Giacomo Becattini – Remembering a Great Contemporary Political Economist

lights-cityscapeEarlier this year we saw the passing of Giacomo Becattini one of the world’s finest economists. Marco Bellandi and Lisa De Propris celebrate his life and legacy.

Giacomo Becattini (1927-2017) was one of the best known Italian economists internationally; his scholarly contribution since the 1970s is placed beyond neo-classical economics and close to disciplines that have emerged over the last 40 years also thanks to his tireless and inspirational writings, such as regional studies and economic geography, in the extended meaning of the term.

Becattini spent his academic career as a hands-on and socially-engaged researcher, being full professor at the University of Florence from 1968 to 1999. With his sharp intelligence and extraordinary eloquence, he deployed the rigour of economics training to reveal the inner connections between economy and society and the importance of spatially locating such interaction. Contradicting mainstream economics of the time, he rejected abstractions and generalisations, albeit elegant, and turned to study the economy as a socio-institutional construct specific to a place.

From the beginning of his academic career in the 1950s, he was involved in debates and investigations concerning the roots of development and depression in places and regions in Italy; he felt the influence of his mentor at the Faculty of Economics and Commerce at the University of Florence, Alberto Bertolino, in particular around the concept of social culture. His thinking was stimulated in particular by the rise of light industrialization in Tuscany after the Second World War and the following decades. Unexplained by mainstream neo-classical economics, he sensed, as early as the 1960s, a hidden strength driving centres of industrial specialisation made of many firms, both small and embedded in a fabric of socio-cultural local relations. He started to understand that place matters for economic activities, and that the economic development cannot be understood apart from a grasp of the socio-economic evolution of places. The textile district of Prato was the place he mainly turned to as a socio-economic laboratory to test his ideas. Prato can be found in many of his writings; a fundamental piece of research developed in the 1980s and 1990 on Prato was published in English as The Caterpillar and the Butterfly. An Exemplary Case of Development in the Italy of the Industrial Districts¹. In Italy, his scholarly presence matched a real passion for political and civic engagement: he founded IRPET (the regional Institute for research on economic development and planning in Tuscany) at the beginning of the 1970s; he was city councillor for the Florence municipality for a term; he launched an annual gathering of scholars, disciples and operatives on local economic development still running now since 1991, called Incontri di Artimino sullo Sviluppo Locale; and he was President of the Italian Society of Economists between 1993 and 1995. Many Italian social scientists accompanied him in his intellectual journey: including Gabi Dei Ottati, Fabio Sforzi, Arnaldo Bagnasco, Paolo Giovannini, Carlo Trigilia, Sergio Vaccà, Enzo Rullani, Stefano Zamagni, Piero Alessandrini, Carlo D’Adda, and other colleagues and friends.

The history of economic thought was another source of constant inspiration. He came across the work of Karl Marx early in his career, but the contributions of other classical political economists – in particular Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill – of Victorian economists, in particular Alfred Marshall, and Italian social thinkers like Carlo Cattaneo, shaped his intellectual formation. He also enjoyed the direct advice of great economists, like Piero Sraffa, Nicholas Kaldor, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Fernand Braudel, Federico Caffè, Paolo Sylos-Labini and Giorgio Fuà.

Becattini found in Alfred Marshall’s writings a confirmation that industrial development is place-based: concepts such as industrial districts, industrial atmosphere and external economies inspired Becattini and gave him the intellectual tools to interpret the localized sources of development of the Italian industries at his time. Also, he shared with Marshall an attention to the value of the human beings, and of labour as an expression of individual and social identity, seen in the places and time of their life. This reinforced and shaped his life-long attachment to Marshall. Becattini’s address on Henry Fawcett, held in 1984 at the Cambridge’s Trinity Hall College, where he was a fellow, is recalled by those who attended it for his insightful historical reconstruction of the fabric of social and intellectual relations that had been the lively basis for the original contributions of the Victorians economists. Some pieces illustrating a final appraisal by Becattini of his reflections on Marshall are included in The return of the “white elephant”², The Economics of Alfred Marshall. Revisiting Marshall’s Legacy³ and The Elgar Companion to Alfred Marshall. He was an avid reader of Marshall’s work which he constantly revisited – until recently – searching for clues that could help explain current events and changes.

His first English publication on regional development’s issues, in 1978 by Economic Notes – the international edition of an Italian Journal – was titled “The development of light industry in Tuscany”; but we have to wait until 1989 for the concept of industrial district to be more clearly spelt out in an English publication, a decade after his first Italian publications. Nonetheless, his ideas travelled fast and wide through international academic channels even before the English publications. This was helped by his Cambridge links, his contacts in international institutions and his open networks of like-minded scholars such as Werner Sengerberger, Maria Teresa Costa and Joan Trullen, Allen Scott, Michael Storper, Michael Piore, Charles Sabel.

Some of those networks converged in a landmark international conference kept in Florence in 1989, and the publication by F. Pyke G. Becattini and W. Sengerberger in 1990 of an edited book on Industrial Districts and Inter-firm cooperation In Italy under the promotion of the International Institute for Labour Studies of Geneve. The book included the English publication of Becattini’s “The Marshallian industrial district as a socio-economic concept”. This strengthened the interest of international scholars across various disciplines in the social sciences looking for alternatives to mass production, urban gigantism, and globalised capitalism. With the notion of industrial district, Becattini promoted a strong conceptual framework inspired by the observations of Marshall on the manufacturing cities and districts of England in 1800. Here not only production could be organised efficiently by firms’ interaction rather than within big vertically integrated firms, but also people and their labour were integral to the industrial make-up of the locale.

Becattini’s work helped shape the emergence of a new discipline that focused on the local dimension of industrial development and of industries’ growth. The unusual parallel between Marshall’s UK districts during and after the first industrial revolution, and the contemporary light industrialisation of Tuscany, delivered a unique and insightful interpretation of different models of production organisation. The times were ripe for such a break as Fordism started to show its constraints. The conceptualisation of Marshallian industrial districts intersected fruitfully with streams of research that looked at flexible specialization and post-Fordism; innovative milieu and innovation poles; business clusters; new economic geography and regional innovation systems, social capital and human development.

The impact of his scholarly contributions on industrial districts was felt thus across academic and scientific circles, nationally and internationally. Dialogues with the international academic and policy communities became frequent in the 1990 and afterwards, reaching out for example also to Michael Porter and his team at the Competitiveness Institute, or Phil Cooke and European Planning Studies. Among the many acknowledgements for his contributions, it is to be recalled the International prize of the Swedish Foundation for Small Business Research in Stockholm.

He leaves a vast collection of writings on industrial districts, local development, regional and national paths of industrialization that spans over six decades. He collaborated with journals such as Il Ponte, Economia e Politica Industriale, and the Rivista Italiana degli Economisti, published widely in newspapers, and kept dense intellectual exchanges with the main Italian economists.

He inspired generations of scholars, way beyond his beloved Tuscany

Edward Elgar Publishing enjoyed a particularly strong editorial collaboration, hosting the publication or re-publication in English of some of the earlier writings and some of the most important contributions written by Becattini between 1970s and 2000s – together with some of the books he co-edited on Marshall, also From Industrial Districts to Local Development: An Itinerary of Research and Industrial Districts. A New Approach to Industrial Change. One of the latest collections marking the achievement of truly global understanding of industrial districts was The Handbook of Industrial Districts.

A final assessment of his reflections on local development is given in Beyond Geo-sectoriality: The Productive Chorality of Places.

Giacomo Becattini taught many generations of students at the Faculty of Economics and Commerce at the University of Florence, and was the mentor of many young researchers who then became colleagues and collaborators over the decades. He inspired generations of scholars, way beyond his beloved Tuscany; scholars who shared with him the quest for a capitalism with a human face. He wrote “… the fact that the phenomenon of the industrial district is either studied with an interdisciplinary perspective, or else we miss it, is a rare opportunity for a growth of social thought in its whole … a possible catalyst for discussions between economists and sociologists (and other categories of social scholars as well), in the hope that this may help all of us to understand each other, and what happens in the world, better.” (from the note at the end of the paper on The Marshallian industrial district, p. 51).

His thinking and contributions gave answers that were both intellectually rigorous and empirically grounded. He leaves both a scientific contribution and a lesson in civic engagement that are of universal inspiration in the work of the economist.
¹ Becattini G., The Caterpillar and the Butterfly. An Exemplary Case of Development in the Italy of the Industrial Districts, Florence: Felice Le Monnier, 2001

² Becattini, G., The return of the “white elephant”, in Arena R. and Queré M. (eds),

³ The Economics of Alfred Marshall. Revisiting Marshall’s Legacy, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, and in Raffaelli T., Becattini G., Dardi M. (eds) (2007),

‡ Becattini G., Beyond Geo-sectoriality: The Productive Chorality of Places, Investigaciones Regionales, 32, 2015.


Marco Bellandi is Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Florence, Italy and Lisa De Propris is Full Professor of Regional Economic Development at Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham, UK.


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