An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog

Labour – Critic’s corner

Book Review

Flavia Cumoli, Un tetto a chi lavora: mondi operai e migrazioni italiane nell’Europa degli anni Cinquanta, Milano: Guerini e associati, 2012

by Gian Paolo Ghirardini 

Anyone willing to embark on the study of the history of labour in Italy must confront the inevitable question of its mobility. Migration in search of labour has always assumed a variety of forms and directions: from Southern to Northern Italy, from countryside to town, from Italy itself to more industrialized countries. But how is the experience of seeking work away from the community of origin to be interpreted?

One of the possible – and very much practiced – ways is to consider the experience of migration as an encounter of immobile cultures. As is evident in  studies drawing on the American sociology of immigration, this approach ultimately leads to a focus on the problems of assimilation of the migrants in an urban environment, whilst considering the migrants themselves as actors who passively reproduce the patterns of their traditional rural culture.

Flavia Cumoli’s research on the communities of Italian immigrated workers in the Fifties challenges this view. By comparing the processes of urbanization of Italian immigrants that have settled in two different areas, the industrial pole of Sesto San Giovanni at the periphery of Milan and the mining basin of La Louvière in Belgium, she brings the importance of the migrants’ capacity for rationally designing and implementing their own strategies of living to our attention.

Flavia Cumoli’s study shows that the forms of integration in a metropolitan area were highly dependent on the motivations of the individuals that emigrated and on their prospects. For these reasons, she dedicates considerable attention to the relationship between migrants and their host countries and to the effects the administrative management of immigration had on the life – and the decisions – of the immigrants. Thus, she regains the perspective of political and institutional history, not as a ‘history of the powerful’, but as a way of accounting for the effects that institutional norms produced on immigrants’ patterns of urbanization.

Morever, Flavia Cumoli points out the importance of the concrete spatial contexts in which immigrant-workers happened to live. The integration of new comers did not occur in an abstract and generic urban society, but in the fold of specific social networks. This view allows Flavia Cumoli to fully appreciate the various functions of the community of people that accommodated the immigrants on their arrival.

Consequently, in La Louvière, whose industrial history can be traced  back to the Nineteenth century, the immigrants were encapsulated in a network of social relations already well-established on their arrival. On the contrary, in Sesto San Giovanni, which was experiencing a massive industrial upsurge  in the Fifties, the immigrants found themselves involved in a less strict network of kinship and friendship. This, as Flavia Cumoli argues, is the reason why the migrants who settled in Sesto San Giovanni were able to more easily unfold their own strategies of living.

Flavia Cumoli’s book is a well accomplished attempt to explore the history of the immigrant-workers in their social and subjective reality, beyond some of the traditional paradigms which have so far hindered our understanding of their experience.


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This entry was posted on October 30, 2012 by in Critic's corner.
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