A Strange Study on Italian Nepotism


These are dark days for Italy. The country’s bond yields are way up; Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi looks to be on his way out. And Italian soccer superstar Antonio Cassano is in the hospital recovering from a suspected stroke.

What better time then to blog about a strange new study about Italian nepotism? Authors Ruben Durante, Giovanna Labartino and Roberto Perotti study the effects that a 1998 law decentralizing the hiring process at Italian universities had on levels of nepotism. Pre-1998, candidates for academic positions were selected through a national process. After 1998, however, universities were given the power to hire their own professors. The researchers found that this decentralization led to increased nepotism in areas of “low civic capital,” but not in areas of “high civic capital.”  From the abstract:

Decentralization can lead to “good” or “bad” outcomes depending on the socio-cultural norms of the targeted communities. We investigate this issue by looking at the evolution of familism and nepotism in the Italian academia before and after the 1998 reform…

By far the most interesting part of this study is the researchers’ treatment of the term “civic capital,” something they define loosely, yet measure very narrowly. Their definition of a region with high civic capital is “an area where citizens are generally more politically involved and better informed,” and where individuals are “prone to internalize the social costs of their actions and the public is equally more likely to monitor the conduct of public officials.”

How do they measure such behavior? By just two things: the size of non-sport newspaper readership, and the rates of blood donation. So, what they’re essentially saying is that reading the news (outside of the sports page) and donating blood are strong indicators of one’s high civic capital. It’s certainly an interesting way of measuring a pretty vague concept. But surely there must be a more robust method. What about rates of voting? Or crime maybe?

Go ahead readers, how would you measure a region’s civic capital?


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  1. Ron says:

    Any variable that supports my world view.

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  2. Alberto says:

    Did anyone actually looked at the paper? I think it is a useful work in that it demonstrates (once more maybe) that decentralization per se is not a panacea, but that you have to be careful who you give power to. By the way, most of the alternative measures suggested in previous comments are either not applicable to Italy (there are no volunteers in fire departments there!) or are good but no data is available at the geographic level the authors look at (the province, really small if you look at a map of Italy). Regarding the measures of civic capital they use, sure they are not perfect, but, as Tylerh mentioned, the authors just follow the approach used in two of the most cited studies in this literature – by Putnam (newspaper) and Zingales & co. (blood donation) – so the same criticism should apply to them! You may want to tell your colleagues then and let us know what they say!

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  3. jimb0 says:

    I would only point out that blood donation in Italy is completely free, i.e. you don’t get paid for the blood you donate (they just offer you an italian breakfast).

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  4. Shane says:

    I’m not sure if this would test CIVIC capital specifically, but I’ve thought of a (rather expensive) quantitative way to measure something like social capital or conscientiousness.

    Researchers would leave a cheap wallet in some public place, perhaps with a €10 note inside and some basic information like a “if you find this wallet, please return to” note including a phone number or address. This is repeated in multiple regions, perhaps with variations that always include a small amount of money, some indication of ownership, and a route to return this money back to the rightful owner.

    Researchers could see how often the wallet is returned, with or without the €10, and compare return rates from place to place. It is, though, an expensive project if return rates turn out to be low.

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  5. achilles3 says:

    i LOVE it.
    makes a ton of sense to me…all the good people I know rarely care about sports (publicly) and say they always give blood 😉

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