|Author: Dorothy L. Zinn|
|Affiliation: Free University of Bozen|
By Dorothy L. Zinn
Raccomandazione (n.) is a widespread phenomenon in Italian culture that refers to the use of social connections in order to get things done. In English, it can loosely be translated in a more literal sense as ‘recommendation’ or ‘reference’, but its connotation is more accurately that of clout, string pulling, influence and morally dubious backscratching. Informal practices in numerous other societies bear strong analogies to raccomandazione: among these, we may consider French piston, Russian blat, Chinese guanxi, Spanish enchufismo, and German Vitamin B (‘B’ as in Beziehung, meaning relationship, see this volume).
In Italian, raccomandazione has a colloquial synonym, la spintarella (little push), other expressions associated with it include: ungere le ruole (to grease the wheels), il calcio nel sedere (a kick in the rear end [to propel someone forward]), and la chiave (a key [to open doors]). In spite of its common occurrence, a significant social stigma surrounds raccomandazione, and it is therefore often referred to with the euphemism segnalazione (put a good word in for someone). In addition to its verb form, raccomandare, the key nouns deriving from raccomandazione are raccomandato and raccomandante. The raccomandato is a person who, bearing a raccomandazione, makes use of it to achieve some end. The term is derogatory, usually used to describe someone who has unjustly received some benefit, implying that he lacks merit or has violated proper procedures in order to get ahead. The raccomandante is the person who, enjoying a position of power, prestige or influential relations, recommends the raccomandato. A third term of more recent usage (especially in the press) but less widely adopted, is raccomandatario, which denotes a person who is on the receiving end of a raccomandazione and who is presumably able to grant the request.
Among its wide-ranging implications, the term raccomandazione evokes principally the practice of using connections to find employment, especially in an attempt to secure a job in the public sector. This fact has led to the consolidation of an Italian cultural stereotype of the civil servant who, under-qualified and motivated primarily by the job security and benefits provided by public employment, has undeservingly managed to land such a job through his connections, and who performs his work in a lackadaisical manner. By association, raccomandazione is further linked to the overall perception of a bloated, Byzantine Italian bureaucracy. As a result, bureaucratic inefficiency itself begets the need for yet more raccomandazioni in order to speed things up or otherwise improve the delivery of services in the public sphere, including public hospitals. In the education sector, school and university students may become raccomandati in order to obtain better marks, often thanks to the initiative taken by their parents. More generally, raccomandazione can come into play in virtually every sphere of daily life: even in shopping or dining out, where a raccomandazione can be deployed to receive special attention (un occhio di riguardo) or a discount.
Raccomandazione can encompass relatively innocuous interactions, such as the performance of a small courtesy, as well as more blatant forms of illegality. In the latter sense, it bears nuances that shade into bribes (tangenti, including the practice of bustarella, see this volume), corruption and organised crime (mafia) — all of which may well feature the use of raccomandazioni. As a form of patronage-clientelism, raccomandazione can easily become bound up with chains of illicit and/or illegal exchanges for votes and other resources such as disability pensions, permits or jobs. On the other hand, raccomandazione can also be viewed in positive terms as a means of leveling the playing field in order to give an underdog a chance. The implication here is that because the well-to-do are automatically privileged, and others will be equipped with raccomandazioni, an otherwise deserving person may be unfairly penalized by the lack of a raccomandazione. We thus perceive the moral complexities surrounding raccomandazione, a phenomenon that Italians have often defined as a central negative feature of their own identity: associated with slyness, slighted as a poor man’s making do (l’arte dell’arrangiarsi), and denounced as illegality, it is simultaneously an expression of positive values of family, friendship, solidarity and reciprocity.
Early social science treatments of Italian raccomandazione from the 1950s to the early 1970s framed the discussion in terms of patronage-clientelism issues that characterised a large part of the Mediterranean region, looking in particular at rural contexts. Such traditional clientelistic relationships featured vertical, dyadic ties between the raccomandante and raccomandato. In urban settings, the use of raccomandazioni for electoral patronage and organised crime has received greater attention (Gellner and Waterbury 1977, Chubb 1982). In Italy and in many other Mediterranean settings, the literature also describes how the language and practice of god-parenthood consolidated such relations. Moreover, Jeremy Boissevain’s pioneering work in Sicily (1966) noted the homologies between raccomandazione in patronage-clientelism and the Catholic religion, in which the devout may recommend themselves to the saints in order to reach a purpose. More recent analyses (Zinn 2001, 2013) have traced continuity and change in raccomandazione with Italy’s modernisation, underlining the way in which this cultural category and practice remains deeply entrenched. Post-war Italian society created the conditions for a ‘democratisation’ of raccomandazione, allowing it to become consolidated in new spheres and among ever-wider segments of the population.
The post-war expansion of raccomandazione is visible in Italian popular culture: an extremely well known cultural trope in Italian society, raccomandazione has been depicted in numerous examples of Italian cultural production. One significant literary work is Alberto Moravia’s short story, La raccomandazione. The theme has also received attention periodically in cinematic representations, for example in classic films like I mostri (1963) and Mi manda Picone (1984), but also in more recent works such as C’è chi dice no (2011) and Quo Vado? (2015). With some irony (and self-irony), RAI public television used raccomandazione as the driving concept behind the television talent program I raccomandati, which ran for nine seasons (2003-2011).
Raccomandazione is difficult to research empirically because of the embarrassment and stigma associated with the phenomenon; nonetheless, people are generally willing to discuss cases of raccomandazione involving others. Despite the challenge of quantifying instances of raccomandazione, surveys published in Italian newspapers routinely report that a substantial percentage of persons interviewed utilise raccomandazioni when seeking employment. Quite apart from the empirical manifestations of raccomandazione, the ethnographic method employed in Zinn (2001) focused on the importance of its ideological dimensions. It was found that even in instances in which no actual raccomandazione had taken place, informants often assumed that one was involved. Moreover, the long-term, intimate approach of ethnography allows for the development of relations of trust that favour data gathering despite a tendency for secrecy, and it effectively probes the morally ambivalent stances that people maintain with regard to raccomandazione.
Commonplace though the practice is, there is nonetheless widespread condemnation of raccomandazione in Italian society, and the 2012 Anti-Corruption Law (n. 190) attempted to make it illegal by defining it as ‘traffic of illicit influences’. Yet from a strictly legal point of view, court decisions have continued to decree that it is not a crime in the context of putting in a good word for someone. If, however, raccomandazione is supplemented with gifts or payment to a civil servant, it constitutes bribery or corruption in a penal sense. Raccomandazione persists in Italy in its various forms, even though measures for accountability and transparency have been enacted in the public administration since the 1990s. Simultaneously, the possible benefits made available through the public sector (especially jobs) have diminished through budget cuts and the shrinking of the welfare state. However, a new cultural awareness emphasising meritocracy has gained increasing consensus among the younger generations of Italians: they often hesitate to ask for raccomandazioni or will protest more readily when they find that an injustice or a crime has been committed through the use of connections.
References and Bibliography
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