Seeking new answers to an old issue: The Italian north-south divide

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An experimental economics study at the University of Bologna explains why northern and southern Italians behave differently when it comes to cooperating and trusting others.

The study – a result of the European project “Strangers”, led by professors Marco Casari and Diego Gambetta  of the Economics Department of the University of Bologna – aims to explain why, 150 years after Unification, the divide between Northern and Southern Italy is still there, and why the sharing of a common language, of a government, and of religious and media institutions, as well as of geographical mobility have failed to bridge the divide, and why all efforts in the field of economic policies have fallen short of success.

‘Our study in experimental economics allowed us to establish that even in the absence of structural or institutional constraints, northern and southern Italians behave differently when it comes to trusting others or putting themselves on the line to cooperate with others’, says Marco Casari Professor of Political Economy at the Alma Mater and leader of the project.

With a view to explain why Italians from the South are less cooperative, the study produced unexpected results. ‘Based on our data’, Casari continues, ‘we contend such difference is not to be imputed to differences in “human capital” nor to “amoral familism”, that is the tendency to disregard the interests of the community and pursue those of one’s immediate family members.’

Casari and his colleagues argue that the high number of violent conflicts against external enemies sweeping many Centre-North cities in the last millennium have favored a stronger ability to cooperate, ‘whereas the South’, adds Diego Gambetta, Professor of Social Theory at EUI, Florence, ‘has been largely pacific and united for almost one thousand years; thus, paradoxically, it has had comparatively less need to get on with others. Moreover, the Spanish colonization, in the South, and the failed attempts to overthrow it may have further undermined the ability to trust.’

At the origin of the divide there might be a vicious circle made up of backwardness and a sense of powerlessness caused by a history of too many negative experiences. ‘The bad news’, concludes Gambetta, ‘is that it is certainly not easy to change such deep-seated behaviors, however, the good news is that changing “culture” is not a question of money!’

STRANGERS was made possible thanks to the financial support of a Starting Grant from the European Research Council, 2010-2014, FP7-IDEAS.

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