You published a book in 2016, how did that come about?
I've been working on organised crime since my undergraduate days. My PhD was about organised crime in Italy, in particular the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra. In 2010, I was given a full year sabbatical after working at the University since 2002, and I spent the year looking at how that organised crime group worked abroad as I had noticed that a few of its members has popped up in the UK, France, Spain and Germany.
The book is about trying to understand the mobility of this specific mafia group because I wanted to see how this mafia behaved abroad and whether it carried on behaving in the same way as it did at home. I found this wasn’t the case. The Camorra was functional, liquid and invisible, adapting to the new environment to make money for the clan back home. It was not an outlet of the Italian crime group abroad undertaking the same criminal activities and independent of its territory of origin but part of the same crime families that moved abroad, when necessary, and sought to survive as they could, sending money back home to the clan. There was a continuous cycle between Naples and abroad, what I have called ‘functional mobility’. I spent a lot of my time on sabbatical in Italy accessing judges and people who had been part of the criminal group and had decided to collaborate with the state.
My book, published by Cornell University Press in 2016, won the International Division of American Society of Criminology Distinguished Book Award in 2017. That was really humbling, and an honour, because it meant that people outside of my immediate network recognised my work and the empirical detail that I had collected.
What research are you currently involved in?
It's very difficult to balance being a good teacher with being a good researcher, particularly when you have a family. But, it is important to be both because if you do good research, you can then inform your students with your research and they seem to learn more this way. After my sabbatical in 2010, I never thought I would have research time again because winning grants is very competitive nowadays. But I applied for a three year Leverhulme Major Research fellowship in 2017 and was very lucky to be awarded it. In September 2018, I began my new three year project: 100% of my time is now dedicated to this piece of research. My new project is still looking at criminal groups, including the Camorra, but looking at the role women play. In particular, I want to look at Nigerian trafficking groups as there are a lot of foreign organised crime groups that traffic women into Italy. I want to look at where the women are, what they do, are they active or passive and whether they are being groomed or actively deciding to get involved.
I'm spending a lot of time trying to build contacts, alongside data collection, so I can go and find the women in these groups as it’s often difficult to trace them. For example, in Italy, when all the mafia men who headed up these type of groups were in prison, the organisations were still running. The police then noticed there was a mother, a sister, or a lover behind it now and it’s understanding whether there’s a gender bias at play too that means these women are missed during the investigation. Apart from writing a monograph, one of the other objectives of this project is to have an artistic representation of the voices of the women that I am capturing. I am working with an artist on some stories that I have collected from different women in different groups and contexts. An idea that I have been developing is about going into schools with this artistic representation to talk about the issues involved (in particular, how do women get involved in crime or why are women trafficked?).
What do you do on your visits to Italy in your fieldwork?
I’m off to Italy next week, and my diary is full of appointments. As a researcher, I seek to study the phenomena I want to analyse from as close as possible. Therefore, I try and get as close as I can. This can mean spending time with an NGO that looks after women who have been trafficked, or at an afterschool club talking to young people who are affected by organised crime. I am also waiting to hear back from the police on whether I can interview several former mafia members who have become state witnesses. To a certain extent, the Italian police are much more open than the UK police, I know the UK police are stretched, but it takes more time to build up that rapport here than in Italy.
Do you ever feel in danger?
Maybe I am naive, but no. The kind of organised crime I look at is highly adaptable and very fast moving. I have asked to interview a Camorra woman who lives under Police protection, and the document I have about her is from 2012, it doesn’t seem that far in the past, but for organised crime groups that’s centuries. Nevertheless, you have to be careful and keep everything confidential and secret in order to guarantee anonymity and safety for everyone.
I have never felt in danger, but now I am starting to look at Nigerian and Albanians groups, they are particularly violent, and there is that element there. Saying that, I never go on my own, I always have a trusted person accompany me. I never put myself in a position where I may be in danger. It is about being sensible and avoiding that.
How did you get into researching organised crime?
My father was a Professor of politics at the University of Reading and wrote quite an important book on Politics in post-war Naples, so that was the start. I was also lucky enough to go to Culham, the European school near Oxford as a child because I was half French and did my education in French. My third language instead of being German like everyone else was Italian. I was sent to Naples to learn Italian and live the Italian experience, even meeting my future husband while I was there. When it came time to do my undergraduate dissertation I wanted to try and combine being in Italy with doing something relevant. This was at the point in the early 1990s when the political system was starting to break down. There were a lot of revelations about the involvement of the different mafias in local and national politics and because there hadn’t been much research in English, it seemed like a good opportunity to look at how the Neapolitan mafia related to politics.
What do you hope to achieve with your research?
To raise awareness with my students about organised crime all across the world, not just in Italy. I am lucky enough to teach what I research and I took what I had learned into the classroom, which was very rewarding.
Outside of that, it’s trying to raise awareness about the damage that organised crime can do to society, the economy, and to politics. I also want to encourage people to look at the causes of organised crime, understand how there are people who are middle class who get involved, and how there are a lot of cases where poverty, social injustice and school exclusion produces a lot of organised crime.
You have recently been awarded the Political Studies Association’s Jennie Lee Prize for outstanding teaching. What did you win the award for?
In 2010 when I got back from my sabbatical I restructured the way I taught. I introduced more e-learning into all my units and in my final year unit on organised crime, I decided to make the whole course a role play about a set territory where different mafia clans exist and they have issues that they need to resolve, So, I now use role play for the whole course, in addition to traditional lectures and video resources on Moodle. I split my students into 5 ‘clans’ in the class and they have to set up their clan, recruit members, decide on their activities, and write a scenario based on a problem I gave them. Everything they do is informed by the academic literature I give them to read in advance of the class. It’s intense, but the students really engage with this format. It gets the students turning up to class at 9am because their reputation is at stake like true Mafiosi!
It’s a very engaging way of teaching and one of my colleagues was kind enough to nominate me for the prize. It was good to prove that roleplay is a relevant way of learning.