Studying organized crime networks: Data sources, boundaries and the limits of structural measures, Social Networks, 2020

Paolo Campana and Federico Varese, Social Networks


Network studies of organized crime (OC) normally explore two key relational issues: the internal structure of groups and the interactions among groups. The paper first discusses in depth two data sources that have been used to address these questions — phone wiretaps and police-generated “events”– and reviews issues of validity, reliability and sampling. Next, it discusses challenges related to OC network data in general, focusing on the ‘double boundary specification’ problem and the time span of data collection. We conclude by arguing that structural analysis cannot be divorced from a deep contextual (qualitative) knowledge of the cases. The paper refers to concrete research dilemmas and solutions faced by scholars, including ourselves.


phone wiretapsorganized crimedata challengespolice-recorded eventsdouble boundary-specification problemsampling


We discuss two relational data sources in depth, phone wiretaps and police-generated ‘events’, and the issues of validity and reliability related to each source.•

For wiretaps, we discuss self-censorship, group coverage, the link between conversations and behaviour, and sampling.•

For police-generated events, we discuss selective law enforcement, changing recording practices, double-counting, the counting of individuals with different degree of culpability, and sampling/extraction.•

Wiretaps are normally best suited to study the internal structure of groups and police-recorded events interactions among OC groups in markets.•

We discuss the challenge posed by the ‘double boundary specification’ problem in the context of OC.•

We discuss issues related to selecting the time span of data collection.

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