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Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate Hardcover – July 27, 2009

ISBN-13: 978-0691119373 ISBN-10: 0691119376

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (July 27, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691119376
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691119373
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #762,898 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


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

"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, NewScientist.coms 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

"Criminals are in constant fear of being duped, says Diego Gambetta, even as they are busy duping others. Yet hoodlums often seek a literal partner in crime. This, he notes, creates a need for both identification and verification of trust in what is generally an untrustworthy milieu. Lacking a miscreants' yellow page, the question becomes, well, how to find an honest crook? Such concerns pervade Codes of the Underworld, a new book by Gambetta, a professor of sociology at the University of Oxford."--Nina Ayoub, Chronicle of Higher Education

"[T]he best applied book on signaling theory to date."--Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

"In Codes of the Underworld, the Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta uses colorful stories and a minimum of jargon in his quest to analyze how people advertise when their business happens to be illegal. . . . Gambettta sets out to illuminate the world inhabited by these face-tattooed, duel-scarred, razor-brandishing inmates. The result is a book that explains the hidden logic of their behavior in language intelligible to those of us who make it a point to seer clear of both well-armed dictators and well-decorated Mafiosi."--Katherine Mangu-Ward, Reason

"[A]n absolutely fascinating look at the unique problems criminals face when trying to communicate with one another--how, for example, do you advertise for a partner in crime, or win trust in an inherently untrustworthy world?--and the ingenious ways they solve them. . . . Fans of crime fiction will love this."--Graham Lawton,'s CultureLab blog

"[I]lluminating."--The Age

From the Inside Flap

"Codes of the Underworld persuasively answers new and provocative questions raised from Gambettas extensive experience in the study of criminal behavior. He introduces and illuminates a vast field of strategic communication where trust cannot be taken for granted. There is nothing comparable in print, and the books interpretations will carry well beyond the field of conventional crime."--Thomas C. Schelling, Nobel Prize-winning economist

"This innovative book shows Gambettas nimble and subtle mind at its best. He combines striking analytical insights with rich ethnographic descriptions."--Jon Elster, Columbia University

"Codes of the Underworld looks at the fascinating array of signals that criminals use to recognize each other, validate their claims of toughness, and induce trust or fear. This comprehensive picture of underworld communication will make a serious impact on further studies of organized crime."--Marek Kaminski, University of California, Irvine

Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By William Petti on November 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
For those looking for a more academic take on signaling (particularly from a sociological point of view), Gambetta's Codes of the Underworld is a great find. Gambetta uses the extreme case of cooperation amongst criminals to tease out more general dynamics of trust, signaling, and communication. The Mafia can be considered a "hard-case" for theories of signaling trust; given the extreme incentives for criminals to lie and the lack of credibility they wield given the very fact that they are criminals, how is it that criminals manage to coordinate their actions and trust each other at all? By understanding how trust works in this harsh environment we learn something about how to signal trustworthiness in broader, less restrictive environments. As Gambetta notes, "Studying criminal communication problems, precisely because they are the magnified extreme versions of problems that we normally solve by means of institutions, can teach us something about how we might communicate, or even should communicate, when we find ourselves in difficult situations, when, say, we desperately want to be believed or keep our messages secret." The book is a great example of studying deviant cases or outliers, particularly when the area of study is not well worn. This is a valuable general methodological lesson. We are typically taught to avoid outliers as they skew analysis. However, they can be of great value in at least two circumstances: 1) Generating hypotheses in areas that have not been well studied and 2) Testing hypotheses in small-N research designs, where hard cases can establish potential effect and generalizability and easy cases suggest minimal plausibility.

Gambetta takes a number of criminal actions and views them through the lens of signaling.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Stephen R. Laniel on February 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Fascinating from start to finish. You can think of many reasons offhand why such a book would be endlessly captivating, but Gambetta will continually surprise you with the twists and turns in his subject.

Start with the obvious question: you're a criminal, and you want to communicate with your fellow-bad guys. How do you do it? That's intriguing on its own. If you know the other bad guy, you can vouch for him (or think you can -- see "Brasco, Donnie"). If you don't know him, you need to much more carefully apply the vetting that we use in the legit world: find someone you know who knows him, ask around about him, and so forth.

Obviously your big concern as an underworld fellow is the police. They're constantly trying to listen in on your communications, get fellow bad guys to turn state's evidence, and plant undercover cops in your midst.

When your organization reaches a certain level of success and infamy -- think of the Mafia here -- you now have a brand to protect. Rival organizations start claiming your name to strike fear into their enemies' hearts. To avoid brand dilution, you need to make sure that only those people who are actually in the Mafia say they're in the Mafia. Trademark law isn't going to protect you here, so you need to enforce your own brand.

And how do your establish your bona fides as a bad guy? One intensely fascinating thread in Codes to the Underworld has to do with commitment strategies: imposing some heavy cost on yourself -- some cost that absolutely no one outside the Mafia (or whichever group) would ever think of faking. Henry Farrell, over at Crooked Timber, excerpts one amazing bit on this score:

Erefaan's face is covered in tattoos.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Tiggum on June 22, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Interesting subject matter, but not well-written. Chapters tend to start interesting and then just slowly grind down until suddenly it's time to start the next chapter.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By CSD on June 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
To quote Tyler Cowen's review, which inspired me to purchase this book, "Gambetta's task is well summarized by a single sentence: 'Given these propensities, one wonders how criminals ever manage to do anything together.'"

Gambetta analyzes how criminals are able to coordinate, advertise, etc. in a highly risky environment. It's an academic work, but well suited for the layperson. Full of interesting anecdotes and theories. Highly recommended.
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By Johnny K on April 6, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is an excellent book that I think everyone should read. It will shed a brilliant new perspective on how criminals operate, and also has lessons for us law-abiding folk. This book taught me about the power of blackmail, and how it is used to seal (and ensnare) people into criminal dealing.

The freelance assassin-for-hire that appears in so many movies and comic books is a myth; this book demonstrates that it would be impossible for such a person impossible to advertise his skills, safeguard his contracts, and yet conceal himself from the law. Hitmen work exclusively for the criminal organization that recruited and trained them, and they do not do odd jobs.

Many criminal organizations such as the Mafia often display bizarre practices that are often mistaken for mystical traditions - eg the burning of a saint and the ritualistic defilement of corpses - when in fact they are simply signals designed by people who cannot afford to put incriminating information in print.
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