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Codes of the Underworld:
How Criminals Communicate
Diego Gambetta

One of New Scientist blog's Best Books for 2009
Winner of the 2010 Dorothy Lee Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Culture, Media Ecology Association
Winner of the 2009 PROSE Award in Sociology and Social Work, Association of American Publishers

Paperback | 2011 | $27.95 | £22.95 | ISBN: 9780691152479
368 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 5 line illus. 3 tables.
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400833610 |
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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.


"Criminals can't advertise their products on QVC, yet the mafia and the yakuza have prospered longer than most Fortune 500 companies. In Codes of the Underworld, sociologist Diego Gambetta examines how criminals communicate without being caught, how they build trust in a world where everyone is crooked. . . . odes of the Underworld is colourful and engrossing: it could appeal to policymakers, academics, laymen or, God forbid, criminals looking to improve their game."--Spectator

"[A]n absolutely fascinating look at the unique problems criminals face when trying to communicate with one another. . . . Fans of crime fiction will love this."--Graham Lawton,'s CultureLab blog

"'A wiseguy sees things if there are wiseguy things to see,' wrote Joe Pistone, the FBI agent better known as Donnie Brasco--the name under which he managed to infiltrate the mob. But what are the wiseguy things to see? And how is a wiseguy to know he isn't dealing with the likes of Joe Pistone? Such questions are among those that fascinate Diego Gambetta. Professor Gambetta, an Italian sociologist based at Oxford University, has managed to wrap himself in the language of economics as capably as Pistone wrapped himself in the language of organised crime. Gambetta is an authority on the Sicilian mafia, but deploys the tools of an economist to understand them and other criminals."--Tim Harford, Financial Times

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Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments vii
Introduction ix
Abbreviations xxiii

PART I: costly signals
Chapter 1: Criminal Credentials 3
Chapter 2: The Power of Limits 30
Chapter 3: Information as Hostage 54
Chapter 4: Why Prisoners Fight (and Signal) 78
Chapter 5: Self-harm as a Signal 111

PART II: conventional signals
Chapter 6: Conventional and Iconic Signals 149
Chapter 7: Protecting Easy-to-Fake Signals 174
Chapter 8: Criminal Trademarks 195
Chapter 9: Nicknames 230
Chapter 10: Why (Low) Life Imitates Art 251

Notes 275
Bibliography 313
Index 327

This book has been translated into:

  • Russian

Other Princeton books authored or coauthored by Diego Gambetta:

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