The Family vs. Society?


Yet another runner in the race to explain the old imponderable: ¿Por Qué es Que Estamos Como Estamos?

In a famous study half a century ago, the political scientist Edward Banfield coined the term “amoral familism” to describe how family solidarities in a southern Italian village decreased engagement in and trust of the political community as a whole. Rather than see their futures wrapped up in the success of their country and civic community, the villagers sought to maximize their family’s situation by any means necessary, no matter what the cost to the larger community.

Over the past few years, economists studying social capital around the world have been studying the question anew, and have generally found that Banfield was on to something. In an important paper, Alberto Alesina and Paola Giuliano looked at 80 countries and found that those where the family ties were weakest tended to have the strongest levels of civic and political engagement and generalized social trust. And vice versa. The top performers in terms of civic engagement were northern European countries: Denmark, the Netherlands, Lithuania, and Germany. At the bottom were the Philippines, Venezuela, Egypt, and Zimbabwe. The U.S. (the greatest democracy in the history of the universe) came in 50th.

[Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan]

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  1. Without having read the paper, I think causality probably goes the other way around: in countries where the state is weakest and where civic institutions are virtually nonexistent, people *must* rely on their family.

        • Think of all those Greek tax dodgers, justifying their decision to skip out on their obligations to society to put their families’ needs first. On the margin, the more importance they place on community rather than family, the more tax they’ll pay…

          • Wow, that sounds like liberal nirvana, people having to take food away from their families to pay taxes 😉

        • Culture trumps politics every time.That’s why Venezuela can’t pretend to be Norway, and maybe that isn’t a bad thing.

          In my opinion we should look for the best possible government within the types of government we can realistically have.

    • Shockingly enough, I agree with Herr Nagel here. If you have a strong support network, your basic needs covered, you can afford to leave the nest and leave the family relations fade away. If not, well you need to go back home when you get sick, when you have a baby, when you are out of job, etc. Every little crisis is a reminder of how vital is family to you.

      • But, who’s supposed to built the state? Some alien coming from Europa (i.e. Jupiter’s moon)? The fact is that the guys in charge of running the government are not angels, they come from the same society in which the nepotism is the rule. And these guys will bring their nepotistic attitudes to their positions in the government.
        Where should we start then?

        • Well, my comment was not a policy prescription, more a reflection on the social dynamics in play here. I do not know what comes first, but it makes sense to me that in an environment where your basic needs are covered, family ties can fade away.

  2. Just FYI in no research paper you can talk about causality, only about correlation. The research found a higly correlated thing but you cannot say is the cause. It would be really great to know the cause of evils in medicine, policy, social science, etc….We only have statistics….

  3. Estimado F. and J,

    This is a very interesting issue. I think the “strong family ties” Banfield identified are but one element of what more generally could be called “traditional society” and its “traditional values.” as opposed to “modern”/”industrial” society and “post-modern” societies and values. The most systematic study of these issues has a thirty-year series repeated survey research in a large number of countries across all areas of the world. It has been led by the political scientist Ronald Inglehart at U. Michigan at Ann Arbor. This is called the “World Values Survey.”

    For an introduction to this schema for comparing values and related issues across countries (and types of societies), including Venezuela ,see the first day of my Syllabus “Latin American Development” (at and take a look at 13 September, Item #2 — most especially the link to the World Values Survey webstie, and the link to a paper by R. Ingelhart that is a good explanation of the schema.

    The relative/absolute position(s) of Venezuela is striking in these surveys.

    Saludos, Tom

  4. We are still trying to make lieberal easter european nation state models work, as initially copied over at the time of Independence (1811) , on top of a cultural substrate that did not share the same development, or tradition, maturity that those societies from which these models were copied from at the time.

    Venezuela, was a mining enterprise. Hacer america the motto, and to compound things we had the curse (blessing) to have found el dorado in our rich natural resources lottery….

    Govermets and regimes have come and gone in the last two centuries, but our base culture remains the same, wtih archetipical examples in boves, Castro, Gomez, and Chavez. Juan Bimba, like it or not, is closer to tohos examples that to Francisco and Juan’s burguease/ modernist ideals.

    Chavez’s camp knows this well. corrupt! buy out conciensces, pan hoy, y hambre manana, circo….etc.

    What is amazing for me, and encouraging (from my world view pov) is that the modernist option as embodied in Capriles -a tradition of other archetypes a la Bello, Vargas, Medina Angarita, Betancourt, etc. is so Strong.

    Hay un camino! empredrado y dificil, cuesta arriba y peligroso, pero posible.

    • A book I find fascinating, with respect to what you are describing, Luis, is called “Men of Maracaibo” written in the early 1930’s by an American journalist who obviously spent a lot of time in Maracaibo. The language of the day is not ‘PC’; however he has insights about the persistence of traditional forms of social and labor/work organization, saying it is because the transformation of the traditional labor systems only began with the coming of the oil industry. … otherwise,colonial, agricultural forms had been persistent for some centuries. He makes contrasts to Mexico and Cuba, etc. (It is hard to generalize, but his examples and descriptions of how people lived and worked still in the early 1930’s, and social values, are interesting.) I need to read more of the Venezuelan social science literature on these historical issues .

        • Hello Juan,
          I got a couple copies of “Men of Maracaibo” (1933, by Jonathan Norton Leonard) a few years ago on Amazon very cheap, like $2.50 or $3.00). I just searched on Amazon and I found this … they want $90.00! Perhaps you can search and find one somewhere online much cheaper. If not, perhaps there is some way I could xerox or scan mine. (I’m in Berlin presently.).

          There is a chapter about the leadup to a reventon in Zulia, where the US company never evacuated the village right nearby the drilling rig when they were getting close to striking oil. It soaked everything and then ignited, incinerating the village and, apparently, most of the residents. The local priest had preached against the oil men, predicted that they were drilling to hell … and when the reventon and fire erupted, well, he was proven correct. Pics from Amuay’ reminded me of the story.

          • Wow! yes, $90,00 its too much! Since I was born in Maracaibo and raised inside the oil fields in Lagunillas, this book seems like a very interesting reading to understand many things about the impact of oil industry in our society.

            A friend of mine just finished a commemorative book about 100 years of Shell in Venezuela, and although is very “cheesy”, shows a lot of pictures and documents about Venezuela (specially Zulia State) before and after the oil boom… If you dont know about this book/CD (Imagen del paisaje petrolero venezolano) and are interested, maybe we could share using dropbox? or if you have a better idea let me know, since I dont know how many pages, and time is required to scann this book..

          • Juan, I’d love to see the Shell book. The president of the Camara in Maracaibo kindly gave me a very nice historical picture book about the history of oil in Maracaibo. Where I am now, I don’t have a scanner and Men of Maracaibo is a few hundred pages. In NYC, at my university, they have students working scanning things for us, but I won’t be back there for quite some time. Perhaps send me your e-mail/contact info at [email protected] and we can figure something out..

  5. Tom’s recommendation re Inglehart is very good. There are many other related works, most famously Putnam’s study of economic and political development in Italy (Making Democracy Work), or of course Weber’s work (and followers), for example. With respect to causality, it really runs both ways. However, it would be interesting to see their measurement strategy (will read the paper right away!)

  6. It’s a curious topic because the natural conclusion some may draw is that strong family ties create countries with weak states. However, Sweden, Norway and other northern European countries probably had strong families when the central state was weak or nonexistent. More likely these strong family ties (which manifest themselves at the upper levels of government in the form of favoritism, nepotism and corruption) thrive in nations where the state can’t really be counted on for anything. It’s an interesting idea but I don’t think strong family ties created weak states or strong states weaken family ties. More likely family ties are simply more visible in non-industrialized states with a weak rule of law and poor civic engagement.

  7. This article doesn’t strike me as very profound or original. My reaction was, “Well, of course. What else would you expect?”

    In general, the story of human civilization is the progression of people organizing themselves into larger and more complex groupings, the definitions of which are progressively broader and more abstract. When the broader group, or society, is failing the individual members of the group, the individuals naturally transfer their loyalty and allegiance to a smaller sub-grouping, the smallest of these being the family. When a society is succeeding in meeting the needs of its citizens, the individuals’ loyalty to the that society and their respect for the institutions of that society will correspond and people will feel secure in relying upon those institutions instead of their smaller sub-groupings.

  8. In 2006 the Liberal Democrats promoted a policy called Stronger families, brighter futures, which was a response to the situation with young people in the United Kingdom. To name only one issue, Education at some levels is not achieving its purpose, and there are serious problems with behaviour at secondary education level, also because the laws ( and child protection procedures)have weakened the figure of teachers and if pupils complain about any teacher, it will imply serious trouble. I really don’t see how we can copy models from other countries. Venezuela is a unique country, with the most amazing sense of humor, which is also a downfall, it is almost a way of facing life, an attitude. Personally I believe in families, families are the starting point of an individual, and in a way I believe in what the Liberal Democrats expressed in this policy. Unfortunately whatever the old study says, I must say it is not applicable to our country nowadays. Our search needs to be unique, because our social and political processes are unique. Education and civic engagement need to be reinforced in our society, we need to learn the meaning of respect, and I really don’t know how all these changes will come about. But still, I believe that Capriles is the man. I make myself believe it. No hay otra salida.

  9. I’m sorry but my BS meter went off of scale with this so called study made by Banfield, followed by Alesino & Giuliano. I’ll just put this study in the BS Room along with the same study that claimed that western countries that were following Protestantism, such as US, UK, France etc, have more chance to develop themselves and become first world country as opposed to those countries that were following Catholicism, such as Latin American countries.

    Why these people even mention or they even dare to propose such dichotomy? Family is the most basic form of society. I don’t understand the discussion of Family vs Society. I think that this is a matter of the quality of education and how family can contribute with the formation of citizens with good ethics and moral, that ultimately will make a good contribution to the society as a whole.

    This reminds me of the more recent source of disagreement among the most prominent political movement in the last century, who is in charge of the education, family or society? oh! and by society leftist means government. I can tell where this so called “economic scientist” are leaning, and what they are really not saying.

  10. Probably the best possible example, the extreme example is the kibbutzim. Family relations were indeed weak in some, the kids being raised communally, and the feeling of loyalty to the kibbutzim itself was huge. The kibbutzim were successful for a while, but eventually they died because of social, not economical, reasons


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