An Ethnography of Deadly Silence

By Deborah Puccio-Den

“The Mafia? What is the Mafia? Something you eat? Something you drink? I don’t know the Mafia, I have never seen it”, Mommo Piromalli, a ‘Ndrangheta boss, told a journalist in the seventies. Southern Italy’s criminal leaders are correct to suggest that we should reflect on our ways of labelling reality through our senses. Most researchers of the phenomenon have tried to answer the question “What is the Mafia?” thus becoming an integral part of what they set out to study and define. Puccio-Den undertakes a new form of inquiry which, rather than being committed to obtaining an answer, focuses on the questioning process. The ethnographer can explore the ‘Mafia’ by indexing the conjectures and speculations surrounding this mysterious entity, describing the acts (social, judicial, or graphic) made in the attempt to break the silence in and around this secret phenomenon, and exposing the manifold issues at stake regarding its indeterminacy.

For Deborah Puccio-Den, the Mafia is not a stable social fact, ready to be studied or revealed, but a cognitive event shaped by action of silence. Rather than inquiring about what has been written or said on an occult phenomenon such as the Mafia, Puccio-Den inquiries on the imaginative power of silence, and how it gives consistency to special kinds of social ties which draw their strength from a state of indetermination. Puccio-Den introduces us to the obverse of witchcraft and, a Mafiacraft, which rather than drawing on the power of gossips and curses, relies on the force of silence.

What methods might anthropologists use to investigate silence and understand the life of the denied, the unspeakable, and the unspoken? How do they resist, fight, or capitulate to the strength of words, or to the force of law? Puccio-Den’s fascinating anthropology of silence is an ethnographic event that opens up a new ground for the study of the world’s most famous criminal organization.


Deborah Puccio-Den is a political anthropologist and director of the  Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and member of the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie des Institutions et des Organisations Sociales (LAIOS). Originally from Italy, she conducted more than twenty years of fieldwork on the Mafia in Sicily and lectures on the subject at the École de Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). She is the author of Éditions, masques et dévoilements (2002), a book on the social construction of gender through rites and practices, and Les théâtres de maures et chrétiens (2009), on the use of holy statues and the idea of incarnation in Catholic contexts.


Publication Summer 2021
6″ x 9″, 230 pp.