Connection Between Conventional Criminology And White Collar Crime

When you hear the phrase white-collar crime you immediately associate it with scandals in the financial and business sector and the sophisticated frauds of senior executives. In the last 2 decades or so there have been a number of highly publicised examples of white-collar crime, including that of Robert Maxwell who defrauded his company the Mirror Group Newspapers pension funds. Criminologists have argued that crimes of this nature are more prevalent, more serious, and more damaging to society than other crimes such as street crime (Croall, 1992). Contrary to this view there have been comparatively little research and analyses of white-collar crime in conventional criminological theories, texts and journals, particularly in Britain (Levi, 1987).

Regardless of the prevalence of white-collar crime, early criminologists largely ignored it. They saw crime as a form of deviant behaviour; which itself was seen as a bi-product of poverty (which prevailed in the 18th and 19th centuries). Marxist scholars (19th and 20th century) were of the opinion that crime was produced by an outgrowth of class conflict. White-collar crime didn't exist at this time, but the type of crimes it encompassed were theorised under the same thought as the typical crimes of those times. It was Edwin Sutherland who first put white-collar crime on the criminological agenda and ever since considerable controversy has always surrounded its definition, responses and cause (Croall, 1992). Attempts to define what is meant by white-collar crime in literature is put across in an ambiguous manner that it is unclear to what range of crimes is being referred to (Maguire, Morgan & Reiner, 2002).

Edwin Sutherland defined white-collar crime as:

'Approximately.... a crime committed by a person of respectability

and high social status in the course of his occupation'

(Sutherland, 1949, quoted by Croall, 1992:8).

Sutherland thus distinguished white-collar crime from upper class crime, which was not occupational, and from crimes committed by the underworld; who are lacking respectability and high social status. White-collar crime was consequently limited to crimes committed in the course of legitimate occupation. Sutherland went on to analyse many forms of white-collar crime under his definition that included activities that were not, at the time, certified by criminal law but which, being violations of civil or administrative law were punishable by law (Croall, 1992). Some scholars have argued that the misbehaviours considered by Sutherland or his adherents do not always satisfy the legal criterion for crime, Tappan (1947) goes so far as to insist on the requirement for penal conviction at court (Maguire, Morgan & Reiner, 2002). Confining interest to those crimes that are only found in the standardised criminal statistics is said to deprive the term off all its sense, and Sutherland's definition makes it possible to argue that white-collar crime is an otiose category and that white-collar criminals much like most common criminals, are young, feckless and unsuccessful (Steffenmeiser, 1989). Different commentators have made practically the opposite argument, protesting that many white-collar criminals are just technically criminal and are not socially deemed on the same level with ordinary crimes; therefore do not require the need of a sociological definition of crime (Maguire, Morgan & Reiner, 2002). The fact that such opposite criticisms can be raised is confirmation of the ambiguity of this concept of whether white-collar crime is really a crime. The issue of how and in what incidence undesirable business activities are criminalised and how frequently the criminal law is used against them is important on its own. This gives good reason for an inclusive definition that allows an analysis of law and its enforcement. As Aubert (1997) states:

'For purposes of theoretical analysis it is of prime importance to develop and apply concepts which preserve and emphasise the ambiguous nature of white collar crimes and not to solve the problem by classifying them as either crimes or not crimes. Their controversial nature is exactly what makes them so interesting from a sociological point of view' (Croall, 1992).

Another problem created by Sutherland's definition is whether the social status of offenders should be an element of the definition of offences. Sutherland's definition applies well to the case of Robert Maxwell who was a person of high social status with a cloak of respectability (which helped enable him to operate) that was able to commit serious fraud in the course of his occupation. None the less this does pose a problem for the research and analysis as similar frauds maybe perpetrated by offenders from all levels of occupational hierarchy from caretaker to owner/chairman (as in the case of Robert Maxwell) (Croall, 1992).

Consequently, there have been recommendations that the concept should be abandoned altogether, redefined or 'liberated' (Shapiro, 1990). Essentially, some argue, white-collar crime is a crime that is committed in the course of legitimate employment and incorporates the exploitation of an occupational role, but offender characteristics such as class or occupational status should not be a component of the definition of white-collar crime but is nevertheless important to its analysis (Shapiro, 1990). Such as the analysis of what Shapiro (1989) depicts as the social organisation of trust throughout the occupational hierarchy, in which senior employees or professional staff, who are more expected to be trusted, have more chances to abuse that trust In addition they a better situated to conceal their illegitimate activities and to thwart detection (Maguire, Morgan & Reiner, 2002). This applies well to the case of Robert Maxwell, who was able to gain access to the money from his companies and his pension funds due to the sweeping powers he had articulately secured for himself as chairman of the companies, and by securing control of the pension trustee committees. Maxwell concealed his activities under a cloak of respectability, legalities and a confusing web on transactions (Smith, 2001). This web of frauds is so complex that they defy ready classification and description.

However, defined, white-collar crime covers a vast range of activities and attempts have been made to sub-categorise them or develop typologies under this general heading. Green (1990) distinguishes organisational occupational crime, state authority occupational crime, professional occupational crime and individual occupational crime. These headings however can't proclaim to be theoretically defined, or even coherent categorisations of types of crime (Maguire, Morgan & Reiner, 2002). Pearce (1976) makes a distinction between offences that threaten the interests of capitalism and those that are predominantly perpetrated in the course of capitalist activity. The former Pearce believes is treated with more severely than the latter. Hence:

'not all white collar crimes are equally immune to prosecution; If for example, embezzlement was left unprosecuted and there was a large increase in such activity, capitalism may well collapse...on the other hand violations of anti trust laws do not pose a threat to the social structure of American capitalism and can therefore be tolerated' (Pearce, 1976 quoted by Croall, 1992:11).

Despite the wide variety of offences, there have been few successful attempts to develop neat typologies or sub-categorisations (Croall, 1992). These different interpretations of the nature of white-collar crime lead to the corresponding views concerning the most appropriate way of handling them. White-collar crimes are controlled in a different and more ambivalent method to ordinary crimes and there is debate over how far this reflects, reinforces or even generates its ambiguity. The tentative position of these crimes may also reflect a process of transition and social change, in which the public is not at the moment prepared for more complete criminalisation of these behaviours (Maguire, Morgan & Reiner, 2002).

The next set of ambiguities in attempting to theorise white-collar crime belongs more to the discussions of the causes of white-collar crime. While the majority of researchers try to relate the typical criminological frameworks of explanation to this type of offending, others have used the topic specifically so as to place these ideas in doubt. Early criminological theorists concentrated almost completely on the individual offender and attempted to associate criminality with a range of individual or social pathologies. Some commentators in attempting to explain Robert Maxwell's actions in later life connect it to the extreme poverty and deprivation he experienced in his childhood (Portfolio). Sutherland disagreed with notion of businesses/businessmen could be said to misbehave due to their difficult childhoods and proposed a theory of 'differential association' (Maguire, Morgan & Reiner, 2002). Criminality, Sutherland stated 'was learned in association with other offenders, and resulted from an excess of criminal definitions over non-criminal ones' (Croall, 1992). Sutherland's theory is now viewed as unsound (Maguire, Morgan & Reiner, 2002).

Motives typically attributed to white-collar criminals have been greed and power, a motivation supported by the selfishness and individualism intrinsic in the morals of capitalist society. Cressey (1986) suggests that embezzlement and fraud (which could both by definition apply to the Robert Maxwell case) may originate out of private, non-sharable financial problems; failure as well as success therefore may be related to offending (Croall, 1992). I believe this is an applicable theory as to why Robert Maxwell defrauded his companies pension schemes. Maxwell had generated massive debts with banks and his companies that he took money from his Mirror Group pension funds to cover them and keep his empire afloat and kept his financial situation a secret for as long as he could (even from his wife).

Proponents of strain and control theories have attempted to formulate a cause of white-collar crime. White-collar crime can been viewed as an 'innovative' response on the part of the business (or particular roles such as Robert Maxwell) to the strain of conforming to cultural recommendations to maintain profits even in difficult circumstances (Maguire, Morgan & Reiner, 2002). Control theory sees the importance of 'neutralisation' of social controls through the use of justifications (Maguire, Morgan & Reiner, 2002).

White-collar crime as has just been illustrated is a subject that raises many significant issues. Yet its very definition is controversial and its criminal status ambiguous. It has been argued to select a more broader, inclusive definition in which white-collar crime is defined as the abuse of a legitimate occupational role that is regulated by law. Occupational, corporate and organisational crime is then incorporated into the definition. However defined the scope of white-collar crime is vast and therefore difficulties and ambiguities will always remain in trying to theorise white-collar crime especially as the power of business is expanding and the potential for abuse of that power is ever-increasing (Croall, 1992).

10 September 2019
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