White Collar Crime

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white_collarWithin 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" (1949). 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, and forgery is more available to white-collar employees.


Definitional issues

Modern criminology generally rejects a limitation of the term by reference to type of crime and the topic is now divided:

  • By the type of offense, e.g. property crime, economic crime, and other corporate crimes like environmental and health and safety law violations. Some crime is only possible because of the identity of the offender, e.g. transnational money laundering requires the participation of senior officers employed in banks. But the Federal Bureau of Investigation has adopted the narrow approach, defining white-collar crime as "those illegal acts which are characterized by deceit, concealment, or violation of trust and which are not dependent upon the application or threat of physical force or violence" (1989, 3). Because this approach is relatively pervasive in the United States, the record-keeping does not adequately collect data on the socioeconomic status of offenders which, in turn, makes research and policy evaluation problematic. While the true extent and cost of white-collar crime are unknown, it is estimated to cost the United States more than $300 billion annually, according to the FBI.
  • By the type of offender, e.g. by social class or high socioeconomic status, the occupation of positions of trust or profession, or academic qualification, researching the motivations for criminal behavior, e.g. greed or fear of loss of face if economic difficulties become obvious. Shover and Wright (2000) point to the essential neutrality of a crime as enacted in a statute. It almost inevitably describes conduct in the abstract, not by reference to the character of the persons performing it. Thus, the only way that one crime differs from another is in the backgrounds and characteristics of its perpetrators. Most if not all white-collar offenders are distinguished by lives of privilege, much of it with origins in class inequality.
  • By organizational culture rather than the offender or offense which overlaps with organized crime. Appelbaum and Chambliss (1997, 117) offer a twofold definition:
  • Occupational crime which occurs when crimes are committed to promote personal interests, say, by altering records and overcharging, or by the cheating of clients by professionals.
  • Organizational or corporate crime which occurs when corporate executives commit criminal acts to benefit their company by overcharging or price fixing, false advertising, etc.

 


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