Iwas born in Milan in 1937. On my mother’s side, my family background was bourgeois. My grandfather, the son of Swiss immigrants to Italy, had risen from the ranks of the labour aristocracy to establish his own factories in the early twentieth century, manufacturing textile machinery and later, heating and air-conditioning equipment. My father was the son of a railway worker, born in Tuscany. He came to Milan and got a job in my maternal grandfather’s factory—in other words, he ended up marrying the boss’s daughter. There were tensions, which eventually resulted in my father setting up his own business, in competition with his father-in-law. Both shared anti-fascist sentiments, however, and that greatly influenced my early childhood, dominated as it was by the war: the Nazi occupation of Northern Italy after Rome’s surrender in 1943, the Resistance and the arrival of the Allied troops.
My father died suddenly in a car accident, when I was 18. I decided to keep his company going, against my grandfather’s advice, and entered the Università Bocconi to study economics, hoping it would help me understand how to run the firm. The Economics Department was a neo-classical stronghold, untouched by Keynesianism of any kind, and no help at all with my father’s business. I finally realized I would have to close it down. I then spent two years on the shop-floor of one of my grandfather’s firms, collecting data on the organization of the production process. The study convinced me that the elegant general-equilibrium models of neo-classical economics were irrelevant to an understanding of the production and distribution of incomes. This became the basis of my dissertation. Then I was appointed as assistente volontario, or unpaid teaching assistant to my professor—in those days, the first rung on the ladder in Italian universities. To earn my living I got a job with Unilever, as a trainee manager.
How did it come about that you went to Africa in 1963, to work in the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland?
Why I went there was pretty straightforward. I learnt that British universities were actually paying people to teach and do research—unlike the position in Italy, where you had to serve for four or five years as an assistente volontario before there was any hope of a paid job. In the early 1960s the British were setting up universities throughout their former colonial empire, as colleges of British ones. The ucrn was a college of the University of London. I had put in for two positions, one in Rhodesia and one in Singapore. They called me for an interview in London and, because the ucrn was interested, they offered me the job as Lecturer in Economics. So I went.
It was a true intellectual rebirth. The mathematically modelled neo-classical tradition I’d been trained in had nothing to say about the processes I was observing in Rhodesia, or the realities of African life. At ucrn I worked alongside social anthropologists, particularly Clyde Mitchell, who was already doing work on network analysis, and Jaap Van Velsen, who was introducing situational analysis, later reconceptualized as extended case-study analysis. I went to their seminars regularly and was greatly influenced by the two of them. Gradually, I abandoned abstract modelling for the concrete, empirically and historically grounded theory of social anthropology. I began my long march from neo-classical economics to comparative-historical sociology.