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Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  100 Ratings  ·  15 Reviews
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 informati ...more
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published August 1st 2009 by Princeton University Press (first published July 27th 2009)
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Lashaan Balasingam (Bookidote)
In all honesty, I felt like a lot of these signals and communication issues that Diego Gambetta raises are logical and anyone who thoroughly thinks about it will have arrived to the same logic. What I really appreciate about this book is how it puts a lot of these signals and icons into one academic book that applies a rather academic language to explain and understand them. Although a lot of the claims the author does is based on rather loose evidence and demands a lot more evidence than what w ...more
This is a quick and accessible survey of the various ways in which criminals use signalling to communicate. The central insight here is that criminals (like everyone, but exacerbated by the illicit nature of their profession) face significant challenges in developing trust and verifying credibility during exchanges, which forces a variety of signalling responses depending on the type of interaction. This can range from facial tattoos to forms of initiation that require prospective partners to en ...more
Oct 19, 2009 rated it liked it
The most interesting chapter was on the role of tattoos and fighting in prison communication, with comparison US prison culture to Polish. The chapter on nicknames wasn't that interesting, but the chapter on the feedback between movies and criminals was intriguing.

The sections on the values of incompetence, and corruption, were thought-provoking.
Sep 09, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some interesting stuff, but a lot of over-analyzed obvious things.
Amar Pai
Nov 04, 2009 rated it it was ok
The existence of heroin stamps poses two puzzles: first, competitors could adulterate or counterfeit a successful brand, and no court exists to enforce a drug dealer's trademark. Second, brands offer a clear chain of evidence that could lead law enforcement right back to the seller.

The first puzzle is more serious: how could heroin stamps survive the threat of mimicry? We know that "a few stamps acquired long-term reputations (like POISON, NO JOKE and 91/2 PLUS) and lasted for years" offering qu
Criminal barrister Alex McBride has chosen to discuss Codes of the Underworld by Diego Gambetta on FiveBooks as one of the top five on his subject - Trial By Jury, saying that:

“…Gambetta looks at the underworld from the criminals’ point of view and uses social anthropology to examine how criminals think and communicate with language and signs, how a pecking order is established….Gambetta says it doesn’t pay to go through associates like shit through a goose; you won’t be successful. For exampl
Jul 13, 2013 rated it liked it
Recommended by Cory Doctorow. I abandoned this for more exciting material: I was fascinated by the conundrum of signalling in the criminal world, but didn't have immediate use for it in the same way that a lot of the tedious business books were immediately useful. I will return.

Thus, by solving the problem discussed in chapter 1 and identifying each other as bona fide criminals, they also unavoidably let each other know that they have those constraints, opportunities, motivations, and dispositio
Jan 20, 2010 marked it as to-read
Off this review by Graham Lawton,

More social science than hard science, but an 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. There's a great chapter on the interplay between mafia movies and the real criminal underworld, and loads of true-crime anecdotes (Gambetta once infiltrated
Oct 20, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: research
Dry and academic in language, the subject matter of this book is anything but. Sometimes intensely graphic in the examples, it's a very thorough depiction of the ways criminals communicate through everything from how and whom they fight to the stamps on bags of drugs. I would highly recommend this as a research resource for anyone who has a character involved in mob, mafia, or organized crime, or just for anyone that wants to know more what signs might be right under their noses.

It really does h
Lance Wiggs
Sep 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
Superb, though I have stalled for now. It's about signaling, and relates not just to criminals but to other fields.
I've learned much about how Italian academics are promoted which resonated with my limited experiences in the topic. The reason I stalled is that the book is making me think so much. Something to ponder - if you join a political party you don't want to appear to competent, as the people who promote you want you to work for them and not the reverse. Oh well.
Dec 05, 2016 rated it liked it
I'm not personally particularly interested in organized crime. The fact that it is not my cup of tea perhaps influenced my rating. I read it to participate in a discussion within my Anthropology department and would not have read it otherwise. Simply reading an article with the same discussion points would have sufficed. Gambetta includes some interesting studies but also makes more conclusions than he has enough evidence for.
Mathew Walls
Mar 26, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: edutainment, ebook
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.
Jan 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: economics
Possibly the best examination of how signaling works in practice, ever written. The possible implications for governance in kleptocratic states in some of the earlier chapters is fascinating.
Jintong Shi
Jan 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
It's a world more built on trust, actually. It's an interesting world, though I am not a gangster or criminal.
Nick Black
Dec 18, 2009 marked it as to-read
Recommended to Nick by: Katherine Mangu-Ward (Reason Magazine)
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Diego Gambetta is a Professor of Sociology at Nuffield College of the University of Oxford.
“Paul Blumberg writes: "A Massachusetts Act of 1651, for example, prohibited status disguises in such matters as dress, and declared ‘our utter detestation and dislike that men and women of meane Condition should take upon themselves the garb of gentlemen, by wearing gold and silver, lace or buttons, or points at their knees or to walk in bootes or women of the same rancke to wear silke or tiffany horlles or scarfes, which though allowable to persons of greater estates, or more liberal education, yet we cannot but judge it intollerable in persons of such like condition.” 0 likes
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