Paper Brings Network Science to Capone's Chicago

By Ben Hinshaw - In a new co-authored paper, Chris Smith, assistant professor of sociology and 2016-17 ISS fellow, brings network science to gangster-era Chicago. Combining the concept of multiplexity with deep archival research, the paper explores the overlapping of criminal, personal and legitimate networks in Al Capone's infamous world of gambling, prostitution, and bootleg booze.

Despite its dubious methods, organized crime has long been perceived as a particularly creative pursuit of the American Dream—one perpetrated by resourceful, larger-than-life entrepreneurs responding to market demands. Consequently, as Smith and her co-author Andrew V. Papachristos argue in “Trust Thy Crooked Neighbor: Multiplexity in Chicago Organized Crime Networks,” the reality of organized crime often gets lost in “the storied world of garlic bullets and fedora-clad gangsters.”

Central to the paper is the notion that such criminal activity is defined by its position relative to noncriminal aspects of society. Indeed, it is at the intersection of criminal, legitimate and personal networks that organized crime takes place. In other words, in order to succeed, criminals must establish ties across different social domains.

Such ties are often built on existing social relationships. Here, the network property of multiplexity becomes key. Occurring when more than one type of relationship exists between a pair of actors—work colleagues, for example, who are also friends—multiplexity adds depth to social relationships, while also incurring a higher cost of relationship failure. That cost is especially high when, as in Prohibition-era Chicago, multiplexity connects the criminal underworld to mainstream society.

Database of delinquency

To get to grips with this infamous world of bootleggers, mob bosses, crooked politicians and shady businessmen, Smith and Papachristos scoured archival and secondary sources, including records from the FBI, IRS and Chicago Crime Commission. The result was a relational dataset containing information on more than 3,000 individuals, many of whom were connected to the organized crime of that era. To overcome the issue of ‘dark networks’—made up of invisible actors in the criminal underworld—the authors conducted random and informant-based sampling.

One figure that emerges as exemplary of the multiplexity ego network is Daniel Serritella, “a corpulent Italian with many friends and many scandals.” Appointed City Sealer and First Ward Republican Committeeman by Chicago mayor “Big” Bill Thompson, Serritella was perfectly positioned between political and criminal worlds. Accordingly, he was able to arrange for the release of Capone’s crew when they were arrested, and for all records of their misdemeanors to be expunged. His multiplex relationships across criminal and legitimate networks thus made him an instrumental figure.

As for Capone himself, his influence and activity was, perhaps unsurprisingly, greatest within the criminal network. But his personal and legitimate connections were also substantial, emphasizing his centrality to all aspects of Chicagoan life, illegal and otherwise.

Trust thy crooked neighbor

In the end, multiplexity proves rare, affecting only 10 percent of relationships. Nonetheless, it emerges as a relevant structural property binding criminal, legitimate and personal networks together. In other words, multiplex social relationships represent an effective method in organized crime’s integration into mainstream society.

Indeed, Smith and Papachristos conclude that such connections are more powerful than any one famous figure, and more potent than standard associations within ethnic groups. “When networks and actions teeter into uncertain, unregulated, or risky domains, trusting your crooked neighbors may very well be critical—even if you trust only a few of them.”

To read the paper in full, visit the American Sociological Review.

Professor Chris Smith is a 2016-17 ISS Fellow. In collaboration with Professor Bob Faris, she will lead the ISS Proseminar Social Network Analysis for Social Scientists in Spring 2017.