Colgate Syllabus: Criminal Underworld

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Editor’s note: Wondering what’s happening in the classroom at Colgate? Here’s a real-time glimpse into academic life on campus — a syllabus from a course underway this semester.

PCON 304 Criminal Underworld

Teo Ballvé, Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies and Geography

T, Th 10:05–11:20 a.m.


This course examines the violent networks of the illicit global economy: from guns and drug smuggling, to human trafficking and animal poaching among others. Drawing from multiple scholarly traditions, it compares the concrete geographical organization of these illicit networks — that is, where and how they become grounded — and asks the following questions:

  • What are the relationships of these illegal activities to legal circuits of power and profit?
  • In what ways are transnational criminal networks redefining the nature of contemporary violence and the meaning of peace?
  • How do illicit economies erode and/or strengthen state authority and governance?

This course aims to introduce participants to the primary sectors of the illicit global economy and their main relationships to contemporary forms of mass violence. It is designed to foster a critical perspective on the main conceptual and practical questions with which these networks force us to grapple as scholars and global citizens. The course should give you a deeper geographical appreciation of the illicit economy. By the end of the semester, students should be able to express themselves in an informed and confident way about how illicit flows affect security, governance, and development.

Each student is responsible for crafting a research paper that focuses on the link between some aspect of the global criminal underworld and its relation or link to violence (violence, broadly defined: from open conflict and high murder rates, to environmental destruction, human rights abuses, and public health crises, etc.).

What’s the point? The point of this assignment is for each student to use what they’ve learned in the course in a way that forces them to think about it independently and creatively by exploring a case or problem that piques their interest.

The Professor Says

This is the course I teach that is most closely related to my research on the “War on Drugs.” As in all my teaching, I push students to think about how their lives are inextricably entangled with the dense web of global relationships we study. In this class, we learn about the extraordinary and largely unacknowledged power wielded by illicit networks through their connections to legal forms of power and profit; the world really wouldn’t work the way it does without them.