Lesson Eight: Organized Crime and Gangs

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, you will learn why criminologists are skeptical about the existence of a national crime syndicate (the Mafia or Cosa Nostra). You will find that criminologists instead are inclined to view organized crime as an ongoing process of gang formation that has operated in the United States at least since the late 19th century.

Lesson Objectives

Be familiar with current controversies concerning the role of organized crime.

Be able to identify continuities in gangs from the 1920s to present.

Concepts and Theories

organized crime, Mafia myth, bureaucratic model of organized crime, organized crime and corruption, RICO, social disorganization theory, natural history of gangs, gang cycle

Reading Assignment

Livingston, chapter 8

Study Notes

Organized Crime

Chapter 8 is devoted to organized crime, which Livingston defines as involving large, long-standing organizations that derive much of their income from crime and that rely heavily on violence or the threat of violence. Much of the chapter is devoted to what Livingston terms the mafia myth, the belief that organized crime in the United States is dominated by a unified, large-scale criminal organization (the Mafia or Cosa Nostra) that originated in Italy and was brought to the United States by immigrants in the late 19th or early 20th century. Like many of our other beliefs about crime and criminals, the public image of the Mafia seems to have as much to do with the role of criminal justice agencies and the mass media as with any underlying reality.For criminal justice agencies, the idea of a huge criminal underworld organization means increased staffing and budgets; for the mass media, it means sensational news stories and best-selling books and movies.(1)

The reality, Livingston argues, is far less dramatic. There is only the most dubious evidence that the Mafia has ever been a truly national organization; most of the time Mafia-related criminal organizations have had a hard time dominating crime in even a single city.

It's not that there wouldn't be incentives to such a monopolizing strategy; they'd be very much the same incentives which time and again attract legal businesses to violate the anti-trust laws (remember the section on corporate crime in lesson three). But there are major, major barriers to the successful organization of a national crime cartel. First, the establishment of accountability in a centralized bureaucracy requires an enormous flow of information and records. We complain about the paperwork, but it is this flow of information that establishes what German sociologist Max Weber termed the technical superiority of bureaucracy to other systems of administration. In simple terms, imagine that here in my office in Duluth, I am the supreme boss of crime in the United States. What do I need to maintain any kind of meaningful oversight? I've got to have access to information about costs and revenues, staffing and performance reviews, the activities of potential competitors, etc. etc. etc. Even in this age of extensive computerization, it's impossible to imagine how I could insure that kind of flow of information without at the same time making my whole operation extremely vulnerable to law enforcement organizations.

Second, Livingston examines the actual "industries" that are reputedly controlled by the mafia--gambling, loansharking, prostititution, and above all, drugs. Livingston is able to show that all these activities are characterized by high levels of competition. He concludes:

I have gone into detail in the foregoing sections in order to cast doubt on one widespread image or model of the Mafia. In this model, the Mafia is a giant corporation that dominates the various businesses of vice--gambling, loansharking, prostitution and drugs. As we have seen here, there is much in the way of both logic and evidence to question these two assumptions. In fact, it appears that although Mafia members may be involved in these rackets, they usually do not control them. The supply side of the market in illegal goods and services consists of many independent entrepreneurs. In some cases, the criminal enterprises may be quite large, with dozens of employees and gross incomes of millions of dollars. Yet no one enterprise or organization controls the market. (p. 273)

In fact, what we see is a pattern of fierce competition, usually organized on an ethnic/racial basis, in which Italian-American gangs sometimes operated under the rubric of the Mafia (actually, "the Black Hand" was the more common designation until the 1950s) but actually were more often competitors than collaborators, and in which there was always a generous admixture of gangs representing other ethnicities. Through the years there have been periods in which a particular gang or more often, alliance of gangs, has destroyed enough the competition to temporarily dominate a regional market for illegal products or services, but invariably their period of domination has been short-lived.

Gangland Chicago, 1920s

The most interesting questions for the criminologist, then, have to do not with the Mafia per se but with the larger process of gang formation, competition, and consolidation and particularly the connection between younger and older gangs (or younger and older gang members). The first sociologist to study gangs intensively was Frederic Thrasher at the University of Chicago. His book, The Gang: a Study of 1,313 gangs in Chicago, published in 1927 is the still the most extensive study of gangs ever carried out by a sociologist. He spent seven years on this project. In the tradition of the University of Chicago school of sociology, Thrasher saw himself as establishing the natural history of gangs:

Gangs, like most other social groups, originate under conditions that are typical for all groups of the same species; they develop in definite and predictable ways, in accordance with a form or entelechy that is predetermined by characteristic internal processes and mechanisms, and have, in short, a nature and a natural history. (Thrasher, The Gang, 1927, p. 4)

For Chicago sociologists, this belief that most groups and organizations have a predictable natural history was more an article of faith than a proven fact. But in the case of gangs, Thrasher's analysis of gangland Chicago has enough in common with modern gangs to justify the assumption of a natural history.

Slightly more than half of the gangs for which Thrasher had data about race or nationality were predominantly of a single race or nationality. Of these, the leading groups were: Polish (32%); Italian(22%); Irish(16%); Negro(14%); Jewish(4%); Slavic(3%). (Thrasher, p. 130-131). But nationality was by no means always decisive:

It is a striking fact that where conditions are favorable to intermingling of different nationalities, there is extensive fraternization in the same gang of boys from these diverse and often antagonistic groups and races.

"I never ask what nationalty he is," declared a Lithuanian gang leader of thirteen years. "A Jew or a nigger can be a pal of mine if he's a good fellow." (Thrasher, *pp. 150-151)

On the other hand, Thrasher found that many of the gangs that were nationality-based played a major role in the ethnic struggles over neighborhoods. He describes a process of ethnic succession in Chicago's South Side, near the site where the White Sox play (in 1996 a black ghetto). Originally it was a conflict in this area between the Irish and the Swedes. "De furder y'go, the tougher it gets--I live at Toity-Toid and de tracks, De last house on de corner, An dere's blood on de door," has been a kind of ditty since 1898, says Thrasher. (p. 138) Later the Irish and Swedes were partially displaced in this area by the Italians, although those groups sometimes teamed up against the Negro gangs to the east of them. "The race riots of 1919 were to some extent a culmination of this warfare." (p. 139)

This information about gangs and nationalities was an essential part of a larger picture of urban social problems being built up by University of Chicago sociologists in the 1910s and 1020s. The most widely shared perspective among the American public at this time (and unfortunately it included some sociologists) was genetic and racial. Nationalities from eastern and Southern Europe, as well as African-Americans, were viewed as racially inferior, and the problems of the cities were viewed as a result of an influx of racially inferior nationalities. (2)

Chicago sociologists like Thrasher developed an alternative perspective, known as social disorganization theory. Gangs tended to be formed, Thrasher found, by the children of immigrants to the city.

It is not because the boys of the middle and wealthier classes are native white that they do not form gangs but because their lives are organized and stabilized for them by American traditions, customs, and institutions to which the hcildren of immigrants do not have adequate access. The gang...is simply one symptom of a type of disorganization that goes along with the breaking up of the immigrant's traditional social system without adequate assimilation to the new. (Thrasher, p. 152)

The pioneering study was Thomas and Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and the United States, in which the authors show that the high rates of crime and deviance among the Chicago Polish community was a side-effect of two disruptions--the transition in national cultures but even moreso, the transition from rural to urban. The social control mechanisms and rules for living that characterized rural village life in Poland were entirely irrelevant in the United States. But Thrasher's description of gang succession made an important contribution to this theory. It was not just the Poles and Italians who formed delinquent gangs; before them, it had been the Irish and the Swedes, and therefore it cannot be a matter of racial and genetic inferiority but the power of social situations:

The gang, then, to sum up, is one manifestation of the disorganization incident to cultural conflict among diverse nations and races gathered together in one place and themselves in contact with a civilization foreign and largely inimical to them... If there has been any failure here, it can hardly be laid at the door of the immigrant.(p. 154)

One important aspect of social disorganization is what Thrasher calls "the isolation of gangland. As he puts it:

Between gangland and the conventionalized American community exists this barrier of unsympathetic social blindness, this inability of either to enter understandingly into the life of the other... The significance of this lack of cultural communion with the world at large can hardly be overemphasized in explaining the life and organization of the gang. Almost everything--history, geography, art, music, and government--that is the common knowledge of the schoolboy of the middle classes, is entirely beyond the ken and experience of the gang boy... He knows little of the outside world except its exteriors. He views it as a collection of influences that would suppress him and curtail his activities with laws and police, cells and bars." (pp. 180-181)

Some of the gangs Thrasher describes, particularly the younger ones, are more like social and athletic clubs, but in general Thrasher emphasizes the close connection between gangs and the criminal life of Chicago. "The organization of the gang and the protection it affords...make it a superior instrument for the execution of criminal enterprises."(p. 265) The gang educates its members in criminal techniques. Thrasher describes a gang, for example, which specializes in auto theft. This gang is alleged to have from 12-14 cars in various stages of dismantlement or reconstruction at any given time, and maintains an outlet store for stolen parts. The gang also serves to toughen its members ("When new ones are taken in, the initiation consists of 'kicking them around."p. 184) Not only does the gang serve to educate its members in criminal techniques but it adds greatly to the prestige of criminal activities.

Thrasher sees adult criminal gangs as an extension of the adolescent gangs. "It is probable that most of Chicago's 10,000 professional criminals have received gang training."(p. 291) The adult gangs, also made up largely of young men, he terms master gangs, and he identifies 10-20 such gangs, divided into three divisions, whose major interest is the illegal manufacture and sale of liquor. But they are also involved in various forms of robbery, as well as prostitution and gambling. A great deal of the violence in Chicago is associated with gang activities, with inter-gang conflict accounting for about one killing per week.(3)

These older master gangs, though, are not really separate from the younger adolescent gangs. Chicago beer-running gangs, for example, often use younger boys to drive their trucks; "the youngsters look innocent and get by." (p. 269) In fact, the whole organization of the gangs pushes illegal activities to younger and younger ages. "One striking fact about present-day crime is the youthfulness of offenders." (p. 282) "The gang boy sees lawlessness everywhere and in the absence of effective definitions to the contrary accepts it without criticism. He soon learns where to buy stills, skeleton keys, and guns, which are sold to minors with impunity..." (p 186)

Gangland Chicago, 1990s

The reason it is worthwhile to spend so much time looking at Chicago gangs in the 1920s is because of the many similarities with gangs in the 1990s. For example, the process by which gang violence and crime is pushed to younger and younger ages is also a major theme in a recent study of gangs by Padilla (1992). Padilla sets out to study gangs in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood about 5 miles northwest of the downtown loop in Chicago (an area that would have been dominated by Polish and Jewish gangs in Thrasher's day). At first, for safety's sake, he attempts an interview study of ex-gang members, but he doesn't get a lot of cooperation. Then he gets a reference to a gang called the Diamonds, and he finds that its members are eager to share their stories with the wider world represented by Padilla. The Diamonds, who are a neighborhood-based branch of a larger gang, are mostly in their late teens and early twenties. Over a 14-month period, Padilla interviews each gang member at least three times, and also spends time hanging out with the gang, although he notes that this was limited by the dangers of drug dealing: "I came to recognize when my presence was viewed as an act of encroachment on their time and business activities."(1992, p. 22)

In fact, Padilla eventually concluded that the Diamonds see themselves first and foremost as a business enterprise (hence the name of his book):

The Diamonds operate as a street-level drug dealing enterprise. Several members, referred to as "mainheads," purchase large quantities of drugs and then hire other members to sell them at retail prices at the street level. Most of the street-level dealers work on commission. (1992, p. 3)

The opportunity for the Diamonds to specialize in drug sales was at least partly the result of state legislation establishing severe penalties (30 years in prison) for adults selling drugs. On the other hand, it isn't the very youngest kids in the gang who sell drugs. The youngest gang members, typically in their early and mid-teens and known as the "peewees" or "littles," specialize in stealing, particularly cars. This is how they establish their credentials in terms of loyalty, daring, and skill. This is how you "show that you're bad and that you're real cool and that the gang could trust you selling drugs." (Padilla, 1992, p. 113).

There are several factors that attract boys into the gang at that age. One is the positive prestige of the gang.,

Felix: 'You told me you knew things about the gang when you were in eighth grade.' Elf: 'It was cool. A bunch of guys who cared for each other and were having a good time.(p. 67)

The girls in school used to think that these guys (gang members) were really cool.... they had this hip walk, and everybody knew they were in gangs. And the clothes. Well, you know, everything about these guys was really together. (p. 68)

A recent Harris survey asked respondents about their attitude toward gangs. While young people overall had a negative image of gangs, youth in inner city neighbors agreed that gangs have prestige.

Another is the negative experience that many of these kids have in school. Padilla finds that many of the gang members found it hard to even talk about their grade school experiences. He was told that teachers were often contemptuous of their Puerto Rican students.

People tell you all the time to go to school, that without school you are nothing. Maybe that's true but they never tell you about the kind of shit that you have to put up with in school." (p. 77)

The teacher would talk about her daughter. One time she(the daughter) complained that she needed another blouse and she(the teacher) went to her closet and counted something like 60 blouses... Why did she have to tell us that shit? We were poor. And several times again she would tell us how her and people that worked with her or people that were like her were supporting people who were on welfare. And I was on welfare..I was on welfare for many years."(p. 80)

Also, if you were Puerto Rican and came from a certain neighborhood, the police didn't make fine distinctions; they assumed you were in the gang and treated you accordingly. (p. 88)

Among the more interesting aspect of Padilla's book is his treatment of gang members who have decided to leave the gang. The belief that the gang will not only provide you with a close-knit social network but that it will also provide you a good living turns out to be false for most of its members. Street-level dealing is not nearly as profitable as it is sometimes made out to be in the popular press. The "main heads" who supply the drugs may do extremely well, but for street-level dealers, frequent interruptions in trade during police crack-downs and the effect of jail time and the cost of bail reduce net income to a level that probably doesn't exceed what could be earned in a job at MacDonald's. Padilla finds several older ex-gang members who recognize this and who are trying to establish themselves in straight jobs. But they find themselves facing a catch-22. Jobs are scarce in this part of Chicago anyway. Gang involvement goes hand in hand with dropping out of high school, which in turn hurts your job prospects. What's more, local businesses are hesitant to hire people with known gang connections.

Gangland USA

How widespread is the gang phenomenon in the United States. One long-time student of gangs on the national level is Malcolm Klein, whose article, "Street Gang Cycles" documents the spread of gangs from less than 100 cities in the 1950s and 1960s to 10,000 gangs in at least 800 cities with a total membership of half a million in the 1990s (1995, pp. 217, 229). Klein says that not all gangs specialize in drug distribution to the extent described by Padilla. In fact, the majority are probably more "versatile"(Klein's word) in their criminal focus, with the majority of their delinquent and criminal acts being milder than those committed by the Diamonds. Nevertheless, Klein points on that in 1992 alone, more than 2,000 killings across the country were gang-related. (1995, p. 231)

What kinds of societal interventions have been effective in reducing gang violence? Klein argues that neither liberal nor conservative "solutions" have any established record of violence reduction. Liberals have tended to call for broad-based community organizing to improve overall conditions in the neighborhoods that foster gangs or for street work programs in which workers are assigned to individual street gangs. Arguably the first option has rarely been fully implemented, inasmuch as the story of most inner-city neighborhoods has been one of continued decline over the last thirty years. But the street worker option has been tried and found wanting, in Klein's view:

Carefully evaluated street work programs in Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles ...reveal an absence of impact on gang crime, and in some instances an increase in gang crime. The mechanism for this latter seems to be that active gang programming inadvertently leads to increased gang cohesiveness, and in some instances an increase in gang crime. (1995, p. 234)

Klein also discusses two instances in which these kinds of programs have been credited for what was probably a natural down cycle in gang activity. In Los Angeles, for example, an anti-gang program called Community Youth Gang Services was credited for a dramatic decrease in gang killings in the early 1980s, from a peak of 351 to a low of 205 just two years later. But as Klein points out, supporters of the program have little to say about why their program, still in effect, did not prevent a massive increase in gang killings in Los Angeles in the 1990s.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have included tougher sentencing for gang members, enhanced prosecution efforts, and various forms of police suppression. This has been the predominant approach nationally in the last fifteen years, and Klein says we need only look at the rising trend of gang violence over that period to challenge the effectiveness of this approach.

In fact, there is good reason to believe that suppression approaches can produce precisely the same effect as the earlier liberal approaches--namely, increased gang cohesion. Street gangs tend to be oppositional; they thrive on enemies, be these their rival gangs or the police. (1995, p. 235)

In this context, targeting by the police builds reputation, as do prison sentences. Does nothing, then, work against gangs? Klein believes that gangs which specialize in drug distribution, such as the Diamonds, may actually be more susceptible to suppression or disruption by law enforcement authorities, but the more criminally versatile gangs he sees as extremely difficult to suppress. Klein's hypothesis, and he does see it as this stage as just an hypothesis, is that gang violence is ultimately self-limiting. Gangs experience a natural cycle of growth and decline, which he calls the gang cycle, and which he sees as proceeding pretty much independent of the efforts of law enforcement. Mayhem and death eventually increase to such a degree that gang members and leaders themselves become motivated to call a truce and work to reduce the violence. Padilla describes a peace-making and alliance building process that took place in Chicago during the period of his study, in which most of the gangs joined in larger grouping (the "people" or the "folks"), with the net result of decreased violence in the Diamonds' northwest Chicago neighborhood. The same thing seems to be happening in 1995 and 1996 in several of America's largest cities.

Klein believes that the best societal interventions may be those that aim to reinforce gang-initiated violence reduction when it happens. Truces arranged by outsiders, Klein notes, have been generally ineffective, while in at least some instances gang-initiated truces have had a major impact on violence reduction. (1995, pp. 232-233) On the other hand, it isn't clear that most communities will be content to have their criminal justice systems sitting on the sidelines, waiting for this natural downturn in violence, particularly since with each increase in the availability of lethal firearms, that threshold at which gang violence is self-limiting seems to get higher and higher.


Klein, Malcolm W. "Street Gang Cycles." pp. 217-236. Crime. Wilson, James Q. and Petersilia, Joan. Institute for Contemporary Studies Press. San Francisco. 1995.

Padilla, Felix. The Gang as an American Enterprise. 1992. Rutgers University Press.

Thrasher, Frederic. The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago. 1963(1927). University of Chicago Press.

Written Assignment: First Exam: 100 points possible

Answer five(5) of the following questions (20 points each). Remember that one of the biggest single criterion I use in evaluating your answers is whether you are able to incorporate course materials, including concepts and theories, into your answers.

1. How do the standards of evidence in criminology differ from the way we form our opinions in everyday life?

2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the formal enforcement of norms through a criminal justice system (as opposed to informal enforcement via social pressures)?

3. What did we learn about crime from self-report studies and victimization surveys that we didn't know from offical criminal justice system data like the UCR?

4. Why is it that the fear of crime develops to a large extent independent of the underlying rates of crime in a society or neighborhood?

5. Why do both the society and the criminal justice system tend to view white collar crime less seriously than so-called street crime?

6. What does the evidence show about the relationship between crime and social class?

7. Why have rates of violence among young males increased at a time when the overall rates of violence in the U.S. are stable or even decreasing?

8. Use the labeling perspective to show why the criminal justice treats rape differently in the 1990s than it did in the 1950s. Or do the same thing for domestic violence.

9. Compare and contrast the gangs of Chicago in the l920s vs. the 1990s(in other words, highlight similarities and then highlight differences).

10. How and why does the image of organized crime in the U.S. diverge from the reality of organized crime?

1. One of the first criminologists to recognize the role of the mass media in this regard was Frederick Thrasher, who noted the impact of the mass media. "These impressions (that Chicago is being deluged in a great crime wave) are created very largely by the spread of news about spectacular crimes through improved means of communication and modern journlaistic technique. (1927, p. 311)

2. The immigration restriction laws passed by the U.S. Congress in 1921 and 1924 were an outgrowth of this kind of racism; quotas for Russian Jews and and Polish and Italian Catholics were cut to the bone.

3. Just a few years after Thrasher's book was published, Al Capone established a temporary dominance in gangland Chicago, and the rate of murder dropped dramatically.