White-collar crime

Within the field of criminology, white-collar crime has been defined by Edwin Sutherland as "a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation" (1939). Sutherland was a proponent of Symbolic Interactionism, and believed that criminal behavior was learned from interpersonal interaction with others. White-collar crime, therefore, overlaps with corporate crime because the opportunity for fraud, bribery, insider trading, embezzlement, computer crime, identity theft, and forgery is more available to white-collar employees.

Historical background

The term white-collar crime only dates back to 1939. Professor Edwin Hardin Sutherland was the first to coin the term, and hypothesize white-collar criminals attributed different characteristics and motives than typical street criminals. Mr. Sutherland originally presented his theory in an address to the American Sociological Society in attempt to study two fields, crime and high society, which had no previous empirical correlation. He defined his idea as "crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in course of his occupation" (Sutherland, 1949). Many denote the invention of Sutherland's idiom to the explosion of U.S business in the years following the Great Depression. Sutherland noted that in his time, "less than two percent of the persons committed to prisons in a year belong to the upper-class." His goal was to prove a relation between money, social status, and likelihood of going to jail for a white-collar crime, compared to more visible, typical crimes. Although the percentage is a bit higher today, numbers still show a large majority of those in jail are poor, "blue-collar" criminals, despite efforts to crack down on corporate crime.

Other fiscal laws were passed in the years prior to Sutherland's studies including antitrust laws in the 1920's, and social welfare laws in the 1930's. After the Depression, people went to great lengths to rebuild their financial security, and it is theorized this led many hard workers, who felt they were underpaid, to take advantage of their positions.

Much of Sutherland's work was to separate and define the differences in blue collar street crimes, such as murder, arson, burglary, theft, assault, rape and vandalism, which are often blamed on psychological, associational, and structural factors. Instead, white-collar criminals are opportunists, who over time learn they can take advantage of their circumstances to accumulate financial gain. They are educated, intelligent, affluent, confident individuals, who were qualified enough to get a job which allows them the unmonitored access to often large sums of money. Many also use their intelligence to con their victims into believing and trusting in their credentials. Many do not start out as criminals, and in many cases never see themselves as such.[1]

Definitional issues

Modern criminology generally rejects a limitation of the term by reference, rather classifies the type of crime and the topic:

Relationship to other types of crime

Blue-collar crime

The types of crime committed are a function of what is available to the potential offender. Thus, those employed in relatively unskilled environments and living in inner-city areas have fewer "situations" to exploit (see Clarke: 1997) than those who work in "situations" where large financial transactions occur and live in areas where there is relative prosperity. Blue-collar crime tends to be more obvious and thus attracts more active police attention (e.g. for crimes such as vandalism or shoplifting, where physical property is involved). In contrast, white-collar employees can incorporate legitimate and criminal behavior, thus making themselves less obvious when committing the crime. Therefore, blue-collar crime will more often use physical force, whereas in the corporate world, the identification of a victim is less obvious and the issue of reporting is complicated by a culture of commercial confidentiality to protect shareholder value. It is estimated that a great deal of white-collar crime is undetected or, if detected, it is not reported.

State-corporate crime

The negotiation of agreements between a state and a corporation will be at a relatively senior level on both sides, this is almost exclusively a white-collar "situation" which offers the opportunity for crime.


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