White-Collar Crime: On Definition and Theoretical Perspective

The concept of white-collar crime has evolved from the original conception into a multidisciplinary study of crime committed in the workplace. During the last sixty years the original concept of white-collar crime has evolved to include many new topics. Advancements have included complex examinations of business as well as government. White-collar crime can not be understood solely by using a sociological approach.

By utilizing a multidisciplinary approach that has encompassed many academic areas such as business, sociology, and criminal justice allows us, as criminologists, to better analyze and interpret the idea of white-collar crime and its motivation (Smith, 2002). Definition as the core problem of detection and prosecution The term “white-collar crime” is sometimes criticized because, as it is variously argued, it is imprecise, inaccurate, loaded with baggage, or not conceptually or empirically useful.

For purposes of clarity, in this paper by white collar crime I mean specifically those illegal acts which are committed by organizational participants in the course of their occupations which further the interests of the organization and not simply the interests of the individual participants. In these crimes, individual responsibility is often difficult to locate for purposes of prosecution and so the sanction, if any is assigned, is often applied to a non-sentient entity, a corporation (Anleu, 2006).

This definition is largely in keeping with Sutherland’s original formulation of the concept of white collar crime, which he defined as “a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation” (Sutherland, 1983, p. 7). Any discussion of definitional issues of white-collar crime must begin with the original definition as given by Edwin H. Sutherland.

According to Sutherland, “white-collar crime may be defined approximately as a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation” (1983, p. 7). This was the original concept of white-collar crime. Over the next several decades scholars have sought to evolve and refine the definition. One main definitional problem with white-collar crime is what is exactly meant by the term.

One view of the definition claims that offenders are seen as white-collar by the offenses they commit rather than their occupational or social status. Another view of white-collar crime claims that the offender is seen as white-collar by their occupational or social status rather than the offenses they commit (Marshall, 2007). These conflicting definitions can slant the view and outcome of research conducted by having different meanings for what constitutes white-collar crime (Benson & Moore, 1992; Geis, Meier, & Salinger, 1995; Schlegel & Weisburd, 1992).

Another definitional problem of white-collar crime is that there are many labels or terms are used. These labels or terms include economic crime, abuse of power, upper-world crime, and crimes by the powerful, crime in the suites, organizational crime, and economic offenses. The differences in labels or terms for white collar crime have produced outcomes that vary depending on which term is used in the research study (Clinard, 1983; Schlegel & Weisburd, 1992).

In this research study the term white-collar crime is defined according to the offense offenders commit rather than solely upon their occupational and social status. It is important to note that the occupational and social status of the offender will likely have an impact upon the type of offense committed. Focusing solely on the offender’s occupation and social status may cause other offenses that are not normally seen as white-collar crime, such as conventional crimes, to be included (Smith, 2002).

For this study the definition of white-collar crime suggested by Reiss and Biderman (1980) is applied. According to Reiss and Biderman, “White-collar law violations are those violations of law to which penalties are attached and that involve the use of a violator’s position of significant power, influence, or trust in the legitimate economic or political institution order for the purpose of illegal gain, or to commit an illegal act for personal or organizational gain” (1980, p. 4).