Organized Crime Research (kvl-homepage) The Concept of Organized Crime in Historical Perspective
by Klaus von Lampe

Back to: Organized Crime in the U.S. | Organized Crime in Germany

Paper presented at the international conference "Crime organisé international: Mythe, pouvoir, profit...", sponsored by the Institut de recherches interdisciplinaires, Université de Lausanne, Switzerland, 6 October 1999

Download a revised and extended version of this paper that was published in: Forum on Crime and Society Vol. 1 No. 2, December 2001, under the title "Not a process of enlightenment: the conceptual history of organized crime in Germany and the United States of America".

1. Introduction

The subject of this paper is the conceptual history of organized crime in the United States and in Germany (1). The interest in the concept of organized crime and its historical development derives from the notion that when we concern ourselves with organized crime we have to discuss two distinct properties, the reality of organized crime on the one hand and its conceptualization on the other.

The reality of organized crime consists of a myriad of mostly clandestine, diverse and complex aspects of the social universe. They do not readily fall into place to form an easily identifiable entity. Rather, it takes a cognitive and linguistical construct in order for us to perceive these phenomena as interrelated.

Therefore, it seems appropriate to explore an issue like organized crime not exclusively as an empirical problem.
Exploring the concept of organized crime, especially in its historical dimension, provides an insight into the breadth and the depth as well as into the inconsistencies and contradictions of the meanings attached to the term organized crime, and it alerts us to some of the social and political factors that may play a role in shaping the perceptions on organized crime.

2. The Conceptual History of Organized Crime: An Overview

2.1. The Frequency Curve

The first step in a conceptual-history study is to search a data base of representative texts for incidents of the use of the term in question. In this way it is not only possible to determine with some accuracy the point in time when the concept first appeared, but also how, in quantitative terms, its use has changed over time and what phases, marked by an increase in popularity, deserve particular attention.

For example (Tab. 1), changes in the frequency of the term organized crime in the "New York Times Index" show that the concept of organized crime has only very gradually gained acceptance in the media and that it has been a major issue only for rather short periods of time between the late 1960s and mid 1980s.
The same kind of analysis of Germany's leading news magazine "Der Spiegel" (Tab. 2)(2) shows that when the American debate on organized crime gained momentum during the 1960s the concept of organized crime slowly began to gain a foothold in Germany. But as indicated, the concept of organized crime did not move to the center of the German criminal-policy debate before the late 1980s.

2.2. Categories for Assessing Statements on Organized Crime

When we turn our attention from the frequency curve to the substance of the conceptual history it is necessary, first of all, to define categories with which to classify and assess the various statements on organized crime.

One criterion for classifying statements is how many dimensions they comprise. Some statements on organized crime are too vague as to reveal any notion of the nature of organized crime. Some statements center around a single, quintessential quality of organized crime, while others combine a number of characteristics into a multi-dimensional concept of organized crime.

As far as one-dimensional conceptions of organized crime are concerned, three basic approaches can be distinguished which may be labeled activity-, organization-, and system-approach, respectively (Tab. 3).

The activity-approach equates organized crime with certain types of criminal activity, for example with the provision of illegal goods and services, regardless of the degree of organization of those involved in these activities and regardless of their socio-political position. The organization-approach focuses on organizational entities, regardless of the type of criminal activity in which they are involved and regardless of their socio-political position. The system-approach perceives organized crime in essence as a social condition in which legitimate and criminal structures are integral parts of one corrupt socio-political system, regardless of either the types of crime promoted or the degree of organization of those supporting the system.

Multi-dimensional conceptions tend to be based on an organization-centered understanding of organized crime but include other criteria as well. The various criteria of multi-dimensional conceptions can be distinguished by using a classification of four levels of complexity (Tab. 4): 1.) the individual characteristics of "organized criminals," 2.) the structures, for example networks or groups which connect these individuals, 3.) the over-arching power structures that subordinate these structural entities, and finally 4.) the relation between these illegal structures and the legal structures of society.

2.3. Today's Dominant Concept of Organized Crime

Today's concept of organized crime is heterogeneous and contradictory when we take into account the entire range of pertinent statements in the criminal-policy debate. But when we focus on the imagery that dominates the general perception of organized crime we can ascertain a tendency towards equating organized crime with ethnically homogeneous, formally structured, multi-functional, monopolistic criminal organizations which strive to undermine and subdue the legal institutions of society.

Within the framework of the outlined four levels of complexity this means that the dominating imagery centers around individuals who belong to specific ethnic minorities (3). The prototypical organized criminal is a foreigner.
With regard to the structure of criminal organizations the stereotypical image of organized crime focuses on bureaucratic organizations in contrast to informal groups or networks. Moreover, these criminal organizations are typically portrayed as multi-functional. They are said to be illegal enterprises and secret societies at the same time.
As far as the structures of illicit markets and criminal subcultures as a whole are concerned, the dominating understanding of organized crime is based on the notion that they tend to be monopolized and that all criminal groups strive for monopoly positions on an ever increasing scale.
Finally, the prevailing view of organized crime places criminal organizations in a fundamental conflict with the legal institutions of society, especially with regard to the concept of globally operating "Mafias," instead of stressing the underlying socio-political conditions conducive to organized crime.

Retrospectively, it may appear that the concept of ethnically homogeneous, monopolistic criminal organizations has continuously dominated the understanding of organized crime since the times of the famous Italian-American gangsters of the Prohibition Era, like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. But this is not the case, especially not with regard to the 1920s and 1930s.

2.4. Major Trends in the Development of the Concept of Organized Crime

The conceptual history of organized crime shows little continuity and little consensus. If we take the smallest common denominator of all pertinent statements collected for this study we would arrive at a very broad definition of organized crime. From an activity-oriented point of view, organized crime would comprise all criminal acts that are not impulsive or spontaneous. From an organization-oriented point of view, organized crime would refer to all criminals who do not operate in complete social isolation. Consequently, the term organized crime could even be applied to an individual criminal as long as someone else knowingly contributes to his criminal conduct, for example by providing useful information or by merely showing respect for his behavior.

The conceptual history of organized crime is characterized by change. Two trends are most significant, the extension of the geographical scope from a local to a global frame of reference, and the narrowing down of the social scope from a systemic to a dichotomic view of organized crime and society.

3. The Conceptual History of Organized Crime in the United States

3.1. The Original Concept of Organized Crime Coined by the Chicago Crime Commission

The term "organized crime" first came into regular use among the members of the Chicago Crime Commission, a civic organization that was created in 1919 by businessmen, bankers and lawyers to promote changes in the criminal justice system in order to better cope with the crime problem.
In the announcements of the Chicago Crime Commission, organized crime referred not to criminal organizations but in a much broader sense to the orderly fashion in which the so-called "criminal class" of an estimated "10.000 professional criminals" in Chicago allegedly could pursue "crime as a business" (4). The discussion centered around the conditions that seemingly allowed criminals to gain a steady income from crime, particularly property crimes, under virtual immunity from the law. In the eyes of the Crime Commission, the city government had to be blamed for incompetency, inefficiency and corruptness, while the public was criticized for indifference and even open sympathy towards criminals. This characterization of organized crime as an integral part of society apparently reflected the perspective of the old established protestant middle class on Chicago as a city that, after years of rapid growth and cultural change, was drowning in crime, corruption and moral decay.

3.2. The Depression Era

The original understanding of organized crime did not prevail for long. Beginning in the mid 1920s but especially during the Depression Era, the concept of organized crime changed significantly.
First of all, the term organized crime began to be used outside of Chicago. But only for a short time did it function as a generic term in the criminal-policy debate. By the mid 1930s it was almost completely replaced by the somewhat narrower concept of racketeering (5).
In the late 1920s and early 1930s organized crime no longer referred to an amorphous "criminal class" but to "gangsters and racketeers" who were organized in "gangs," "syndicates" and "criminal organizations" and followed "big master criminals" who functioned as "powerful leaders of organized crime" (6). Some of these leaders moved into the limelight and gained celebrity status as "Public Enemies," most notably Al Capone (7).
While the picture of the "criminal class" became more and more differentiated the understanding of the relation between organized crime and society took a decisive turn. Organized crime was no longer seen as a product of social conditions that could be remedied easily, like the deficiencies in the criminal justice system the Chicago Crime Commission had denounced earlier. Instead of social and political reform, the emphasis now was on vigorous law enforcement (8).

3.3. The Kefauver Committee 1950-1952

From the late 1930s to the late 1940s the concept of organized crime had all but disappeared from the public debate. It returned in 1950 when a Senate Committee set out "to investigate organized crime in interstate commerce." The Committee under its chairman Estes Kefauver concluded that numerous criminal groups throughout the country were tied together by "a sinister criminal organization known as the Mafia" (9).
The Kefauver Committee marked a significant change in the perception of organized crime in two respects. On the one hand, organized crime no longer appeared to be primarily a product of local conditions but instead as a problem that existed on a national scale and threatened municipalities from the outside. On the other hand, the notion of the Mafia as an organization of Italian-Americans added an ethnic component to the concept of organized crime. It is somewhat surprising that this had not happened earlier because the image of the Mafia as an Italian-American organization was not quite as new. It had first appeared in 1890 when the chief of police of New Orleans was murdered by alleged mafiosi (10).
Yet another aspect is noteworthy in this context. For the first time the law-enforcement community took an active role in the conceptualization of organized crime. It was the Federal Bureau of Narcotics that provided the testimony that led the Kefauver Committee to assert the existence of the Mafia in the United States (11).
In contrast, the FBI completely resented the concept of organized crime before 1963. Prior to 1963 its director J. Edgar Hoover had not only refused the notion of an Italian-American Mafia, he also criticized more general conceptions of syndicates and criminal organizations as a dominant factor in crime (12).

3.4. The Late 1950s to the Late 1960s: From Apalachin to "The Godfather"

The interest in organized crime and in the Mafia that the Kefauver Committee had stirred faded in the following years. But beginning in late 1957 a series of events brought organized crime back to center stage and eventually, by the late 1960s, led to the merging of the two concepts of organized crime and Mafia.
Organized crime had become synonymous with a single ethnically homogeneous organizational entity (13).

3.5. The 1970s: The Concept of Organized Crime Reconsidered

The Mafia-centered concept of organized crime that had evolved during the 1950s and 1960s had to no small degree been the result of a focus on New York City (14). Despite its tremendous impact on public perception it soon proved unsuitable for devising valid law-enforcement strategies for the entire United States.
After rejecting a proposal to outlaw membership in the Cosa Nostra (15), Congress passed the RICO statute in 1970 with an extremely broad underlying concept of organized crime (16).
Likewise many state commissions on organized crime which were established in response to the national debate at best paid lip-service to the concept of Cosa Nostra as an all-encompassing criminal organization. Instead, they defined organized crime in much broader terms to include less structured gangs and illicit enterprises (17).
A similar uneasiness with the Mafia paradigm was evident among law-enforcement officials on the state and local levels (18) and even among members of the federal Organized Crime Strike Forces that had been established in a number of cities since 1967. While some defined organized crime to include only Cosa Nostra members others included any group of two or more persons formed to commit a criminal act (19).

3.6. The Concept of Non-Traditional and International Organized Crime in the 1980s and 1990s

Eventually, the notion that there was more to organized crime than the Cosa Nostra did not lead to a profound revision of the conception of organized crime. Instead, in the late 1970s and early 1980s the concept of non-traditional organized crime emerged which merely transfered the Mafia model to other ethnically defined criminal organizations allegedly similar to Cosa Nostra, such as East-Asian, Latin-American and Russian groups, outlaw-motorcycle gangs and so-called prison gangs (20).

In recent years, outlaw-motorcycle gangs and prison gangs have somewhat dropped out of sight while groups of criminals from Asia and Europe, especially criminals from the former Soviet Union, have received more attention (21). In comparison with Cosa Nostra they are now believed to be at least of equal importance, especially in view of the successful prosecution of numerous Cosa Nostra members in a series of RICO trials since the mid 1980s (22). Today, the concept of organized crime is applied to domestic crime groups like the Cosa Nostra and to what is now refered to as "international organized crime," that is criminal organizations believed to be operating on a global scale, including Chinese Triads and the so-called "Russian Mafia". It seems that to the extent the Cosa Nostra is believed to lose ground and organized crime is turning into an issue of international politics rather than to remain an issue of immediate relevance the American public has lost much of its prior interest in the subject.

3.7. Summary

In essence, during the last 80 years the perception of organized crime has evolved from an integral facet of big-city life to an assortment of global criminal players who challenge even the most powerful countries like the United States.

4. The Conceptual History of Organized Crime in Germany

The currently dominating American concept of organized crime is quite similar to today's prevalent understanding in Germany. However, the developments leading up to this consensus were not quite as uniform so that it makes sense to take a look at the specific conceptual history in a country like Germany, where the concept of organized crime entered the criminal-policy debate at an earlier point in time than in many other countries.

4.1. The 1950s and 1960s: Organized Crime in the U.S. and Italy

At first, the concept of organized crime only sporadically appeared in the press and in law-enforcement journals in Germany during the 1950s and 1960s in discussions of crime in the United States (23). There was no sense of a direct relevance these issues might have for Germany. Then towards the late 1960s concerns were articulated by law-enforcement officials that organized crime in the United States and also in Italy could pose a threat for the future.
One scenario saw foreign crime syndicates extending their spheres of influence into Germany (24). Another scenario envisioned an independent development of crime but one similar to the emergence of organized crime in the United States (25).

4.2. The 1970s and 1980s: A Uniquely German Understanding of Organized Crime

4.2.1. A Failed Attempt to Define Organized Crime

In the early 1970s police officials began to discuss a third solution to the conflict between concept and reality: a uniquely German definition of organized crime independent from the Mafia paradigm. While assuming that Germany provided no fertile ground for the emergence of crime syndicates like the Cosa Nostra, they argued that organized crime was a suitable label for new manifestations of crime in Germany (26). This approach combined the abstract discourse on organized crime in the U.S. and Italy with a parallel discourse on qualitative changes in the conduct of criminal activities and in the patterns of criminal cooperation that the police had begun to observe during the 1960s (27).
In 1973 state and federal police agencies established a commission to work out a definition of organized crime as a basis for revising law-enforcement strategies (28). The commission shifted between debates over whether or not organized crime existed in Germany and conceptual debates over where to place German organized crime in a spectrum of collective crime ranging from the perceived complexity of the American Cosa Nostra to the simple structure of a "gang" ("Bande") as defined by Germany's Criminal Law (29). The commission agreed on a definition which centered around criminal acts committed by groups with more than two hierarchical levels (30). The reaction within the law-enforcement community was mixed. While many police officials seemed to welcome an end to the debate over definitions in order to turn to more practical aspects of dealing with organized crime, the Bavarian police agency especially opposed the definition the commission had presented (31). Presumably, the state of Bavaria resisted the adoption of any official definition of organized crime out of fear that it would lose some of its jurisdiction in criminal investigations to the federal police agency BKA (32). In the end the commission was disbanded in 1975 without an agreement on a definition of organized crime (33). Interestingly, the disbanding of the commission was followed by a rapidly fading interest in discussing organized crime. By 1981 the concept of organized crime had not only disappeared from the two law-enforcement journals but also from the news magazine included in this study (Tab. 5). This underscores the dominating role of law-enforcement officials in shaping the public perception of crime during this period (34).

4.2.2. Organized Crime as a Domestic Problem

In 1982 the concept of organized crime reappeared (35). Apparently, the German law-enforcement community had finally reached a consensus that organized crime was an appropriate concept. This consensus became manifest in yet another joint state and federal police committee that had been established in the previous year to explore new methods of law-enforcement. Without any debate this committee adopted a definition of organized crime which was to be included in the introduction of its report. It is not clear what had brought about the change of atmosphere. It is obvious, however, that Bavaria, which was strongly represented on the committee, had given up opposition against the concept of organized crime, possibly because of a previously aired TV program on organized crime in the Bavarian state capital of Munich (36).
The new definition was much broader than the one from 1974. Instead of a multi-level hierarchy the committee was content with the continuous cooperation of several criminals in a division of labor (37). This definition set the tune for a conception of organized crime that centered around criminal networks in contrast to hierarchically structured, clear-cut organizations (38). It allowed the conclusion that organized crime was a reality in Germany and had in fact existed in the country for some time. While the international implications of certain types of crime like drug trafficking were not ignored during the 1980s, organized crime was viewed primarily as a domestic phenomenon, especially as an outgrowth of the red-light districts in the major metropolitan areas (39).

4.3. The Return to the Mafia Paradigm

The network approach proved unattractive for the media. The concept of organized crime did not gain widespread popularity before the late 1980s when the image of foreign crime syndicates such as the American Cosa Nostra and the Sicilian Mafia once again moved to the center of attention. But in contrast to the original perception in the 1960s they were now believed to be actually present in Germany (40).
The image of foreign "Mafias" as an imminent threat to German society continues to dominate the public perception of organized crime and is permanently being reinforced by the media, politicians and police officials. However, it is important to note that behind this cliché the day-to-day police work continues to be based on a very broad and vague concept (41). The current official definition of organized crime which dates back to 1990 and is contained in the guidelines for criminal investigations requires basically not much more than the continuous cooperation of three persons (42).

4.4. Summary

In sum, the German debate on organized crime appears to have come full circle in the 1990s by going back to the Mafia oriented conception of the 1960s, however, without completely abolishing the broad concept of organized crime that had been tailored to suit domestic crime networks during the 1980s.

5. Conclusions

There are a few conclusions that can be drawn from the analysis of the conceptual history of organized crime.
First of all, the emergence and transformation of the concept of organized crime has been brought about by a number of factors of which the reality of crime is only one.
Secondly, the concept of organized crime gains broader acceptance only if two aspects are combined, on the one hand a set of easily comprehensible categories, like that of foreigner and that of bureaucratic organization, and on the other hand the notion of imminent relevance.
Thirdly, the concept of foreign "Mafias" which today dominates the public perception of organized crime is contrasted by a very broad conception of organized crime in criminal statutes and law-enforcement guidelines. This provides opportunities for a flexible use of the concept of organized crime to accomodate different political and institutional interests.
Fourthly, the conceptual history of organized crime cannot be interpreted as a process of enlightenment. Even after decades of debate there remains a great deal of uncertainty and confusion about the nature of organized crime.

The analysis of the conceptual history does not provide an alternative means of determining the true nature of organized crime. It does give an answer to the question "What is organized crime?" only insofar as we adopt Howard Becker's famous phrase by saying that organized crime is what people so label (43). And this is a complex diversity of phenomena once we look beyond the fašade of popular cliché images of organized crime.

There seems to be no easy solution to the task of coming to terms with the subject of organized crime. Certainly a definition will not help as long as there is no understanding of the intrinsic links that supposedly connect the various aspects of the social universe that fall under the organized-crime label. Until then all attempts to define organized crime would have to be arbitrary and would in some way or other contradict existing perceptions on organized crime.

But we can try to define narrower concepts which can help us in seeking answers to the questions raised in the debate on organized crime. These questions center around two issues, 1.) how patterns of criminal cooperation emerge and transform, and 2.), how within these criminal structures positions of power develop that are not only relevant for the criminal structures themselves but for society in general (44).

References - Notes

(C) Klaus von Lampe, all rights reserved.

e-mail | home | Index | Organized Crime in the U.S. | Organized Crime in Germany | Links