societies based on documents. 
In this sense, John Dickie is an excellent historian. Based on his own and other historians source document research in the archives of Sicily and southern Italy, he has written detailed descriptive narratives about various crime organizations collectively know as ‘mafia’. His books are must-reads for students of mafia and south of Rome history.
Description vs. Explanation
However, students must also keep in mind that the works of historians qua historians are essentially descriptive. Remnant documents can tell us the facts of history: who did what to whom where and when. However, explanations of past events (i.e. the ‘causes of those events’) entail positing some general behavioral theory.
In short, the historian can tell us what happened based on documentary evidence. But when and if s/he ventures into an explanation of why it happened, then s/he transcends historiography and engages in social science. This melding of historiography and social science is the raison d'être of the Social Science History Association; specifically, as per their website: “The quality of historical explanation is improved by the use of social science theories and methods.”
Explanation entails theoryTheorizing is the logical process of scientific thinking about the causes of events. Theorizing about the causes of historical social events is social science history.
Professor Dickie’s AAIS presentation of prostitution in Italian mafias illustrates the distinction between historiography and social science.
Class Character of Prostitution:  Sicilian ‘Cosa Nostra’ vs. Neapolitan ‘Camorra’
Dickie reports that the Cosa Nostra did not engage in prostitution; Sicilian mafiosi did not pimp women. However, in Naples, pimping women was very common among the men of the Camorra. (AAIS video)
{ note: Interestingly, in her very scholarly Mafia Brotherhoods: Organized Crime, Italian Style, Letizia Paoli also reports that, unlike the Neapolitan Camorra, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Calabrian ′Ndrangheta had prohibitions against prostitutions. 
Further, American Mafia organizations had similar prohibitions with the exception of the Chicago area, which had a large Neapolitan population. (pp. 7, 159, 217) }
Dickie goes on to say that the Camorra pimps were often romantically involved with their prostitutes. Husbands, for example pimped their wives, and lovers their girlfriends.
These are descriptions of attitudes about prostitution in the respective crime organizations and regions. However, when we ask the question why the difference, we pass from the realm of description into that of explanation; i.e. social science history
Dickie posits that the reason for the difference is the class character of the respective crime organizations. The Sicilian mafia was organized on “dynastic” lines; i.e. intermarrying of mafia crime families, which led to the prohibition of prostitution. 
Whereas, the Camorra was of, what Dickie calls, the “sub-proletarian” class and therefore not “dynastic”. He develops these arguments in some detail (AAIS video). However, for present purposes I would just note two things: (1) this type of explanation is essentially sociological and (2) frankly it seems to me to a tad “fuzzy”.
Sociology of Class Implications of Crime and Culture
While Dickie is comfortable invoking class as an explanatory hypothesis for differences in attitudes towards prostitution in the two crime organizations, he seems oblivious to the class character of crime in general.
Having rejected “fuzzy sociology” explanations of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, he de facto falls back on the traditional journalistic ‘good guys’ vs. ‘bad guys’ explanation. The Mafiosi are bad people who exploit and brutalize good people. "Murder", he writes, "is the rasion d'eter [of the mafia] (Cosa Nostra... p.19).
Paradigm Hollywood-esque Mafia Story
For example, his book’s first chapter begins with a classic journalistic/movie melodramatic paradigm about the victimization of a ‘good’ man by a ‘bad’ mafioso: Dr Galati and the Lemon Garden” (note: the almost children’s story like title).
In the mid-1870s, Dr. Galati was the owner a ten-acre lemon grove. Lemons were a very valuable Sicilian export product, thus the grove represented significant wealth. The ‘good’ doctor is victimized by the mafia. His grove manger was stealing from him. When the doctor fired the manager, the newly hired manager was killed. The doctor gets letters threating him and his family. The doctor determines that the source of the threats/extortion is the head of the local mafia cosa (family) Antoniono Giammona. The doctor goes to the police for help, but to no avail; they are helpless. Finally, the doctor gives up, abandons the grove and moves his family to Naples.
According to Dickie, the Lemon Grove story may be considered a Sicilian mafia paradigm: Bad triumphs over Good again and again in Sicily until the late twentieth century when the white hat Judge Giovanni Falcone rides in to defeat the black hat Mafiosi – Does this sound like an HBO movie plot or what?
Now in social scientific sociological terms consider the class character of the doctor protagonist and Mafioso antagonist.
Social Scientific Analysis and Hypothesis
Protagonist: Dr. Galati is a medical doctor. Thus, he is representative of an infinitesimally small percentage of highly educated Sicilians in a population were the vast majority completely lack formal education and are illiterate. His education is indicative of his family’s wealth and he married into the wealthy lemon grove owning family.
{note: While Dickie makes much of the dynastic characteristics of the Sicilian mafia, he does not mention the dynasties of wealthy families; i.e. rich marrying rich. e.g. The Leopard: “…in recent years the consequences of the frequent marriages between cousins due to territorial calculations...”}
The lemon grove places the good doctor in an infinitesimally small percentage of land/asset owning Sicilians. The vast majority of Sicilians at the time owned neither land nor other forms of wealth producing assets.
Indicative of Galati’s wealth and high social standing, he has season tickets to the theater and when he became exasperated with the lemon grove situation he could afford to leave it and move to Naples.
Antagonist: The head of the local mafia Antonino Giammona “was born into a desperately poor peasant family, started his working life as a labourer and took part in the revolutions of 1848 and 1860.”(Cosa Nostra… p. 42)
{note: for detail descriptions of the class character of post-Risorgimento Sicily see the linked articles in the Related Articles box.}
Clearly, this clash between the doctor and the mafioso has a class character; the clash of (bad) poor man vs. a (good) rich man
But, Dickie does not seem to find the class character of the conflict a significant explanatory variable. Rather, he theorizes that this Lemon Grove melodrama is representative of the general causes (i.e. general theory) of the “origins of the mafia”. He writes:
“Dr. Galati’s story picks out an important strand in the story of the mafia’s origins…the origins of the mafia are closely related to the origins of an untrustworthy state – the Italian state.” (p 44)
By “untrustworthy state” Dickie means the failure of the state to stop bad poor men like Giammona from victimizing good rich men like Galati. A trustworthy state, needless to say, is a state that uses its police and military forces to protect the good one-percent of the population that owns and controls the wealth from the bad ninety-nine percent ‘great unwashed’ property and asset-less masses.
When Giammona and other mafiosi rise up supporting the Sicilian bourgeoisie against the Bourbon state in the revolutions of 1848 and 1860, they are good men fighting for justice. When the same men challenge the post-Risorgimento Sicilian bourgeoisie allied Piedmontese state they are criminals. 
Palermo University professor Salvator Lupo wrote in his amazing book “History of the Mafia”:
“The options available to the starving peasants in southern Italy circa 1880 were summarized by Italian Prime Minister Francesco Saverio Nitti “O emigrante o brigante” – Either emigrant or brigand (p. xii)
Such was the mentality of the trustworthy state towards the progenitors of southern-Italian Americana. The trustworthy state gave Antonino Giammona three choices: crime, emigration or starvation.
But academicians such as Dickie would have us lament the rich Dr. Galati and his class, ignore the staving, and romanticize the Little Italy emigrants.
Interesting – No?

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ummm, so why the difference

ummm, so why the difference in attitudes towards prostitution then? That seems to be the more interesting question here, but it wasn't really addressed:-)