The cultural basis of local development


This article presents the results of a research on the elite of the Italian small city of Asti and the cultural models that influence its role in the local governance process. The research work was motivated by the need to better understand the challenges this territory face in articulating a shared vision of its future, which would have the potential to inspire and steer strategic actions for the local development. Hence, the aim of the analysis carried out was to integrate the field of local development studies with the power and elite studies, through a research method that is centred on discourse analysis.

1 Research objectives

On the basis of the analysis of the local press articles and of the literature on the subject of Asti development occurred over the last ten years (Bordone et al. 2006, Ercole 2004, Luciano et al. 2011), as well of several interviews conducted preliminarily with several privileged observers of the territory, two key research objectives have been defined:

– to identify shared social representations that have characterized the issue of Asti development over the last ten years;

– to delineate the local elite, with the purpose of focusing the discourse analysis on the social actors that are capable of exercising strategic influence on political, economic, cultural and moral orientations of the urban community.

2 Theoretical framework

The adoption of the analytical category of elite in the study on the governance of the local development in the town of Asti is based on empirical findings of previous studies concerning these issues (Belligni 2005). Firstly, power results to have the structure of a compact network (Barabasi 2004), organized around a central group of people who play the dominant role in the life of the local community.

Secondly, the elite influence directly or indirectly the policy making process (Belligni, Ravazzi, Salerno 2008; Scalon 2005; Tosi & Vitale 2011), both in terms of decision-making and of non-decision-making process (Bachrach e Baratz 1962).

In the third place, the formal power structure does not correspond to the actual decision-makers as, along with the affirmation of the concept of governance, networks of public and private actors, more or less legitimate and representative, are taking over the policy making role (Belligni 2004, Le Galès 1995, 2002; Perulli 2007; Pichierri 2011).

With regard to the analysis of local power structure, the methodology adopted was based on the approach used by Belligni in his comparative analysis of the processes of local governance in the cities of Turin, Milan, Naples and Florence (Belligni 2005). The author suggests to distinguish, within the general concept of elite, the concept of urban elite from the concept of “government coalition” – the network of persons that influence directly or indirectly the public policies – focusing attention on the latter and on its inner circle (Belligni 2005).

The Analysis of elite culture in relation to the local development issue was based on the social nature of the phenomenon examined by this study – the difficulties of the territory of Asti to elaborate a shared vision of a new and effective future development trajectory – and of its implications in the definition of appropriate strategies aiming at empowering the local community to take steps in this direction. The understanding of the mentioned difficulties that are generated by a social action imply a reflection in terms of the theory of action.

The hypothesis at the basis of this research is that the human action is motivated by the shared set of meanings that are lived by actors (through material and symbolic practices), falling into an interpretative paradigm of social sciences (Weber 1922a, 1922b; Geertz, 1973; Grasso & Salvatore 1997; Farr & Moscovici 1984; Fischer & Forester 1993; Yanow, 2006). The identification of the shared meanings related to the development of Asti represent the specific objective of this research, proceeding from the assumption that only from the understanding and elaboration of these shared meanings can the change take place.

This part of the research was conducted on the grounds of a theoretical-methodological integration of the Theory of the Social Representations by Moscovici (Moscovici 1984, Palmonari & Emiliani 2009) with the Theory of Collusion by Carli (Carli 1990, 1995, 2000), both founded on getting beyond the individualist perspective and on the reciprocal circularity of cognitive and social processes (Grasso & Salvatore 1997) .

3 Methodology

3.1 Methodology of the analysis of the local elite

The analysis of elite was carried out through a mixed approach based on the integration of positional, reputational, decisional and social network analysis methods, in order to shed light on different dimensions of power and to compensate their reciprocal gaps, in line with what was emphasized by the literature on the subject (Belligni 2005; Cirulli 2011; Hoffman-Lange 1989; Piselli 1995; Scamuzzi 2005; Sola 1993, 2000; Stoppino 1971).

The positional method is based on the assumption that power derives from the formal position(s) one holds within an organization and, as a consequence, it consists of the mapping of the main public and private organizations on the territory.

The reputational method proceeds from the idea that power derives from the general estimation in which a person is held by the public and is measured through the analysis of newspapers and direct interviews to the privileged observers and members of the elite.

The decisional method is grounded on the assumption that power is directly linked to the capacity of influencing policy decision-making process and hence, it is carried out through press article analysis and direct interviews to the privileged observers.

Social network analysis method emphasize the relational nature of power and it was used to analyse the system of stable interactions between the elite members

The positional analysis has been conducted through examining the organizational charts of 194 organizations that play a central role in the local public policy making process. The organizations were selected by sectors, within the political-administrative, economical and cultural macro-sectors.

The reputational analysis has been carried out through key informant interviews, with the purpose of integrating the results of the positional analysis.

The decisional analysis focused on the role of influence of elite members on strategic local policy making processes, over the last decade. Two crucial events for the development of Asti area were taken into examination: the last period of crisis management of the principal local manufacturing company (“Way Assauto”) and the setting-up of the new University Campus (ASTISS), as these two events stand for two key development issues: the crisis of Fordism and the emergence of the knowledge-driven economy.

The social network analysis has been conducted through the elaboration of relational data, using the software tool Ucinet.

2.2 Methodology of discourse analysis of the local elite’s view of local development

The analysis of cultural models of the elite of Asti concerning local development issue was performed using the Emotional Text Analysis Methodology (Carli and Paniccia 2002). This research intervention type of approach is aimed at detecting affective symbolizations of reality (Carli 1990, 1995; Fornari 1981; Matte Blanco 1975) shared within specific contexts, in order to identify possible strategies for intervention aimed at promoting good coexistence within social systems.

The analysis has been carried out on a corpus of texts produced by a group of people within a certain context, carefully selected in function of research objectives. It is based on multivariate statistical analysis (multiple correspondence factorial analysis and cluster analysis) and on psychosocial interpretative models referred to the theory of collusion by Carli (1990, 1995), a theory of social relations based on the role of unconscious symbolic processes (Matte Blanco 1975, Fornari 1979) in the construction of social ties.

The Statistical processing of texts produces semantic clustering of “dense words” (emotional words) that have a strong capacity to arouse emotions, independently from their position in the narrative of text. The analysis of the interactions occurring between these words within each cluster consents to identify the cultural dynamic underlying the cluster, in terms of shared affective meanings in the context under examination. Statistical analysis were conducted using the software T-Lab (Lancia 2004).

4. Presentation of results

4.1 Analysis of the local elite structure

The urban elite of Asti was identified through the positional analysis and resulted to be composed of 625 persons, corresponding to the number of top positions in the organizations taken under examination. The government coalition (Belligni 2005), identified through the integrated approach based on positional, reputational and decisional analysis, resulted to be composed of 37 persons.

The analysis of the background of the members of the government coalition has allowed to highlight the three main aspects that characterize the elite of Asti: the centrality of the economic sector, the presence of interlocking directorates (Scott 1990, 1997, Mizruchi & Schwartz 1992, Segatti 1988) and the overlapping of economic and political spheres. As far as concerns the single organizations, chief roles in the process of local policy making are played by the Cassa di Risparmio of Asti, followed by the Chamber of Commerce of Asti, the Employer’s Association of Asti, the Foundation “Cassa di Risparmio of Asti” and the Trade Confederation of Asti.

The social network analysis of data gathered through key informants interviews has highlighted the presence of an “inner circle” (Useem 1984), composed of 13 persons that hold the top-leadership positions and act as intermediaries between non-directly connected actors.

Finally, as the result of the analysis of the chief strategic policy decisions taken over the last decade, a top leadership was identified, being composed of the heads of the organizations which central role in the local governance process was previously outlined (see the list quoted in the second paragraph of this section) and of two other actors, who do not hold a position of leadership in neither of the mentioned organizations, but nevertheless, whose power is more of charismatic and communicative nature (the former Mayor of Asti and the former President of the Province of Asti).

4.2 Analysis of the local elite cultural models of the development of Asti

The analysis of elite discourse on the development of Asti territory was carried out on a corpus of texts composed of a series of interviews, press articles and public speeches produced over the last ten years by 25 out of 37 members of the “government coalition”. The texts were collected with the help and suggestions provided by the key informants, as well as through internet research of press articles of main local and national newspapers available online (La Gazzetta d’Asti, La Nuova Provincia, AT News, La Stampa, Il Sole 24 Ore, La Repubblica).

The analysis has allowed to reveal the culture of development expressed by the four clusters of “dense words”, graphically organized into three factors, produced the multiple correspondence analysis.

The first cluster is characterized by the following “dense words”: “to put in” (inserire), “control” (controllo), “to grow” (crescere), “to collect” (raccogliere), “system” (sistema) and “consider” (considerare).

Possible interactions among these words portray a cultural model centred on the regulation of access to the system of power relations, in terms of admission to and exclusion from the elite, of control of compliance level needed to remain within the elite and of management of its growth and replicability mechanisms. The mentioned word recall dimensions of dominion, affiliation, self-referential closure towards the external environment. What appears to be lacking in this model is the idea of a “interlocutor”, someone who is unrelated to the system of power, as well as the idea of and “an object”, a “product”, in function of which the interaction with the interlocutor should take place.

The second cluster is characterized by the following “dense words”: “to remember” (ricordare), “Piedmont” (Piemonte), “to call” (chiamare,), “to confirm” (confermare) and “success” (successo). Possible symbolic interactions among these words evoke a myth-based idea of Piedmont, related upon dimensions of memory, of calling and of success. The word Piemonte, in its double meaning of administrative unit (Regione Piemonte) and of natural place (territory, landscape) seem to be able to guarantee automatically, needing no special efforts and relying only on its natural resources, the success and the prosperity. What appears to be lacking in this model is the need for developing organizational, managerial and communication skills, useful in handling the relation with the other, a possible “interlocutor”, customer, user of its landscape.

The third cluster is characterized by the following “dense words”: “culture” (cultura), “choice” (scelta), “Palio”, “sector” (settore) and “theater” (teatro). “Culture” and “choice” result to be the key words that determine the meaning of this cluster, revealing a perspective which differ from those of the previous two clusters. It presents a scenario of more freedom and less determinism. The word “culture” evokes the idea of human and social creations that regulate social interactions and relations with the other, not focused necessarily on control and subjugation. It evokes as well as social dynamics that are not founded on a rigid predetermination of what is natural or naturalized, in other words cut off from the game of possibilities, i.e. the freedom of choice offered by the culture and the free will, which is oriented towards improvement, change and innovation.

The fourth cluster is characterized by the following “dense words”: “service” (servizio), “to constitute” (costituire) “indispensable” (indispensabile), “perspective” (prospettiva), “to work” (lavorare) and “administrative” (amministrativo). The two key words that represent this cluster are “service” and “administrative”. The interaction of other words around the two key words portrays a cultural model that is in contraposition with the first cluster, as it evokes as well the idea of power. In this case, though, the concept of power regards a more strategic level, more open to the interaction with the other, but nevertheless, with an instrumental purpose. This kind of power conceives the “service offer” as a necessary condition for governing through local administration.

4.3 Possible lines of development of the cultural models

For each one of the above described clusters some possible lines of development have been identified, that can lead to elaboration of strategies aimed at strengthening the capacity of local actors to change representation of their local context and its potentials for development. This implies a cultural change, which constitutes the premise for the elaboration of a common vision of future development of the area of Asti, that would lay grounds for effective mid-long term development strategies and action plans.

With reference to the first cluster, what should be enhanced is the capacity to identify “interlocutors/customers” and “products”, in order to make a shift from a self-referential way of operating to a system of reciprocal relationschips, based on verifiable products.

As far as concerns the second cluster, wider acknowledgment of the need for further development of organizational and communication skills is necessary, in order to turn efficaciously the natural resources of the territory into a lever for development.

As regards the third cluster, vocational sectors of Asti territory, such as theatre and creative arts in general, should be enhanced, concerning both the production as well as education development prospects, which could be integrated within development strategies of the Asti Univeristy hub and of sustainable tourism sector.

For the fourth cluster, in continuity with what was recommended for the first cluster, the path of development seems to suggest the need for community (citizens, enterprises and associations) commissioning of the public services, instead of governing of public services for power sake.

5 Conclusions

On the basis of the results obtained in the present study, the role of local élite in the processes of local governance necessitates three essential elements: “objectives”, “interlocutors” and “products”. Interpreted within the meanings of the Theory of Collusion (Carli 2000), the “objectives” emerge from the point of contact between specific features of a territory and the need of its actors; the “interlocutors” stand for the customers/users of products and services and can be local citizens or travellers; the “products” derive from the matching of technical skills – potential or already present in the territory – and internal/external customers’ needs.

The actors of this process are the local élite and its interlocutors (citizens, associations and local companies) as well as their reciprocal needs. From this matching originate the “objectives” and “products” related to the governing of Asti and its potential paths of development. On the operative level, this translates into the search for appropriate strategies for elaborating efficient evaluation systems of the governing class (local élite) performance and for developing active citizenship, through the strengthening of participatory and deliberative practices .



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