By Valentin Pereda Aguado, a visiting PhD student from the Centre of Criminology and Sociolegal Studies based at the University of Toronto 

To promote the development of original research, doctoral programs in social sciences encourage apprentice scholars to think critically about their research subject and to study a broad range of theories that approach particular questions from different and sometimes opposing standpoints. By the time students complete the first stage of a doctoral program, their supervisors usually expect them to grasp a broad spectrum of theories and concepts, enabling them to engage in informed debates on their topics and to contribute with their viewpoints to ongoing scholarly arguments.

As a researcher of organised crime (OC), my mentors made sure I learned the theories advanced by eminent scholars in the field. Knowing these theories has allowed me to engage in fascinating discussions in lecture halls, conference venues, and countless pubs, from Mexico City to Sarajevo. What I have found more stimulating about these conversations, however, is that my interlocutors’ interpretations of the same theories and the aspects that they consider most relevant, vary widely across academic environments.

As a doctoral candidate in the Centre for Criminology at the University of Toronto, I have been a guest student in three research institutes: The Criminal Policy Program of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the Centre for International Studies in Sciences Po, Paris, and most recently the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. During my time in these institutions, I have been able to witness how the same theories or concepts on OC acquire different meanings and contribute to advance very different arguments depending on the academic context in which debates occur. Below I recount some of these experiences.

Scotland: During my recent visit to the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR), I was able to witness a unique approach to the study of OC. While the SCCJR’s approach to OC is embedded within a much wider British community of OC scholars, it significantly contributes to extant research by focusing on the effects of OC on local communities. This approach represents an innovative deviation from dominant literature, which focuses heavily on the structure, operation, and evolution of different criminal markets, or on the effects of government policies aimed at thwarting illicit ventures. By exploring the various ways in which territorially-defined crime groups or less visible and more diffuse crime syndicates affect the everyday experiences of Scottish citizens, the research of SCCJR scholars can significantly contribute to developing innovative, harm-reduction strategies to protect communities from the effects of illicit ventures such as predatory drug-dealing and human exploitation.

hells angels

Canada: Debates on OC in Canada are heavily influenced by the perspectives and discussions taking place in the United States. While the size of the Canadian underworld and its effects on local communities are minuscule in comparison to its American counterpart, researchers of OC in Canada often draw their insights through comparisons with their Southern neighbor. However, this does not mean that there is no such thing as a unique Canadian focus on OC. Canadian criminologists have developed a remarkable body of research focused on the inner workings of crime syndicates with a strong and deeply embedded presence in that country, such as the Hells Angels. Also, Canadian seminars on OC often pay more attention to how OC related phenomena intersect with questions of gender and identity, which are central in Canadian social science discussions.

Mexico: In Mexican academic circles, researchers use theories of OC almost exclusively to try to come up with explanations, and possible solutions to their country’s ongoing crisis of violence and crime. For some scholars, the prevalence of OC in Mexico has transformed the country into a crucial case for theory testing, a sort of ideal laboratory where scholars test the explanatory power of dominant theories on OC. Conversely, for other researchers, Mexico is, in fact, an outlier because the influence of crime syndicates there and the violence they exert on the local population have no precedent in the history of OC. For this reason, they argue that the Mexican case has unveiled the explanatory limits of dominant theories of OC and they advocate for the development of new approaches or the use of alternative analytical lenses, such as those employed by researchers of civil wars.

mexico street

France: In contrast to the Scottish, Canadian and Mexican cases, French academic debates on OC are rare and sometimes buried within broader research projects. French academia largely rejects criminology as an independent research discipline. Some eminent French scholars have gone as far as advocating against the institutionalisation of criminology programs in French universities, arguing that academic fields of research are defined by their distinct research requirements rather than the types of questions they address. The very concept of OC in France is not always well received in local academic circles. Paradoxically, while the French underworld shares many similarities to its Italian neighbor, the notions of “mafia” or “criminal organisation,” that Italian academics routinely use when referring to particular social actors in their country are uncommon in French academic vocabulary. While French scholars acknowledge the existence of a distinct criminal “milieu” in their country, they tend to perceive the idea of OC as too political and overly influenced by concepts imported from US and British academia that do not reflect the realities of France.

To summarise, while academic debates on OC are logically shaped by the socio-political contexts in which they take place. It is always a good idea to look at how similar theories are interpreted differently and sometimes even contested across academic environments. Such comparative approach is crucial to enrich discussions on OC.

Valetin visited SCCJR in Glasgow in May 2019. You can find out more about him and his research interests here.