What Is Organised Crime Criminology Essay

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What is organised crime. Does the answer really depend on who we ask. Can we refer to a higher authority for the answer, or is the term simply intended as a symbolic expression for something which we can all recognise, understand and discuss without having to go too much into the details?

First: organised crime is a definiens - "a word, phrase, or symbolic expression" [1] that defines a term with reference to its intended meaning. Second: it's a subjective label, [2] which must also be understood as a symbolic expression in context of its intended meaning. Third: organised crime is a subjective term which attaches to constructs created by academia, law enforcement, government-policy and public opinion.

The term has served in promoting changes in the criminal justice system by facilitating dialogue across various disciplines. It can be applied and discussed at the local, regional, national and trans-national level and across a multitude of disciplines promoting international cooperation and prevention without it losing its intended meaning.

And that's the purpose of the term - to be used as a symbolic expression in the dialogue between disciplines and across borders. From this dialogue, definitions of what acts, activities, groups or structures may be defined as organised crime are further developed in context of the local situation.

Whilst Cressey (1972) argues that a "rigorous definition is essential to rigorous research and, thus, to clear understanding", Finckenauer (2005) argues that "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and hangs around with ducks, then it is a duck, actually fits members of organized crime". (Cressey, 1972) (Finckenauer, 2005)

Although the two positions may at first appear vastly different and to present different kinds of challenges to researchers, law enforcement and policy-makers, they are in fact very similar in that both positions are striving for a single explanation. This would force us into a position of simply applying the agreed model by which we define organised crime without regard to different levels of analysis.

In the first section, I will be arguing that although a commonly accepted and objective definition of organised crime (a definition not influenced by personal interpretation or prejudice) will continue to elude us not only in terms of stipulative (legal), operational (enforcement) and academic (research) definitions, there has long been general consensus on its intended meaning.

In the second section, I will be arguing that it's this general consensus on its intended meaning that is driving academic research, law enforcement priorities and government policy and not any consensus on its rigorous definition.

My thesis is that there are different classes (types) of definition of organised crime and that the wording used in defining organised crime is highly dependent on its class and purpose.

The conclusion is that because there can be no one single, rigorous, universal and objective definition of organised crime, there can be no single explanation.

Sources of the various definitions of organised crime

von Lampe (2001) traces organised crime as a term first used by the Chicago Crime Commission. Despite its name, the Commission was not a law enforcement agency, but an organisation created in 1919 by "businessmen, bankers and lawyers to promote changes in the criminal justice system in order to better cope with the crime problem." (von Lampe, 2001, p. 104)

The term was from the outset highly politicised and used to distinguish "professional criminals" from other forms of criminality. Other terms such as "white collar crime" soon followed to further distinguish "blue collar" or "professional criminals" from "crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation." (Sutherland, 1949) (von Lampe, 2001)

Since then, there have been various attempts at constructing pure scholarly definitions of organised crime. Hagan (2006) attributes part of the problem with defining organised crime to the need to attach scientific meaning to a term which has "widely varying popular public definition" and notes that in academia, the meaning of similar terms, including: "political crime", "professional crime", and "white-collar crime"; do not "meet public or media conception". (Hagan, 2006) (Levi, 2002)

Whilst this helps explain Cressey's argument, other researchers, such as Levi (2002), have argued that it's the cross-border dimension of organised crime that distinguishes organised crime from other crimes.

Although there may be trans-national aspects of organised crime, definitions based on various categorical dimensions of organised crime are too narrow and lacking in scientific meaning.

Broome (2003) gives a historical account of the "growing phenomenon" of organised crime in Australia from the perspective of the various influences of ethnic communities. Broome argues that like most criminal activity in Australia, organised crime varies between the different jurisdictions, [3] but despite these differences, definitions of organised crime in Australia have the same core elements as used in other countries and across jurisdictions. [4] 

Similar observations have been made in Canada (Koenig, 2003), Italy (Santino, 2003), Japan (Uchiyama, 2003), Argentina (Almiron, 2003), Zimbabwe (Chihuri, 2003) and in other countries. (Broome, 2003)

Sources of research definitions of organised crime

Hopkins and Tilley (2011) provide a good account of how research definitions of organised crime can be constructed by way of consensus and used to drive data-collection in academic research:

First it was necessary to develop a working definition of organised crime. […] Following consultation with the Home Office, the definition of organised crime used in this study was as follows:

'Organised crime constitutes any enterprise, or group of persons, engaged in continuing illegal activities in which one of its primary purposes is the generation of profit, irrespective of national boundaries.'

The intention behind using this definition was that it would be inclusive. The aim was to collect detailed information on all homicides associated with organised crime, however widely the latter is defined. (Hopkins & Tilley, 2011)

Sources of stipulative definitions of organised crime

On 15 November 2000, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution giving power to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. As of 26 October 2012, the Convention had been ratified by 172 different countries. [5] 

Article 2 of the legislative guidelines for the implementation of the Convention defines a number of key terms used, including organised crime. The guidelines state that countries seeking to ratify or implement the Convention must establish offences in the domestic law independently of the nature or involvement of organised crime. [6] 

In passing such legislation, the legislature would stipulate the definitions used and how these are to be interpreted. This process ensures that although local variations may exist, there is general consensus on the definition of organised crime as a symbolic expression in context of its intended meaning.

Analysis of various definitions

Whether a definition is stipulative, operational or academic can often be determined by simply examining the wording used. Whilst stipulative definitions typically use less ambiguous wordings, such as organised crime "means", operational definitions qualify definitions in terms of "is defined as". Research definitions often look similar to operational definitions but use wording similar to "for the purpose of this research". For example:



Type Definition

California Control of Profits of Organized Crime Act

"Organized Crime" means crime which is of a conspiratorial nature and that is either…


Queensland Crime And Misconduct Act 2001

organised crime means criminal activity that involves…


Victoria Police Organised Crime Theme Desk

Organised crime is defined as crime committed in…

Operational (working)

U.S. Department of Labor

Organized crime is defined as activities carried out by…

Operational (working)

Chow, 2003:473

By 'organized crime,' this paper refers to a group of persons or entities…

Research definition

Potter, 1994:116

For purposes of this discussion, we shall define organized crime as…

Research definition

(Potter, 1994) (Chow, 2003) (van Lampe, 2012)

Analysis of the original text of von Lampe's (2012) collection of 170 different definitions of organised crime (drawn from academia, law enforcement and public policy in 27 different countries), indicates a similar pattern; that the language used in defining organised crime depend on its purpose and on the role of the agency or institution.

In order to highlight common elements of various classes of definition, Wordle [7] was used to produce the following word cloud as a visual representation of the cluster of adjectives, common and proper nouns most commonly used to define organised crime:

From the original sample of 170 different definitions of organised crime, the most frequently occurring words can be arranged into the following definition:

Criminal or illegal activities involving groups of organised individuals who systematically use their organisation and threat of violence for purpose of corrupt influence and monetary gain.

Although this definition is similar to other definitions collected by von Lampe, it is highly subjective and far from exhaustive.

A case study in the evolution of evidence-based government policies

Finckenauer (2005:64) argues that "one of the major tasks facing researchers who study and write about organized crime is to inform (or better inform) [public opinion]".

Quantitative estimates of organised crime are important because they help explain the importance of organised crime in context of other crime issues and inform law enforcement and policy-makers on how to prioritise limited resources, including what kinds of resources may be needed to combat the problem now and in the future.

By focusing on some quantitative aspects of organised crime, the following case study shows how academia and law enforcement can contribute to the evolution of our understanding of the organised crime phenomena more broadly, including; help drive evidence-based government policies, and; keeping public opinion better informed.

Case study

In 2004, the Australian Institution of Criminology (AIC) reported that each year, a total of AUD3.8bn is being generated in criminal proceeds "by all crime types" [8] . (Austrac, 2004: Stamp & Walker, 2007:56) A portion of these total proceeds is subsequently transferred to beneficiaries overseas. (AUSTRAC, 2004) (Stamp & Walker, 2007)

Less than four years later, the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) reported that each year, "up to $12 billion in illicit drug money is flowing out of Australia annually - an amount 10 to 30 times greater than official estimates." (O'Brien & McKenzie, 2008)

The inevitable conclusion from these new estimates, is that academia, law enforcement and government have all seriously underestimated the size of the illicit drugs market in Australia and hence the impact of organised crime. Why?

Similar to Hopkins and Tilley (2011), the research conducted by Walker was driven by a consensus on the working definitions. The agreed definitions were used to drive the collection of data subsequently applied to a model developed by Mayhew (2003). Mayhew's model counted the cost of crime in Australia by estimating how much crime there is and by estimating how much profit is being generated from crime. Walker supplemented the data by asking law enforcement officials for their opinions on organised crime and concluded that each year a total of AUD3.8bn is being generated in criminal proceeds.

Despite the rigorous research conducted by Walker, the research model was based on a series of subjective assumptions and could not have provided a clear understanding of total criminal proceeds. [9] 

The Australian Crime Commission made no such assumptions. Their model simply tracked the flow of illicit funds through the financial services sector. By tracking the flow of illicit funds from Australia to overseas, the ACC was able to identify organised criminals previously undetected by law enforcement.

By filling the knowledge gap, the ACC was able to conclude that each year, at least AUD12 billion in criminal proceeds is being removed from the Australian economy to beneficiaries overseas. (Australian Crime Commission, 2010, pp. 56-57).

The case helps explain many of the reasons why Walker and other academic researchers, despite having referred to a higher authority for the answer, make some significant false assumptions about organised crime. Two of the main learning points, are:

our various definitions of organised crime are highly subjective and based on only a small part of the actual problem, and;

consensus is derived from limited knowledge. (Mayhew, 2003)

As a result of the ACC filling a significant knowledge gap about organised crime, the definition of organised crime as understood by law enforcement, academia and policy-makers began to change.

A few months after, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered his first National Security Statement in which he referred to the scale of organised crime as a national security issue. The Prime Minister also announced several new initiatives which have had some significant policy implications. Organised crime was no longer simply a law enforcement problem, but a threat to Australia's national security. (Government of Australia, 2008)

During the G20 Summit in London in 2009, Kevin Rudd and the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced in a joint statement, that the UK and Australia were strengthening their commitments to cooperate against organised crime by developing a new "bilateral Organised Crime Strategic Framework." (The National Archives, 2009)


In the 1960's, various sociological criminologists developed theories of crime which sought alternative explanations from the pure scholarly theories. (Paoli, 2002) For a while at least, this represented a departure from definitions developed from a common understanding of organised crime. Those theories have since been largely rejected as incapable of explaining or reducing the incidence of crime, including organised crime. (Laycock, 2005)

Paoli & Fijnaut (2006) point out that organised crime again became a "hot topic" in the public debate in the early 1990's. Despite ongoing public debate on organised crime, academia still suffers from significant knowledge gaps. A survey conducted by Silke (2008) show that the number of academic titles published on organised crime between 1995 and 2005 has remained low compared with that of terrorism. (Silke, 2008) (Paoli & Fijnaut, 2006)

One of the consequences of Silke's observations is that in future, definitions of terrorism will become heavily influenced by the events on September 11, 2001. This is to be compared with the highly subjective debate on organised crime which since the 1990's has continued to be largely driven by the media. As a consequence, media have had significant influence on not only the public's perception of organised crime, but on their expectations of law enforcement activity.

Despite a general consensus that organised crime largely involves profit-driven criminal enterprises, law enforcement focus and priorities continues to be driven by a desire to disrupt the supply of illicit goods in the various black markets. This "bottom-up" approach has continued to be the focus of law enforcement strategies for more than 20-years, in spite being based on false assumptions.

As a consequence, total proceeds generated by organised crime are currently estimated at some USD6.2 trillion representing 10 per cent of the world's GDP "placing it behind only the United States and the European Union (EU), but well ahead of China, in terms of global GDP ranking." (White House, 2011: Farah, 2012:3)

The third largest economy in the world may be as good a definition of organised crime as any. (Farah, 2012, p. 3) (White House, 2011)


Hagan has noted that a universal definition of organised crime continues to elude "both academics, criminal justice agencies, as well as international bodies" (Hagan, 2006, p. 127) and that "it does not appear that a true universal definitional consensus is forthcoming". (Hagan, 2006, p. 128)

Recognising that there are different classes (types) of definition of organised crime, each with a specific purpose, immediately dismisses the possibility of there ever being a single, commonly accepted, universal and rigorous definition. By accepting that organised crime is a highly subjective issue, the inevitable conclusion is that there can be no single explanation which may help solve the problem.

The Walker case study also demonstrates that our widely held consensus on its intended meaning is a significant impediment in dealing effectively with the harms/impact caused. Paoli argues that the need to describe and analyse organised crime both in terms of their social organisation and their level of activity in various criminal markets represent the two paradoxes of organised crime (Paoli, 2002), however this is a very simplistic view.

Across the globe and across cultural differences, historical contexts and varying legal systems, definitions of organised crime (despite their various manifestations), are largely uniform. The paradox is that whilst definitions of organised crime are largely uniform, why is so little still known about the scope and scale of the criminal economy and the negative social, political and economic consequences of organised crime?

One likely answer is that in law enforcement, academia as well as in government, definitions of organised crime are based on what we know, rather than what we don't. We tend to focus and concentrate on those aspects of organised crime which are known to us. The fact that so little is still known about organised crime means that both our various subjective definitions and consensus on its intended meaning are misplaced.

Taleb warns of "the impact of the highly improbable", meaning that whilst we focus our attention on - and attempt to predict the future based on what we know, it is the unknown which is more likely to cause us greater harm. (Taleb, 2010)

This raises further questions such as: is problem-oriented policing and law enforcement intelligence efforts directed at the real issues?, and; is our understanding and definition of organised crime consistent with that reality, or is it simply a reflection of what we want to believe?