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The Mafia is an organized crime formation with Sicilian roots; branches in France, Tunisia, and the Americas; and a recent presence in Russia and Eastern Europe. Its historical successes vis-à-vis other criminal groups, particularly in the United States, have made the word mafia (whose origin has never been convincingly traced) a brand name for organized crime. Recently repressed on both sides of the Atlantic, the Mafia, as such, may be on the wane, although reduced vigilance could allow a resurgence.
Intrinsically secretive and violent, organized crime is best known through criminal investigations, yet police models, influenced by concerns of state, pose analytical problems for social science research. Early interpretations of the Sicilian Mafia—for example, Gaetano Mosca’s article in the 1933 Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences—emphasized two aspects associated with Sicily’s western provinces, historically dominated by quasi-feudal latifundia: a “mafiist” attitude valorizing self-help justice, as expressed through the concept omertà (silence before the law); and localized bands known as cosche (singular cosca) dedicated to animal rustling, extortion, and occasionally kidnapping for ransom. Although the menace of violence accompanied these activities, most murders resulted from interand intra-cosca rivalry for “turf.” The surrounding “mafiist” attitude impeded investigations, as did the political connections of mafiosi who “made elections” as the suffrage expanded.
In the 1960s foreign scholars of Sicily, swayed by that decade’s profound distrust of policing institutions, wrote about mafia with a small m and without the definite article. Rather than an associazione a delinquere (criminal association) with boundaries, rules and goals, mafia was the sum of individual mafiosi wielding power through private violence. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, innovative Sicilian prosecutors, responding to the Mafia’s assumption of a commanding role in trafficking heroin to the United States, “turned” several mafiosi into justice collaborators, eliciting ethnographically rich personal narratives. (Palermo-based Tommaso Buscetta was the first of these, offering testimony to the prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, who was assassinated in 1992.) This and a corresponding citizens’ antimafia movement encouraged new research, much of it by Sicilian scholars, which revealed the Mafia to have a greater institutional capacity than had been imagined before.
Antecedents of the Mafia date to the late 1800s in Sicily, when a newly unified Italian state sought to transform feudal and ecclesiastical holdings into private property, impose taxes, and draft soldiers, but without building institutions that could govern the resulting banditry and chaos. Self-anointed “mafias” filled the breach, claiming to restore order while earning revenue from manipulating disorder. Enterprises of many kinds were extorted for a pizzo (a “beak full”) as the price for protection, and pressed to distribute employment opportunities in ways that leveraged the racketeers’ local influence. Using their electoral clout, mafiosi also insinuated themselves with local, regional, and national governments, receiving licenses to carry weapons and “fix” inconvenient trials. Older, established capi (bosses) rarely went to jail, whereas younger picciotti (henchmen and enforcers) experienced incarceration as no more than a perfunctory interruption of their affairs. When criminal convictions occurred, the cosca functioned as a mutual-aid society, taking care of imprisoned members’ families. Prisons, in turn, were nerve centers of inter-cosca communication. (In contemporary accounts, generalized “mafiism,” earlier defined as the integument of the Mafia, is downplayed as part of a racialized “myth of Sicily” and an obstacle to serious inquiry.)
The state’s tolerant stance toward the Mafia was reversed by Benito Mussolini, but after World War II mafiosi reemerged to protect influential landowners from restive peasants, intimidating and even murdering their left-wing leaders. In addition, they offered electoral support to politicians of the newly constituted Christian Democratic Party—a cold war accommodation that enabled the penetration of modern domains such as urban real estate and construction, public works, and the administration of the land reform enacted in 1950. In the 1970s mafiosi with strong transatlantic connections—among them Gaetano Badalamenti, a resident of a town near the Palermo airport, and the above mentioned Buscetta—oversaw the shift from Marseille to Palermo of labs for refining heroin.
The audacity of the early narcotics traffickers was a provocation to the Corleonesi, an aggressive Mafia faction named for the fact that its leaders—Luciano Liggio, his protégé Salvatore (Totò) Riina, and Bernardo Provenzano (famously fugitive for forty years)—hailed from the interior town of Corleone. Allying with powerful capi in the Palermo region, this coalition raised capital for drug deals through kidnapping, which was normally disapproved of by the Mafia, and waged a murderous “war” whose victims—the perdenti, or losers—included many relatives and associates of Buscetta. The Corleonesi also advocated and carried out assassinations of public figures, among them Falcone.
The depositions of justice collaborators in the antimafia trials of the 1980s and 1990s, amplified by recent research, shed new light on the Mafia’s social organization and culture. Territorially grounded, the cosca, or “family,” is to some extent kin-oriented, with membership extending from father to sons, uncles to nephews, and through the fictive-kin tie of godparenthood. Yet, becoming a mafioso is also a matter of talent. Sons of cosca members believed to lack “criminal reliability” are passed over in favor of promising delinquents from unrelated backgrounds, and members seeking to induct large numbers of their own kin are viewed with suspicion. In effect, the word family is metaphorical—an evocation of the presumed solidarity of kinship. Mutual good will is further induced by idiosyncratic terms of address and linguistically playful nicknames. In a rite of entry inspired by Freemasons in nineteenth-century prisons, the Mafia novice holds the burning image of a saint while his sponsor pricks his finger and, mixing the blood and ashes, has him swear an oath of life-long loyalty and omertà, against the penalty of death. (1960s researchers doubted the existence of such a rite; Mosca’s essay makes no mention of it.)
Within the cosca, senior bosses hold the elected leadership positions, distribute moneys accumulated through extortion, and are responsible for the behavior of those novices whom they have personally sponsored. The picciotti are expected to show deference, take greater risks, and funnel their earnings upward. Ambitious upstarts occasionally murder their patrons, however, and seize power. The gossip and treachery intrinsic to cosca politics are considered affairs of men; women are excluded not only from meetings, but also from banquets and hunting parties, where masculine identity is asserted and novices socialized into the practice of violence. Nevertheless, the Mafia wife is usually from a Mafia family, enjoys the refinements provided by her husband’s money and status, assists in hiding fugitives, and willingly shelters his assets from the confiscatory power of the state. Most Mafia women know far more than they are free to discuss, even with family and friends.
Breaking with the past, contemporary scholars dispute the cosca’s autonomy. Similar to other fraternal organizations, multiple local chapters are shown to foster mutual recognition across a broad terrain—an asset for long-distance trafficking in cigarettes, narcotics, and, of late, clandestine sex workers and migrants. In the 1890s in the bandit corridor that straddled interior Sicily, mafiosi organized the theft and hidden slaughter of livestock for sale in urban markets (at one point, including Tunisia); in the orchards near Palermo, they controlled not only the protection of crops and water for irrigation, but also the movement of citrus fruit to the Brooklyn docks. Recent research further suggests a relationship between far-flung trafficking, generally more lucrative than neighborhood rackets, and the Mafia’s felt need to create structures and lay down rules at a translocal level. One example is the Cupola, or “Commission,” set up to coordinate groups in the province of Palermo, and then throughout western Sicily, in the 1960s through 1980s, to which intermediate districts sent representatives. At first considered derivative of a U.S. Mafia Commission dating to the 1930s, it is now believed to have had a forerunner in a similar Sicilian structure, the Conferenza, at the turn of the twentieth century.
Knowledge of the U.S. Mafia initially expanded with Estes Kefauver’s Senate hearings in 1950 and 1951; the FBI’s 1958 analysis following the spectacular if accidental 1957 raid of a secret meeting in Apalachin, New York; the McClellan Committee hearings on labor racketeering, prompted by the same event; and the probes of Robert Kennedy, chief counsel to John McClellan and then attorney general (until 1964). Under Kennedy, the Justice Department negotiated the terms by which a low-level mafioso, Joe Valachi, would testify about his experiences in the Mafia—testimony that exposed, among other things, the illusive term cosa nostra.
More or less sidestepping these state-centered sources, social scientists of the time analyzed organized crime in relation to the difficulties faced by early twentieth-century immigrants—Irish and Jewish as well as Italian—as they tried to earn a livelihood, benefit from corrupt political machines, and resist being criminalized by racism. (In the case of Italians, racial stereotyping included accusations of membership in a mysterious “black hand” organization, and numerous lynchings; eleven Sicilians were victims of the largest mass lynching in U.S. history in New Orleans, in 1891.) Images in print media, film, and television further complicate social analysis. The novel The Godfather (1969) and its film versions (1970s), produced by Italian Americans upset with racial stereotypes, romanticize their subject for outsiders. Other films such as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), based on the 1985 book Wiseguy by journalist Nicolas Pileggi, and the television serial The Sopranos (in which Italian Americans have also been involved) dramatize a model of masculinity that combines a haughty attractiveness with a dangerous readiness to retaliate against any perceived offense with gratuitous violence.
In light of several new sources—autobiographies (albeit self-serving) like Joseph Bonanno’s (1983); complex investigations pursued under the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute of 1970; collaborative investigations with Italian authorities, unraveling, for example, the “pizza connection” network of heroin delivery to the East Coast and Midwest; telephone intercepts; and the impressive reporting of dedicated journalists—organized crime is now analyzed less in relation to impoverished immigrant communities and more in relation to New World opportunities attracting already experienced racketeers from abroad (who, in the case of Sicilians and southern Italians, made voyages back and forth, tending to affairs and, especially during the fascist period, evading surveillance). Underlying the opportunities was an American dynamic of race and class: As WASP elites enacted rigid laws to interdict “vices” associated with newcomers, vast black markets took shape—for drugs, prostitution, gambling, and most spectacularly, alcohol, prohibited from 1919 to 1933 by constitutional amendment.
Immigrant Italian communities were assets to the racketeers who came—a source of recruits for smuggling operations and easily conditioned to respect omertà. New York, with a million Sicilians and southern Italians by 1920 (not to mention the large number who worked on the Brooklyn waterfront), became the center of gravity for the U.S. Mafia. Yet the immigrant communities also suffered from having to harbor predatory entrepreneurs. Nor did they circumscribe figures such as Nick Gentile, who migrated from Sicily in 1905, joined a “family” in Philadelphia, sold fraudulent goods in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, trafficked heroin in New Orleans and Texas, and bootlegged liquor from Canada to Milwaukee and San Francisco. His close associates—Alfonse “Scarface” Capone in Chicago and, in New York, Joe “the Boss” Masseria and Charles “Lucky” Luciano—were also wellconnected. A competing New York faction led by Salvatore Maranzano, the youthful Bonanno’s patron, had especially strong links to Castellammare del Golfo, a Sicilian town with a history of Mafia involvement in citrus exports.
Following prohibition, the most telling instance of New World opportunities attracting Old World mafiosi developed out of the 1956 Narcotics Control Act. Concerned about mounting drug arrests—aware, too, of the pending loss of Havana, Cuba, (playground of Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky and the Tampa mafiosi Santo Trafficante, senior and junior), as a point of entry— Bonanno led a delegation of American capi to Palermo where, at a strategic meeting at the Grand Hotel of the Palms in 1957, they franchised out to a select group of Sicilians the business of distributing heroin throughout the United States—a harbinger of Badalamenti’s and Buscetta’s audacity, and of the pizza connection.
Money earned from protecting and trafficking in illegal “vices” has helped American mafiosi colonize many fields: loansharking, especially to addicted gamblers; Las Vegas casinos and tourism; trash-hauling and construction companies; coin-operated slot machines and laundromats; and schemes for kickbacks, extortion, truck jackings, and cargo theft and no-show jobs at ports, airports, wholesale markets, convention centers, hotels, and restaurants. Quickly accumulated capital has also been important in bribing police and prosecutors; insinuating the Mafia into municipal politics; penetrating labor unions; and paying for first-class trial lawyers. However, with its heady possibilities for risk, vice-related crime takes a large toll in violence. During the Prohibition Era, Sicilian bootleggers and smugglers both allied with and warred against “outside” Irish and Jewish gangsters, near-outside Neapolitan gangsters, and their own compatriots. Al Capone’s Valentine’s Day massacre of a rival gang in 1929 in Chicago, and the bloody “Castellammarese war” between the Massaria and Mazarano factions in New York in 1930, are landmarks of American Mafia lore.
Significantly for social theory, such crises, and the unwanted attention they draw, prompt peacemakers to push for higher-level organizational innovations. Thus in 1931, Luciano negotiated the systematization of five Mafia “families” in New York, each with an elected capo, an appointed consigliere, several subgroups or “crews,” and a ceiling on new initiates. (More could join only upon the death of existing members, which greatly enlarged the category of Mafia “wannabes.”) The five heads, together with Capone of Chicago (the next-largest hub of Mafia activity, after New York) and Stefano Magaddino, a Bonanno relative in Buffalo, agreed to form an overarching Commission to rule on pending murders. Articulating territorial power with the far-flung entrepreneurial activities of individual mafiosi, this body pledged to meet with bosses from across the country every five years. (The Apalachin meeting took place during an off year, in part to assess the 1956 Narcotics Act.) This was the Commission that many believed inspired the Sicilian Cupola—perhaps via the 1957 meeting at the Palms— until the discovery of the much earlier Conferenza.
By the 1930s the U.S. Mafia had surpassed other, mainly Jewish and Irish, organized crime formations in both firepower and discipline, yet its very organizational coherence was a source of destabilizing leadership struggles, as illustrated by New York’s Gambino family. Police investigators concluded, although without bringing charges, that in 1957 the family’s namesake (not its founder) Carlo Gambino, together with Vito Genovese, arranged for the then-boss, Albert Anastasia, to be murdered while receiving a shave at his favorite barbershop. Anastasia is believed to have leveled his predecessor in 1951. Gambino died a natural death, but his anointed successor (and brother-in-law), Paul Castellano, was gunned down in 1985 on orders of the up-and-coming John Gotti—who, in turn, was “ratted out” by a coconspirator, Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, who turned state’s witness in the context of intensified antimafia pressure in 1988. Similarly, in their brutal assault on the perdenti, the Corleonesi either ignored or manipulated the Cupola, carrying out numerous murders without its permission and with impunity, then took it over as an instrument of repression.
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