What is the internal structure of a Mafia Family? Does it resemble a corporation or a quasi-military body?

An institutional model of the Mafia

The image above is from the FBI website, and is based on the testimony of Joseph Valachi, and the work of Donald Cressey, whose book Theft of a Nation (1969) influenced a generation of criminologists and law enforcement professionals (Kelley, 1987). Terms like boss, capofamiglia, captain, lieutenant, soldier, and “made man” tell us that associates of a Mafia Family are stratified. But not every Mafia writer uses a similar taxonomy.

A Mafia cosca is like an artichoke, designed to defend the heart

Another popular model of the Family is the metaphor of the cosca (Blok, 1974, p. 137). A cosca is literally anything that is shaped like an artichoke. All of the hard, spiny leaves are connected to the heart and curve around to protect it, like the members of a Mafia cosca around its leader.

Further complicating the question of Mafia organization, for more than a hundred years, Italian authors have described a High Mafia composed of politicians, judges, and industrialists, and a Low Mafia of murderers, extortionists, and thieves. How do the cosca and High/Low models interact? If the boss is at the top of the hierarchy, where do the politicians they influence appear? What roles do non-members play in the Mafia?

The FBI’s Mafia Org Chart is the most familiar picture of Mafia organization, but it’s not the model most scholars have used in the past forty years, because it doesn’t do an adequate job of explaining how the Mafia works over time and in a variety of scenarios.

“Form follows function.”

Form follows function. Organization—how the Mafia is structured—is interdependent with facts on the ground, and the Mafia’s other essential qualities, such as membership, purpose, and methodology. Organizational models should inform answers to such critical questions as:

  • How did the Mafia’s culture and challenges lead to the organization it has today?
  • What are the organizational model’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • How does the Mafia change its structure in response to new opportunities and threats?
  • Where do new members come from?
  • How is a member’s value determined?
  • How are new laws ratified?

The hierarchy can be flattened to reveal the network

If we rotate our view of the hierarchy so it’s flattened into concentric circles, the most critical members are in the center: the mafioso, or a small clique of mafia chiefs, and their closest family members. Who takes on the secondary, tertiary, and so on positions in the model can inform us as to the organization’s goals and membership roles.

Hess envisions a landscape in which new mafiosi compete with more established ones, and non-members are farthest from the center of the cosca (Hess, 1973/1998, pp. 80, 94-5, 187; Hess, 2011, p. 5).

Mafia scholars have described the Mafia as having a highly regimented structure, as having no structure at all, and every point in between. They disagree as to exactly when and how the Mafia originated: among revolutionary soldiers, on the inland estates, in the citrus orchards, or at the port of Palermo. They have different theories as to the Mafia’s core function: whether it’s to get respect or wealth, to engage in crime or violence, for mutual aid or state-making. There is similarly a lack of agreement as to the Mafia’s essential attributes: whether it is dependent upon a modern state or its absence, if it resembles any other institution, is premodern or transnational, modeled on a biological family, or none of these things.

In Paoli’s model, a layer of non-members form the closest ring around the nucleus, with members, affiliates, and the community at large in progressively more distant rings (Paoli, 2003, pp. 78, 106-8).

Since the 1980s, network and enterprise models of the Mafia have been developed to answer the fundamental questions of precisely what the Mafia does and how. Instead of concentric circles of influence and trust, individuals are considered as nodes in a network. The lines of social connection can be of different types and degrees of intensity, but what has turned out to be important are the distances between nodes—the degrees of separation between two people—the tendency to introduce our friends to one another, and to find popularity attractive. There are also the seeming paradoxes of networks, like the power of weak ties to bring in new information (Hogan, 2018). The difference between having followers, and bringing people together, is not a metaphysical one, but an objective fact that can be demonstrated with network diagrams.

In network models of the Mafia, hierarchies and boundaries disappear and are replaced with clusters and cliques. Bosses, members, their friends and family members, business associates, fraternity brothers, and so on, become points in a network. The cosca’s leaves, as it turns out, are more interconnected than an artichoke’s. The extent of Mafia is revealed to be something far beyond its membership, revealing its true resilience.

In this network of pallbearers, relationships to the deceased have been removed to reveal clusters of his associates who are related to one another.

A magnifying lens turned upon the “spirit” of the Mafia reveals transactions and a web of densely connected actors. We can zoom out and see trends: by occupation, geographical, chronological. The confusions of high and low, capo and associate, are replaced with something measurable in networks of business associations, votes, phone calls, neighborhoods, and every other piece of data on organized crime that we can quantify. Questions of how Mafia cosche interact with one another, how they recover after a loss of key personnel, and the relationships among enterprise, cosca, and kin, can all be studied using network analysis.

Network analysis is a tool that changes our model of the Mafia, partly by getting us out of our own way. The FBI model is still popular because people who read true crime think they know this much is true, that the Mafia is made up of bosses and captains and soldiers. Mafia scholars can hold biased views, too, only seeing what fits their preconceived notion of what the Mafia is and does. Network models can be helpful in taking that bias out of the picture.

When the organizational model proposed isn’t a good fit for the environment, personnel, activities, and goals of the organization as we know them from direct observation, we know it isn’t accurate. As I discussed above, every fundamental trait of the Mafia has been argued, and the where, when, what, and why of the Mafia are not exceptions, which means that for every model of Mafia organization, there is a framework of theory that goes along with it of how that model arose, how it works, and how it can change. A strictly hierarchical model proponent may claim, for example, that their greater stratification provides an advantage in fighting the state, and fail to note the vulnerability of long command chains in a criminal organization. One school of Mafia theorists posit the Mafia is a business enterprise operating in a marketplace like any other. Variations on this theme point out how the market for Mafia business is different, that the conditions and products and basis for competition in organized crime are fundamentally unique; or acknowledge a continuity of Mafia far beyond the life cycle of an enterprise.

Inter-cosca relations need to be explained in a Mafia theory framework. Early in the 20th Century, a prevailing view was that the Mafia was one, single, hierarchical organization, with a capo di tutti capi somewhere that directed the cosche bosses of the world, like a huge army or international corporation. At the low end of the institutionalization continuum, a sociological theory of inter-cosca organization is that members of different cosche recognize one another as being the same, and that mutual respect and cooperation proceed from this.

A theory of knowledge transfer in corporations holds that the hierarchical structure of executives, administrators, and associates that we see in a modern company tells you practically nothing about how the company gets things done (Stephenson, 2013). The same can be said for the Mafia. In both legitimate and illegal job markets, people get job offers based on referrals, they freelance and change companies, they form critical friendships and mentorships that make them more efficient at their jobs: in other words, hierarchical and enterprise-driven organizational theories don’t explain what makes associates good at what they do, but network models do. Trust-based ties form durable, informal, heterogeneous networks of expertise that can last beyond the lifetime of an individual member. Catanzaro proposes layers of organization, with the enterprise distinct from a mostly kinship-based network from which the Mafia most directly emanates (1988/1992, p. 213).

The data I’ve collected and analyzed from Corleone, Sicily, reveals dense networks of kinship which connect the families from whom Mafia membership has been drawn, in Sicily and in the United States, for over a hundred years. Nothing creates trust and loyalty like family, and the Mafia has hijacked family-reproducing structures like a virus. Mafiosi don’t learn to do their jobs well in school, or by attending a human resources seminar. The values that make Mafia distinct and effective are not simply taught, but are ingrained from earliest childhood, altering the psychology of everyone involved: victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. It takes a village to raise a Mafia.

Blok, A. (1974). The mafia of a Sicilian village, 1860-1960: a study of violent peasant entrepreneurs. Harper Torchbooks.

Catanzaro, R. (1992). Men of respect: a social history of the Sicilian Mafia. Translation by Raymond Rosenthal. The Free Press (A Division of Macmillan, Inc.) New York. (Original work published 1988)

Hess, H. (1998). Mafia & mafiosi: origin, power and myth. (E. Osers, Trans.). London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd. (Original work published 1973)

Hess, H. (2011). Approaching and explaining the mafia phenomenon: attempts of a sociologist. Sociology. Available online at https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Approaching-and-Explaining-the-Mafia-Phenomenon.-of-Hess/fd679b86a76dcd86a8dd412245ec93db37c7a3aa

Hogan, B. (2018, March 13). Social network analysis – Introduction to structural thinking . Retrieved 13 July from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZHuj8uBinM

Kelley, R. J. (1987, September). The nature of organized crime and its operations. Chapter in Major issues in organized crime control (H. Edelhertz, Ed.) Pp. 5+. Retrieved 30 May 2021 from https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/106775NCJRS.pdf

Paoli, L. (2003). Mafia brotherhoods: organized crime, Italian style. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stephenson, K. (2013, August 12). Trafficking in trust: The art and science of human Knowledge networks. In L. Coughlin, E. Wingard, and K. Hollihan. (Eds.). Enlightened power: How women are transforming the practice of leadership (pp. 243-264). Jossey-Bass. Retrieved 20 July 2020 from http://www.drkaren.us/pdfs/chapter15.pdf

5 thoughts on “How is the Mafia organized?

  1. Fascinating as always. A heads-up-my October story on Mob Corner is called What is this thing Called Thing-my take on the subject and it ends with an anology comparing the Mafia with Covid. Not stealing your virus reference.


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