Sociology of Mafias

Course Provider: Professor Federico Varese


(NB This course will not be offered in the 2018/19 academic year)

The course analyzes five criminal organizations that have emerged in different times and contexts: the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the American Mafia, the Russian Mafia, the Hong Kong Triads and the Japanese Yakuza. We explore the extent to which these cases, notwithstanding their differences, share crucial characteristics and features. We examine the origins, structure, organizational norms, activities, relations with terrorism, transplantation and decline of mafia groups. We explore and tests propositions from the theory of protection.

The course focuses on the extent to which these organizations share particular features, and the extent to which they do not. It covers rituals and norms (week 1); what Mafias do in both legal and illegal markets (week 2); the organization (week 3); the way they invest their money (week 4); the role of women (week 5) and popular culture (week 5). The course examines parallels between state behavior in early modern Europe and Mafia behavior in depth (week 6&7), how mafias have emerged historically and how to fight them (week 8). The course is multidisciplinary and draws upon concepts from political theory, industrial economics, and political economy, as well as on the history and sociology of different countries, such as Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

On successfully completing the course, students should be familiar with:

  • Key issues related to the origins, organization, activities, migration and decline of mafia groups;
  • Key theories discussed in the course;
  • The comparative method in Sociology and key concepts in Political Theory, Industrial Economics, and Political Economy.

In addition, students should be able to apply key insights to cases not covered in the course.


Teaching will be through 8 weekly seminars. Every week students are expected to study the required readings and engage in class discussion.


Production of two “Reading Responses” (RRs) during the course of the Term, to be submitted by noon on Friday of Weeks 3 and 6 by email to the course provider. The RRs should not exceed two A4 pages (font 12). The course provider will supply the title of the RRs the week before, during class time. The work will be graded on a pass/fail basis. In case of fail, the candidate is allowed to re-submit once. If the candidate fails twice, or fails to submit none or only one of the RRs, s/he will have failed the course. Late submission will lead to penalization in the final grade.

Production of one assessed essay written unsupervised and unaided. The courser provider will publish three Exam Questions on Friday of Week 8 at noon. Candidates will answer ONE of these questions and submit hard and soft copies of their essay to the Graduate Studies Administrator by noon on Friday of Week 11. This assignment must be no less than 3,500 words and no more than 5,000 words (inclusive of footnotes but excluding bibliography and appendices). An accurate word count must be declared on the first page of the essay. Students may not approach the course provider for clarification on essay questions or help with or feedback on the essay. Students are expected to draw on course readings; whilst they may be rewarded for drawing upon additional works, Examiners may reduce the mark of those who fail to cite course readings. Candidates should take seriously the word limits imposed (both upper and lower). If the word limit is exceeded then the examiners may decide not to mark the work; and if they do proceed then the mark may be reduced. Similarly those who write less than the minimum word limit may be penalized.

Pre-course Reading: Pileggi, N. 1985. Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia Family. Pistone, J.D. and R. Woodley. 1988. Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia. Mass, P. The Valachi Papers. Maas, P.1997. Underboss. Sammy the Bull Gravano’s Story of Life in the Mafia.

Pre-course Viewings: Mean Streets; The Godfather: Parts One and Two; Goodfellas; Casino; Donnie Brasco; Narcos TV Series; Cartel Land (documentary).

Course Key Texts:

• Gambetta, D. 1993. The Sicilian Mafia. Harvard University Press.
• Varese, F. 2017. Mafia Life. Profile and OUP.
• Some key papers are collected in: Varese, F. (ed.) 2010. Organized Crime. Critical Concepts in Criminology, Routledge, 2010.