Altruism and sacrifice: mafia free gift giving in south Italy

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As a social phenomenon that torments modern states, mafia receives considerable political and legal attention. The term mafia itself is often directly related to criminality and violence. Thus far violence has been employed as an analytical construct that could explain compliance with the mafia ethos. Nevertheless this schema fails to take into consideration possible discourses that make mafia tolerable. Drawing on fieldwork conducted in Reggio Calabria, South Italy, this paper explores distinctive mafia notions of giving and charity. Mafia free gifts, albeit rare, are paradoxical in the sense that through elaborate speech registers both the donor and the recipient debase the very act of gift-giving so as not to be bound in relations of reciprocity and obligation. These mafia gifts, which have so far escaped anthropological attention, are conceptualised as tropes of worldly imagining aspiring to non-worldly discourses. Status, umiltà, duty and sacrifice frame free gifting as accorded to the overt religious rhetoric of mafia hierarchy.

In this paper I argue that a) free gifting embraces a series of complex non-violent discourses which relate closely to religious duty and altruism but work alongside capitalist systems b) in principal these gifts do not bind people, yet are imbued with the potential of a relation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)412-426
JournalAnthropological Forum
Issue number4
Early online date22 Sept 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Mafia
  • Free Gift
  • Altruism
  • Relatedness
  • Vincolo
  • Italy


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