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Heather Shore

The concept of the criminal underworld has played a powerful role in media representations of serious criminality from the early 20th century. Even before this period, the idea of a subterranean “otherworld” that mirrored and mimicked the more respectable “upperworld” can be identified in published texts across Western Europe and North America, and in the colonial cities of empire. Colorful terms such as the “netherworld,” “deeps,” “stews,” “sinks,” “rookeries,” “dens,” and “dives” described the slums that developed in many 19th-century cities. But by the 19th-century, slum life was increasingly correlated with criminality by the press, social investigators, fiction writers, and penal practitioners in the urban landscape. Earlier texts that described criminal types and ascribed to them a specific set of practices and values (languages, rituals, secret codes, the places in which they “congregated”) can be found in the 16th and 17th centuries. In England, dramatists such as Thomas Harman, Robert Greene, and Thomas Dekker described such villainy in a new genre that would become known as “rogue literature.” Other European countries also had traditions of rogue literature that became popular in the early modern period. From the 18th century, the emergence of penal reform and new systems of law enforcement in the Western world saw concerns about crime reflected in the expansion of print culture. A demand for crime themed texts, including broadsheets, criminal biographies, and crime novels, further popularized the notion of a distinct criminal underworld. However, it would be in the 20th century that the underworld moved more directly onto political agendas. From the 1920s, events in North American cities would explicitly shape the public awareness of the underworld and organized crime. Within a relatively short time of gang warfare breaking out in cities such as New York and Chicago, the “gangster” and the underworld that he (apparently) inhabited became the subject of a global popular crime culture. Film, cheap fiction, and villain/police memoirs from the early 1930s popularized the “gangster.” Paul Muni memorably evoked the life of Al Capone in his character, Antonio “Tony” Camonte in Scarface (1932). Since then, gangsters have rarely gone out of fashion. In the 21st century, the relationship between the underworld and upperworld continues to be portrayed in popular culture. Television dramas like Boardwalk Empire and Peaky Blinders successfully build on an unacknowledged consensus about the existence of the underworld. Indeed, the press, police, and politicians continue to refer to the criminal underworld in a way that gives it solid form. There are few attempts to critically engage in discussions about the underworld or to provide a more meaningful definition.


Patricia (Paddy) Rawlinson

Organized crime is one of the most popular topics of media attention within the crime genre, providing a plethora of fictional representations and factual explanations for popular consumption. Its media presence has not only entertained the public but also interacted with and help form policy responses by governments and law enforcement agencies. Beset by ambiguous definitions and typically operating in a clandestine manner, organized crime has become subject to various forms of mythologizing, romanticized and exaggerated, thrilling and terrifying, emerging as a phenomenon riddled with contradictions yet made consistently attractive by the mystique that dominates media narratives. Blurring the line between fact and fiction as these narratives often do, they can serve or undermine attempts to conceptualize and control organized crime, and in some cases, modify the behavior of criminals themselves. The mythologizing of organized crime has been one of the major challenges for criminologists researching the topic. Unlike many other forms of crime, gaining access to subjects involved in this surreptitious world is especially difficult for academics, consequently conferring exaggerated and misleading media and official representations of organized crime greater currency. Further, with the ostensible explosion of global crime networks, shaped by diverse languages, cultures, and ideologies, gaining a more accurate understanding of the nature of and threat posed by organized crime has become even more problematic. In examining the production and content of the dominant myths around organized crime, the article looks at the impact of media and official representations of these mythologies and how they have helped to preserve the political, social, and economic status quo.


Extortion as a crime has long attracted the interest of scholars, and much effort has been put into coining a precise definition that would allow distinguishing it from other similar predatory practices such as blackmail, bribery, coercion, and robbery. Academic literature classifies extortive practices according to their degree of complexity and involvement of organized crime. In this sense, the simplest form of extortion displays one offender who receives a one-time benefit from one victim, while the most sophisticated form is illustrated by racketeering, whereby an organized crime group systematically extorts money from multiple victims. Extortion as an organized crime activity can involve both episodic extortion practices and well-rooted systemic practices over a certain territory, where the latter is usually regarded as perpetrated by Mafia-type criminal organizations. Some scholars argue that extortion racketeering as a Mafia crime should be defined as sale and provision of extralegal protection services—protection of property rights, dispute resolution, and enforcement of contracts. However, others contend that extortion by Mafia-type organizations should not be counted as an economic activity but rather be considered as an illegal form of taxation imposed by quasi-political groups. In economic terms, it is a transfer of value and creates no economic output. In contrast with the traditional understanding of extortion racketeering as “defining activity of organized crime,” some scholars have also focused on “extortion under the color of office,” or, in other words, extortion perpetrated by public servants or politicians in their official capacity. Extortion has often been compared with bribery, since both crimes can be defined as an unlawful conversion of properties and goods belonging to someone else for one’s own personal use and benefit. The debate on the differences between bribery and extortion, however, is a contested one, and has followed two lines of argument: respectively, the degree of coercion involved in the crime and the role (or modus operandi) of public officials in the bribery and extortive scheme. The common element for both crimes is the fact that representatives of the state abuse their power and official position for their own benefit.