News

Cornell University Press

Studying organized crime: quantity versus quality? Are fact-based studies better than… a debate?

Return to Home

It is 2011, and I am sitting in an unmarked police car in Naples with the flying squad. We are driving around the suburbs to make sure that all is peaceful and that there are not too many drug dealers doing business. As we drive around a corner, the young men who were sitting at the bar table scupper and flee in all directions. The police officers in the car are speechless: what’s happening? Why?

The team leader is agitated and irate to say the least. He instructs his men to capture the young boss who gave the order to flee. They soon catch up with him. He arrives in front of the police officer, they shake hands, and cordialities are exchanged. But the police officer is still furious because by running off, he caused unnecessary chaos and panic. The situation is quite tense, but respect is on show. The Police capo begins to tell off the young Camorra boss: ‘You don’t behave like that, you don’t do that! It is not right’. They shake hands again and peace is restored. They look into each other’s eyes and, by doing so, the young boss acknowledges his mistake, accepting that he violated the rules of engagement.

But what was his mistake? We were in an unmarked police car, but it was a known unmarked car. The young foot soldiers know whose car it is, who’s in the car, and why. As the car travels down the streets, you often hear warnings to make sure everybody knows the police is about. The name ‘M-a-r-i-o’ is shouted as a warning to the following drug piazza, but also to any Camorra members out and about.

Photo: Sguardi di periferie (S. Giovanni a Teduccio), dicembre 2018 @ g.izzo

As we head back to the police headquarters, the Ispettore explains to me that they all know each other, and that they abide by clear rules of engagement. It is ‘a true war’, one played out in the open, with specific rules of respect and recognition. This reminded me of the rules of engagement between the British police and the IRA in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. But, what I had just witnessed highlighted how the behavior of the younger generation of camorristi is changing the dynamics of traditional Camorra behavior. It shows their presence and power across their district, but also how compared to their elders, they lack respect for institutions. In other words, having seen it with my own eyes, experienced those sensations, and smelled that environment, allows me to gather knowledge which then I analyze, unpack and dissect. And by telling these different stories, I can highlight the complexity of organized crime groups and their business activities.   

In other words, having seen it with my own eyes, experienced those sensations, and smelled that environment, allows me to gather knowledge which then I analyze, unpack and dissect.

Why do I recount this episode? Because I want to stress the importance of qualitative research methods when studying organized crime groups and their criminal activities; the importance of telling stories. There is no doubt that quantitative methods contribute to our understanding of criminal organizations in terms of numbers; they help us understand the questions of more or less of a group, measure and quantify people, groups and activities. They help us capture the ages, gender, jobs, locations, and the levels of education of criminals. They measure a phenomenon but in isolation, and without reference to a concrete context or cultural setting, which means that we need more information. They are seen as ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’, and therefore very useful. But someone somewhere decided which categories should be used, while ignoring others. Therefore, a quantitative approach is often presented as a neutral truth, but it can hide an invisible bias which then goes un-noticed and thus, reality is distorted. Moreover, this can happen easily when seeking to analyze organized crime, since there are so few accessible databases and reports.

Therefore, a quantitative approach is often presented as a neutral truth, but it can hide an invisible bias which then goes un-noticed and thus, reality is distorted.

Qualitative methods can be problematic, but if we acknowledge this from the start we can only benefit from this approach, as it uncovers social realities and complexities which may be otherwise concealed. The researcher is not ‘neutral’, but projects herself/himself in what they see and what they collect. And because criminal organisations are so secretive, what researchers are able to capture becomes a great contribution in itself. Even if not replicable or generalisable, they give us real insights that we may miss with quantitative approaches. We must encourage story-telling, while at the same time remaining aware of the difficulties involved in doing so.  

Over the last 10 years, I have interviewed several Camorra women turned-state-witness. The time I spent with them gave me a better understanding of their criminal careers, their values and their views on society, the clan, politics, and the future. I believe that this approach has helped me identify and analyse their paradoxical and complex roles, positions, relationships, and values as women.  For example, one Camorra woman once explained to me the necessity for her husband, the local boss, to seek consensus at all costs among his local community:

            ‘[…] if you respect people, they respect you. Even if they know who you are. Perhaps some people gave him respect because they were afraid, but he always looked for a way to behave well. For example, even at Christmas, right? He would get panettoni and champagne, little eggs in the shape of Santa Claus and all those… He would make a basket and give it to all the people in the street where we lived, just because if people don’t love you, you are not going anywhere. He tried to be loved by people, even with these practical things’ (interview AM, 2017).

No quantitative method would have picked up on this subtle and important human dimension of power, which contributes not only to our understanding at a micro-level, but also at a macro-level.

No quantitative method would have picked up on this subtle and important human dimension of power, which contributes not only to our understanding at a micro-level, but also at a macro-level. Qualitative methods explain so much more: for example, they help us understand why certain clans are active in certain markets and not others, why violence is used, when, and how. How clans use their power, how important trust and knowledge is for the clan, how social media is leveraged, and how they engage with professionals. So, while there is space for quantitative methods, qualitative methods should not be dismissed simply because researchers tell a story of what they see. Without these stories we might miss some of the more subtle and hidden aspects of organized crime groups and their activities.


Felia Allum is a Leverhulme Major Research Fellow (2018-2021) and senior lecturer in Politics and Italian at the University of Bath. She is the author of The Invisible Camorra, Neapolitan Crime Families across Europe, and is currently researching the role of girls/women in criminal organizations. 

Book Finder