Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate

Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate

Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate

Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate


How do criminals communicate with each other? Unlike the rest of us, people planning crimes can't freely advertise their goods and services, nor can they rely on formal institutions to settle disputes and certify quality. They face uniquely intense dilemmas as they grapple with the basic problems of whom to trust, how to make themselves trusted, and how to handle information without being detected by rivals or police. In this book, one of the world's leading scholars of the mafia ranges from ancient Rome to the gangs of modern Japan, from the prisons of Western countries to terrorist and pedophile rings, to explain how despite these constraints, many criminals successfully stay in business.

Diego Gambetta shows that as villains balance the lure of criminal reward against the fear of dire punishment, they are inspired to unexpected feats of subtlety and ingenuity in communication. He uncovers the logic of the often bizarre ways in which inveterate and occasional criminals solve their dilemmas, such as why the tattoos and scars etched on a criminal's body function as lines on a professional résumé, why inmates resort to violence to establish their position in the prison pecking order, and why mobsters are partial to nicknames and imitate the behavior they see in mafia movies. Even deliberate self-harm and the disclosure of their crimes are strategically employed by criminals to convey important messages.

By deciphering how criminals signal to each other in a lawless universe, this gruesomely entertaining and incisive book provides a quantum leap in our ability to make sense of their actions.


Not much is known, let alone understood, about how criminals communicate with one another. This is not just because the evidence is hard to gather. The storytellers of the underworld collect tales of crime and marvel at the variety of rituals, styles, and languages that criminals use, but seldom go beyond descriptive accounts. Criminologists focus on deviant actions, but they rarely seem to appreciate in full the information that actions themselves can convey in the underworld. Sociologists, who have given us fine ethnographies of gangs and racketeers, have not been interested in developing explicit theories linking the seemingly extravagant displays of their subjects with rational pursuits. To gather evidence, even to understand that certain events are evidence of something interesting, one needs to be guided by theoretical expectations. Yet economists, who have developed sophisticated theoretical means to model information, have enough troubles collecting data on the world of ordinary business to bother with the underworld.

The study of criminal communications has also fallen between the stools of two common views, which reinforce each other. One pertains to how communication is understood in general. It is still all too frequent, even among scholars, to think of communication as symbolic communication or, more narrowly still, as linguistic communication. Words are set in opposition to actions, thereby inserting a bogus demarcation, as if actions could be undertaken only for tangible purposes rather than for communicative ends. In fact, a primary goal of communication, namely to modify people’s beliefs about a situation or a person, is often better achieved by deeds than by words. Actions send signals and are often meant to. The other view concerns the fact that criminals are perceived as the quintessential men of action, thus lacking in the skills required for handling the subtleties of communication. The association . . .

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