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Serious & Organised? A Global History of the Criminal Underworld since 1750 - HIS00101M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Mark Roodhouse
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22
    • See module specification for other years: 2020-21

Module summary

That organised crime poses a global threat is a commonplace for today’s securocrats. The origins of this view lie in 1969. That year saw the publication of two seminal texts: The Theft of a Nation by the criminologist Donald Cressey and The Godfather by the novelist Mario Puzo. For Cressey and Puzo, organised crime was an alien criminal conspiracy aping the structures of corporate enterprise. This view has informed US government policy and the American social imaginary ever since. Together Washington and Hollywood sold this idea globally. In this module we will look at the genealogy of such ideas about criminal organisation and their impact on law enforcement. This is more than an intellectual and political history. It involves an exploration of the changing nature of criminal activity as well as its representation from the early modern period onwards. Drawing on the latest historical research from around the world, students will question an established historical narrative that starts with early modern banditry and ends with transnational organised crime, cherry-picking evidence from the histories of Italian, American, Chinese and Japanese history as it goes. By considering how various crimes were organised across Europe, the Americas and Asia more generally, students will critically evaluate and form their own ideas about the past, present and future of criminal organisation. In doing so, they will gain familiarity with key texts and canonical sources for the history of criminal organisation and its representation.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2021-22

Module aims

The module aims to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation;
  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

After completing this module students should have:

  • Developed their skills of source analysis and interpretation using both textual and non-textual sources of a quantitative and qualitative nature
  • Assessed police reports, court transcripts, government reports, crime statistics, life writing, films, novels and plays as sources of information about organised crime
  • Assessed relevant secondary works by historians, criminologists and historical criminologists
  • Developed their powers of evidence-based written argument through a seminar report, a short essay, and an extended essay
  • Developed their powers of evidence-based oral argument through chairing and presenting seminar papers and roundtable discussions

Module content

Teaching Programme:
Students will attend eight weekly two-hour seminars in weeks 2-9.

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

1. A Brief History of Criminal Organisation in Theory and Practice
2. Criminal Organisation in Early Modern Europe and North America
3. Criminal Organisation in Early Modern South and East Asia
4. European and North American Urban Underworlds in the Long Nineteenth-Century
5. Market Societies, Nation States and Mafias in Southern Italy, China and Japan
6. Prohibitions, Illegal Markets and Criminal Organisation in Mid-Twentieth Century Western Europe and North America
7. International and Transnational Crime in the Long Twentieth Century
8. Market Transition and Criminal Organisation in the former Eastern Bloc


Task Length % of module mark
4000 Word Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will complete a 2,000-word essay for formative assessment, due in week 6 or 7 of the autumn term, for which they will receive an individual tutorial. They will then submit a 4,000-word assessed essay for summative assessment in week 2 of the spring term.

For further details about assessed work, students should refer to the Statement of Assessment for Taught Postgraduate Programmes.


Task Length % of module mark
4000 Word Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback consisting of comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission. They will also receive verbal feedback at an individual tutorial. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their formative work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. Supervisors are available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment for Taught Postgraduate Programmes.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Fijnaut, Cyrille. “Searching for Organized Crime in History.” In The Oxford Handbook of Organized Crime, edited by Letizia Paoli, 53-95. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Lampe, Klaus von. Organized Crime: Analyzing Illegal Activities, Criminal Structures, and Extra-legal Governance, 1-56. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2016.

Paoli, Letizia, and Cyrille Fijnaut. “The History of the Concept.” In Organised Crime in Europe: Concepts, Patterns and Control Policies in the European Union and Beyond, edited by Letizia Paoli and Cyrille Fijnaut, 21-46.

Shore, Heather. “A Brief History of the Underworld and Organised Crime.” In Oxford Handbook of Crime and Criminal Justice History, edited by Paul Knepper and Anja Johansen, 170-91. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.