Organized Crime

By C J Oakes

Understanding Organized Crime through Two Models

Perhaps no subject in the American legal system inspires more misconceptions than organized crime.

Although numerous theories have been set forth to explain this phenomenon, only two have become part of the standards of practice for criminal justice professionals.  Indeed, most criminologists agree that no theory explains every organized crime group (Ubah, 2007).

One assertion is that each theory reflects the prevalent political climate; that assumptions about organized crime are flawed because each relies on economic forces as the motivating factory (Paoli, 2002).  Regardless, two theories are useful for through these, law enforcement gains the ability to see virtually inside most such organizations.

Two Theories of Organized Crime

The first theory to gain widespread attention was formed by Cressey, who asserted that organized criminal networks are controlled by one large Italian group he termed La Cosa Nostra.  This group was bureaucratic in form and governed by a hierarchy with strict rules.  Orders flowed from the top to those below with many specializing in criminal abilities.  There is no room for error in assignments, for penalties are severe (Mallory, 2007).

English: Mafia crime family structure tree
English: Mafia crime family structure tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next theory to enter the American consciousness suggested that rather than a bureaucratic, imported criminal enterprise, organized crime was composed of numerous smaller groups.  Each group was of an indeterminate size and operated autonomous of the others.  Rather than a boss at the top of the organization, there are numerous bosses who provide information, rather than orders.  This information is passed along and implemented independently by others who divide the spoils to those above as more of a thanks.  This kind of organization was termed Patron-client by Joseph Albini in 1971 (Lyman & Potter, 2007).

Similarities in these Two Theories of Organized Crime

Each of these theories holds use for law enforcement because regardless of the exact division of labor within the groups, investigators can use the models to isolate the upper echelon members for greater scrutiny.  The idea is that by investigating and prosecuting those in charge, a considerable dent can be forged into organized crime.  Hence, it is prudent to consider where these two theories converge.

Organised crime - cash flow
Organised crime – cash flow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Bureaucratic model enforces rules whereas the Patron-client model enforces traditions or values.  Regardless, each organization enforces those who step outside the limits of their position.  Each uses the services of specialists and each conducts criminal acts as a means of either increasing profits or power, sometimes both.  Both are efficient; the Bureaucratic model is efficient at getting results from a job and the Patron-client model is efficient at avoiding police detection.

Differences Between these Two Theories of Organized Crime

Similarities not withstanding, the differences between the two models are enlightening.  As Paoli asserted, it does seem that these two theories were born of differing political and social climates.  When Cressey presented his Bureaucratic model in the 1960s, American society was engaged in the Cold War.  A strong fear of foreign influence prevailed and the idea that the Sicilian Mafia simply had imported their criminal enterprises fit with this fear.  American law was dominated by a few strong leaders.  By the 1970s, law enforcement was open to a new concept, for finding the big boss was proving elusive.  In addition, the notion of individuality was gaining momentum during this time (Paoli, 2002).

Read Also: Vice is Nice for  Organized Crime

No wonder one of the greatest differences between the two concepts is as simple as politics.  The bureaucratic model emphasizes a hierarchy and the Patron-client model decentralization.  In other words, the former resembles socialism and the later capitalism.  Finally, the Drug War just beginning in the nation, organized crime born of demand for illicit goods and services rather than of an extant imported criminal enterprise made better sense (Paoli, 2002).

Finally, whereas Cressey asserted that leadership took an active role in the daily activities, Albini believed that crews worked independently and when a specialist was needed, such as a safecracker, these could be located easily through the criminal network (Spapens, 2010).

Application of these Models of Organized Crime

Perhaps the best use of these models is in anticipation of future criminal activity.  Williams and Godson (2002) assembled the scores of organized crime theories according to kind.  The traditional bureaucratic view and the Patron-client arrangement each fall into the category of Political models as Paoli (2002) suggested.  Hence, these two researchers apply political turmoil and socio-economic factors to their discussion.  In so doing, they reveal very practical uses for these models.

English: Organized crime brochure
English: Organized crime brochure (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For instance, the world could have easily foreseen the rise to power of Russian organized crime after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  They noted that anytime a dictatorial power transforms into a market economy, there is a transition period that allows organized crime to grow.  In fact they assert, during such a period organized crime fills a necessary void, providing services such as security and contract disputes that the new government cannot.  In addition, the new government is limited in power to control such illegal forces in the early stages of development; this adds to the ability of organized crime to grow unchecked (Williams & Godson, 2002).

Indeed, in weak political climates and in dictatorial, the Patron-client arrangement thrives by providing services and goods that the nation either cannot or will not.  This helps explain many of the more recent entries into the organized crime arena, such as the Nigerian and Mexican groups (Williams & Godson, 2002).  They state, “Careful use of models and extrapolations from past experiences enable us to contend that if certain conditions are present then there is a serious probability that particular kinds of developments will occur. By taking existing knowledge about organized and transnational crime – much of which is encapsulated in so-called models – and using this as a framework for thinking systematically and imaginatively about the future it is possible to make contingent propositions about the further evolution of organized crime” (Williams & Godson, 2002, p. 315).

Read Also: The Legal Limitations in Combatting Organized Crime

Thus, by applying these models in changing political climates, world leaders can anticipate the likelihood of a rise in organized crime groups; by anticipating these, leaders can devise plans that may prevent such from occurring.


Although the models of Organized Crime are numerous, the Bureaucratic and the Patron-client models are used most often in law enforcement.  This is because the former has a certain romantic appeal, ala The Godfather movie and the later appears to indicate how these organizations are generally composed.  Regardless, each model is useful to law enforcement for through these, agents are better able to visualize the networks required to conduct such extensive criminal operations.

You May Also Like to Read

Define to Defeat Organized Crime

Placing a Lock on Organized Crime

The Legal Limitations in Combating Organized Crime

Vice is Nice for Organized Crime

Five Crime of the Times


  • Lyman, M. D., & Potter, G. W. (2007). Organized Crime (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentis Hall.
  • Mallory, S. L. (2007). Understanding Organized Crime. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.
  • Paoli, L. (Jan2002). The Paradoxes of Organized Crime. Crime, Law, and Social Change, 37(1), 51-97.
  • Spapens, T. (2010). Macro Networks, Collectives, and Business Processes: An Integrated Approach to Organized Crime. European Journal of Criminal Law & Criminal Justice, 18(2), 185-215.
  • Ubah, C. B. (Spring2007). Immigrants’ Experiences in America: Toward Understanding Organized Crime. African Journal of Criminology & Justice Studies, 3(1), 95-118.
  • Williams, P., & Godson, R. (Jun2002). Anticipating organized and transnational crime. Crime, Law, and Social Change, 37(4), 311-355.


Leave a Reply