In 1965, having completed a PhD in political theory at the University of Michigan, Jane Schneider embarked on two years of anthropological fieldwork in Sicily, then became an anthropologist. Her career has been an interdisciplinary one, in which she has self-consciously considered the political, social, cultural and economic dimensions of whatever problem she undertook to study.
The problems she has wrestled with fall into two categories: those related to the modern transformation of Sicilian society, and those related to selective strands of world history -- textiles, in particular. Her interest in the latter grew out of invitations, in the mid-1970s, to critically review and teach on Immanuel Wallerstein's The Modern World System. Concerned to demonstrate, but also to understand, what she perceived to be a Euro-centric bias in this path-breaking work, she went on to examine in the history of cloth important challenges to the triumphalist story of the "rise of Europe." Her essays, "Peacocks and Penguins, the Political Economy of European Cloth and Colors," "Was There a Pre-capitalist World System?" and "Spirits and the Spirit of Capitalism" explore these challenges.
The fieldwork project that took her to Sicily in 1965 lasted for two years and initiated for her, as for her collaborator, Peter Schneider, a deep involvement with this region of Italy. Several periods of residence and research in a rural town of the Western interior led to two co-authored books: Culture and Political Economy in Western Sicily
(1976) and Festival of the Poor; Fertility Decline and the Ideology of Class in Sicily
During the last phase of the research for Festival of the Poor in the early 1980s, Sicily was convulsed by the entry of several prominent mafiosi and their allies into the global traffic in heroin. This development, and the responses to it, in the form of a police-judicial crackdown and the emergence of an antimafia social movement, have been the foci of her most recent research.
A series of fieldtrips beginning in 1987, again in collaboration with Peter Schneider, underlie their third book, Reversible Destiny: Mafia, Antimafia and the Struggle for Palermo, University of California Press, 2003. It is hoped that this exploration of the connections between organized crime, politics and social movements will shed light on similar interactions elsewhere. New writing, concerned with crime and criminalization, and with cities damaged by organized crime, is under way.