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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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
There are a few conclusions that can be drawn from the analysis of the conceptual history 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).
(C) Klaus von Lampe, all rights reserved.