Call for Papers: The Illicit Global Economy Discourse

Special Issue of Public Anthropologist

Guest Editors: Luigi Achilli and Gabriella Sanchez (European University Institute)

In the contemporary literature on transnational organized crime it is common to find references to how criminal actors – from migrant smugglers to drug traffickers to weapons dealers – have hijacked the global economy, creating in the process a criminal underworld that is swiftly bypassing, challenging, corrupting, and subverting state controls and authorities. Most disturbingly these criminal entities, we are told, are converging –in other words, they are building bridges with one another, putting at risk (western) ways of life.

These claims have been the subject of criticism. Scholars have labeled them as ahistorical (Andreas 2012), as not reflective of the dynamics of criminal markets (Zhang 2009), as privileging law enforcement perspectives (Baird and van Liempt 2016), and even as imperialistic (Kalifa 2019). The reliance on statistics and numbers pervasive in the organized crime literature has also been criticized for how it seeks to instill a sense of impending doom, in the process justifying criminalization and enforcement responses (Engle-Merry 2016).

These critiques are important for they have shown the importance of examining crime and criminalization processes contextually, and that of scrutinizing the sources of criminological data. Yet while legitimate and important, they must also be dissected. Much of the research on organized crime is not based on empirical work. Other draws solely from official records or sources or is merely reflective of enforcement trends without being critical of the state’s role in the production of data. Other work, claiming that criminal markets are inherently difficult and dangerous to access continue to privilege the perspectives of elite informants (law enforcement, policy makers, other academics and/or professional experts), in a sense re-enforcing the boundaries that situate only professional or formally educated knowledges as legitimate or important. And while critical examinations into the illicit global economy do exist, they often remain silent on the ways they themselves rely upon, endorse or reproduce state-centric narratives of crime, how they perpetuate the labeling of specific bodies as criminal, and of their own reliance on exclusionary and extractive research methods and dissemination practices.

We agree with the scholars who have called for ethnographic engagements as a corrective to the abstract nature of many theoretical assumptions about the ‘dark-side of globalization’ (see for example, Vigh and Sausdal 2018). As anthropologists, we do believe that a critical engagement with contemporary scholarship on illicit markets does require theoretical and ethnographic examinations of social and community dimensions. But it increasingly demands a more critical, reflexive reflection of how knowledge continues to be produced and disseminated and whose roles/views positions it privileges. Without this approach, any contribution intended to critically engage with the so-called threat of organized crime is at risk of remaining on the launching pad. Furthermore, because organized crime continues to be depicted as deeply enmeshed within ethnic, racial, class and gender categories, it is also fundamental to critically engage with its scholarship, examining the places and spaces where it emerges, but most importantly whose gaze it reflects. Any body of scholarship that claims that the clandestine nature of the subject it explores precludes access to its actors –in this case, those whose actions have earned them a spot in the contemporary criminal pantheon as racialized and gendered smugglers, traffickers, cartel operatives, gang members, militias and else—must be rendered suspect.

For this special issue of Public Anthropologist, we seek pieces that empirically re-energize the important yet stagnant conversation on the critique of the illicit global economy discourse. We welcome contributions that articulate an empirical challenge to dominant, official narratives concerning illicit or organized crime and their actors, whose depictions often remain narrowed to dramatic, sensationalistic representations of ethnic cartels, mafias, militias or gangs. In so doing we seek to articulate a much larger question about the role of contemporary crime control regimes at criminalizing transnational/translocal practices. We want to uncover how ordinary activities have changed or have been changed amid global trends of securitization.

All authors will have a common point of departure: the rendering of the categories that define or classify specific practices as illicit and criminal as suspect, and the need to rethink and reframe them critically amid contemporary global law enforcement regimes. A distinctive element of the contributions must be their reliance on primary data.

Abstracts not to exceed one page in length will be accepted until 30 June 2019. We are eager to bring together practices, perspectives and contributors from around the world and whose work tackles criminalized practices not often discussed in mainstream crime control discourse.


Questions and abstracts can be sent to the guest editors, Luigi Achilli and Gabriella Sanchez at and



Andreas, Peter (2015). “International politics and the illicit global economy.” Perspectives on Politics 13(3): 782-788.

Baird, Theodore, and Ilse van Liempt (2016). “Scrutinising the double disadvantage: knowledge production in the messy field of migrant smuggling.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 42(3): 400-417.

Kalifa, Dominique (2019). Vice, Crime, and Poverty: How the Western Imagination Invented the Underworld. New York: Columbia University Press.

Merry, Sally Engle. The seductions of quantification: Measuring human rights, gender violence, and sex trafficking. University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Vigh, Henrik, and David Sausdal. “26. The anthropology of crime.” In Wydra, Harald and Thomassen, Bjorn, eds. Handbook of Political Anthropology (2018): 441-461. Cheltelham: Edward Elgar.

Zhang, Sheldon X. (2009). Beyond the ‘Natasha’story–a review and critique of current research on sex trafficking. Global crime, 10(3), 178-195.

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