What is the Difference Between the Mob and the Mafia?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Although there are overlaps, the Mob and the Mafia are not the same. In the broadest sense of the terms, the Mafia can safely be described as a mob, but the Mob is not always associated with the true Mafia. The original crime organization known as the Mafia or Cosa Nostra began in Sicily, Italy, and membership is strictly limited to native Sicilians. The Mob has no such restrictions, which is why notable non-Sicilian gangsters such as Al Capone and Meyer Lansky could be considered mobsters, but not members of the official Italian Mafia.

The mafia originated in Sicily, Italy.
The mafia originated in Sicily, Italy.

Besides Sicilian heritage, another difference is organization. The original Mafia created a very specific chain of succession, which some organized crime experts suggest was inspired by the Roman Catholic Church's governing system. Rank-and-file members would have to work their way through the ranks in order to earn more respect from their superiors and gain more power within the organization. A mob, on the other hand, may not have a very well-established hierarchy. Leadership could change in an instant through sheer force or assassination.

Mobs are present in many different countries and cultures.
Mobs are present in many different countries and cultures.

This is not to say the differences between the Mob and the Mafia are always readily apparent to outsiders. Both organizations derive their income through illicit proceeds from loan sharking, prostitution, gambling, protection money and other unsavory dealings, but the Mob in general is more nebulous and vague than the true Mafia. Mafia bosses and their subordinates often become known entities to local and federal law enforcement agencies. They largely avoid prosecution by delegating illegal activities to unknown associates and by maintaining scrupulously legal lifestyles in public.

Both the mob and mafia derive their income through gambling.
Both the mob and mafia derive their income through gambling.

Leaders of an organized mob, however, often remain underground and secretive. Their orders are frequently passed through trustworthy intermediaries and couriers. While a Mafia capo de capo, or top man in the organization, may enjoy his public notoriety, the leader of a mob is far less likely to become so visible or notorious.

Mafia members often become known to law enforcement, while mob members tend to remain underground.
Mafia members often become known to law enforcement, while mob members tend to remain underground.

Another difference could be national or cultural origin. The original Sicilian Mafia maintained a strict policy against admitting non-Sicilians to their ranks, but that did not stop other Italians from organizing an Italian mob. This same philosophy held true for native Russian, Japanese and Irish criminals, who all formed strong organized crime syndicates in their respective countries. Some may use terms such as the Irish Mafia or the Russian Mafia to describe these groups, but others argue that "Mafia" should only be applied to the original Italian organization.

The difference between the Mob and the Mafia is not just a matter of semantics, but the two terms can often be used interchangeably in conversation. In organized crime circles, however, there may be a palpable difference between joining an ethnic mob and joining the Mafia. Association with a mob may be an informal arrangement, but membership in the official Mafia is typically a lifetime commitment. Defection is strongly discouraged, although loyalties between mobs have been known to shift.

Both the mob and mafia are involved in criminal activity for financial gain.
Both the mob and mafia are involved in criminal activity for financial gain.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Does anyone know about the Italian Kings in relation to the US mafia and Canadian mafia? My cousin is one and it's my understanding that it's a proving ground for the mafia.

I am worried that my son is in it now and he doesn't understand what he is doing. They are both of Italian heritage and have moments where they have lots of unexplained money.

Please inform me if you know anything and thanks. Just looking to understand. They seem really secretive almost like a Masonic or fraternal organization of sorts.


i wish the government would leave the mafia and mobs alone and go after the gang bangers, child rapists and etc.


It's about the same difference as the Mafia is from the federal government.


The retirement plan is not as bad as all that, family has always respected and taken care of our elders. Once you earn respect it follows you until you die, and the only family that died an early death, may they rest in peace, were those who didn't know their place or died a natural death.


It was begun like a "Robin Hood" group to better support and protect, when government at the time was not doing the job, and it was as popular as Robin Hood, too. Then it went bad, and today is synonymous with organized evil.

It is wrong to make such people and acts popular, unless they find their original good goal and, abandoning the evil, return their admirable functions. It's the Third Millennium - they can if they will. I know most of the rest of the Italian world would appreciate it, since the evil and fear of Cosa Nostra casts a shadow every time an Italian name is heard.

As for me, I like my Feds and the Pope and Olive Garden.



The Mafia and other mobs often try to and do bribe officials to overlook their crimes. I do not believe that they could have operated and currently operate as well as they have and do without the involvement of corrupt officials, such as police and judges.

When I went to the World's Fair in 1933, we stayed in an apartment near where Al Capone lived. We were told that there was no crime in that neighborhood. Al wanted where he lived to be crime free.

Donald W. Bales


For any idol worshiping Tony Soprano want-to-bes, you ought to be aware that the retirement plan really *sucks*!

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