The Mafia (also known as Cosa Nostra) is a Sicilian criminal secret society which is believed to have first developed in the mid-19th century in Sicily. An offshoot emerged on the East Coast of the United States and in Australia during the late 19th century following waves of Sicilian and Southern Italian emigration (see also Italian diaspora). In North America, the Mafia often refers to Italian organized crime in general, rather than just traditional Sicilian organized crime. According to historian Paolo Pezzino: "The Mafia is a kind of organized crime being active not only in several illegal fields, but also tending to exercise sovereignty functions – normally belonging to public authorities – over a specific territory…"
The Sicilian Cosa Nostra is a loose confederation of about one hundred Mafia groups, also called cosche or families, each of which claims sovereignty over a territory, usually a town or village or a neighborhood of a larger city, though without ever fully conquering and legitimizing its monopoly of violence. For many years, the power apparatuses of the single families were the sole ruling bodies within the two associations, and they have remained the real centers of power even after superordinate bodies were created in the Cosa Nostra beginning in the late 1950s (the Sicilian Mafia Commission).
Some observers have seen "mafia" as a set of attributes deeply rooted in popular culture, as a "way of being", as illustrated in the definition by the Sicilian ethnographer, Giuseppe Pitrè, at the end of the 19th century: "Mafia is the consciousness of one's own worth, the exaggerated concept of individual force as the sole arbiter of every conflict, of every clash of interests or ideas."
Many Sicilians did not regard these men as criminals but as role models and protectors, given that the state appeared to offer no protection for the poor and weak. As late as the 1950s, the funeral epitaph of the legendary boss of Villalba, Calogero Vizzini, stated that "his 'mafia' was not criminal, but stood for respect of the law, defense of all rights, greatness of character. It was love." Here, "mafia" means something like pride, honour, or even social responsibility: an attitude, not an organization. Likewise, in 1925, the former Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando stated in the Italian senate that he was proud of being mafioso, because that word meant honourable, noble, generous.