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A True Pioneer of Social Networks: Al Capone


The name of Al Capone conjures up images and legends of mobster violence in the years of Prohibition. Yet in there was much more to the notorious gangster than bootlegging and thriving in illegal businesses in 1920-1933, when the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States was outlawed.

For Al Capone was the master of a skill we crave for these days: social networking. He built his powerful crime syndicate by enlisting friends, family, associates, business partners, and other allies in his ventures.

Researchers Andrew V. Papachristos, associate professor of sociology at Yale, and Chris M. Smith, assistant professor of sociology at University of California-Davis, reviewed more than 5,000 pages of historical documents at multiple archives in Chicago. Thus, they mapped out Al Capone’s network.

It was a massive hive of more than one thousand associates linked through a vast array of family and friendship ties, legitimate businesses and illegal enterprises. Yet it was a singular feature which gave the network resilience: multiplexity. This term in sociology describes “deep and meaningful ties that bind people together in more ways than one.” For example, one could be a cousin; a friend; and a partner in crime.

In Al Capone’s network, only 10 percent of relationships qualified as multiplex. Most others were connected only in one level: either business, complicity, family, or friendship. Yet the multilayer 10 percent was the glue that held the network together. Curiously, in a trade that relies on violence and deception, this alliance was by necessity based on loyalty and trust.

That is different from saying, however, that they were friends. “Organized crime is also about money,” Papachristos says. “You don’t want too many deep ties, because then everyone would want a bigger share of the pie.”

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