TUMBY BAY - Edward Banfield was an American political scientist who studied a poverty struck Southern Italian village, Chiaromonte, in 1955.
There he discovered a self-interested society that put the needs of the family ahead of the public good.
He postulated that the backwardness of Chiaromonte could be explained in large part by the inability of the villagers to act in unison for their common benefit or for any other end not immediately related to their family interests.
He described the relationships between the villagers as rooted in distrust, envy and suspicion.
They would refuse to help one another unless there was something in it for them personally.
It was common practise for villagers to hinder the success of their neighbours in the belief that cooperation would harm their own interests.
Many people viewed their village life as a social and material battleground.
As a result social isolation prevailed and poverty was common. The inability to work together was responsible for many social problems, lack of infrastructure and an impoverished economy.
In short they did not have the social capital, habits, norms, attitudes or networks to motivate themselves to work for the common good.
Banfield called this situation an ethos of "amoral familism".
In his 1958 book, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, he set out the characteristics of amoral familism.
He said that in a society of amoral familists, no one will further the interest of the group or community unless it is to their private advantage to do so.
In other words , the hope of short run material gain is the only motive for concern with public affairs.
Organisation will be very difficult to achieve and maintain in such a society because the members lack trust and loyalty to each other and are not prepared to make individual sacrifices for the sake of community goals.
In such an organisation, office-holders, feeling no identification with the purposes of the whole organisation, will not work harder than is necessary to keep their places in it.
Similarly, professional people and educated people generally will lack a sense of mission or calling. Any official position will be regarded by the occupant as a weapon to be used against others for private advantage.
In a society of amoral familists, the law will be disregarded if there is no reason to fear punishment.
Individuals will not enter into agreements which depend upon legal processes for their enforcement unless it is likely the law will be enforced.
Office holder will take bribes if they can get away with it. And, whether or not they actually take bribes it will be assumed by the society that they do.
In a society of amoral familists the claim of any person or institution to be inspired by zeal for public rather than private advantage will be regarded as fraud.
No one will take the initiative in outlining a course of action and persuading others to embark upon it except if it is to their private advantage to do so.
In elections the amoral familist will use his ballot to secure the greatest material gain and vote against measures which help the community without helping him.
In a society of amoral familists it will be assumed that whatever group is in power is self-serving and corrupt. Hardly will an election be over before the voters will conclude that the new officials are enriching themselves and have no intention of keeping promises they made.
Many of these characteristics seem remarkably familiar in the modern context, particularly as they apply to Papua New Guinea.
Whether they have contributed to Papua New Guinea being a ‘backward’ society is questionable because there have been many other factors at play, including the diversity of cultures.
It is nevertheless interesting to see this echo from the past still reverberating today.