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Criminals  don’t have high-powered legal departments to draw up contracts and such to govern their relationships and, um, business dealings, shall we call them? But they still must get their associates to play along properly. Paolo Campana at the University of Oxford studies ‘credible commitments.’ Or, what criminals—people who tend to cheat, steal, and lie for a living—use to ensure everyone keeps their word. Campana has learned what mafia-like organizations resort to, how much, and why—and thus, in effect, how law enforcement can capitalize on this structure to destabilize criminal networks.


If someone is going to miss your talk today, what are they missing?

What we are going to talk about today is how criminals cooperate. People usually don’t appreciate that criminals face huge difficulties in their work. Living and working in a criminal environment is not an easy job. People tend to cheat, people are untrustworthy.


So they act like criminals?

Exactly, they are! But then, criminal activities do take place, and some of these activities are actually quite complex. Like shipping drugs from Latin America into the U.S. or Europe. That’s a type of long-distance trade that takes quite complex organizational arrangement. Usually, in the legal world, you would see complex contracts and all sorts of mechanisms in place to solve disputes. Well, this is not possible in the underworld. So what do they do? How do they solve these problems?

I look at what’s called establishing credible commitments—how criminals credibly commit to a course of action. I’m looking at two specific devices: violence and kinship. So, how violence and kinship foster credibility among criminals.


When you say kinship, you’re talking about familial blood ties, or people who are friends with each other?

Familial blood ties. With my co-author Federico Varese, we looked at two case studies, the Russian mafia and the Neapolitan mafia, the so-called Camorra. Now, the Camorra is based on kin, so they tend to recruit among next-of-kin. But why is that? Sometimes people assume there is something ontological about that, like, “These are my parents so I trust them more.” But then when you actually look at the phone wire tap conversation by the police, you see that these people, they don’t trust each other even if they are related. So you need a mechanism to substitute for that trust, if you want to exchange and cooperate. Another mechanism is violence. This was first identified by Nobel Prize Winner Thomas Schelling, an American economist, who said, “Well, sometimes people use compromised information to bond each other.”



Yes. But if I have elements to blackmail you and you have elements to blackmail me, well maybe then we stick together and we cooperate, but not because we trust each other, but just because the cost of defection would be higher on both sides. So this is a byproduct of violence that is usually overlooked.

These people have to use violence as a constitutive element because if you want to run a protection racket—and I’m not suggesting anybody do so, it’s just a theoretical example!—but if you want to run a protection business, well then you need to be able to resort to violence when needed.

The thing is, these people do not resort to violence that often. And also, there is a limit to how much violence you can use, both because it attracts attention from the authorities and because it’s dysfunctional. You cannot use too much violence against your own sources because it will disrupt the activities of the group, it will shorten the horizon of the participants. We are talking about groups that have been there for decades. You can’t just base a group on fear. It might last for a little while, but it won’t last for 25 years.


Why is it important that we study how criminals work? Does this help in law enforcement, or it’s just interesting to see how these groups operate?

I think it’s important from a theoretical/substantive point of view. As social scientists we want to understand how societies work. And criminals are part of society. So there is a substantive interest in that. It is more a question of how people cooperate, how people exchange. When it comes to criminals there is also a policy element to it. So in this specific case, the fact that we know, for instance, that they face a trust problem, might suggest that law enforcement agencies inject extra elements of randomness into the system that will help disrupt the functioning of this group.

Going back to compromise and information, the value of this information is set by the state, which also means the state can change this value, through plea bargaining, for instance.

The paper I’ll be talking about today is just one paper, and it’s part of the broader project on criminal organizations and how criminals organize themselves when they have to deal with a number of different illegal commodities. So I have done other analyses on how organized crime, mafia-like organizations operate across territories, how they move, and once they move what they do.


How long have you been doing this, studying mafia and criminal organizations?

Since 2007.


Do you ever get a little … scared?

As long as I’m at the Dondena Centre, I’m perfectly safe.


I would be very worried, although I am a foreigner here. The idea of the mafia terrifies me. I don’t even bring up the movie The Godfather, because I don’t know how people are going to take that, you know? But it must be fascinating.

Yes! And the type of evidence I use comes from phone conversations wiretapped by the police, so in a sense it gives me a better picture of the phenomenon.


Were the police willing to hand these tapes over to you, or did it take some negotiation?

It takes some negotiations. Getting my hands on the data is always a bit problematic. It depends on the country. In most cases I wait until a case is closed, so an investigation is closed, and then I go to the court archive and I ask for the files. In other cases, it takes a bit more negotiation.


So you’ve put these conversations into “network matrices,” what does that actually mean?

Basically the idea is that these people are connected to each other, so they exchange, they get in touch, they get together, but the idea is that we want to see not only the actors, but we want to see also the relations, and get a grasp of who is in contact with whom and for what reasons. That’s the network perspective. We try to draw a line among actors to first see whether there is this connection and second if there is not, why not. But also, given the type of analysis I’m doing, I’m also interested in the content of these conversations. So it’s not only about the structure. So I code—unfortunately, manually—why these people usually got in touch, where, when, and I also code characteristics of the actors so I know where they were born, whether they share a kin tie with other members in the group. When we take all this information together, then we are able to get a richer picture of this phenomenon. Hopefully we also grasp the underlying mechanisms.


How many conversations are we talking about?

Thousands. I rely on the transcripts. These were already transcribed by the police. Sometimes they are also translated. Sometimes they also use jargon, and I have to say, police officers are very well-trained. We are talking about the special anti-mafia unit. Usually you also get companion information, like ‘they use this word, which means this other word.’ In other times it’s translated from Neapolitan dialect into Italian, or Calabrian dialect into Italian.


Part of what I like about this job and this type of work is that I’m fascinated by these mechanisms, these social mechanisms. But also I like to go back to law enforcement people and policy makers after a month of work, and say ‘This is what I understood, this is what I learned.’


What’s normally their response? They must be happy to have this work done. Do they also say ‘I thought so…’?

Sometimes they say ‘Wow, this is very interesting because you were able to put together all the pieces.’ They are under pressure, they have to complete the investigation within a set timeframe, and often they don’t have time to go talk to other people or read other sources. In the Camorra case I studied, I also travelled to Scotland, I travelled to Amsterdam, I talked to people there, so I was able to piece together different elements and get a bigger picture. It’s a kind of work I like. I do a bit of training for Europol, I’m in touch with other European police forces as an adviser, and policymakers both at the European level and the national level. Some countries are more advanced in the sense that the policy people like to talk to academics, other countries are still a bit behind on this. There are problems on both sides, sometimes academics are a bit naïve, a bit too detached from reality, and other times policymakers are just too detached from reality, too, in a sense.

This should be, I think, the way forward, to try to do good academic work that is sound from a scientific point of view, but also to talk to the policymakers and tell them something they can do.


In your field do you see a lot of that going on? People who are trying to make the connection?

I see a trend, I see a growing trend. Academics have to take into account the impact on society, so we are, in a sense, evaluated on the impact we make, and I think in my field that’s important. Other fields might be different. Sometimes we are a bit lazy. It takes time to translate everything, and translate it in a way that other audiences might find it interesting and useful. So it’s easy to get a bit lazy. But of course it has to be mutual. Of course policymakers and law enforcement have to be willing to listen to us. Usually I try to be humble, when I approach them, I say, ‘This is what I have learned, but I deal with a few in-depth case studies.’ I try to generalize as much as I can, they deal with the real phenomenon on a daily basis. I teach students and they chase criminals.


Learn more about Paolo Campana here. Learn more about the Dondena Seminar Series here.






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