"Behind every great fortune is a crime" (Balzac)

    Criminologists offer a variety of explanations for white collar crime, but they all have in common a way they approach their explanations.  They usually start with a disciplinary school of thought; e.g., biology, psychology, or sociology.  This is not the only starting point which can be taken, but it's as good as any, especially since the study of white collar crime has so many confusing definitional issues, and a school of thought, after all, represents the initial starting point of a vast number of scholars.  There is then, the problem of level of analysis (sometimes called unit of analysis).  The traditional units of analysis for any scientific explanation are: macro-, meso-, and micro-.  There are other, fancier words for these levels, but a macro-level explanation aims to explain the root causes of something in society itself.  A meso-level explanation tries to find the middle ground, which in white collar crime study is usually the organizational level, or something in the nature of organizational life or business culture.  Finally, a micro-level explanation is one at the level of personality, or even biology.  It is the one which focuses almost exclusively on the inner workings of the minds (thoughts or belief processes) of the individual offenders.  The other approaches don't neglect this, but they do only delve into mental processes by default or by secondhand.  Most American criminology of white collar crime has been at the meso-level, and has offered socio-psychological explanations at this level.

    The "holy grail" in criminology for many years has involved the question of whether a general theory can be put together which explains both white collar crime and ordinary crime.  This has been the quest ever since Sutherland (1940) first raised the question.  No such general theories exist in criminology, although about every four decades (the last being the 1980s "integrated" theory movement), criminologist take up the challenge anew.  It might be worth mentioning that a general theory ought to be able to explain not only different types of crime, but provide similar reasons for why females and males, and minorities and non-minorities commit crime.  This is certainly a tall order, and makes it readily understandable why so many criminologists are specialists in one type of offender and/or one type of crime.  There are also those who approach the study of white collar crime from a criminalization or victimological standpoint.  Both of these people tend to perpetuate the endless definitional debates in the field, the criminalization specialists because they ponder over why so few white collar criminals get caught, and the victimological specialists because they say we haven't got any good grasp of the cost or impact.  

    Nonetheless, every theoretical explanation has at least one master concept which represents its central idea or thesis.  For scientific purposes, that master concept must be variable.  In other words, a person must be capable of having more or less of it.  A fixed, entrenched personality trait will NOT do.  It's not enough to say that white collar criminals are greedy, that is, unless one invents a scale of greediness which allows for some range of variation or degree of greed.  Some of the oldest ideas are about fixed traits of offenders.  Old ideas die slowly in criminology, but there are some completely discredited theories.  For example, demonic explanations are totally discredited nowadays, not because careful research has been carried out on exorcism, but simply because the idea was a false start and didn't carry the field forward very much.  Another example might be the facial appearance (or physiognomic) approach, the idea here being that criminals of all kinds tend to have sloping foreheads, beady eyes, and so forth.  C. Ray Jeffery (1990) was pretty much the last of the famous criminologists who dabbled in these waters. 

       Psychological theories exist, some of which are quite good and others of which aren't.  An example of a not-so-good idea is the notion of childhood trauma.  This is a notion most closely associated with Freudian psychoanalysis, although the trauma literature says the hurt can be physical as well as psychological.  Probably the most amazing (and unbelievable) thing that Freud (1923) said about criminals (of all kinds) is that they commit crime in order to bring punishment upon themselves (for some pre-existing sense of guilt).  Psychoanalysis is generally regarded as untestable and improvable by most scientists.  Personality traits which have been most studied include:  risk taking, recklessness, ambitiousness, and egocentricity (Coleman 2006).  Risk taking and recklessness are personality characteristics shared by both white collar criminals and ordinary criminals, although with ordinary criminals, the trait is most often referred to by the master concept of impulsiveness (or inability to defer gratification).  The leading theorists of impulsiveness are Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) who have actually put together a much larger Low Self Control theory which tries to overcome the usual criticism of all temperament theories -- which came first, the trait or the criminality?  Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) end up arguing that it's the first six years of life which matter.  So, we're back to a Freudian childhood experience explanation.  Wheeler (1992) further argues that risk taking among white collar criminals is done more intelligently and isn't such a bad thing at all.  Similarly, with the characteristic of ambitiousness, one has to wonder why a hunger for power and the desire to rise up economically are expected to be correlates of shameful behavior when they so strongly correlate with admirable behavior (in most people).  Punch (2000) has said, of all the psychological characteristics, it probably is egocentricity which is the best explanatory tool, and for white collar criminals, this characteristic is usually over the top, bordering on paranoid megalomania.  Other promising psychological theories of recent note involve the notion of character.  Character is different from the concept of personality because it isn't so strongly tied to a temperament (or predisposition toward behavior).  A person's character simply reflects their mood, or nature (good or bad), and several criminologists have started studying character in recent years (e.g., Paternoster and Simpson 1996).   

    Sociological approaches tend to cluster around the notion that power corrupts, and that the rich and powerful develop stronger deviant motivations as well as enjoy more deviant opportunities that come their way.  The central, or master, concept in this regard within sociology is relative deprivation.  It refers to a sensation of envy or jealousy about what other people have.  Rich people presumably experience it strongly.  Absolute deprivation (the kind which is associated with poverty) tends to produce a sense of "deep anger" which manifests itself in violent crime.  Relative deprivation, on the other hand, provokes a seething, brooding, get-even, kind of resentment.  However, this kind of explanation is really at the socio-psychological level, and most sociological theories try to explain things at the organizational or societal level.  At the organizational level, the most important thing to remember, as Cressey (1989) reminded us, is to NOT attribute human capabilities to corporations.  Structures and organizations don't suffer from mental disorders, but they do develop dysfunctional cultures or environments.  A deviant organizational culture may even exist once all the original people who created it are long gone.  A deviant organizational culture may even socialize new people into it despite the best intentions of written policies and procedures.  Because a deviant organizational culture can do such things is the reason why many criminologists (e.g., Braithwaite and Fisse 1990) conclude that corporations ought to be legally responsible for their actions.  Punishing replaceable people within corporations may be a futile way to control white collar crime.  On the other hand, the entire organization is seldom involved in corporate crime, but this is the dilemma of sociology involving the so-called ecological fallacy.  People commit criminal acts, not entities like communities or societies.  The further up you go in your level of analysis, the further away you get from real, flesh-and-blood actors who actually do things.  Nonetheless, there have been numerous attempts by sociologists to classify deviant organizations, the Needlemans' (1979) typology of "crime coercive" and "crime facilitative" being the most well-known.

    Clinard and Yeager (1980) have summarized most of the sociological correlates of corporate crime as:  economic climate, political and regulatory environment, level of industry concentration, style and strength of product distribution networks, product differentiation, and normative traditions within industries.  Of these, the first two are key.  Legitimate economic channels must be blocked or thwarted, and the political environment must tolerate an aggressive (and possibly deviant) pursuit of profit.  Of course, modern, 21st century Enron et al. cases clearly illustrate the importance of networks, and alliances between industries as well as within them. 

    Practically all the traditional criminological theories have been applied to white collar crime.  A list of the traditional criminological theories, in rank order of their popularity (high to low), is as follows:  rational choice, social control, social learning, strain, conflict, and labeling.  Routine activities theory (Felson 2002) is the field's most well-known rational choice theory, and it focuses upon the absence of capable guardians and the pool of suitable victims.  This variety of rational choice theory is essentially a classical criminological opportunity theory which assumes pre-motivated offenders who are simply making a rational choice to get away with things while they can.  Social control theory (Hirschi 1969) has long dominated the criminological landscape as a popular theory, and it too assumes pre-motivated offenders, but holds that a weakness in social bonds (attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief) triggers a release of criminal inclinations.  Learning theory is the approach that Sutherland (1940) himself invented, and it basically holds that people slowly condition or reward themselves (along with others) over time in rehearsing or preparing for the day they commit their big criminal act.  Most learning theories focus on the changing belief systems of offenders, with one variety of the approach calling them neutralizations, because they are self-learned excuses or justifications for wrongdoing.  Strain theory (Vaughn 1983; Passas & Goodwin 2004) holds that even good people commit crime whenever they become confused about the goals and/or means of their material success.  This confused condition is called "anomie" and it produces both general and specific sensations of relative (status) deprivation throughout society.  Conflict theory (Friedrichs 2007) tends to have a diverse camp of followers, but usually focuses (like strain theory) on the material (or economic) conditions of success, and it basically holds that "conflict" causes crime whenever one powerful group is able to point the finger of   blame for something on another group.  Labeling theory (Katz 1988) is the least popular of criminological theories, but it is rich in "sensitizing concepts" which shed light on things that other theories don't, like identity processes and the symbolic meanings some objects have for offenders.


    The problem of fitting a theory to the facts is a big problem in criminology, and this problem is doubled in the field of white collar crime because no one is exactly certain about the facts.  The following snapshot of data (from Wheeler 1992) is the most commonly-reproduced table of numbers with acceptable validity and reliability, and it shows some of the central tendencies as well as variation in characteristics of offenders by type of offense:

. Antitrust
Bribery Credit
99% 99% 87% 83% 72% 77% 74%
99% 97% 94% 95% 85% 82% 55%
Age 53 44 47 45 38 38 31
Income 650,000 59,000 50,000 45,000 17,000 17,000 17,000
40% 43% 27% 27% 18% 23% 13%

Prof. Keel's White Collar Crime Page
The Criminology Mega-Site
The Sociological Origins of White Collar Crime
The White Collar Crime Legal Blog
Wikipedia Entry on White Collar Crime

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Passas, N. & Goodwin, N. (Eds.) (2004). It's legal but it ain't right. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.
Paternoster,  R. & Simpson, S. (1996). "Sanction threat and appeals to morality: Testing a rational choice model of corporate crime."  Law & Society 30: 549-83.
Punch, M. (2000). "Suite violence: Why managers murder and corporations kill."  Crime, Law & Social Control 33: 243-80.
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Last updated: Jan. 19, 2014
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O'Connor, T.  (2014). "The Criminology of White Collar Crime," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from