Professor Isabella Clough Marinaro Publishes Book on Rule Bending in Rome
Isabella Clough Marinaro, a sociologist and Associate Professor of Italian Studies at JCU, recently published the book Inhabiting Liminal Spaces: Informalities in Governance, Housing, and Economic Activity in Contemporary Italy (Routledge, 2022). One chapter is co-authored by JCU’s Professor Paola Castelli. The book examines how rule-bending occurs in Rome by combining a political economy perspective with fieldwork research in informal housing, illegal moneylending, unauthorized street vending, and waste collection. It demonstrates that although many actors are involved in constructing the norms through which rule negotiation occurs, these practices are ultimately unable to reconfigure historically rooted power dynamics in the city. Rather than assuming that informalities are features of specific groups or sectors, the book shows that rule-bending is built into social and power relations at all levels of the city’s functioning, including through its formal institutions.
What sparked your interest to write the book?
I have been doing research with marginalized social groups in Rome since the mid-1990s. In recent years it became clear to me that formal rules are often crafted in ways that make it impossible for those who lack money and the right social networks to conform. For a while, I was doing single ethnographic studies, looking at how specific groups tried to negotiate with those rules and with the people tasked with enforcing them (the police, city bureaucrats, NGO workers, etc.). When you are outside the rules, you live in a state of constant danger, a fear of punishment which can involve losing everything that is important to you: your loved ones, your home, your work, your freedom. What really interested me was how people at once try to adhere to rules that provide some safety and stability while also breaking them in order to survive financially. It’s that juggling, that moving in and out of the law that really fascinates me. This grey area, where rules are bent and applied selectively, is known in sociology as informality and it exists everywhere. What I wanted to do with this book, though, is show that huge parts of Rome’s social management involve this selective flexibility of rules. But it does not affect everybody the same way: while people with financial, social, political and cultural capital can use malleable rules to their advantage, this lack of regulatory certainty is actually deeply disempowering for many others. So, the book goes beyond single case-studies to show that informality is part of a larger system of power inequalities in Italy.
How much of your research was theoretical, as opposed to connecting with people on an individual level? What do you think is the value of interpersonal relationships in research?
My research always starts on the ground, by building interpersonal relationships with the individuals and communities that I am studying. I need to convince them that I can be trusted and that I will represent their concerns fairly, and that I am going to break the stereotypes that are usually spread about them. Their perspectives are the ones that are rarely voiced in public discourse, so – like any ethnographer – my fieldwork aims to understand their lives, their experiences, and their points of view. You can only do that through empathy and reciprocity. But ethnography also requires that you see all sides of the situation, all the dynamics at play. So, I try to meet many different types of actors involved and observe a wide variety of interactions and discourses so that my understanding is not one-sided. I integrate theories developed by scholars in different settings when these help to understand the patterns that I am seeing on the ground. Where these explanations are not enough, I build my own theoretical frameworks. Ultimately, every research project must be true to the social context that it is studying. So, my conclusions do not try to develop broad generalizations – they all pertain to Rome, because they are all an outcome of its very specific social and political history, its geographies and its economic realities.
Do you think it is possible for disadvantaged people to build comfortable lives with the current system in Rome?
I think it is difficult to generalize. On the one hand, the book traces the systemic ways in which bureaucracies make it very difficult for disadvantaged groups to maintain secure and comfortable lives. On the other, it shows the richness of solidarity networks and the creative strategies that people use to make their lives better. It unpacks how very different types of people work around a system that does not always account for their actual situations, even when it tries to serve them.
What would the ideal governance, housing, and economic systems in Rome look like? How can we work towards them?
The book is not very optimistic. It tracks the roots of the current problems back to when Rome became the capital of Italy, and then the city’s very fast and problematic development during Fascism and the post-WW2 period. It shows how poor planning and contradictory policies have been built one on top of the other, leaving all sorts of regulatory gaps and inconsistencies. Some of these were accidental and some of them were purposefully built into the system. Untangling these problems and the ways people have learned to adapt to them is now difficult. For example, the reason there are so many people squatting in public housing or living in unsafe accommodation today comes from decades of failure to plan for a changing urban population and, especially, a political approach that has generally advanced the private housing market while paying very little attention to low-income housing needs.
What I argue at the end of the book is that there needs to be an audit across many of the city’s governance systems. Regulations need to be simplified, streamlined, and redefined in communication with the urban groups that they are supposed to be managing and protecting. You have to work with people who are kept outside of the rules to make it possible for them to fit in the rules. A major part of the current problem is a lack of real connection between many public offices and the population’s needs. This often leads to a lack of accountability in the offices, coupled with real damage to the lives of the people involved. Here’s an example: under the last city administration, various Roma camps were demolished in Rome, with the claim that residents would be provided with integrated housing and – crucially – that the families would be involved in discussions about where they would be moved. This did not happen. Only a small proportion received affordable housing and when they were, family support networks were often badly hit. In various cases, when the families arrived at the apartments they were assigned, there were already other people there squatting. So, they were taken to another place, and it happened again and again. Ultimately, families were broken up and scattered all over Rome, far from their schools, work, and social networks. And all of this was a result of the authorities themselves not knowing who was living in the housing they were managing. Similar dynamics happen across all the sectors studied in my book. It is not just about individuals breaking the rules, but a system that has been unable to ensure that rules are applied fairly and equally.
What is your research process? How do you choose research topics and assistants?
My new research projects generally build on thoughts and frustrations from my previous ones. While I am researching one issue, a whole new set of questions open in my mind. I have an ongoing list of these that I put aside for the future and, as each project finishes, I go to it to think about what I want to do next. While I was writing this book, for example, I was struck by the strong presence of social activist groups trying to promote the voices and needs of the vulnerable actors I was researching. What really concerned me though, when talking to them, was how many obstacles they too had to face to reach their goals. They were also burdened by unwieldy bureaucracies and unreasonable time frames imposed from outside, while also struggling with a shortage of funds and personnel. So much of their energy was expended on dealing with external barriers, making it difficult for them to make the very necessary changes they were fighting for. So, the idea developed to do a project that analyzes how grassroots social movements operate in Italy within the existing structures of opportunity and challenges. That is what I’m working on now, looking especially at ones that are campaigning around issues of crime, contentious legislation, and the need for judicial reform.
I choose people to be my research assistants who are passionate about the issues that I am studying. I particularly want them to be proactive and honest with me, to feel free to debate, and to tell me when my arguments do not make sense. I need them to make me look at things in different ways, and to help me learn to use technologies that I would otherwise struggle with. I take students from across different majors because what is important is not the discipline you are formally in, but the elasticity of your brain and your desire to learn how research is done and to help me find creative and collaborative ways to do it.