The first part of this article examines the more commonly-held perceptions of the concept of the Mafia. Special attention is paid to the classical question of whether the Mafia can be defined as a "legal order", from the viewpoints of both legal theory and sociology of law, drawing the conclusion that the issue is more terminological than conceptual. The second part analyses the Mafia as a social system that interacts with such other systems as politics, the economy and culture. The link that connects them together is portrayed as an exchange of services that benefits all participants. These conclusions are underpinned by an examination of the methods by which Mafias have developed in the course of history and, even more so, by their capacity to infiltrate and take root in what are known as "non-traditional areas", such as Northern Italy.
Keywords: The Mafia as a concept - the Mafia as a ruling power - Social systems - Exchange of services - Social embedding