Emslie Horniman Award: Sean Wyer

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Award Holder: Sean Wyer
University: University of California, Berkeley
Title of Research: Beyond the Bell Tower: Cosmopolitanism, Conversion and Re-Enchantment in Sicily


When the island of Sicily was under Muslim rule (827–1091), it remained home to both Christian and Jewish communities too. Even during the subsequent Norman period, Sicily remained home to a significant Muslim population for over a century, and to a Jewish population for over four centuries. It is perhaps more well-known internationally that elsewhere in the Mediterranean, Iberia also experienced Muslim rule, and for a longer period. The Spanish historian Américo Castro gave the name convivencia to his thesis that modern Spain has its foundations in a symbiosis among Muslims, Christians and Jews in this period (Castro 1948), which is often held up as an historic example of cosmopolitanism (Appiah 2006).

Convivenza, the Italian cognate of convivencia, is frequently used in Sicily to describe the supposed peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians in the mediaeval period (see e.g. Alajmo 2012). It is also used in Palermo, Sicily’s regional capital, to describe the city’s approach to immigration in the twenty-first century. In some cases, convivenza is presented as an essential part of the contemporary city’s identity; in others, it is an aspiration yet to be achieved.

How does the cultural memory of what some suppose to have been a cosmopolitan golden age affect Palermitan, Sicilian and Mediterranean identities today? Conversely, how does Palermo’s contemporary multiculturalism affect the way the city’s past is understood in the present? It is this relationship between heritage and cultural memory on the one hand, and the present political situation on the other, that my research seeks to explore.


The idea that Palermo has always been a city in which peoples of different religions, cultures and ethnicities coexist harmoniously is a powerful way of making sense of Palermo’s present, regardless of its historical accuracy. It enables those who feel themselves to be cosmopolitan to argue that, by ‘welcoming’ immigrants, Palermo is carrying out its natural vocation as an outward-facing port city. They can argue that there is a continuity between a past ‘golden age’ of Mediterranean tolerance, and the multicultural city that Palermo aspires to be in the twenty-first century.

Palermo is far from the only place in Sicily that has experienced migration in the twenty-first century, but it is a particularly rewarding place to study how this phenomenon interacts with ideas of Sicilian identity. My project asks how a cultural memory of Palermo’s ‘cosmopolitan’ history and tradition is developing in light of both Palermo’s present and what some believe to be its future vocation.

Before I began fieldwork, while I was devising my project, my preliminary research suggested that Palermo’s political culture, its sense of history, and even the meanings conveyed by the urban landscape itself, were changing with its experience of immigration. My research illustrates that the rediscovery of ‘lost’ roots does not always entail a ‘pure’ or fundamental origin. Instead, it can tell what Michel Foucault identified as genealogical stories (1987). In my Sicilian case study, it even tells stories that we might recognize as ‘cosmopolitan.’ Cosmopolitanism, of course, is a slippery word, and the precise kind of cosmopolitanism we read into the signs of the past is partly a product of contemporary political circumstances.

What do historians and archaeologists mean when they announce that they have ‘uncovered’ or ‘(re)-discovered’ a buried feature of Sicily’s multicultural past? How are parts of Palermo’s urban landscape becoming ‘sites of memory’ for certain individuals and communities? What, if anything, do ‘echoes’ of Palermo’s Muslim and Jewish histories mean for Islam and Judaism in the city today? And what is at stake when the most prominent politician in Palermo insists that not just tolerance, but anti-racism, lies at the very essence of his city?


I made the initial plans for my research project in early 2021. This was a period of cautious optimism about the effects that Covid-19 vaccines would have on public health restrictions, and consequently, on in-person fieldwork. I intended to spend five months in Sicily, mainly based in Palermo, during summer and autumn 2021. Funding considerations and other research commitments meant that most of my data collection had to take place in the second half of 2021, and could not be delayed later than spring 2022.

a) Digital Anthropology

In the event, strict public health restrictions were in place in Sicily for much of 2021. This meant that, for a total of four months, I pursued the Plan B that I had devised before applying to the Emslie Horniman Fund. This Plan B involved digital anthropological methods: namely a combination of social media research, remote interviews, and observation of online events.

The Emslie Horniman Fund enabled me to concentrate on acquiring the necessary skills to pursue this Plan B, without which my dissertation research would not have been possible. I sought to understand how the ethical principles of in-person fieldwork applied in the digital space, as well as ensuring that my digital research employed a rigorous methodology designed with my specific research questions in mind.

Although my first preference was to spend more time in the field, I was also conscious that, just as there are some stimuli that can only be provided by in-person research, there are other benefits to carrying out research digitally: not least the ability to study how a discourse develops over a long period of time. In Palermo, as in much of the world, technologies like Facebook, WhatsApp and Zoom are not just part of a separate ‘digital sphere.’ They are so integrated into people’s lives – especially in the wake of a series of lockdowns – that the idea of a digital/analogue divide appears limited and limiting.

My period as a doctoral student has coincided with a rethinking of anthropology that was already in motion before 2020, but has been accelerated by the pandemic: a belated acknowledgement that in-person access to fieldwork sites has never been available to all anthropologists equally, and that a long period of in-person fieldwork is neither the only nor always the best way of pursuing anthropological knowledge.

While formulating my Plan B, I had already identified social media communication by Sicilian politicians, particularly by Palermo’s pro-immigration mayor, Leoluca Orlando, as a rich textual and audio-visual source for cosmopolitan political rhetoric. This rhetoric uses the idea of Sicily as a historical and contemporary locus of convivenza, which was also a focus of my original research plans.

I used social media as the basis for my research, analysing publicly available Facebook content. My aim was to ask how ideas I had previously encountered in casual conversations in Sicily – of an innate Sicilian tolerance; an essentially Mediterranean cosmopolitanism; and a neighbourly embrace of hospitality – are instrumentalised to political ends.
Devising a digitally-focussed research project, then analysing the considerable amount of data from what I thought would be a narrow set of parameters, involved a steep learning curve. The process led me to appreciate the extent to which anthropological research could intersect with the training in textual analysis and cultural studies that I had previously acquired in the field of Italian Studies.

b) Fieldwork in Sicily

In spite of the pandemic, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time in Sicily in September and October 2021, and in March and April 2022. This means that my research ended up ‘blending’ an adapted version of my in-person Plan A, with the remote Plan B phase I have already described.

The most appropriate approach to a project such as mine was to view the ‘digital’ and the ‘analogue’ not as two separate worlds, but as linked and complementary. This allows for a multi-faceted analysis of discourses that are produced with different audiences in mind: one facing a Sicilian audience (the mayor of Palermo’s electorate), and one facing an outside audience (a non-Sicilian anthropologist). The emphasis on the political uses of Sicily’s multicultural heritage, which emerged as a central focus of my digital research, informed the questions I asked when I arrived in Palermo.

My original intention had been to build on recent developments in the anthropological study of religion, to explore themes such as (re-)conversion, especially to Islam and Judaism, in the context of a renewed attention on Sicily’s historic religious pluralism. While some of my preliminary research had suggested that might have been a fruitful line of enquiry, my initial conversations in Palermo demonstrated that religious conversion was no longer the ideal lens given the way that my project had developed.

I came to focus instead on different, more metaphorical ‘conversions.’ Speaking to political and religious figures, academic and amateur local historians, and Sicilians working in the travel industry, I investigated how ‘sites of memory’ are emerging in Palermo. These affect both how Palermo’s residents understand and experience the city’s history, and how ideas of Palermitan, Sicilian and Mediterranean identity are changing in the present.

Aside from the well-known ‘Arab-Norman’ UNESCO World Heritage sites, I identified that a cultural memory of Palermo’s historic Jewish minority is also developing alongside the emergence of a small but dedicated Sicilian ‘section’ of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. From my conversations with individuals involved in the ‘rediscovery’ of Jewish Palermo, it became clear to me that this was an interesting case study through which to explore the idea that diversity and tolerance are fundamental to Palermo’s identity.

While in Palermo, I undertook participant observation in heritage events, such as guided walks of the city, and academic conferences on mediaeval history. As well as feeding into my research directly, these experiences also enabled me to build contacts in person, some of whom were keen to pass my details on to other colleagues of theirs.

Although it is possible to start conversations by introducing oneself in Sicily, it is also the case that, as in many places, building a rapport face-to-face is beneficial. With over half a million inhabitants, Palermo is by no means small, but its historical centre, the focus of my research, is compact. Its academic communities, its heritage communities, and its networks of activists, political figures and religious leaders, are in many cases close knit and well known to one another. After just a few days doing research in Palermo, it became very clear to me that being ‘in town’ gave me a much broader view on my research questions than I was able to acquire remotely.

Another kind of research I could not have carried out remotely was a close observational study of the urban environment. One of my priorities was to ask how parts of Palermo’s historic centre are being ‘heritagised,’ and how Palermitans experience this heritigisation. Spending time with the traces of Sicily’s multicultural history, and observing how this landscape is experienced, showed me just how crucial it was for my research project to become closely familiar with this geographical space. It gave me visual inputs that I could discuss with my interviewees, many of whom are deeply involved in efforts to draw attention to Palermo’s multicultural past and present.

Contributions to Anthropology

Methodologically, my research demonstrates that blending digital and in-person research has the potential to provide a more holistic understanding of a political discourse than either method could provide on its own. As well as advancing the emerging field of digital anthropology, therefore, my approach offers a potential model for negotiating anthropology in cases where the level of access to the field site is changeable at short notice. 

Working in Sicily has enabled me to take up Naor Ben-Yehoyada’s challenge: to “take the Mediterranean as an object of study while critically examining the history of its various objectifications: in other words, to examine the Mediterranean and Mediterraneanism together” (2020). Put simply, my research project does not assume that essentially ‘Mediterranean’ characteristics do or do not exist. Rather, it circumnavigates an endless argument in the history of anthropology in the Mediterranean. It does this by instead investigating how a sense of Mediterranean-ness is articulated in Sicily; what values its proponents believe Mediterraneanism conveys; and how this identity is employed to both subtle and explicit political ends.

My research tests the applicability of theories developed in other Mediterranean contexts – especially in the study of Andalusia, which has under-explored parallels with Sicily – to my field site (see e.g. Rogozen-Soltar 2017; Hirschkind 2021). In doing so, it both enriches the study of Sicily, where anthropological work has more often focused on themes such as family, the Mafia (see e.g. Schneider and Schneider 2003), folklore, and ‘modernisation,’ as well as, more recently, the island’s recent importance as a point of arrival for immigrants (see e.g. Carney 2021). My work therefore builds upon recent transnational approaches to the study of Sicily (see e.g. Ben-Yehoyada 2017).

As an anthropologist based in an Italian Studies department, my project argues for the importance of thinking and researching anthropologically in a discipline that has historically been rooted in the study of literary and visual culture, but increasingly inspires to be interdisciplinary. My training in Italian Studies, with its close attention to both language and historical context, has enabled me to spot patterns, such as the links many Sicilians draw between the island’s mediaeval past and its present experience of immigration, that often remain in the background in contemporary anthropological studies. In short, I hope that my work demonstrates the potential of anthropology for invigorating Italian Studies, and the potential of an Italian Studies training as a foundation for anthropological research.

My doctoral dissertation, which I am currently writing, will be based to a significant extent on research enabled by the Emslie Horniman Anthropological Scholarship Fund, as will a number of publications I intend to submit after filing my dissertation. I am very grateful to the Emslie Horniman Anthropological Scholarship Fund, and to my mentor, Rosie Gosling, for supporting my research.