University of Manchester academic staff have discovered that the growth and consolidation of the Sicilian mafia is strongly associated with an external surge in the demand for lemons from 1800 on wards after the discovery of the effective use of citrus fruits to prevent scurvy by James Lind.

The Sicilian mafia is arguably one of the most famous – or infamous – institutions in the Western world. After its first appearance in Sicily in the 1870s it soon infiltrated the economic and political spheres of Italy and the US and has, at times, been considered a serious threat to the rule of law in both countries.

But despite the fact that there has been plenty of evidence of mafia activity, both in real life and on screen over the past 140 years, the reasons behind its emergence are still obscure.

While some analysis by academics has focused on weak institutions, predation and the poor state enforcement of property rights, others – particularly when it comes to the Sicilian mafia – have suggested that the legacy of feudalism was an important driver, along with the development of latifundism (a system according to which agriculture is dominated by large estates) and a loss of social capital and public trust in the government which was dominated by a foreign occupation.

These theories provide plausible explanations for the origin of the Sicilian mafia as a whole – but they fail to explain the considerable variation in the growth of the criminal organisation across different areas within the Sicilian region – especially when those areas experienced very similar socio-political conditions.

Working with Ola Olsson, from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, UoM recently published a study in the Journal of Economic History, in which they analysed the rise of the Sicilian mafia using a unique dataset drawn from the Damiani Inquiry in 1886. This was a parliamentary inquiry conducted between 1881 and 1886 that examined the conditions of the agricultural sector and of peasantry in every region of Italy.

Their analysis emphasises the economic or market-related factors behind mafia organisation and focuses on local factors – rather than the overall political system under the oppressive Bourbon state in Sicily.

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