Accepted Paper:

Conversion in the grey zone: mafia "repentants", Sicilian talk, and fieldwork dilemmas  

Author:

Theodoros Rakopoulos (University of Oslo)

Paper short abstract:

Our cognitive insight into the mafia has been mediated through "mafia repentants" confessions. Exploring their position in making and unmaking the mafia, this paper also engages in presenting dilemmas in ethnographic inquiry sometimes caught in the grey zone between mafia and antimafia.

Paper long abstract:

Silence and talk in Sicily can appear as dichotomical moral universes. The ethnography presented in this article takes into account the existing moral and moralized antithesis between concealing and revealing, in the context of Sicilian mafia and antimafia. It focuses principally on an agent challenging this apparent dichotomy, the pentiti - the mafia's 'repentants', who break the omertà and confess to the authorities of their own and their colleagues' crimes. Rejecting utilitarian approaches that see Mafiosi confessions as simple market-like exchanges between individual agents and the state, I discuss confession beyond an atomised context, through its social and socialised effects. The move of Mafiosi's confessional material from a private exchange to a matter of the public sphere has been a main insight on the inner workings of the mafia. It also recalls anthropological comparisons with religious ritual. Following this line of inquiry, the paper suggests that secular confession should be approached through the lens of its effects on the lives of others.

In pursuing how concealing and revealing are unsettled in praxis, the paper also discusses anthropological dilemmas on talk and silence. The delicacy of negotiating between those demanding silence (the mafia) and those demanding self-revelation (the antimafia activists) presents another form of unsettling, this time concerning fieldwork ethics. Bringing forward these two points of conversion between concealment and revelation, the paper attempts to unpack this conversion's intellectual challenge in terms of the problems and solutions it provides regarding our understanding of mafia, antimafia, and the grey zone in between.

Panel P049
What are we talking about when we talk about the Mafia? Futures of a contested term