Theoretical Perspective for White Collar Crime

There have been many attempts to develop a theory that explains white collar crime. These theories have examined motivational issues and the context in which the white-collar offense is committed (Albrecht, Wernz, & Williams, 1995; Schlegel & Weisburd, 1992; Sutherland, 1983). Examining the theoretical and motivational issues involved in white collar crime allows us to obtain a deeper understanding of how and why these crimes are committed.

a) Differential Association Theory When Sutherland developed his concept of white-collar crime in 1939, his main theoretical basis was his Differential Association theory (Schlegel & Weisburd, 1992; Sutherland, 1983). Differential Association theory examined the motivation and the context to commit crimes. According to Sutherland (1983):

the hypothesis of differential association is that criminal behavior is learned in association with those who define such criminal behavior favorably and in isolation from those who define it unfavorably, and that a person in an appropriate situation engages in such criminal behavior if, and only if, the weight of the favorable definitions exceed the weight of the unfavorable definition (p. 24).

This theory suggests that the potential white-collar offenders learns to define its actions as normal or accepted and associates with others who define that behavior as normal and acceptable, while avoiding individuals who do not accept or condone the illegal or deviant activity. This association with others who see the behavior as acceptable will further the individual’s perception of the act as being favorably defined (Smith, 2002).

The interaction with others who accept the behavior will rationalize and neutralize the unacceptable behavior and the offenders will begin to see that the activity in favorable light. There are nine major points to Sutherland’s Differential Association theory (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 1998).

The following are a) criminal behavior is learned, b) criminal offense is learned through communication interactions with others, c) learned through intimate personal groups, d) techniques of committing the crime are learned when the criminal behavior is being learned, e) motives and drives of the learned behavior are based on defining the laws as favorable or unfavorable, f) a person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions in favor of the violation, g) frequency, duration, priority, and intensity of the differential associations may vary over time, h) offender learns a criminal behavior is the same process someone would learn a legal behavior, and i) criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values.

People will commit crimes with greater frequency, duration, and intensity if they have an increase in their contacts with individuals who condone or participate in criminal activity (Sutherland, 1983). This is at the heart of Differential Association theory. In Sutherland’s theory he states that the criminal behavior is learned in interactions with individuals who define the behavior favorably in the violation of the law (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 1998). The likelihood of being in a situation that can promote the interaction between individuals that can define the offense as favorable to the violation of the law can be influenced by the issue of accountability (Smith, 2002). The private sector often is set up in a decentralized manner with several autonomous, divisions within each company.

This relatively autonomous faction of the company has very few rules of accountability (Anleu, 2006). It is within this division that there may be a likelihood of finding individuals who promote a favorable definition of an act that is in violation of the existing laws. With little or no accountability in these autonomous divisions individuals are often free to communicate and learn the definitions, motives, and neutralization techniques needed to view the act as being a favorable behavior (Smith, 2002; Sutherland, 1983). Differential Association directly applies to what Albrecht, Wernz, & Williams (1995) call the fraud triangle. The fraud triangle involves the motivations for an individual to commit the fraudulent offense.

The fraud triangle consists of three elements that are directly related to Sutherland's Differential Association theory. The fraud triangle consists of (1) a strong financial pressure, (2) a perceived opportunity to commit and conceal the fraud, and (3) a way to rationalize or justify the fraud as being acceptable (Albrecht, Wernz, & Williams, 1995). In the Differential Association theory the offenders learn the techniques and skills to commit their behavior and also the definitions in favor of committing that behavior. The individuals also learn the techniques for rationalizing or justifying their behavior through those definitions that favor the behavior.