Anthropological Quarterly 76.3 (2003) 549-552
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This is a welcome and refreshing addition to the existing literature on small firms and industrial districts in Italy. The author, Sylvia Junko Yanagisako, adopts a social anthropological and openly feminist approach, and looks at Italian family capitalism "from the inside out," that is, focusing upon the intra-family and intra-class relations, emotions, narratives and tensions which tend to be overlooked in other studies and yet throw much light upon, and help dispel the often romanticised interpretations of, family-based entrepreneurship.
The book begins with a critical analysis of theories of capitalism, and argues that the common assumption that "western" capitalism constitutes the norm has had the dual effect of treating culture as a given or, at best, as an institutional resource, and of "othering" different types of capitalism, including the Italian version. While perhaps not particularly new, the argument is clearly presented and entirely convincing. Its most important and most challenging tenet, in my view, is the rejection of essentialist and monolithic models of both capitalism and culture. Yanagisako therefore proposes to look at the relationship between capitalism and culture in a novel way, bringing to light how each shapes the other and how "they are constituted in relation to each other" (p. 34). This is a goal she fully achieves in the book. [End Page 549]
Less convincing is her argument that 'the paucity of empirical studies of family firms makes it difficult to assess [...] explanations of the continuing vitality of family capitalism in Italy' (p. 28). The reason for this is that many important works dealing with these issues do not appear in her bibliography. I refer in particular to the works by Corner, Dewerpe and Cento Bull (at the risk of sounding conceited), all of which deal entirely or partially with exactly the same geographical area (the Brianza comasca) and the same silk industry as this book, as well as the works by Amin, Becattini, Brusco, Forni, Garofoli, Goddard and Ramella. The omission of these works does not necessarily detract from the validity of the arguments put forward in this volume, but it does deprive Yanagisako of interesting and even contrasting points of reference and comparison.
The main part of the book presents a rich, detailed and fascinating empirical study of 38 upper, middle and lower bourgeois families which own and run firms in the Como-based silk industry. The analysis brings out the contradictions between the dominant narratives presented in official documents or in the interviews conducted by the author with owners and managers, and the alternative representations of reality put forward by other family members, especially women, as well as by archival records. While the dominant narratives emphasised the role played by (male) individuals in setting up the firm and making it successful through different generations, the reality was much more a collective effort on the part of entire families, often with the active involvement (not least financial) of female members. The research findings therefore unearth a wealth of information concerning the "erasure" of female genealogy in the history of firm formation, the recurrent sidelining of daughters and sisters from key management posts and their less than equal treatment when it comes to inheriting the family wealth, so as to ensure the preservation of the firm and the protection of its assets.
The emphasis in the dominant narratives on the all-important role of male individuals (grandfathers, fathers, sons) does not exclude, and indeed is presented as compatible with, a corresponding emphasis on family unity, trust and cooperation. While these are without doubt important elements in accounting for the vitality of Italian small firms, Yanagisako explores the reality behind the façade and brings to light numerous episodes of serious disagreements, conflict and betrayal involving members of the same family. In particular, she shows how extended families are the exception rather than the norm when it comes to running a family firm. It is the nuclear family which...