a theory of white collar crime

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  • Toward an Integrated Theory of White-Collar Crime

    James William Coleman

    The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 93, No. 2. (Sep., 1987), pp. 406-439.

    Stable URL:http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-9602%28198709%2993%3A2%3C406%3ATAITOW%3E2.0.CO%3B2-M

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  • Toward an Integrated Theory of White-Collar crime1 James William Coleman California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo

    This paper attempts to integrate etiological research on white-collar crime under the hypothesis that criminal behavior results from the confluence of appropriate motivation and opportunity. The starting point is the interactionist theory of motivation basic to most of the social psychological research on white-collar crime. Interactionist theory helps us understand white-collar crime in terms of the of- fenders' symbolic construction of their social worlds but ultimately fails to explain its causes. I t is argued that the origins of symbolic motivational patterns are to be found in the social structure of industrial capitalism and the "culture of competition" to which it gives rise. But no theory of motivation, however sophisticated, is sufficient to explain the causes of white-collar crime, and the paper therefore concludes with an analysis of the patterns of opportunities presented to social actors in different structural positions in ad- vanced capitalist nations.

    Since Edwin Sutherland first introduced the concept of white-collar crime in his 1939 presidential address to the American Sociological Society, it has come to define a major field of sociological inquiry. When Sutherland gave his famous speech, crime was seen as a problem of immigrants and the urban poor, but, over the years, criminologists have slowly come to accept his claims about the importance of the crimes of the powerful and privileged. Despite its obvious success, a number of social scientists now argue that Sutherland's conceptualization of white-collar crime has out- lived its usefulness. Some critics charge that white-collar crime encom- passes too many diverse and basically unrelated behaviors and should be broken down into smaller, more discrete categories. Others point to the failure of the law to prohibit many harmful elite activities and propose broader conceptualizations based on deviance rather than criminality.

    The author wishes to thank Harold Barnett, Marshall Clinard, and the anonymous reviewers of AJS for their helpful comments and suggestions. Requests for reprints should be sent to James William Coleman, Department of Social Sciences, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, California 93407.

    O 1987 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0002-9602/88/9302-0006$01.50

    406 AJS Volume 93 Number 2 (September 1987): 406-39

  • White-Collar Crime

    Elite deviance, official deviance, and corporate deviance have all been used in recent works as alternatives to Sutherland's original formulation (Simon and Eitzen 1982; Ermann and Lundman 1978, 1982; Douglas and Johnson 1977). These concepts all have the virtue of breadth and flexibil- ity, but they are limited by the inherent difficulties of defining what sort of elite practices are actually deviant. Even though the criminal law contains ample ambiguities of its own, a t least each geographic area is covered by a delimited set of legal norms that can be changed only through certain formal procedures. There are, in contrast, a vast number of groups with their own unique norms defining what is and is not deviant. Not only are many of those definitions contradictory, but, because most groups have no direct knowledge of the elite activities that have come to be labeled as deviant, their definitions are also subject to erratic changes in response to vicissitudes of media coverage and public mood. Because of the absence of clearly formulated public standards for elite behavior, sociologists using the deviance approach must often rely on their own values and prejudices to define the parameters of their work. In so doing, they not only threaten the integrity of the research process but also under- mine the credibility of the entire effort to bring the problem of white- collar crime into the arena of public debate. Furthermore, the use of so evanescent a concept to define this politically charged field of study risks exacerbating the seemingly endless quarreling over definitional issues that has already consumed so much scholarly attention in this field. Narrower conceptualizations such as corporate crime, business crime,

    political crime, and government crime (Clinard and Yeager 1980; Roebuck and Weeber 1978; Conklin 1977) avoid these definitional prob- lems and have an important place in contemporary criminology. The distinction between organizational crimes committed with support from an organization that is, a t least in part, furthering its own ends, and occupational crimes committed for the benefit of individual criminals without organizational support, provides an especially powerful way of classifying different kinds of white-collar crime. But the utility of these concepts does not mean that the overall category of white-collar crime is composed of an accidental collection of unrelated offenses. The activities included under the rubric of white-collar crime encompass a wide range of behavior, but they share many important similarities and require treat- ment as a single phenomenon for many analytic purposes. All white- collar crimes are, by definition, violations of the law committed in the course of a legitimate occupation or financial pursuit by persons who hold respected positions in their communi t i e~ .~ All types of white-collar crimes

    Sutherland (1983, p. 2) originally defined a white-collar crime as "a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation."

  • American Journal of Sociology

    are rational calculating crimes, not crimes of passion. The goal of the vast majority of white-collar criminals is economic gain or occupational suc- cess that may lead to economic gain. Although white-collar crime causes far more deaths and injuries than other types of crime (Coleman 1985a, pp. 5-7), this violence is always a by-product of the offense not the immediate goal, as it is in assault or murder. Even though organizational crime is generally treated more leniently than occupational crime, the justice system shows greater leniency to all types of white-collar offenders than to those who have committed common crimes of equal severity. Yet, despite all these similarities, the usefulness of white-collar crime

    as a coherent analytic construct is not a t all obvious from the existing body of research. Taken as a whole, the literature on the etiology and development of white-collar crime is a hodgepodge of studies looking a t different crimes from different levels of analysis. This work can be roughly divided between research on the motivation of individual white- collar offenders and a larger body of case studies and correlational re- search focusing on higher-level variables. Most of the motivational re-search follows the interactionist paradigm, while the macrolevel studies draw on many different sets of assumptions and theoretical orientations. My aim in this paper is to bring a greater measure of coherence to the study of white-collar crime by pulling these contributions together under a single theoretical framework. Particular attention is therefore given to the integration of the social-psychological and structural research on the causes of white-collar crime in order to avoid the fragmented understand- ing characteristic of so much traditional criminological thought (see Tay- lor, Walton, and Young 1973, pp. 268-82). The theory of white-collar crime presented here is based on the hy-

    pothesis that criminal behavior results from a coincidence of appropriate motivation and opportunity (Cantor and Land 1985; Vaughan 1983; Clo- ward and Ohlin 1960). The concept of motivation has been defined in many different ways, but this paper follows the definition most used in

    This definition has served criminology well over the years, but it has also been subject to a great deal of justified and unjustified criticism (see Geis 1962; Edelhertz 1970). Although Sutherland's definition is a broad one, it can usefully be expanded to explic- itly include three additional areas: offenses that can be attributed only to groups and not to any single

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