In this contribution I examine the Italian parliamentary inquiry into the conditions of peasants in the southern provinces and Sicily, usually called the Faina inquiry (1906–9). I focus on how the task of observing the conditions of the peasant was defined, how it was entrusted to agricultural economists, and how they accomplished it. The peasant way of life varied greatly across southern Italy. Knowledge about local varieties and local specificities was embedded contextually and was available only to locals themselves. Observation thus coincided with translation of local features into a more general language that could be understood by a larger community of scientists and by a nationwide public opinion. Political change imposed severe time constraints on data collection. Farm types were devised to handle variety quickly and effectively. Types mobilized difference while preserving and stabilizing variety among classes.

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