Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles




Contacts, Opportunities, and Criminal Enterprise


Carlo Morselli


Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005

159 pages. ISBN: 0-8020-3811-5 [paper]; 0-8020-3879-4 [cloth]


Reviewed by Guillaume Marche

Université Paris-Est Créteil



In Contacts, Opportunities, and Criminal Enterprise, Canadian sociologist Carlo Morselli (Université de Montréal) supports the validity of a purposive action framework—as opposed to criminology’s classic control framework—for understanding what is commonly known as organized crime. In other words, whereas most studies since the 1960s have tended to assume that organized crime was heavily structured and relied on a strict system of internal controls, rewards, and punishment, Morselli proposes to consider criminal enterprises as rational collective enterprises geared toward the maximization of profit, which face the additional challenge of having to overcome the specific difficulties due to their being illegal.

Morselli’s main claim is that networks of personal contacts are a decisive structuring element of criminal enterprises. To make his point Morselli closely analyses the biographical accounts of two criminals’ successful careers: Howard “Mr. Nice” Marks, a participant in the international cannabis trade, and Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, an affiliate of the New York-based Gambino “family”. Morselli’s method is to map, and compare, the contact networks in the two men’s careers and their evolution over time.

In an initial, theoretical chapter, Morselli situates his study in opposition with Donald Cressey’s notion of a bureaucratic, nationwide criminal structure known as the Mafia—as expounded in his 1969 The Theft of the Nation, published in the wake of the 1951 Kefauver Commission and of the 1967 President’s Crime Commission in the United States. Cressey’s paradigm, Morselli argues, became dominant in academic accounts of criminal activity in the United States. Subsequent critics of Cressey insisted on distinguishing between organized crime and criminal enterprise, which led to an “unwarranted referent split” [13], as though rational, business-oriented, profit-maximizing criminal enterprise existed in parallel with, and separately from, Mafia-like organized crime: this Morselli disown. Instead he follows the lead of Pierre Tremblay and focuses on associational patterns, in order to study how criminal entrepreneurs endeavor to “avoid the problems associated with participation in illegal markets.” [17] The study is also situated within Mark Granovetter’s “weak-tie” argument: the weaker the original tie between participants in criminal enterprises, the more useful, because it offers greater access to new opportunities; and within Ronald Burt’s “structural hole” theory: having information about unoccupied business positions allows those in the know to fill these “structural holes” and to reap greater benefits. Hence, Morselli posits, structural holes are to be cultivated for an enterprise to be successful, and participants have an interest in seeking non-redundant contacts—that is contacts that are not already connected with any participant’s already existing contacts.

Morselli’s study is thus structured along the tension underlying criminal enterprises: criminals’ conflicting needs for security and efficiency. Thus highly constrained networks—where the bond among members is strong—make for higher security but lower efficiency, whereas low constraint allows more new opportunities but generates more risk. That is why Morselli is in agreement with the work of Peter Reuter and John Haaga, and of Joseph Albini—among others—who emphasize “the informal nature of criminal organizations” [31]. He also concurs with Francis Ianni and Jeffrey McIllwain, who analyze the personal connections at the root of the social networks that structure criminal enterprises: thus, for instance, ethnic homogeneity in criminal networks should be understood as “an indication of the social basin of the network, rather than a requirement for the realization of relations and extended business ventures.” [33]

Following a chapter presenting the sources and methods—discussed below—Morselli successively analyzes the two biographical narratives. “Mr. Nice” became involved in the cannabis trade during his Oxford days, and quickly evolved into a leading broker in the international trade thanks, in particular, to one initial contact. Marks then led his successful career by balancing the consolidation of a few strong—low-efficiency but high-security—contacts with the search for enough “weak, yet vouched for, ties” [60] offering high efficiency without unreasonably jeopardizing security. By quantifying the number of Marks’s contacts and tracing them to their origin, Morselli shows the evolution in his career: when it reached maturity, new contacts became fewer, which indicates that Marks was making himself more remote from actual criminal operations—a sign not of failure or weakness, but of enough success to have become dangerously exposed, hence more liable to surveillance or arrest. In this career stage, being distant from operations is a way of putting security ahead of efficiency without unduly impinging on profit maximization. Marks was indeed a broker, that is to say someone who generated and maintained contact between others: as long as he made sure to remain non-redundant, this “positional privilege” [69] allowed him to “stay away from the action, work and be in contact with as few other participants as possible, select the choice opportunities that are offered, reap the profits that come with brokering, and dabble simultaneously in a number of similarly designed ventures” [70]—as close a description of criminal success as may be. His decline came when he became a redundant contact and was “bypassed” [73] by others, as he had bypassed his original contact in the initial, upward stage of his career.

Attention to Marks’s management of his contacts therefore shows that he “was not the puppeteer of any criminal organization” [79], but that, like other participants, he displayed “autonomy, improvisation, and flexibility” [80] and used his role as broker in such a way as to minimize violence by maximizing trust and cooperation. Marks differs in this respect from Gravano. Nevertheless, Morselli argues, the latter’s career successes should not be understood as a result of his readiness for violence: Gravano’s criminal achievements, instead, owe to his management of contacts and opportunities—just like Marks’s—and his violence is merely a function of his position in a relational network. Linking Gravano’s and Marks’s careers is counterintuitive, as the former has all the appearances of supporting the Mafia hypothesis, since he operated in a closely-knit “family”. But by focusing on his contacts Morselli argues that the “family” is in fact a more flexible network than it may appear. First, he shows that Gravano owes his ascent to his capacity for taking advantage of his contacts and for making himself indispensable to them—including by sometimes making others expendable. Like Marks, he began his career by building a complex network of contacts from a few original ones, and rose in the organization by taking risks. Later, when he had achieved success, he became more distant from high-exposure, high-efficiency but low-security activities, and reduced his contact network: ceasing to seek new contacts is part of the “privileged position” he now assumed; he was now able to be selective in his contacts in order to “remain relatively insulated from prosecution” [98]. He thus “face[d] an increased possibility of being the target of surveillance but a decreased likelihood of arrest and subsequent prosecution” [98], so that his position was paradoxically “[h]igh in opportunity and low in risk” [104].

Morselli then devotes an entire chapter to the use of violence—low in Marks’s career and high in Gravano’s, which could be considered characteristic of a Mafia type of organized crime in the latter case. But Morselli uses evidence from Gravano’s testimony to claim that “a closer look at his experiences provides little support for the bureaucratic and rigid hierarchical image that emerged from ‘orthodox’ conceptualizations of organized crime.” [107] Indeed, his testimony shows that rules and sanctions related to the use of violence “are flexible and situationalized in accordance with the influence and interests that [a participant] maintains amongst influential members” of the organization [108]. In other words, a participant’s entitlement to use violence, including lethal violence—especially against another participant—is a function of his relational network position, rather than of pre-established, fixed rules. Morselli thus concludes that “even in the midst of their evident organizational differences, both careers were built and cultivated on relational foundations”, so that these two opposite cases are in fact united “within a common explanatory framework” [127].

Striking in Morselli’s argument is its consistency and the strength of his argumentative style. Because it begins by solidly mapping the literature in the field, this study convincingly uses what may otherwise seem like anecdotal evidence to justify a general theoretical claim. One of the main interests of Contacts, Opportunities, and Criminal Enterprise for readers who—like the author of this review—are not specialized in the sociology of crime is its original use of biographical sources. Whereas the biographical approach is more often used in qualitative sociological studies, Morselli convincingly resorts to it for quantitative purposes. Obviously he does not use these two biographical accounts to draw statistically representative conclusions, but his analysis of Marks’s and Gravano’s careers is based on a quantification of their contacts over time. Readers unfamiliar with the method should not be intimidated by his charts and formulae, nor should novices in the sociology of crime be put off by his abstractions, because Morselli proposes a highly readable narrative of his two subjects’ careers, thus offering a convincing illustration of, and making a persuasive case for, his theoretical framework. Contacts, Opportunities, and Criminal Enterprise is a worthwhile, rewarding read for scholars interested in the use of biographical data, in the history of interpretations of criminal behavior and organizations, and in the sociology of deviance.




Cercles © 2011
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.