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In this essay, I describe the reasons that led me to study the Sicilian mafia, and some of the difficulties that I encountered during my fieldwork in Palermo in 1986-7. I then review the effects that my study – which was first published 20 years ago in Italian and has since been translated into English, German, Spanish and Polish – has had on the scholarship on the mafia as well as on that of similar organisations in other countries.