Edwin Sutherland’s 1949 publication of ‘White Collar Crime’ was a pioneering academic venture into the study of White Collar Crimes, a term coined by Sutherland himself during a time whereby the study of criminology was largely confined to connotations of visible street level offending. The crimes of the powerful during Sutherland’s era was seen as somewhat of a grey area and to this day remain uncommonly pursued by scholars or law enforcement officials. The topic of white-collar crimes during Sutherland’s era was highly relevant, as during the 1920’s-1930’s Chicago experienced a wave of white collar crime in the form of bootlegging as a result of prohibition. Today, white-collar crimes are still largely unreported and unresolved within the criminal justice system, suggesting that one of Sutherland’s principal themes throughout White Collar Criminality being the notion that even well educated and respected individuals are capable of committing crimes remains an important message to be recognised in society today. At the time of his death in 1950, criminology was largely dominated by Sutherlands theories and continued to be for close to a generation. By investigating the nature of white-collar crimes, Sutherland found that previous criminological theories and schools of thought could not necessarily be applied to business related offences, nor could the criminal justice procedures as corporate and finance crime cases in particular require large expenditures of time and special investigation skills which had not yet been developed at this time. The study of white-collar crimes is arguably more relevant than ever, with the widespread expansion of globalisation as well as the increased accessibility of such offences due to the gravitation towards technology as opposed to paper documentation. Sutherlands identification of white-collar crime, which he defines as “a crime committed by a person of high social status and respectability in the course of his occupation” (Sutherland, 1949) was instrumental to criminology in the sense that he challenged the stereotypical perception and conventional wisdom on what a criminal is and looks like.
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At the time of the publication of White Collar Crime in 1949, Sutherland was a strong critic of prior explanations and theories for criminal behaviour, and even ridiculed causal factors such as immigrant or low socioeconomic status for manifesting crime at any level. Sutherland also condemned conventional theories for failing to account for lower class criminality, as he believed that they more depicted a method of crime as opposed to a general process behind either conventional or white collar offending. Instead, Sutherland argues in the initial chapter that social phenomena is behind the general cause of crime as opposed to biological and emotional characteristics, as endorsed by the positivist school of criminology. In doing so, Sutherland identifies an administrative ‘segregation’ between white collar offenders and other lawbreakers, due to both their differentiating criminal intent as well as the way in which they are perceived in society. Sutherland asserts that by the general public, criminologists and the offenders themselves, white-collar criminals are not actually regarded as criminals due to their power, status and socioeconomic position. Despite the near 70 years since the publication of White Collar Criminality, the theme of individuals using their financial status and power to evade prosecution remains as prominent as ever, and this is not limited to white collar crimes. The book was published at a time where five years had passed since the end of the Second World War, and America had begun to experience an economic boom as the economy grew 37% during the decade between 1950-1960. This is especially significant to white-collar crime, as Berghoff (2018) described this period as a time where the opportunity for crimes of this nature was more prominent than it had ever been. From a sociological perspective, White Collar Crime by Sutherland had a notable damaging impact on the popular conception of the American businessman, as being an archetype of collective virtue, diligence and a pillar within a prosperous area of society. Similarly, Sutherland acknowledges that despite the substantial financial harm that such crimes result in, it is ultimately the sociological repercussions which have the most notable impact which can lead to an overall decrease in trust of institutions, authority figures and as well as create a breakdown in social order. Today, data has also indicated that individuals who have been victimised through white-collar offences such as fraud are at greater risk of of depression and suicide (O’Rourke, Jamil & Siddiqui, 2019), showing that such crimes have greater repercussions on victims than financial loss, in contrast to widespread belief. Throughout this book one can identify two main objectives, firstly to illustrate the widespread presence of white-collar crimes and secondly to produce a hypothesis that explains both white-collar criminality as well as other traditional types of offending, something that had not been accurately formulated in the past. It can be inferred that Sutherland was successful in his initial objective, as prior to his work these types of business-related offences were largely unrecognised by both members of the public as well as the academic works of criminologists. In bringing attention to white-collar crimes, Sutherland expanded the study of criminology from its previous constraints of offences that the police were directly involved in, as it is not in the polices traditional philosophical orientation to get involved with unlawful acts of this nature. It could therefore be claimed that Sutherland’s development of the study of business-related crimes was a contributing factor to the pluralisation of policing, due to the state monopoly on policing being broken resulting in a range of organisations having a policing function/role to confront the broad array of offences seen across society today. Sutherland’s second objective however was addressed in a less-successful manner, as there are several issues around his critique of the capitalist society which as Sutherland admits leaves questions unanswered about how to make such a system function. Furthermore, it could be argued that Sutherland to a certain degree shows a lack of appreciation for law enforcement agencies, particularly the police. This can be inferred through his consistent criticism of the absence of criminal penalties being applied towards corporations and businesses, accusing legislators of being reluctant to attach the stigma of crime to white-collar offences. Today this remains a relevant point as Rothe and Kauzlarich (2016) have identified that crimes committed by the powerful are often labelled as ‘mistakes’ or ‘bad decisions’. While this may be the case in many instances, Sutherland perhaps did not recognise the complexity of prosecuting against white-collar crimes, due to a range of factors such as requiring a major commitment of finite resources as well as a lower probability of reaching a successful resolution. Also, Sutherland makes little reference of the proper line of demarcation between acceptable and unacceptable business practices and does not mention underlying factors throughout the four stages of the criminal justice system that impede the prosecution of such offenders. Jurors tend to identify with, and are likely to be more sympathetic with white-collar criminals due to the perception of being similar to them, being middle class and in employment and providing additional detail regarding such factors could have strengthened his criticism of the institutional bias towards white-collar offenders. Despite these shortcomings, Sutherland does provide a valuable insight into the relatively frequent nature of white-collar crimes; challenges authoritative institutions to take a more punitive approach towards business-related offences and disputes the long-standing conventional stereotype of a criminal.
Sutherland depicts the prevalence of white-collar crimes through the examination of 70 of the most monumental American manufacturing and mercantile corporations at the time of the publication in 1950. Sutherland assembles the data from the records of unfavourable resolutions by the courts in opposition to these corporations. The adverse decisions were made on the basis of a comprehensive range of business offences, such as unfair labour practices, financial fraud, copyright infringement and insider trading offences between 1900 to 1944. Sutherland’s findings were significant in the fact that 30 out of the 70 companies investigated were found to be illegal in the nature of their origin or in its initial policies. We can theorise the actual number of criminal wrongdoings to be far greater due to the fact that only a minor portion of offences arrive at the concluding stage of legal procedure, with an even lesser percentage being related to white-collar crimes. From a methodological approach, there are limitations in the manner in which the data is presented. Following a more quantitive as opposed to qualitative approach, it can be contended that the sheer size of the corporations investigated, some with tens of thousands of employees allow a certain degree of mishap to occur out of the sample size. Similarly, major corporations also habitually have a considerable amount of regulations and as Hulin (1968) details a high staff turnover rate within the lower sectors of major corporations, holding each employee to the often stringent regulations and systematic procedures is a highly difficult and unlikely task to achieve. It is therefore important to recognise the data in this context to prevent premature judgements regarding the intent of such corporations.
Sutherland’s White Collar Criminality does leave a number of questions unanswered, many of which remain unresolved to this day. This publication today would serve as a valuable introductory work of literature regarding occupational crimes for criminology students, as it was written in a context and time period whereby the field was predominantly unexplored. White Collar Criminality conveys persuasive realities regarding the relationship between criminality and social control.
- Berghoff, H. & Spiekermann, U. (2018). Shady business: On the history of white-collar crime. pp 289-304
- Hulin, C. L. (1968). Effects of changes in job-satisfaction levels on employee turnover. Journal of Applied Psychology, 52(2), 122-126.
- O’Rourke, C, Jamil, T, & Siddiqui, W. (2019) Suicide Screening and Prevention. Statpearls, NCBI
- Rothe, D., Kauzlarich, D. (2016). Crimes of the Powerful. London: Routledge, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315756776
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