Skip to main content

Dr Joseph John Viscomi

  • Overview



    I am a historian and anthropologist who specializes in the Mediterranean region from the late 18th century until the present. I joined Birkbeck College in 2018. I am the programme director of our MA in European History and I am the Birkbeck director of the Raphael Samuel History Centre. At present, I am also a member of the executive committee for the Association for the Study of Modern Italy (ASMI) and I serve on the convening committee for the Institute for Historical Research’s Modern Italian History Seminar

    As a scholar raised in an Italian American enclave in the Philadelphia and South Jersey area (in the US), I am keen to study the history of migration sideways, from perspectives of departure, absence, and entropy. My research and teaching focus on migration, political change, environmental and agricultural transformation, and temporality. I am deeply interested in the potential of cross-disciplinarity to shift how we understand historical and contemporary social problems. I was an affiliated researcher on the ERC project "Crosslocations" at the University of Helsinki (2017-2021) and have held a Faculty Fellowship at NYU's Center for European and Mediterranean Studies (2017-18). I have also been a visiting fellow at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa and was awarded a Rome Prize in Modern Italian Studies. In 2016, I completed my PhD in the cross-disciplinary programme in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 


    • Locating the Mediterranean: Connections and Separations across Space and Time (2022), edited with Carl Rommell and published open access with Helsinki University Press. Access pdf and epub versions here

    • "Burning Landscapes in Calabria," Blog entry about my research on connections between land, archives, and depopulation in Calabria, for the ERC-funded project Emptiness led by Dace Dzenovska (University of Oxford). 

    • Ernesto de Martino, Decolonisation, and Translation: A conversation with Dorothy Louise Zinn (Free University of Bozen-Bolzano) and Roberto Dainotto (Duke University) about the Italian anthropologist Ernesto de Martino and his wider historical and intellectual connections since the mid-twentieth century. Chaired by Joseph John Viscomi (Birkbeck, University of London). Recorded on 1 March 2021 as part of the Association for the Study of Modern Italy (ASMI) 2020-21 conference series, Italian Mediterraneans, 1800-Present.

    • "Let's talk Mediterranean," podcast interview organised by Brian Aivars Catlos (University of Colorado Boulder) and Sharon Kinoshita (University of California Santa Cruz) about my article "Pontremoli's Cry: Personhood, Scale, and History in the Eastern Mediterranean" (History and Anthropology, 2020), which was chosen as the Mediterranean Seminar Article of the Month for March 2021. Recorded on 27 April 2021. 


    • Fellow, Higher Education Academy, 2021
    • PhD , University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2016
    • MA, The American University in Cairo, Egypt, 2008
    • BSc, Juniata College, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, 2005

    Web profiles

    Administrative responsibilities

    • Programme Director, MA European History
    • Birkbeck Director, Raphael Samuel History Centre
    • Co-president of Birkbeck UCU

    Professional memberships

    • Association for the Study of Modern Italy;

      Council for European Studies;

      European Association of Social Anthropologists;

      Mediterranean Studies Association;

      Royal Historical Society (UK);

      Società Italiana per lo Studio della Storia Contemporanea (Sissco);

      Society for Italian Historical Studies;

      Society for the Anthropology of Europe.


  • Research


    Research overview

    My primary research interests are in the history and anthropology of migration, environment, agriculture, materiality, and historical time & temporality. Geographically, I focus on the interconnections between Italian, Southern European and Mediterranean worlds. Although I am trained and specialized in modern history, I am interested in exploring topics that traverse temporal periods (especially from the mid-18th century to the present). My research also focuses on approaches to understanding the past, the history of anthropology in Southern Italy, archival history & archivisation, and the philosophy and anthropology of history.

    Migration at the End of Empire: Time and the Politics of Departure between Italy and Egypt (Cambridge University Press), my first book, examines how Italian subjects in and from Egypt (a population of roughly 55,000 on the eve of WWII) and the political actors around them anticipated, experienced, and remembered their departures from Egypt and arrivals in Italy. It traces the rise, collapse, and afterlives of Italian fascist imperialism and Egypt's decolonization by examining the formation and idea of a political community constituted by ‘Italians of Egypt (italiani d’Egitto)’ in the Mediterranean. On the conceptual level, Migration at the End of Empire explores how temporal regimes shaped, and continue to shape, geopolitical constellations and experiences of them. My scholarship builds on archival, oral-historical, and ethnographic research and writing.

    In my new research, Depopulating Landscapes, I examine the social, political, and environmental conditions of depopulation in Calabria and more widely in Southern Italy since the late eighteenth century. Whereas the scale of my first book was determined by communities displaced across the Mediterranean, in this research local environs frame the analysis. In other words, I look towards the material places passed over or left behind in the history of migration by concentrating on the relationships between people and land in emptying towns and villages in Mediterranean Europe (i.e. from the landscapes of la España vacía to Italy’s aree interne).

    Depopulating Landscapes, as a broad intellectual projectaims to rethink the mutual relationship between historical migration and environmental changes by telling the more-than-human histories of lands, floods, and fires. It focuses primarily on Calabria and the wider mezzogiorno, but also looks comparatively across emptied Southern European and Mediterranean worlds. In Calabria, it traces a line from the earthquake that rattled parts of the region in 1783 to destructive floods in 1950/51 and 1973. Within this framework, this research explores how environments have changed and been shaped by the intersections of migratory, state-bureaucratic, and 'natural' processes. I take the small town of Petrizzi (Catanzaro) as a microhistorical prism through which I can examine broader transformations in Southern Italy and Mediterranean Europe. 

    I am working on another book that examines family histories of departure, futures, and the myth of progress. 

    Research Centres and Institutes

    • Director, Raphael Samuel History Centre
    • Member, Birkbeck Research Centre for Environment and Sustainability

    Research clusters and groups

    • Mobility, migration
    • Environment: urban, rural, global
    • Conflict and violence
    • Difference, race and inequality
    • Materialities and material cultures
    • Global history and internationalism
  • Supervision and teaching

    Supervision and teaching


    I am interested in the problems raised by abandoned archives and environmental histories of depopulation in Southern Europe. More broadly, I welcome doctoral and postdoctoral applications on migration, depopulation, agricultural change, environment, and materiality in Italy and the Mediterranean.

    Current doctoral researchers



    My modules address political, social, and environmental histories of encounter, exchange, migration and displacement, as well as methodological approaches to studying the past. I teach BA and MA modules on modern Italy, Europe, and the Mediterranean, but I do also run thematic courses. Please send me an email if you would like to see a sample reading list. 

    Modules scheduled for 2024-25:

    Archives & Memory (MA)

    Global Environmental Histories (BA)


    Modules taught:

    Italy and the World: Migration and Empire, 1815-present (BA)

    The Modern Mediterranean: From colonial sea to environmental crisis? (MA)

    Decolonising History/Histories of Decolonisation (MA)

    Italy and the “New” European Right, 1945-present (MA)

    Crossing Borders: Passports, Bodies and the State since 1600 (BA)

    Other modules I plan to offer include:

    Italy's Southern Question

    Democracy and Dictatorship in Southern Europe

    Mediterranean Anthropology: A History

    History and the Future: Horizons of Time

  • Publications




    Book Section

  • Business and community

    Business and community


    "Let's talk Mediterranean" podcast interview organised by Brian Aivars Catlos (University of Colorado Boulder) and Sharon Kinoshita (University of California Santa Cruz) about my article "Pontremoli's Cry: Personhood, Scale, and History in the Eastern Mediterranean" (History and Anthropology, 2020), which was chosen as the Mediterranean Seminar Article of the Month for March 2021. Recorded on 27 April 2021. 

    Ernesto de Martino, Decolonisation, and Translation: A conversation with Dorothy Louise Zinn (Free University of Bozen-Bolzano) and Roberto Dainotto (Duke University). Chaired by Joseph John Viscomi (Birkbeck, University of London). Recorded on 1 March 2021 as part of the Association for the Study of Modern Italy (ASMI) 2020-21 conference series, Italian Mediterraneans.