What is Organized Crime?

What is Organized Crime?

How Individual Perception of Organized Crime May Impact Membership

Many people view organized crime as as a group of criminals working cohesively to commit crimes. This perspective is not without merit but only provides a rudimentary understanding of organized crime, overlooking many important characteristics of this type crime. For instance, organized crime refers to criminals working together, but this network or organization does not have to be connected directly, taking on a large, complex structure. For this reason, the FBI provides a detailed definition of organized crime:

The FBI defines organized crime as any group having some manner of a formalized structure and whose primary objective is to obtain money through illegal activities. Such groups maintain their position through the use of actual or threatened violence, corrupt public officials, graft, or extortion, and generally have a significant impact on the people in their locales, region, or the country as a whole (FBI, 2015).

The common perspective of organized crime typically forms a bias toward groups using violence and threats such as the Italian or Russian Mafia. Media plays a large part in perpetuating this bias in the vast number of shows such as NCIS, Law & Order, etc. Seen through this biased lens, the average person does not typically think of the networks of Russian mob hackers, "groups from African countries like Nigeria that engage in drug trafficking and financial scams," or Hungarian or Romanian mafias" (FBI, 2015).

Globally there are many different organized crime groups operating and many specialize in crimes such as internet scams or drug or human trafficking. While these organizations share the same purpose of profiting through illegal activities, they are often shrouded in mystery because the organizations are designed to protect leadership through layers of insulation and by enforcing secrecy. They are also difficult to identify because they may operate in loosely connected cells such as hackers who may not know one another or that they are working with a larger syndicate. As such, any definition of organized crime must take into account the covert nature.

Organized Crime Membership

Another mysterious area of organized crime is the membership and why some people choose to involve themselves in these organizations. The reasons for involvement in organized crime vary by theory with each explaining to some degree individual reasons for involvement but no theory fully explains the membership. For example, rational choice theory posits that humans are rational creatures, using a form of cost benefit analysis to determine whether or not to engage in a criminal behavior. A person with little job opportunity or money may decide to join a criminal organization in order to benefit from the organization’s resources. However, rational choice theory breaks down when considering the large numbers of people with low life chances who do not engage in crime. Many people born into poverty do not choose to become criminals.

Another example of the difficulty determining membership causes comes from alien conspiracy theories which posit foreigners or immigrants bring crime with them. This theory originates in biases to organized crime groups like the Italian Mafia which have connections through family and nationality.  This theory fails because the majority of immigrants are not involved in crime. Organized crime exists everywhere and is often based on factors other than ethnicity such as geography such as the Black Guerilla Family or gang which began in San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California as a Black Power gang aimed at revolutionary goals (Cummins, 1994).

Cultural and social factors such as education level also fail to explain criminal involvement which many people believe is a determinant. This factor is clearly wrong considering most white collar criminals are educated people who engage in crimes for many different reasons such money issues, greed, or even ignorance.

Criminal behavior appears to have no consistent motivation for engagement and membership as in the case of organized crime. Likely sociocultural, character, and even genetic traits may play a part in choice of criminal organization membership. The true nature of criminal behavior may rest in family values and personal ethics. While these factors also fall short of explaining organized crime involvement, they may fill in some of the gaps with theories that explain some instances of crime. Most likely, organized crime involvement results from complex and numerous factors such as upbringing, peer relations, life chances, individual traits, and other elements.


Cummins, Eric (1994). The Rise and Fall of California's Radical Prison Movement. Stanford University Press. ISBN 9780804722322.

FBI. (2015). About Organized Crime. Retrieved from Federal Bureau of Investigation

 Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash  

Article Updated: 11/24/2021


Triola Vincent. Wed, Nov 03, 2021. What is Organized Crime? Retrieved from

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