general strain theory and white-collar crime

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General Strain Theory and White-Collar CrimeRobert Agnew, Nicole Leeper Piquero, and Francis T. Cullen

Abstract This paper applies general strain theory (GST) to the explanation of white-collar crime, including (a) occupational crimes committed by higher class individuals, (b) economic offenses such as fraud and embezzlement, which are committed by lower as well as higher class individuals, and (c) corporate crimes. Several strains or stressors are said to be especially relevant to the explanation of such crimes, including the blockage of economic goals, the experience of a range of other economic problems, the inability of achieve status goals, and a variety of work-related stressors. Whether these strains result in white-collar crime, however, is said to be inuenced by such things as coping skills and resources, social support, opportunities for white-collar crime, social control, the perceived costs and benets of white-collar crime, and association with criminal others. Strain theories were developed to explain what was thought to be the much higher rate of crime among lower class individuals. According to the classic strain theories of Merton (1938), Cohen (1955), and Cloward and Ohlin (1960), individuals from all social classes are encouraged to pursue the goal of monetary success or middleclass status. Lower class individuals, however, frequently have trouble achieving these goals through legitimate channels. The frustration resulting from this goal blockage drives some of these individuals to crime. Crime may be used to achieve monetary goals, obtain status in the eyes of ones peers, seek revenge against the perceived source of goal blockage or other targets, and alleviate frustration and other negative emotions (through illicit drug use). Given these arguments, it may seem that strain theory has little to say about the causes of white-collar crime (see Waring et al. 1995; Wheeler 1992:109). In fact, the existence of white-collar offending is sometimes taken as evidence against strain theory (see Agnew 2000; Curran and Renzetti 2001). Strain theory, however, is actually quite relevant to the explanation of whitecollar crime. Although it was not a central theme in his work, Merton (1957; 1968) argued that higher class individuals may also experience goal blockage and respondR. Agnew (B) Department of Sociology, 1555 Dickey Drive, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA e-mail:

S.S. Simpson, D. Weisburd (eds.), The Criminology of White-Collar Crime, DOI 10.1007/978-0-387-09502-8 3, C Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009



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with crime, including white-collar crime (also see Waring et al. 1995). Several theorists have elaborated on this argument, more fully describing the reasons why higher class individuals may pursue goals beyond their reach (e.g., Braithwaite 1992; Messner and Rosenfeld 2001; Passas, 1997). And the inability to achieve economic goals is frequently offered as an explanation for white-collar crime by researchers (e.g., Braithwaite 1992; Clinard and Yeager 1980; Jamieson 1994; Simpson 1986; Simpson and Koper 1997; Simpson et al. 1998; Vaughan 1982, 1992; Waring et al. 1995). In particular, economic strain is said to be an important cause of whitecollar crimes committed strictly for personal gain, such as embezzlement, as well as corporate crimes, such as antitrust violations. This paper draws on and extends such arguments by applying general strain theory (GST) to the explanation of white-collar crime (Agnew 1992, 2006). GST incorporates the arguments of classic strain theory and provides a vehicle for systematically describing the central themes in the research on strain and white-collar crimes. At the same time, GST allows us to build on the prior literature in several important ways. In particular, GST more fully describes the nature of economic strain and provides much guidance on the proper measurement of such strain. GST also points to additional types of strain that may contribute to white-collar crime, including a range of work-related strains. Finally, GST points to a range of factors that increase the likelihood that individuals will react to strains with crime. Certain of these factors increase the likelihood of both street and white-collar crimes, while others increase the likelihood of just white-collar crime. The chapter begins by describing the different denitions of white-collar crime. Drawing on these denitions, the paper applies GST to the explanation of (a) occupational crimes committed by higher class individuals; (b) certain types of economic crimes, such as fraud and embezzlement, which are committed by lower as well as higher class individuals; and (c) corporate crimes. Because it is a general theory, GST attempts to explain all types of white-collar crime. The chapter then describes the major types of strain that may contribute to these white-collar crimes. The focus is on economic strain, since most white-collar crimes have the primary aim of increasing monetary gain or minimizing monetary loss. Finally, those factors that increase the likelihood that individuals will respond to strains with crime, especially white-collar crime, are described.

Dening White-Collar CrimeThere is much debate over how to dene white-collar crime (for overviews, see Geis 1992; Shover and Wright 2001; Shapiro 1990; Weisburd and Waring 2001). Some denitions focus on crimes committed by upper class or upper status individuals, particularly crimes committed during the course of their occupation. Sutherland, for example, dened white-collar crime as crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation (1949:9). Other denitions focus more on the nature of the offense rather than the offender. Wheeler

General Strain Theory


et al. (1982:642), for example, dene white-collar crime as economic offenses committed through the use of some combination of fraud, deception, or collusion (also see Shapiro 1990; Weisburd and Waring 2001). Such offenses include antitrust offenses, securities fraud, mail and wire fraud, false claims and statements, credit and lending institution fraud, bank embezzlement, income tax fraud, and bribery. Researchers who employ denitions of this type typically nd that while whitecollar offenders are of higher status on average than street crime offenders, a substantial percentage of white-collar criminals are of lower social status. For example, when Weisburd and Waring (2001:24) focused on credit fraud, false claims, and mail fraud offenders, they found that fewer than half [were] steadily employed, and between fteen and twenty percent of each category [were] unemployed at the time of their offenses (also see Croall 1989; Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). Using some of the same data (Weisburd et al. 1991), Daly (1989) found that about one fth of the female white-collar offenders had as their primary source of support welfare or unemployment benets. Further, most of the employed female offenders were clerical workers. Still others distinguish individual from organizational offending (see Reiss and Tonry 1993). Organizational offending is viewed as a subcategory of white-collar crime and is distinguished by the fact that it is committed at least in part to serve organizational goals and that it occurs within an organizational context. Clinard and Quinneys (1973:189) denition of corporate crime illustrates these points: offenses committed by corporate ofcials for their corporation and the offenses of the corporation itself. Examples of organizational crime include xing prices, nancial frauds, the creation and maintenance of hazardous working conditions, environmental pollution, and selling unsafe products. Some criminologists focus on a broad array of organizations, including government agencies, nonprot agencies, and private businesses (e.g., Holtfreter 2005), but most limit their focus to corporations (see Croall 1989). Also, some criminologists limit their focus to violations of the criminal law, while others argue that violations of the civil and administrative law should also be considered (see the discussions in Clinard and Yeager 1980; Pearce 2001; Sutherland 1949). This paper does not favor one denition over another. Rather, it argues that GST can help explain white-collar crime no matter how it is dened. It is, however, sometimes important to distinguish between the different denitions or types of white-collar crime. The strains that prompt different types of white-collar crime sometimes differ. Also, the factors that condition the effect of strains on whitecollar crime sometimes differ by the type of crime. For that reason, the discussion below frequently distinguishes between the explanation of (a) occupational crimes committed by higher class individuals, (b) economic offenses of the type described above, many of which are committed by lower class individuals, and (c) corporate crimes. Further, at one point a distinction is made between offenses that target the organization where the offender works and those that do not. In all cases, however, the core arguments of GST are the same. Certain strains increase the likelihood of white-collar crime. Whether individuals cope with these


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strains through white-collar crime, however, depends on the characteristics of these individuals and their environments. In particular, it depends on those characteristics that affect the ability to cope in a legal versus criminal manner, the costs of criminal coping, and the disposition for criminal coping. Also, in all cases the focus is on explaining the behavior of individuals. This is true even with respect to corporate crime, with the focus here being on the behavior of corporate ofcials (who sometimes take the interests of the corporation into account).

Types of Strai


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