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Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate

by Diego Gambetta

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734305,567 (3.81)None
How do criminals communicate with each other? Unlike the rest of us, people planning crimes can't freely advertise their goods and services, nor can they rely on formal institutions to settle disputes and certify quality. They face uniquely intense dilemmas as they grapple with the basic problems of whom to trust, how to make themselves trusted, and how to handle information without being detected by rivals or police. In this book, one of the world's leading scholars of the mafia ranges from ancient Rome to the gangs of modern Japan, from the prisons of Western countries to terrorist and pedophile rings, to explain how despite these constraints, many criminals successfully stay in business. Diego Gambetta shows that as villains balance the lure of criminal reward against the fear of dire punishment, they are inspired to unexpected feats of subtlety and ingenuity in communication. He uncovers the logic of the often bizarre ways in which inveterate and occasional criminals solve their dilemmas, such as why the tattoos and scars etched on a criminal's body function as lines on a professional résumé, why inmates resort to violence to establish their position in the prison pecking order, and why mobsters are partial to nicknames and imitate the behavior they see in mafia movies. Even deliberate self-harm and the disclosure of their crimes are strategically employed by criminals to convey important messages. By deciphering how criminals signal to each other in a lawless universe, this gruesomely entertaining and incisive book provides a quantum leap in our ability to make sense of their actions.… (more)
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This is a likable book about communication among criminals. The author describes very clearly a basic dilemma in criminal activity: crime must be organized through cooperative networks if it is to be really profitable, but these networks have to be kept hidden from law enforcement, and the reliability of many persons in a network is often highly questionable. The absence of enforceable trust puts severe constraints on criminal communication, but the author also describes a number of actions and signals by which criminals have been able to loosen these constraints, such as tattoos which signal permanent allegiance, or the shared experience of an incriminating initiation.

The book is a bit on the long side, and it would have been no great loss if a couple of chapters had been excluded. But overall the author is right to say that underworld communication is a unique test case. Lack of trust and the risk of violence are key elements for understanding how organized crime works, but they also provide an illustrative counterpoint for understanding how well-functioning states have managed to institutionalize trust and reduce the risk of violence. So this book can be recommended even for readers interested in political theory who want to think clearly about the foundations of trust and public knowledge.
  thcson | May 23, 2017 |
With costly signals: signals that are expensive to produce and fake, and that therefore indicate commitment to a criminal lifestyle—and often at the same time indicate an inability to leave criminal worlds. This can include producing child porn to gain entrance to a circle of child pornographers; killing or beating someone to show loyalty/give the other criminals leverage in case of betrayal; and sporting visible scars or tattoos; self-harm to indicate a willingness to cause any possible damage and thus make attacks unduly risky; demonstrating incompetence at non-criminal endeavors. It’s a fundamentally economic explanation, and leads to a lot of interesting anecdotes, along with Gambetta’s claim that women are relatively more violent when imprisoned because they have fewer credible signals of willingness to do harm when they come in—in terms of size, expectations about their dangerousness, and being in for violent crimes. Thus, they have to go further in showing that they will in fact resist exploitation by other prisoners, and may be more likely to need to fight to figure out the heirarchy of strength. Warning for rape myths (Gambetta discusses prison violence and says X percent of inmates “reported” physical violence, while Y percent “claimed” to have been sexually assaulted; and uncritically repeats another’s judgment that many men who had homosexual encounters in prison weren’t actually raped because they submitted after being threatened with violence).

There was also an interesting discussion of the use of “trademarks” in criminal enterprises; they can’t be enforced against infringers in court, but they were still used to sell certain drugs, because—Gambetta contends—the alternative of anonymous drugs was even worse; though there could be counterfeiting, addicts would also be willing to try the newest stamped version in the hopes that it would be different. Gambetta also proposes that mobsters love The Godfather so much not just because it glamorizes them but because it provides a series of codes that are readily understood, which is a difficult coordination problem when your organization is illegal. ( )
1 vote rivkat | Aug 18, 2015 |
Criminal barrister Alex McBride has chosen to discuss Codes of the Underworld by Diego Gambetta on FiveBooks as one of the top five on his subject - Trial By Jury, saying that:



“…Gambetta looks at the underworld from the criminals’ point of view and uses social anthropology to examine how criminals think and communicate with language and signs, how a pecking order is established….Gambetta says it doesn’t pay to go through associates like shit through a goose; you won’t be successful. For example, when Toto Riina ordered the death of Falcone in 1992 everyone in the room knew that if a flicker of doubt about the decision showed in their eyes they would be instantly killed. These barely perceptible signs become so important in this world. …”



The full interview is available here: http://fivebooks.com/interviews/alex-mcbride ( )
  FiveBooks | Apr 8, 2010 |
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How do criminals communicate with each other? Unlike the rest of us, people planning crimes can't freely advertise their goods and services, nor can they rely on formal institutions to settle disputes and certify quality. They face uniquely intense dilemmas as they grapple with the basic problems of whom to trust, how to make themselves trusted, and how to handle information without being detected by rivals or police. In this book, one of the world's leading scholars of the mafia ranges from ancient Rome to the gangs of modern Japan, from the prisons of Western countries to terrorist and pedophile rings, to explain how despite these constraints, many criminals successfully stay in business. Diego Gambetta shows that as villains balance the lure of criminal reward against the fear of dire punishment, they are inspired to unexpected feats of subtlety and ingenuity in communication. He uncovers the logic of the often bizarre ways in which inveterate and occasional criminals solve their dilemmas, such as why the tattoos and scars etched on a criminal's body function as lines on a professional résumé, why inmates resort to violence to establish their position in the prison pecking order, and why mobsters are partial to nicknames and imitate the behavior they see in mafia movies. Even deliberate self-harm and the disclosure of their crimes are strategically employed by criminals to convey important messages. By deciphering how criminals signal to each other in a lawless universe, this gruesomely entertaining and incisive book provides a quantum leap in our ability to make sense of their actions.

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