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As with several terms in criminology, organized crime has been defined in a variety of ways and there is surprisingly little consensus regarding its meaning. In part this is because, unlike in the case of homicide or robbery or many other types of offenses, organized crime is a conceptual rather than a legal category. The issue of definition is an important one, however, since how we define organized crime has very important implications for how we attempt to explain it and for the steps we take as a society to prevent or control it.
Of course, all crime is organized to some degree. The criminal acts of juvenile delinquents, a small group of minor thieves, or a three-person team of con artists suggest at least minimal levels of social organization. Yet we do not usually intend the term ‘‘organized crime’’ to include such activities or groups. All crimes and criminals are located along a continuum of organizational sophistication that identifies differences with respect to factors such as the division of labor or stability over time. The importation, preparation, distribution, and sale of illegal drugs is a more organized crime than is a simple mugging; and a group of criminals who steal cars, modify them, and then ship them for sale outside of the United States requires more organization than a group of juveniles who commit the occasional act of convenience store theft. By implication, if not more explicitly, the term ‘‘organized crime’’ refers to groups and acts at the high rather than the low end of any continuum of organizational sophistication.
Unfortunately, the tendency to use the term ‘‘organized crime’’ to refer simultaneously to a type of behavior and a type of person often leads to circular reasoning. For instance, the phrase ‘‘‘organized crime’ is involved in narcotics distribution in New York’’ is tautological because narcotics distribution is an organized crime and whoever is involved in it is by definition in organized crime. Most typically, organized crime is defined in ways that emphasize high levels of cooperation among groups of professional criminals. In this way, the category organized crime is viewed as synonymous with the category organized criminals. In popular parlance, for instance, organized crime has been equated with ‘‘the mob,’’ ‘‘the Mafia’’ or ‘‘The Syndicate.’’
Critics of definitions that tend to equate organized crime with criminal associations are quite correct in pointing out that such definitions discourage our potential understanding of the wide variety of other social actors involved in organized crime. Thus, they contend, there is more to organized crime than associations of professional criminals. There are victims, customers, regulators, suppliers, competitors, and innocent bystanders. Viewed this way, the criminal association is merely one component in a much more complex web of interrelationships that comprise organized crime. Moreover, the configurations among these various elements are always changing and these changes affect the ways in which any particular component (including the criminal association) is organized.
For these writers, organized crime is more usefully conceptualized as a set of market relationships rather than as criminal associations or secret societies. This position reflects the view that many of the kinds of activities with which we customarily associate organized crime—drug dealing, loan-sharking, gambling, the infiltration of legitimate business—are market activities and, therefore, the kinds of questions we need to ask about organized crime are the same kinds of questions we would need to ask about any kind of business. How are goods marketed? How are contractual obligations enforced? What sorts of relationships link criminal entrepreneurs to the general public as well as to those who seek to use state power to regulate their activities? Thus, organized crime involves an ongoing criminal conspiracy, ordered around market relationships that involve victims, offenders, customers, and corrupt officials among others.
To a considerable degree, criminological debates about how to best define organized crime (like debates about its history, structure, and most other matters) are fueled by the problems that plague efforts to undertake original research into organized crime. Many of the standard methodological tools of social science—the survey or the experiment, for instance—that are employed with effectiveness in addressing the nature of other forms of offending, lack real application in the study of organized crime. As a result, much of what we know, we have learned indirectly. Popular journalism, the findings of government investigations, and criminal and civil investigations have often substituted for firsthand observation by criminological researchers. For many critics, the lack of original research and the reliance on these other data sources make it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Moreover, when original research has been undertaken, such as the study by Francis Ianni and Elizabeth Reuss-Ianni of a New York Italian American crime family, it has often proven to be sharply critical of the official view of organized crime. Such studies have tended to reveal a considerably more complex picture than the one that often emerges in the pages of the ‘‘true crime’’ or fictional narrative or from the proceedings of government inquiries.
History of Organized Crime
The pirates who plundered and looted merchant vessels in the seventeenth century and who undertook large-scale trade in stolen goods may be considered among the earliest organized crime groups to make their appearance in the Western world. Many of the activities that are associated with contemporary organized crime, such as prostitution, gambling, theft, and various forms of extortion, were also evident in the frontier communities of the nineteenth-century American West.
However, most observers locate the origins of the distinctly American style of organized crime in the urban centers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a fundamental way, urban conditions provided the kind of environment in which organized crime could flourish. The large population sizes provided a ‘‘critical mass’’ of offenders, customers, and victims and thereby facilitated the development of profitable markets in illicit goods and services. Moreover, the size and density of urban networks allowed criminal forms of organization to become diversified and encouraged the growth of essential support services (such as those offered by corrupt politicians or police).
These early forms of criminal organization were typically tied to local areas and because of the highly segregated character of the city, they had important ethnic dimensions. Irish neighborhoods, for instance, gave rise to street gangs with names like ‘‘The Bowery Boys’’ and the ‘‘O’Connell’s Guards’’ and in Chinese, African American, Italian, and Jewish neighborhoods criminal organization similarly reflected local cultural and economic circumstances. Neighborhood conditions provided ample opportunity for local criminal entrepreneurs who were willing and able to engage in a various forms of extortion or illicit marketeering.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, residents of the ‘‘Little Italies’’ of many eastern industrialized urban areas had to contend with a crude form of protection racket known as ‘‘La Mano Nera’’ or ‘‘the Black Hand.’’ Those members of the local community who were better off financially might receive an anonymous note demanding that a sum of money be paid to the writer. If payment was not forthcoming, victims were typically warned that they could expect to have their businesses bombed or the safety of their family members jeopardized. Customarily, the extortion demand was signed with a crude drawing of a black hand. While the receiver of the letter (as well as other members of the community) were led to believe that the Black Hand was a large and powerful organization, it is more likely that the extortion was the work of individuals or a small group of offenders who used their victims’ fear of secret societies (and often their fear of the police) to coerce payment.
While most forms of criminal organization prior to World War I were relatively small-scale operations, the situation changed dramatically with the introduction of Prohibition. The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on 16 January 1919 and went into effect one year later. The intention of the national experiment was to control alcohol use through the prevention of the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors. In essence, national prohibition had created an illegal market unlike any that had existed before.
It can be argued that national prohibition facilitated the consolidation of the power of criminal organizations. Although pre-Prohibition criminal enterprises had often been profitable, the revenue potential of Prohibition was unprecedented. While precise estimates of the amount of money that flowed through organized crime groups are difficult to make, it is clear that the manufacture and sale of illegal alcohol had become a major industry. In 1927, for instance, the U.S. Attorney’s Office estimated that the criminal organization of the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone had an annual income of $105 million. In subsequent years, the profits from the sale of illegal alcohol in Chicago and other cities funded the movement of criminal organizations into diverse sectors of both the licit and the illicit economies.
The importation and distribution of illegal alcohol also encouraged national and international linkages between criminal groups. For instance, the involvement of Canadian organized crime figures in smuggling operations that moved alcohol to the United States facilitated the eventual control by American organized crime groups of Canadian criminal operations in cities such as Toronto and Montreal. On a national level, intergroup cooperation was evidenced by regional conferences of those involved in the illicit liquor business. One such major gathering of crime figures was held in Atlantic City in 1929 and was attended by representatives from criminal organizations located in several major urban areas.
Importantly, the profitability of those industries that subverted national prohibition fostered an environment of widespread corruption in several cities. For many members of the general public as well as many law enforcement and elected officials, prohibition lacked any real moral authority. The relationships between criminal organizations and the political machines that held sway in many cities were stabilized during Prohibition, and the intricate connections between these sectors of the urban social fabric were maintained for decades to come.
The Great Depression of the 1930s did not affect the business of organized crime to the degree it affected many aspects of the legitimate economy. After Prohibition ended in 1933, major criminal organizations diversified and became increasingly powerful in the process. Gambling, loan-sharking, and the growth industry of narcotics distribution became important sources of criminal revenue as repeal threatened the proceeds from the illegal sale of alcohol.
An increasingly significant area of enterprise during this period was ‘‘racketeering.’’ While the term may be defined many different ways, it generally refers to the variety of means by which organized crime groups, through the use of violence (actual or implied), gain control of labor unions or legitimate businesses. Often, though, the relationships that joined organized crime groups to unions or legitimate business were mutually advantageous. The leadership of a labor union, for example, might seek to exploit the violent reputation of those involved in organized crime in order to pressure an employer to meet a demand for concessions. Similarly, a business owner might attempt to control the competitive character of the legitimate marketplace or to avert labor troubles through affiliation with those willing to use violence and intimidation in the pursuit of economic goals. The International Longshoremen’s Association and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters are among the best known examples of labor organizations affected by racketeering.
In 1950, organized crime became a highly visible part of American popular culture. A series of televised congressional hearings chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver sought not only the testimony of law enforcement experts but also of supposed members of organized crime networks. In general, the latter type of witness tended to remain silent or to otherwise express an unwillingness to provide evidence. These refusals made for startling television viewing and were interpreted by many observers as unambiguous proof of the sinister character of the problem of organized crime.
In its final report the Kefauver committee concluded that organized crime in America was largely under the control of an alien conspiracy known as ‘‘the Mafia.’’ The Kefauver committee argued that the organization, which was said to have its origins in Sicily, was firmly in control of gambling, narcotics, political corruption, and labor racketeering in America. The Mafia, it was suggested, cemented its power through the use of violence, intimidation, and corruption.
The influence of the Kefauver committee in shaping postwar perceptions of organized crime as the product of an alien conspiracy, which subverts American social structure rather than emerging from it, cannot be underestimated. Its findings influenced significantly the ways in which policymakers, journalists, academics, and members of the general public would think about the problem of organized crime for decades to come. However, critics have charged that the committee was more engaged by the process of public drama than by a search for the truth. In this respect, it can be argued that the committee had very little proof upon which to base the startling conclusions that it reached about the nationwide conspiracy of ethnic criminals.
A number of developments in subsequent decades nevertheless appeared to be consistent with the findings of the Kefauver committee. In 1957, an apparent conclave of Mafia members was raided in the small upstate town of Apalachin, New York. In 1963, another congressional investigation of organized crime (known popularly as the McClellan committee) heard testimony from a supposed Mafia insider, named Joseph Valachi. According to Valachi, the control of organized crime in America rested with an organization known as ‘‘La Cosa Nostra’’ rather than the Mafia. Valachi described the character of the organization, the oaths that its members took, and recounted the historical process by which the modern La Cosa Nostra was formed after a purge of the older and more traditional Mafia leadership of the 1930s. Once again, critics pointed out that very little of what Valachi had to say could be corroborated independently and that he himself had a record of lying to law enforcement authorities when it suited his purpose. Still, Valachi’s testimony helped strengthen a kind of ideological and moral consensus around the view of organized crime as an alien parasitic conspiracy rather than as a problem indigenous to American social life. Moreover, his testimony and the work of the McClellan committee more generally legitimated the subsequent development of investigative approaches to organized crime, including the widespread use of wiretaps, witness immunity, and other strategies facilitated by the passage of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970.
In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice to examine all aspects of crime and justice in America. One of the task forces associated with this commission was charged with the responsibility of investigating the nature and dimensions of organized crime. The report of that task force, shaped principally by the well-known criminologist Donald Cressey, reinforced and extended the view of organized crime as an alien ethnic conspiracy. According to the task force, La Cosa Nostra was comprised of approximately five thousand members organized within twentyfour ‘‘families’’ each of which was associated with a particular regional sphere of influence. Moreover, these families were said to be organized in terms of a rigid hierarchical chain of command. The highest level of decision-making in the organization was a ‘‘National Commission’’ that served as a combination legislature, supreme court, and board of directors.
While a number of critics dissented, there was a widespread consensus by the 1970s that organized crime did indeed reflect an Italian American hegemony. The apparent findings of investigative commissions and task forces were underwritten by films such as The Godfather, The Valachi Papers, and Mean Streets as well as by other elements of popular culture. At the same time, it was increasingly acknowledged that other groups were beginning to make significant inroads in organized crime. Typically described in terms of their ethnicity, such groups were said to include African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Russians. The powerful character of earlier organized crime imagery affected the ways in which such groups were labeled by the mass media and by relevant policy communities and it became common to speak of the growing power of the black, Mexican, or Russian ‘‘Mafias.’’
By the 1980s many observers had come to the conclusion that whatever control La Cosa Nostra exerted over organized crime was in decline. The systems of widespread corruption that had emerged out of Prohibition typically involved well-articulated relationships between organized crime groups on the one hand and established political machines on the other. These machines, which facilitated the centralization of police and urban political corruption, had largely disappeared by the 1970s. Moreover, because municipal policing had become more professionalized and because federal agencies had begun to develop an increasing interest in the activities of organized crime, the bases of largescale, long-term corruption had been undermined.
The passage of new legislation aimed at the control of organized crime and the aggressive prosecution of cases involving Italian organized crime figures also did much to weaken the hold that La Cosa Nostra had on licit and illicit businesses. Perhaps most important in this respect was the passage of the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act and related statutes. The members of Italian American organizations in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Boston, and elsewhere were effectively prosecuted and high-visibility cases were brought against well-known figures such as John Gotti and the heads of the five New York crime families were seen as clear proof of the power of the prosecutorial assault.
It is also worth noting that the decline within urban areas of traditional Italian communities and the movement of second and third generations to the suburbs removed from cities much of the popular support that many organized crime figures had previously enjoyed. In addition, it has been suggested that the continued tendency of the Mafia (or La Cosa Nostra) to recruit new members from a dwindling pool of uneducated and violent felons did little to ensure the adaptability of the organization as the business of organized crime became more complex at the end of the twentieth century. In addition, the gains made by other ethnic groups often came at the expense of the Italian American crime syndicate’s interests. The traditional control of the heroin markets was lost to Mexican and Asian groups whose strategies for importation of the drug did not depend on the muscle that the Mafia may have been able to exert for so long against the New York waterfront. Similarly, the very lucrative cocaine business was under the control of Colombian cartels rather than Cosa Nostra families. The cartels required neither the financing nor the private violence that the Italian syndicate might have been able to lend to the operation of an illicit market. Such groups were themselves well financed and in possession of their own fearsome reputations regarding the use of violence to settle disputes or to threaten competition.
The concern in the 1980s and 1990s about the emergence of new organized groups was accompanied by a concern about the increasingly transnational character of organized crime. This crime trend has been understood, in large part, as an outcome of the post–cold war reconfiguration of national and economic boundaries. The reduction in trade restrictions, the development of global systems of finance and telecommunications, the increasingly transparent nature of national borders, and the dramatic internal changes in many nations (such as those in the former Soviet Union) made it easier for criminal conspirators to expand their operations internationally. Such operations are tracked, investigated, and prosecuted with great difficulty since effective enforcement requires levels of international cooperation among policing agencies from different nations that often vary markedly regarding their enforcement priorities and the resources available to them.
Police intelligence during the period suggested, for instance, that organized crime groups from the former Soviet Union, Asia, and Italy were forming partnerships among themselves as well as with drug merchants in Central and South America. As in the case of legitimate business, such foreign expansions resulted from the desire to engage new markets. The links between Colombian drug cartels and the Sicilian Mafia, for example, reflected an interest on the part of the cartels to enter European markets where, as compared to the United States, cocaine could be sold at a higher price and where drug enforcement activity was less aggressive. Estimates of the economic impact of transnational crime are difficult to make and run as high as several hundred billion dollars annually.
The International Context
Particularly salient aspects of organized crime in the United States are its apparent durability and the degree to which it has permeated popular culture. Over the decades it has evolved in ways that suggest both an endemic social problem and a distinctly American cultural mythology. Such considerations do not imply, however, that the phenomenon of organized crime is in any sense unique to the United States.
Of course, cross-national comparisons of organized crime levels and activities are exceptionally difficult to make, given considerable variation in legal codes, and the quantity and quality of intelligence information. As a result, generalizations about the kinds of national characteristics that do or do not provide the environment in which organized crime will flourish are always tentative. However, several factors do seem to have real relevance in this respect.
One such factor is the gap that exists between the goods and services which citizens demand and the legal codes that attempt to regulate supply. The experience with alcohol prohibition in the United States (as well as with current drug policies) has convinced many that when laws are designed to regulate illicit markets, organized crime is an inevitability. In the former Soviet Union, an extremely large black market thrived as all forms of individual economic enterprise were illegal. It has been argued that the personnel, who comprise the organized crime groups that have come to be seen as an extremely serious problem in the post-Soviet societies of Eastern Europe, developed their entrepreneurial skills in the context of such market economies.
Traditions and political structures conducive to corruption are also very important to the development of organized crime. The role attributed to American urban political machines is not unique in this respect. The historically authoritarian character of Soviet society encouraged the subversion of the legal control of many forms of entrepreneurial activity and fostered widespread disrespect for the law and political authority. It can be suggested that the immense wealth accumulated by drug cartels in Mexico, Colombia, and other countries when combined with political traditions of one-party rule (as in Mexico or Nigeria, for example) and an immense gap between rich and poor, make political and law enforcement corruption, and as a consequence, organized crime, likely outcomes.
The development of organized crime is also related to geographic location. The proximity of Mexico and Canada to the United States, for instance, has affected the growth of organized crime in both countries. For Mexican crime groups, proximity to the United States provides access to a sizeable and relatively easily penetrable drug market. In the Canadian case, the cultural and social similarities to the United States, and a relatively open border, in addition to several other factors, facilitated the movement northward of major organized crime groups in the 1950s and 1960s. In a different way, according to the U.S. State Department, Chile had avoided, until the closing years of the twentieth century, many of the problems with organized crime that are characteristic of other South American countries due largely to its geographic isolation.
While it is clear that organized crime can emerge out of many different sorts of political contexts, perhaps it is most secure in nations with liberal democratic traditions that emphasize upward mobility and individual achievement. In the United States, cultural approval of the upwardly bound is pervasive and an important part of national ideology. It has often been the case that cultural support of the organized criminal has been no less extensive than for those who have made fortunes in more conventional ways. Not only within their own ethnic communities but also within the wider society, organized crime figures such as Al Capone and John Gotti have emerged as folk heroes and media celebrities.
Ethnic Succession and Organized Crime
The role that ethnicity plays in shaping American organized crime has long been at the center of a heated debate among criminologists. Two broad schools of thought may be identified in this regard. The first, which many critics label the ‘‘alien conspiracy theory,’’ assigns primary significance to the role played by Italian American groups in organized crime from the early days of this century until at least the 1980s. From this point of view, large scale American organized crime emerged out of earlier forms of Italian criminal organization such as the ‘‘Black Hand’’ gangs discussed earlier. Such gangs were themselves thought by advocates of this position to have reflected criminal styles and organizational forms imported to America from Sicily and other areas of southern Italy during the largescale immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While small-scale forms of criminal organization may have predated the importation of the Mafia, advocates of this view maintain that the history of organized crime in America really is the history of the American Mafia. It is claimed that internecine struggles among groups of Italian American gangsters in the 1930s (known as the Castellammarese War) led to the Americanization of the Mafia and the emergence of a new and dynamic leadership that is associated with such wellknown organized crime figures of the 1940s and 1950s as Charles ‘‘Lucky’’ Luciano, Frank Costello, and Vito Genovese. As the Americanized ‘‘La Cosa Nostra’’ replaced the more traditional organizational form of the Mafia, Italian American hegemony over organized crime was firmly established for several decades. From this point of view, it is not ethnicity as a variable that matters so much as the distinctive ethnicity of Mafia members. By implication, there is something very unique about the cultural character of southern Italy that has frequently predisposed immigrants from those regions to become involved in organized crime. Not surprisingly, Italian Americans have long complained about the Mafia stereotype and about the suggestion that organized crime is exclusively or largely the domain of those with Italian ancestry.
While the alien conspiracy theory has been legitimated by journalists, government inquiries, and many scholars, its critics argue that it too often substitutes myth for fact. There is, for instance, very little evidence to suggest that Italian American crime was characterized by a unilinear evolution or even that certain of the pivotal events (such as the Castellammarese War) even took place. However, critics charge, the most serious limitation of this argument may be that it tends to treat organized crime as a ‘‘special case.’’ Because it attributes organized crime to a small number of criminal conspirators and to unique secret societies, the perspective asks few questions to which general answers can be given. By conceptualizing organized crime as the product of ‘‘evil’’ groups and by conceptualizing these groups as the product of singular social circumstances and powerful personalities, the argument blocks the way to a more abstract understanding of the problem. Moreover, by viewing organized crime as something that is imported to America, rather than as an indigenous product, the perspective does not seek to explain the relationships that link such crime to elements of American social structure.
A second perspective attempts to provide a historical context for the Italian American experience by arguing that it is part of a much broader process of ‘‘ethnic succession’’ in organized crime. This argument maintains that organized crime is not the exclusive domain of any one ethnic group. Rather, groups move into organized crime when other channels of upward social mobility are not open to them, and move out as more legitimate means of attaining wealth, power, and prestige become available. According to the sociologist Daniel Bell, who originally made this argument in the 1950s, organized crime functions as a ‘‘queer ladder of social mobility.’’
Thus, advocates of the ethnic succession argument maintain that in the burgeoning cities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, organized crime was dominated by the Irish. As Irish gangs formed, they became connected to urban political machines that were also under Irish control. As the legitimate power structure became increasingly available to Irish Americans, however, they began to view organized crime as less attractive, and as they moved out of such activity, other groups—most notably Jewish and Italian organized criminals—assumed an increasingly important presence. However, because the Italian domination of organized crime coincided with the rise of mass media, and the investigative activities of the Keafauver committee and other government bodies, the one-to-one correspondence between organized crime and Italian ethnicity became fixed in public discourse.
As Italian dominance in organized crime declined in the 1970s and 1980s, the process of ethnic succession continued. African American, Hispanics, Asians, Russians, and others, it is said, have each in turn replaced their predecessors as changes in the legitimate structures of opportunity have accommodated—often grudgingly— groups who previously played significant roles in organized crime.
The ethnic succession argument presents a more complicated picture of the relationships involving organized crime, ethnicity, and American social structure than the one suggested by theories of alien conspiracies. It contends that organized crime is not imported to America but is instead a logical product of the distinctly American character of minority group stratification and of the restrictions on legitimate opportunities that minorities face. Organized crime is not the property of any particular group but rather a means of social mobility that the existence of illicit markets makes available. As such it has been intertwined historically with other semilegitimate channels of upward mobility, such as entertainment, boxing, and union and urban politics. Like organized crime, these channels of upward mobility do not depend on credentials or family status and, as a result, have also been characterized by processes of ethnic succession.
Analytically, the ethnic succession argument encourages a focus on the variable character of ethnic group experiences in organized crime. Not all groups have been involved in such crime and those that have been involved have tended, often, to specialize in particular forms of illicit activity. By recognizing the differing experiences that groups have with organized crime, it is possible to develop a more general understanding of how ethnicity and historical circumstance interact. Some groups, such as the Germans and Scandinavians, were more likely to settle in rural areas of the Midwest rather than in urban areas of the east, and as a result their involvement in organized crime was less typical. In a consistent way, the cultural backgrounds of other groups have influenced the kinds of illegal activities in which they did become involved. Early in the twentieth century, for instance, the Irish specialized in gambling and labor racketeering. The latter choice reflected their more general involvement in the leadership of the labor movement. It has also been argued that the large-scale involvement of Italian organized criminals in the illegal alcohol business during prohibition represented an attempt to enter an illicit market that was new and thus not under Irish control. Much later in the twentieth century, Vietnamese and Chinese organized crime groups have specialized in extortion and the importation of drugs, while Russian groups have specialized in various forms of fraud, forgery, and counterfeiting.
Aspects of organized crime other than market specialization may also be related to ethnicity. Cultural experience, for instance, may relate to the level of mistrust of government, the degree of community tolerance for particular types of organized crime activities, the willingness to use violence, and to the forms that criminal organizations assume.
Some critics have charged that the theory of ethnic succession is too simplistic. In short, it is suggested that the image of ethnic groups as, in some sense, lined up and waiting their turn to enter organized crime and then neatly exiting when legitimate opportunities present themselves is not consistent with the historical record. There are several strands to this criticism. First, there is historical evidence to support the conclusion that in many cities—including, for example, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Cleveland— organized crime has not been under the control of any particular ethnic group but has been run instead by multiethnic hierarchies.
Second, it may be erroneous to assume that organized crime is a channel of upward mobility readily available to those who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy and who lack access to more conventional channels. Rather, the process has been more complicated such that success in large-scale organized crime appears to be possible only after at least some gains have been made in the conventional order. As stated, the success of the Irish in organized crime early in the century depended on their collaborative relationships with the police, labor unions, and political machines. Thus, prior success in more conformist spheres seems to make success at organized crime possible.
Third, the ethnic succession argument appears to assume that organized crime is a zerosum game such that movement into this activity is only possible when other groups move out. This need not be the case. If particular markets (for instance, the market in marijuana) do not tend toward monopolization, then clearly groups can move in without pushing anyone else out. Another line of criticism maintains that the major weakness of the argument concerns its failure to explain why, within any ethnic group, some individuals rather than others involve themselves in organized crime. This criticism rightly alerts us to the observation that, with respect to any ethnic group, it is only a very small minority who engage in organized crime. Most ethnic group members remain hardworking, develop legitimate entrepreneurial enterprises, and in general strive to make effective use of those opportunities that do present themselves. According to this view, movement into organized crime is not a response to a reduction in opportunity but a rationally chosen style of life that exploits subterranean American values regarding ‘‘easy money’’ and ‘‘the fast life.’’ The General Theory of Crime, developed by Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, suggests that those who engage in organized crime, like those who engage in other forms of crime, do so because they lack high levels of ‘‘self control’’ rather than because they experience the frustration borne of blocked opportunity. A corresponding point can be made regarding the tenet of ethnic succession theory that those who are forced into organized crime move out when legitimate opportunities present themselves. Some observers, such as Peter Lupsha, have noted that movement out often seems more a matter of defeat or attrition than of any effort to gain real respectability. The Italian American organized crime figures who had risen to prominence by the middle of the twentieth century left organized crime principally as a result of death or prosecution. Many of those who remained faced vigorous opponents who sought a share of the businesses that they controlled.
Questions about the structure of organized crime usually involve a consideration of two distinct yet related issues. The first concerns the form and level of organization that characterize criminal associations. The second involves a consideration of the structure of the various markets within which these associations operate.
With respect to the first question, debate has centered around the level of rationality of organized crime groups. In simple terms, the concept of rationality refers to the degree of ‘‘organizational sophistication.’’ To the extent that organized crime groups are highly rational, they possess a well-defined division of labor, formal authority relations, and a structural permanence which implies that the organization exists independently of the people that comprise it at any particular point in time. Those descriptions of La Cosa Nostra, for instance, as a relatively formalized bureaucracy with positions for ‘‘bosses,’’ ‘‘underbosses,’’ and ‘‘soldiers’’ suggest a highly formalized model.
In contrast, it has been argued that organized crime groups more closely resemble informal rather than formal organizations. In this model, organized crime groups are said to consist principally of localized sets of loosely structured relationships that derive from kin and other forms of intimate association. The organizational context is seen to be based less on bureaucratic formality and more on shared cultural understandings and cooperation. Analyses by James O. Finckenauer and Elin K. Waring of the structure of the ‘‘Russian Mafia’’ in America, for instance, reveal that criminal associations typically resemble informal networks and as such are not centralized or dominated by any small group of individuals. Moreover, those individuals who do exert particular influence in these networks do so because of personal influence rather than because of positions that they occupy. There is also little evidence to support the view that these organizational structures outlive the involvement of their central participants.
Some critics of the more formalized model, such as historian Mark Haller, maintain that it is incorrect—at least in the case of Italian American crime organizations—to equate an association of organized criminals with a business enterprise. Rather, the members of such associations are relatively independent entrepreneurs who run their own illegal businesses from which they derive income. The organization does not provide ‘‘jobs’’ but serves the needs of its members in a variety of ways, not the least of which is the establishment of relationships and partnerships that facilitate the exploitation of illicit opportunities. Of course, not all groups operate this way and it is important to distinguish those that function like businessmen’s associations from those that are themselves business enterprises. The Cosa Nostra differs from a Colombian drug cartel in that the former is a type of social group that serves the interests of its members while the latter is a business group that is concerned with the sale and distribution of illicit goods. To group them together would be to confuse organizations like the Rotary Club with businesses like department stores.
It is also possible that differing views about the level of rationality of organized crime are not so much in conflict as they are differentially applicable. It may be that at certain (higher) levels of some crime organizations, authority is relatively formalized and, to some degree, structure exists quite independently of the activities in which the group is involved at any particular time. At the same time, relationships involving those at lower levels of the organization—or involving those in the organization and those beyond it—function in much more informal ways. Thus, rationality may not only vary between crime organizations but within them as well.
With respect to the structure of the markets in which organized crime is engaged, a key structural issue concerns what is sometimes assumed to be the inevitability of market monopolization. From one point of view, the trend toward monopoly is the central and defining feature of organized crime. Through the provision of
‘‘protection’’ to those involved in illicit businesses (such as bookmakers), through the establishment of trade associations involving legitimate sectors of the economy (such as the laundry business), or through other extortionate practices, organized crime groups are able to monopolize the delivery of particular goods and services.
In contrast, others have argued that the tendency of illicit markets associated with organized crime is to resist monopolization. Based on an analysis of gambling and loan-sharking operations in the New York City area, for instance, Peter Reuter (1983) concluded that the fear of police intervention and a lack of courtenforceable contracts tend to make markets fragmented and localized. Moreover, entry into such markets was relatively easy and prices for illegal services were set by the competitive power of the marketplace rather than by any sort of central pricing authority. While violence might be expected to facilitate monopolies, it has been found that it is used less frequently (and is less useful) than is sometimes believed. Not only does the use of violence invite police scrutiny, it also suggests a rather unstable mechanism for market control. By implication, any such monopoly is always vulnerable to groups as willing or more willing to use violence.
The range of activities in which organized crime groups are said to be involved is vast indeed. Traditionally, it has been argued that these activities are of two major types. The first involves the distribution and sale of illicit goods and services. Specifically such illicit enterprises might include prostitution, drugs, gambling, pornography, and loan-sharking. Extortion, the other major form of activity, is undertaken as an end in itself or as the means to other ends. These extortionate practices include various forms of business and labor racketeering and, it is argued, they have often provided the point of entry by which organized crime groups ‘‘infiltrate’’ legitimate businesses. While infiltration may in some cases be the appropriate word, in other cases, it obscures the role played by business interests that knowingly engage with organized crime groups because they believe it is in their best interests to do so. Such cases suggest collaboration rather than infiltration since the relationship is more symbiotic than parasitic. Thus, a legitimate business might use the relationship with an organized crime group as a source of investment capital while the organized crime group might view the relationship as an effective way to launder funds, diversify risk, or achieve some level of public respectability.
What illicit marketeering and extortion share in common, to some degree, is the potential for organization and routinization. In all such cases, not only collaborators but also victims understand the nature of the relationships in which they are involved. However, both groups may be unwilling to share the task of preventing or controlling the prohibited conduct. This may be because of their own profit-sharing, in the case of collaborators, or because they fear that such action could put them in danger, as in the case of victims.
Other forms of activities associated with organized crime groups—such as the use of violence or political corruption—must be understood in terms that stress the instrumental character of such practices. By definition, the businesses of organized crime operate beyond the reach of law and therefore conflicts that arise among participants cannot be resolved using the state-approved legal apparatus. Under such conditions, violence (and more importantly the threat of violence) assume some significance as techniques of conflict resolution. In a related way, organized crime groups need to be able to evade or to neutralize those state agencies charged with their control. Traditionally, corruption has proven to be an important mechanism by which this task is accomplished. As in the case of the infiltration of legitimate business, however, corruption is more often a form of symbiotic relationship than a form of victimization.
By the 1980s and 1990s, policymakers and academics alike had begun to argue that it would be misleading to think about organized crime activities in traditionally narrow terms. While various forms of extortion and marketeering continued to be important income sources, organized crime had become much more sophisticated. Of particular interest in this respect was the increasingly important role that criminal associations were thought to play in various financial markets. In the late 1990s, for instance, it was claimed that organized crime groups owned or controlled several New York brokerage firms.
During this period, attention also focused on the crime of money laundering. As cash businesses, drug trafficking, gambling, and other organized crimes generate huge amounts of money that is vulnerable to seizure by state authorities. The movement of these funds through international money markets not only launders the money but also in many cases extends criminal enterprises and facilitates corruption and bribery. It has been estimated that over $750 billion in illicit funds is laundered worldwide annually of which $300 billion is laundered through the United States.
Controlling Organized Crime
For many observers, organized crime is not only an object of academic study but also a practical problem about which something needs to be done. Policies aimed at the control of organized crime have tended to emphasize one of two types of strategies. The first targets the members of organized crime groups while the second focuses on the structural characteristics and market relationships that make organized crime possible. It is important to stress that these two broad strategies are not in conflict with each other. However, they do reflect quite different assumptions about how the human and economic resources available for the control of organized crime should be employed.
Strategies that focus on the members of organized crime groups tend to involve the use of the criminal justice system for the purpose of prosecuting offenders. Local state and federal agencies have used a wide arsenal of investigative and prosecutorial weapons to this end. These have included the extensive use of wiretaps, witness immunity and witness protection programs, and special grand juries. Perhaps the most important prosecutorial tool is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which was passed in 1970. The act makes it a crime to acquire an interest in, to participate in the affairs of, or to invest the profits acquired from an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity. In the period after 1980, most significant organized crime prosecutions involved the use of the RICO statutes, and the decimation of the traditional Cosa Nostra organization has been attributed to RICO prosecutions.
Critics, however, maintain that all such policies have an inherent limitation in that they proceed from the assumption that the control— through prosecution—of members of organized crime groups is somehow synonymous with the control of organized crime. Such ‘‘headhunting’’ approaches, it is argued, confuse the arrest and prosecution of offenders with the control of the activities in which offenders engage. It has been suggested that even when they are successful, these strategies remove only some illicit entrepreneurs from the marketplace and thereby strengthen the rewards for those who remain. This outcome may be made more likely by the tendency of law enforcement to prosecute most successfully those operators who are smallest and weakest. Historically, it has been the case, critics argue, that the response to criminal prosecution is often adaptation on the part of organized crime groups. In the latter years of the twentieth century, for instance, the transparency of many national borders, and the growth of the Internet and of international money markets facilitated such adaptations by posing complex jurisdictional problems to enforcement agencies.
Rather than focus on the members of organized crime groups as the object of policy attention, many analysts argue, it is necessary to focus on the environments within which the businesses that comprise organized crime operate. Seen in this way, organized crime may require market rather than law enforcement interventions. One such intervention aims to decriminalize or legalize those goods and services that form the basis for many organized crime markets. Thus, state lotteries and legalized gambling in places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City provide alternatives to a service that would otherwise only be available in illicit markets. However, the approach poses risks since it is not necessarily the case that legalization results in the destruction of illegal markets. It can instead create a social climate that proves to be even more supportive of illegal conduct.
Another strategy involves efforts to ‘‘follow the money.’’ The recognition that organized crime activity facilitates the accumulation of large amounts of cash that must be laundered implies a need to make the money itself the object of policy attention. Money laundering by organized crime groups in the 1980s and 1990s (particularly the profits from the drug trade) has facilitated the relationships between organized crime groups and organizations in the more legitimate economy as well as between such groups and the governments of states for which such money is an important source of revenue. Thus, increasing attention has focused on the development of ‘‘money laundering’’ laws and policies that take the profits away from offenders by seizing or freezing assets derived from organized crimes.
Indeed, in the United States, money laundering prosecutions rose 400 percent between 1991 and 1993. Effective money laundering policies necessitate a degree of international cooperation that cannot always be achieved either because of differences in enforcement resources or in political will. Such strategies also depend heavily on longterm undercover operations, stings, and the use of informants, all of which pose difficult ethical problems.
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