We Are Essex

Anna Sergi's story

Headshot of Anna Sergi

"I want to be part of the change I am advocating."

Many people inspire me but definitely social change - seeing social change in action inspires me. And people who say complicated things very easily without dumbing them down; people who can reduce complexity would be my inspiration. Do not be afraid of complexity, that’s what I believe.

I’m a Criminologist so social change is the end goal. I think there is a step before social change which is criminal policies and essentially, policy has to change before social change can happen. So I think I’m at that level. By social change I don’t necessarily mean activism and people going there and changing the world, it is more looking at the evolution of social issues with a real eye. So you look at things like migration which have always been around – it’s nothing new and nothing has changed. So in many ways the dynamics are the same but you see them in action in today’s world. The fear surrounding certain things shouldn’t be fear at all, it’s a product of everything else around, it’s not a fear of the product itself. We don’t fear migration because of migration; we fear migration because of a number of things attached to it. That’s what I mean by social change.

As a Criminologist I work on organised crime and specifically on the Italian Mafias. I am Italian and I studied Law at the beginning and then I came to the UK to do my Masters in Law and my PhD in Sociology. I think the change happened at my Masters and what happened afterwards. I was studying Criminal Law and obviously Italy has a huge history of mafia. I come from Calabria, a region in the south of Italy which is now hosting the most powerful Italian Mafia ever, so I grew up in an environment where certain things were normalised. When you move out of that environment you see that certain things are not normal and you need to make sense of them for others.

I think my switch point was between the Masters and PhD when I realised that I struggled to explain certain things about where I grew up. I think that is what brought me to do my PhD in Sociology and focus on not just the Italian Mafia as they are, because it’s a very complex issue in Italy generally, but how they manifest themselves outside of Italy. I think that’s what inspired me to try and explain things; reduce the demonisation as well as the mythological thinking around the Mafia from literature and books. There’s a common perception from Hollywood that has glorified it in a way that could be a little more real, not less fascinating, but more real and social in nature rather than just criminal and scary.

My experience is always with me, it’s a constant bias on one side and a constant challenge. I work on this mafia group from where I come from and I’ve known this phenomenon since I was born. The moment I move out I look back and I need to negotiate with myself how much of this is memory, how much of this is bias, and how much of this do we actually know? So it’s a very tough call to make and that’s probably why I decided to go away and look at this phenomenon elsewhere. I work a lot in Australia for example within the Italian community. I try to figure out how that phenomenon moved all the way across the oceans and the different manifestations of it. It’s always with me because I have cultural sensitivity to certain things, through the dialect and the way certain religious festivals and social gatherings have meanings within communities. So I have that cultural sensitivity which comes from being born in that place which is a plus, but at the same time that gives me a bias so I expect to see things in the way I experienced them and sometimes that’s just not the case. It’s a constant back and forth.

I do this for research purposes but sometimes it feels more like a mission, like I want to explain and be able to change certain stereotypes. So it’s more like a mission sometimes than a job. It has impacted me a lot - I escaped the place I was born, I couldn’t wait to get out. The moment I turned 18, I was out. But since I started this research, I’ve been back quite a bit, even in a metaphysical sense, so it’s a bit of reconciliation with my origins. I got an award from the SRC at Essex last June which was a Research Impact Award for early career researchers like me. Basically the award recognised my work in researching Italian Mafias within migration and in Australia and it’s recognition of what I’ve really been trying to do.

In Australia the Mafia groups are a little more hidden so I talk to the community, the Italian people, or social clubs and cultural clubs. I have had some difficult encounters but it’s a negotiation as a researcher and everyone knows what I am doing, I don’t lie about it which is a technique in terms of research. I also try to differentiate myself from a journalist so I’m not after a story, I am after an observation. I should be careful obviously, but at the same time because the phenomenon I am looking for is so vague, it’s not like going to prison and talking to people who have been convicted for certain crimes. It is about a phenomenon that is more complex. I mean, I’ve probably met more Mafia people than I know.

If I keep doing what I do; from teaching to administration and research, I can do what I want which is to keep travelling and keep this research going. So really my aspirations are to see change, whether that’s through criminal policy or through legal changes - that will be the end game obviously. I want to be part of the change I am advocating.

 

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