A Systematic Overview of Definitions of Organized Crime

Klaus von Lampe

(Excerpt from Chapter 2 of the book Organized Crime: Analyzing illegal activities, criminal structures, and extra-legal governance, pp. 27-30)

Scholars, law enforcement officials, journalists, and politicians "have turned defining organized crime into an industry" (Beare, 2003b, p. 159), and the number of definitions is continuously growing.
As others have pointed out before, most of these definitions are not definitions in the strict sense of the word but mere descriptions (Reuter, 1994; Van Duyne, 2003). Definitions are supposed to precisely delineate the boundaries of something by providing clear rules for deciding where something begins and ends. Many definitions of organized crime are too vague and ambiguous to meet this requirement (Van Duyne, 2003) and are therefore of only very limited value in the context of research, legislation, and policymaking. However, for the present purpose of analyzing the scope of different meanings attached to the term organized crime, these shortcomings do not pose a fundamental problem.

Three Notions of the "Nature" of Organized Crime: Activity, Structure, Governance

There are at least three different notions of the core nature of organized crime: one centered on criminal activity, one centered on criminal organization, and one centered on illegal governance. According to one view, organized crime is primarily about crime. Many definitions in essence state that organized crime is crime. Organized crime, therefore, is seen as a specific type of criminal activity. What makes crime organized is either the nature of these activities or the criminals behind them. Criminal activities are regarded as being organized, for example, because of a certain level of sophistication, continuity, and rationality, or by a certain level of harm. Take, for example, this definition by Samuel Porteous in a study prepared for the Canadian government: "Organized crime encompasses any organized profit-motivated criminal activities [emphasis added] that have a serious impact [emphasis added]" (Porteous, 1998, pp. 1-2, 10).
Another view holds that it is not so important what offenders do or how they do it but how offenders are linked to and associated with each other. Organized crime, then, is about some form of organization of criminals in contrast to lone, independently operating offenders. The FBI, for example "defines organized crime as any group having some manner of a formalized structure [emphasis added] and whose primary objective is to obtain money through illegal activities" (Federal Bureau of Investigation, n.d.).
Finally, there is a view that organized crime does not have to do primarily with specific forms of criminal activities or specific forms of criminal organization but with the concentration of illegitimate power in the hands of criminals. In one scenario, criminals create an underworld government that controls, regulates, and taxes illegal activities. In another scenario, criminals gain influence in legitimate society by either replacing legitimate government or by entering into alliances with corrupt members of political and business elites for the purpose of manipulating the constitutional order in their favor. From this perspective, the term organized crime denotes primarily a systemic condition. (28) Alan Block has argued that organized crime can be understood as "a social system [emphasis added] . . . composed of relationships binding professional criminals, politicians, law enforcers, and various entrepreneurs" (Block, 1983, p. vii; see also Albini, 1971, pp. 63, 77; Ianni & Reuss-Ianni, 1976, p. xvi).

Notions About Criminal Organization

Apart from these fundamental categorizations of organized crime (activity, structure, governance), there are a number of other definitional controversies on a smaller scale. Those who regard the organization of criminals as a key aspect, including those who define organized crime as crime committed by members of criminal organizations, do not agree on the defining criteria for these criminal organizations. This controversy mainly runs along the lines of structure and size.
Some definitions do not contain any qualifying criteria for the organization of criminals. Political scientist Roy Godson, for example, in his definition of organized crime accepts a broad range of structural forms:
    Organized crime refers to individuals and groups [emphasis added] with ongoing working relationships who make their living primarily through activities that one or more states deem illegal and criminal. Organized crime can take a variety of institutional or organizational forms [emphasis added]. This includes tight vertical hierarchies with lifelong commitments, as well as looser, more ephemeral, nonhierarchical relationships. (Godson, 2003c, p. 274)
Other definitions establish certain minimum standards that criminal organizations have to meet in order to be classified as organized crime. Criminologist John Conklin, for example, emphasizes enduring, formal structures:
    Organized crime has the characteristics of a formal organization: a division of labor, coordination [emphasis added] of activities through rules and codes [emphasis added], and an allocation of tasks [emphasis added] in order to achieve certain goals [emphasis added]. (Conklin, 2010, p. 73)
As far as size is concerned, most definitions that address this aspect set the minimum limit at three participants. There are, however, also definitions according to which two criminals are sufficient to constitute organized crime. In Australia, for example, the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Act 2001 defines organized crime in essence as criminal activity that involves two or more persons (see also Chapter 14).

Violence and Corruption

There are also differences in opinion regarding the use of violence and corruption. For some, these are defining features of organized crime. In fact, one of the very first definitions of organized crime stated that it "is a technique of violence, intimidation and corruption" (Special Crime Study Commission on Organized Crime, 1953, p. 11). In other definitions, violence and corruption (29) appear only as possible attributes of organized crime, while in yet others these two aspects are not mentioned at all.

Profit and Politics

Finally, an important controversy surrounds the question what aims criminals and criminal organizations, respectively, have to pursue in order to qualify as organized crime. Some definitions emphasize material gain as the central motif of organized crime and implicitly or explicitly exclude political goals (Abadinsky, 2013, p. 3; Lebeya, 2007, p. 17; Valencic & Mozetic, 2006, p. 130); others add power and political influence, though mostly as a means to economic ends (Finckenauer, 2005, p. 81; Rhodes, 1984, p. 4; Winslow & Zhang, 2008, p. 430). Yet, there are also definitions of organized crime that include political or ideological agendas (Chibelushi, Sharp, & Shah, 2006, p. 156; Clark, 2005, p. 105; Swain, 2009, p. 5), which leads to an overlap of the concepts of organized crime and terrorism.

Accounting for the Diversity of Definitions of Organized Crime

The lack of consensus in the definition of organized crime, as has already been pointed out, should not come as a surprise. This is a reflection of the different ways in which reality can be constructed and the different factors that influence the social construction of reality. It is not something, of course, that is unique to organized crime. Similar conceptual confusion also surrounds related issues such as gangs, corruption, or terrorism as well as more general sociological concepts such as society, family, group, and organization.
All definitions of organized crime, including those proposed by scholars, are in the last instance shaped by practical and political considerations or simply by individual preferences. After all, there is not the one imperative conception of organized crime dictated by reality that would effectively rule out any such external influences. In some respects, it appears to be a political decision how organized crime is defined. For example, there are different rationales for arguing that the use of violence is a defining characteristic of organized crime. One rationale, arguably, is the desire to protect social elites, who tend to be involved in nonviolent rather than violent criminal activity, from the stigmatizing label of organized crime. Similarly, the decision on whether or not to include politically motivated crime in the definition of organized crime can be influenced by considerations of whether or not the same law enforcement unit or agency should have jurisdiction over profit-oriented crime as well as cases of terrorism. In fact, that is the reason why, for example, the official German definition of organized crime explicitly excludes terrorist acts (Kinzig, 2004, p. 57).
In other cases, attempts to define organized crime rest on the notion that somehow a level of certainty exists about what organized crime is. This certainty, however, rests on shaky grounds. Three lines of argument can be discerned. Ideas about the nature of organized crime are often derived from the analysis of specific empirical phenomena. For example, when in 1967 a Presidential commission in the United States famously defined organized crime along the lines of its perception of the Italian American Mafia or Cosa Nostra, (30) this meant that everything not closely resembling the Cosa Nostra would not be considered organized crime. Apart from the fact that the commission's interpretation of Cosa Nostra has been highly controversial, the tunnel vision on Cosa Nostra can be viewed as having been arbitrary and misguided to begin with. Sometimes, a notion of certainty about the nature of organized crime is also derived from what "most observers agree" on (Maltz, 1994, p. 25). This means that organized crime is what a majority, for whatever diverse reasons, believes organized crime to be (see, e.g., Abadinsky, 2013, p. 2; Albanese, 2011, p. 4; Hagan, 2006; Finckenauer, 2005).
Finally, a notion of the nature of organized crime is sometimes deduced from the words organized and crime themselves (Kollmar, 1974, p. 2). At times, what is taken as the literal meaning of organized crime, for example "crime that is organized," is then narrowed down to something believed to be "true organized crime" (Finckenauer, 2005, p. 76). In any case, taking the literal meaning as the basis for a definition leads to the peculiar consequence that the meanings each of these two words, organized and crime, have separately acquired in common language usage determine what empirical phenomena are being viewed within one conceptual framework of organized crime.

Source: Klaus von Lampe (2016). Organized Crime: Analyzing illegal activities, criminal structures, and extra-legal governance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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