The conclusion reached by sociological research on the subject of the mafia can probably be said to consist in the claim that the mafia—in the commonly accepted meaning of the term—does not exist: ‘. . . most people, particularly those outside Italy, have a fairly precise image of the mafia as a centralized, criminal association whose members are strictly bound to each other by initiation rites and a distinct code of behaviour. The public has never lacked for information to endorse this view, whether its source be specialized literature on the topic, the press, detective and horror fiction or television gangster movies. But anyone willing to explore the facts in greater depth, and to trace back the chain of sources of this information, will arrive at a quite different picture . . . at the conviction, in fact, that when Mini (one of the accused in a mafia trial), on being questioned about his association with the mafia, replied: “I don’t know what that means”, he was not lying. What was true was that he was acquainted with a number of individuals said to be “mafiosi”, not on account of their membership of a secret sect but because they conducted themselves in a certain way, because they behaved in “mafioso” fashion’.footnote1 What is meant by ‘behaving in mafioso fashion’? It means ‘rendering oneself respected’, being a ‘man of honour’, someone capable of himself exacting revenge for any offence committed against his person, and of inflicting such harm as he might choose upon his adversary. Even though the use of violence is an offence against the laws of the state, the particular cultural milieu in which the mafioso lives not only endorses but actively encourages and idealizes such behaviour, whether aggressive or defensive in character. Indeed, a significant component of the prestige and power conferred by any such instance of mafioso behaviour derives precisely from the fact that it is an act performed in open defiance of legal rulings and institutions.

The mafia is a form of behaviour and not a formal organization. To behave in mafioso fashion means to behave honourably, to display in one’s actions the valour, cunning, brutality, the thievery and trickery, demanded by a rubric of conduct that even as late as the 1940s still played a crucial role in the culture of many areas of Western Sicily and Southern Calabria. ‘He was as wily as they come; no one could get the better of him’; ‘for the most part, he wasn’t violent, but whenever circumstances compelled him to be so, the people quailed in amazement and his enemies were stunned. This happened on a half dozen or so occasions which are spoken of even today as legendary events’: this is the description of a local mafioso to be found in a book that can be considered a sort of popular manual on the subject of the traditional mafia. To the members of society described in Marlino Zappa: the true story of an outlaw (Familiari), the word ‘honourable’ implies one thing only: the assertion of superior force. Honourable means ‘exceptional’; ‘worthy’ means ‘prevailing in power’. An honourable act differs little, in the last analysis, from a successfully accomplished act of aggression (regardless of whether it is performed in response to a previous offence or on the independent initiative of the aggressor). Mafioso behaviour belongs to a system of cultural mores focused around the theme of honour and pursued by means of individual violence.

Where such systems are of the mafioso type, the personal strength of the individual acts as a more direct and obvious determination than in other communities upon the distribution of honour among the various members of society. Neither birth nor social institutions have a determinant influence upon the form of this distribution. Men of honour are not born, but self-made, on the basis of a free competition for honour that is open to everyone.

This competition is not subject to any of the regulations or established norms of conduct that apply today in contests of a sporting or scholastic nature, in commercial transactions and in class and group struggles. It is a contest in which anything goes, with the result that the most archaic methods of conducting social conflict—theft, despoilment, kidnapping and massacre—are to be found transposed to the struggle between individuals. Aggression becomes the accredited form of action, and the spoils gained thereby the immediate proof that it has triumphed. Quasi-institutional procedures for regulating the conflict, such as the duel, have never been established in any stable fashion owing to the presence of that very specific combination of archaic cultural patterns with modern social structure which, as we shall see, is typical of societies that give rise to the mafiosi.

Given the importance that the honourable conflict occupies in the strategy of any spirited mafioso, the destruction of life—the murder of one’s dreaded competitors—is honourable in the highest degree: ‘So-and-so is an exceptional man: he has “done for” five; Such-and-such is a man to respect: it is said that he has “snuffed” (extinguished in the sense of killed) four Christian souls’, are the sort of remarks that regularly recur in mafioso conversation. Among the Sicilian and Calabrian mafiosi the act of assassination, if it is carried out in the course of the battle for supremacy, whatever form that takes, indicates courage, the ability to make oneself felt, and represents an immediate opportunity for the killer to improve his credit. The more feared and powerful the victim, the more ‘worthy and meritorious’ is his murderer. This is an important instance of the sort of conversion that illegal action undergoes when it becomes endorsed as mafioso action. The infringement of a state law is honourable in so far as it indicates a contempt and distrust of the authority of persons and institutions. Many mafiosi began (and still begin) their careers in the ranks of the common criminal.