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Organized Crime - History, The International Context, Ethnic Succession And Organized Crime, Structure, Activities, Controlling Organized Crime

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law

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.


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