White-Collar Crime Research Paper

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Crimes committed by persons of respectability have drawn the attention of societies throughout history. In the United States, interest in such phenomena far antedates the first public use of the concept of white-collar crime by Edwin Sutherland. The muckraking tradition at the turn of the century produced many persons who condemned abuse of position for private gain. Sociologist E. A. Ross, in Sin and Society, drew attention to ‘‘the man who picks pockets with a railway rebate, murders with an adulterant instead of a bludgeon, burglarizes with a ‘‘rake-off’’ instead of a jimmy, cheats with a company prospectus instead of a deck of cards, or scuttles his town instead of his ship’’ (p. 7).

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The varied misdeeds denoted by Ross give an early hint of both the value of the concept and the difficulties that have plagued its use. The value is essentially social and evocative. It connotes not a particular type of crime or a statutory violation, but a concern for some combination of abuse of trust, authority, status, or position. In a society whose criminal justice system deals mainly with common crimes and common offenders, it bespeaks a concern for the misdeeds of the haves rather than the have-nots, and it raises the specter of class bias in law enforcement. However, its signifying power is precisely its weakness as an analytical tool, for its meaning shifts with changes in the character of society and in the underlying values and interests of the varied scholars and policymakers who invoke it. It is thus a distinctively social, rather than legal, concept, one suffused with vagueness and ambiguity.

The Evolution of White-Collar Crime

The Legacy of Sutherland

Sutherland’s interest in the topic dates at least to the 1920s, although the research resulting in his White Collar Crime was initiated during the depression years of the 1930s. The first public treatment of the subject occurred when Sutherland titled his presidential address to the American Sociological Society in 1939 ‘‘The White Collar Criminal.’’ He was apparently drawn to the topic in his search for a general theory of crime. The usual explanations in his day (and often today) stressed poverty and other pathological social conditions, but, argued Sutherland, these factors could not be a general cause of crime if crimes were also committed by persons of respectability and high social status. In the book-length version of the speech, which appeared a decade later, Sutherland aimed simultaneously to weaken theories depending on the behavior of the deprived and the depraved, and to provide support for his own social-learning approach to crime causation—the theory of differential association.

Sutherland was rather casual in his conceptualization of white-collar crime, at times stressing social status, at times behavior carried out in an occupational role, and at times crime committed by organizations or by individuals acting in organizational capacities. The confusion is reflected in his most frequently cited definition: ‘‘White collar crime may be defined approximately as a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation’’ (p. 9). His book was devoted, however, to the crimes of organizations, not of persons: seventy large corporations and fifteen public utilities. Thus, a firm basis for ambiguity had been laid. Those following Sutherland sometimes focused on persons of high status, sometimes on occupations, and sometimes on corporate bodies.

Sutherland’s book described the illegalities committed by those corporations, arguing that the corporations share most of the characteristics of professional thieves: their offenses are deliberate and organized, they are often recidivists, and they show disdain for law. Needless to say, with these conclusions the book had a controversial reception. Many in the social sciences hailed it as a landmark, whereas many in law and business attacked it as misleading and distorted. The principal basis for disagreement concerned the underlying concept of crime. The ‘‘crimes’’ of the corporations Sutherland examined were rarely prosecuted in criminal court: they were violations of administrative rules or simply contract cases to be processed, if at all, in civil court. Many in the legal community insisted these were not crimes at all. Sutherland’s answer was that businessmen were more able to influence the course of legislation; it was only their greater power (relative to the lower-class criminal) that kept their offenses out of the traditional criminal law.

The battle over definition aside, Sutherland’s pioneering work stirred few fires in the two decades after its publication. Detailed studies of particular offenses, such as Donald Cressey’s examination of the violation of financial trust, were the exception rather than the rule. Of the triumvirate of status, occupation, and organization that underlay Sutherland’s conception, interest tended to turn away from the status dimension itself, and toward those crimes made possible because of the defendant’s occupational role (Newman). Some analysts spoke not of white-collar crime but of occupational crime. Offenders studied in these terms were not exclusively of high status. They included retail pharmacists, meat inspectors, and bank tellers. Although a much-publicized case of price-fixing in the electrical industry in 1961 (Geis and Meier) helped sustain an interest in the topic of crimes committed through, and on behalf of, organizations, sustained study of organizational crime did not flower until the next decade. Criminological research and theory continued to concentrate on juvenile delinquency and violent crime.

It is unclear why Sutherland’s work generated so little new research or theory, although several reasons are plausible. The massiveness of Sutherland’s undertaking, as well as confusion regarding the concept itself, may have played a part. The 1950s and 1960s were not depression decades, and the problems of a younger generation occupied public and governmental attention. It had also provided more convenient, historically, for social scientists to study the weak and deprived, rather than those in more powerful positions. The symbolic and evocative nature of the concept remained, however, awaiting changing conditions for new meaning to be infused into it.

From Offender to Offense

Societal interest in white-collar crime grew rapidly in the 1970s, rivaling the attention street crime had received in the preceding decade. Prosecutors gave it higher priority than in the past. Targets of investigation included individual businessmen, corrupt politicians, and such corporate activities as international business bribery, the manufacture of dangerous products, and environmental pollution. The renewed interest was motivated at least in part by the discovery of corruption and other illegal practices at the highest levels of government, and by a growing sensitivity to dangerous corporate practices. The growth in interest was great enough that it could be fairly labeled a social movement (Katz, 1980).

When the pace of scholarship on white-collar crime also revived, it became evident that the wide range of phenomena suggested by the concept had to be broken down into components. Attention had focused so much on the nature of the offender that actual criminal behavior had gone unexamined. It seemed to make little sense to include under a single rubric as diverse a set of activities as bank embezzlement, land swindles, price-fixing, fraudulent loan applications, and bribery. The first important shift away from the legacy of Sutherland was accomplished by taking the offense itself as the principal object of inquiry. In the first such effort, Herbert Edelhertz proposed to define white-collar crime as ‘‘an illegal act or series of illegal acts committed by nonphysical means and by concealment and guile, to obtain money or property, to avoid payment or loss of money or property, or to obtain business or personal advantage’’ (p. 3). A related shift is to search for behavioral patterns that characterize different types of white-collar crime. Susan Shapiro, for example, distinguishes fraud, self-dealing, and regulatory offenses (pp. 20–24), and Mitchell Rothman separates frauds, takings, and collusion.

The impulse that gives rise to typological efforts is the felt need to put order into the enormous range of behaviors at issue. The statutes that define white-collar crime, passed by legislatures for various purposes at various times, are a patchwork. Important as they may be for prosecution, the legal categories are of limited value for analytic purposes. A given statutory offense may include a wide array of actual behaviors; bank embezzlement, for example, may range from a simple theft by a bank teller to a complex fraudulent loan arranged by a trust officer. Essentially the same behavior may be punished under statutes as different as those governing mail and wire fraud, securities fraud, and false claims and statements. Typologies allow one to see some of the similarities between crimes as different as bribery and price-fixing, which share the element of collusive activity.

The underlying assumption of this type of analysis—still to be proved—is that parallels in behavior may suggest parallels in either the causal processes producing such behavior or in the methods of detection and enforcement brought to bear upon them. Such work is likely to be only partially successful until there is greater agreement on the core properties of white-collar crime. To the extent that the legal categories themselves are a function of concerns not reflected in the underlying conduct—a concern, for example, that the conduct be reachable by federal authorities, or that regulatory agencies can police it—typologies that concentrate on underlying conduct may be prematurely dismissive of the important role played by legal categorization itself.

From Offense to Organization and Consequence

A second trend is to emphasize not behavior but its consequences. This trend rediscovers issues that occupied reformers at the turn of the twentieth century—a concern for the power of organizations and the harms they commit. From the late nineteenth century on, harms caused by the production and sale of adulterated goods and similar activities were recognized as ‘‘strict liability’’ offenses—criminal acts not requiring proof of a guilty mind. Throughout the twentieth century these activities, and many others later recognized to pose a similar threat, came increasingly to be the subject of administrative regulation, which was seen as a wiser and more effective device for protecting the public interest. Regulation expanded as new dangers to health and to life itself were recognized—dangers to individuals posed by the air they breathed, the water they drank, the food and drugs they consumed, the automobiles and other products they used, and the places at which they worked.

Rediscovery of the power of organizations to inflict physical damage as well as economic injury has led some scholars to direct their attention to specifically organizational offenses. The central concern here is those actions taken by the officials or other agents of legitimate organizations that have a serious physical or economic impact on employees, consumers, or the general public (Schrager and Short). A growing number of analysts thus speak of organizations as offenders of ‘‘organizational deviance,’’ and of illegalities committed through the organizational form. This is a response to a society in which organizations increasingly are major actors, and although it reflects experience in the United States, both the concept of white-collar crime and a concern with corporate and governmental offenses are found throughout the world.

The focus on organizational offenses brings with it enduring issues of law and policy. One is the question of the standard by which individual conduct is to be judged. Should organizations’ executives be sanctioned for failure to supervise middle-level officials engaged in wrongdoing? Should strict liability be employed, as in some of the earlier public-welfare offenses? How should sanctions be distributed between organization and employees? When the focus is on the corporate body itself, there is the question of how best to protect against harmful corporate practices without stifling organizational innovation and creativity. For example, should unwanted conduct be deterred through increased penalties against the corporation? Or is it more effective to control wrongdoing by reaching inside the organization, either through rules governing production processes and information flow, or rules regarding the composition of the board of directors? The treatment of the offenses of organizations remains fraught with complex policy choices (Coffee; Kadish; Stone).

Finally, there is the issue that sparked the original debate over the concept of white-collar crime: Are these offenses administrative rule violations or ‘‘real’’ crimes? The most complete follow-up study to White Collar Crime defines its subject as any act, committed by a corporation, that is punishable by the state, whether through criminal, administrative, or civil law. The title of this study, Corporate Crime, while reflecting the shift to the corporate form as a primary focus of inquiry, maintains the view that such conduct be labeled criminal (Clinard and Yeager, p. 16). The corporate sanctions examined, however, are overwhelmingly civil or administrative. Thus, the matter of definition remains controversial some forty years after Sutherland’s initial exploration of white-collar crime.

White-Collar Crime from The Enforcement Perspective

White-collar crime, in either its individual or organizational form, often involves complex paper manipulations and sophisticated cover-up activities. When these traits are combined with the embeddedness of illegalities in organizations, the problems of gathering evidence with respect to motive, intent, and act are compounded. It is often extremely difficult to know who engaged in or authorized the conduct in question, what specific illegality has been committed, or whether there is a crime at all. For these reasons, crucial differences between white-collar crime and common crime appear when one examines how each is detected and prosecuted.

For common crimes, prosecution and defense are typically brought into play only after a crime has occurred and an arrest has been made; but in the case of white-collar crimes, the investigative work of prosecutors and the protective efforts of defense counsel characteristically precede, rather than follow, formal action. Indeed, from an enforcement perspective, whitecollar crimes are those detected and investigated by white-collar workers, in contrast to the men in blue who respond to common crimes (Katz, 1979). The first officials to be brought into the case are not police but, more likely, tax agents or employees of a regulatory agency. Defense counsel will be hired when the defendant first becomes aware that he is a target of an investigation—typically, long before an indictment is forthcoming. This means that whitecollar crime prosecution and defense often more closely approximate complex civil litigation, with its various strategic moves to gain or shield information from the opposing side, than they do the typical common-crime case. The effect of these differences is to make prosecution of white-collar cases vastly more expensive and time-consuming than that of typical common crimes. With limited resources, prosecutors may find it difficult to justify heavy expenditures for a problematic whitecollar investigation when the same resources might be devoted to a number of common-crime cases.

Sentencing of white-collar offenders is also complicated. As in common crime, most cases will be settled by a guilty plea. But sentencing is problematic because the white-collar defendant, although frequently having committed offenses of long duration and great economic magnitude, is more likely to have an exemplary prior record. Judges are torn between the desire to show such offenders leniency because of their past good citizenship, and the desire to show severity because the white-collar offender has abused a position of trust.

With the advent of determinate sentencing, sanctions for white-collar offenders have become more severe. The Federal Sentencing Commission, for example, substantially raised the sentences for white-collar offenders in order to guarantee short terms of imprisonment for offenders whom judges had previously been fining and placing on probation (Federal Sentencing Guidelines § 1A4(d) (Nov. 1998). In no other offense category did the Commission raise sentencing severity relative to pre-Guidelines averages; the appropriateness of its doing so for whitecollar offenders remains a matter of intense political and academic controversy.

Thus, at each stage of the criminal justice system, white-collar offenses present a distinctive set of problems for law enforcement officials. For the legal philosopher as well as the policymaker, these differences raise questions of equality of treatment between common-crime and whitecollar crime defendants, as well as questions of fundamental fairness in the operation of the criminal justice system. For the researcher, they point to the need to devote detailed attention to the comparative study of the administration of justice in white-collar-crime and common-crime cases.


As this review suggests, the concept of whitecollar crime is in a state of disarray. Its evolution has been marked by changes in meaning that often preserve, rather than reduce, fundamental ambiguities. The term still denotes crimes of high status to some, while to others it refers to either occupational or organizational illegality. Some concentrate on the nature of the offense; others, on its consequences. The offending conduct appears in a different guise when the enforcement perspective is examined, and analysts still cannot agree whether it should be regarded as criminal.

Given this confusion, the logical solution is to abandon the concept of white-collar crime and develop separate, more neatly bounded areas of inquiry. One body of researchers might devote their attention to the relation of social status to criminality and to sentence disparity; another group, to the use of occupation in the commission of crimes. Still other investigators might study the various layers of formal organizations so as to examine how corporate offenses are conducted, and yet others might focus on regulatory agencies and their enforcement activities.

As neat as this solution might seem, it misses a fundamental point. Ambiguous since its outset, the concept of white-collar crime nevertheless appears to have enormous staying power. Why is it still in use, given its frailties? The suggestion is that the concept reflects deeply felt concerns that make psychological and social sense, even if they present logical ambiguities. The overall crime problem is commonly perceived to center on the lower echelons of society. It is the downand-out, the unemployed, and the victims of stratification and race prejudice who constitute the bulk of those processed by the criminal justice system. White-collar crime, on the other hand, stands for all the wrongs committed by those in more advantaged positions. The source of the advantage may differ, sometimes reflecting individual status, sometimes occupational role, and sometimes organizational position. The animus that nourishes the concept is often an expression of frustration or outrage at the great imbalance of power between large organizations and their victims. Often, however, it reflects a concern for the weakening of the social fabric created when people in privileged positions destroy trust by committing crimes. Their offenses eat into the life of the community just as surely, if not as visibly, as physical assault. It is this combination of evocative features that keeps the concept of white-collar crime alive despite its flawed logical status.

When the original arguments over the meaning of the concept were at their height, the sociologist Vilhelm Aubert cautioned against efforts to decide on the concept’s true meaning. White-collar crime struck him as a phenomenon highly reflective of more pervasive features of the social order. Theoretical interest lies precisely in the varying attitudes regarding such conduct held by persons from different stations in life. This view remains relevant and may well help explain the longevity of the concept. Many middleand upper-class citizens engage in some forms of white-collar illegality while condemning others. Rather than abandoning the concept because of its logical flaws, there is a need to examine its social meaning, as well as the conditions under which the various offenses that are grouped under the ‘‘white-collar’’ rubric are committed, detected, and sanctioned.


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