White Collar Crime Research Paper

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White collar crime has progressed since Edwin Sutherland introduced the term in 1939; his goal was to bring attention to the more affluent criminal element, which was often overlooked in traditional criminological theory. Since its introduction, white-collar crime has become a debated issue in criminological theory. One source of debate is over the definition of white-collar crime. Several studies were published during the 1940s, addressing white-collar crime at the individual and organizational levels. After a hiatus during the 1950s and 1960s, scholarship in this area was revisited using a new definition based on the offense rather than the offender, as had been used in the past. Redefining white-collar crime in this way led to a division in its fields of study; Clinard and Quinney (1973) identified the two fields as corporate crime and occupational crime. Despite the division, the debate is far from resolved. Unresolved issues include crime types and measurement. The former is of particular interest as technological advances promote the development of new crimes. Scholarship in the area of white-collar crime has expanded knowledge about both the offenders and victims of these crimes utilizing official statistics, self-report surveys, and victimization surveys.


White collar crime is an umbrella term which incorporates various types of unlawful acts and a different type of actor than many people often associate with the concepts of crime and criminals. As a consequence, the term white-collar crime has all too often become a shorthand way of distinguishing specific types of offenders and offenses. For many scholars, the theoretical and empirical study of white-collar crime should focus on powerful elite offenders, and as such, the white-collar criminal forms a polar opposite to the typical offender found in the criminal justice system. For other scholars, white-collar crime studies are designed to examine offenses committed by organizations or corporations (also known as corporate crime). Finally, another group of scholars suggests that white-collar crime studies should more closely mimic other studies of crimes and criminals by focusing on the specific acts that violate a law. There is likely no other term in criminology that has garnered such debate.

Key Issues

Edwin Sutherland, an American sociologist, introduced the term white-collar crime on December 27, 1939, in his presidential address entitled “The White Collar Criminal” to the American Sociological Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Sutherland 1940). The point of his address was to challenge existing conceptions of the stereotypical criminal and to critique extant criminological theories of the day which he viewed as narrowly focusing on only one part of the crime problem. At that time, crime was viewed as a lower class phenomenon which was committed by disadvantaged young men from broken homes and decaying neighborhoods. Sociologists working at the University of Chicago in the late 1920s and early 1930s argued that there was a link between socially disorganized neighborhoods and crime (Shaw and McKay 1942). During this time period, social disorganization theory was at the height of its popularity, arguing that crime was caused by social disorganization which was most often found in neighborhoods that were poor, had high levels of population turnover, and were predominately comprised of minorities. In due time, the image of the typical criminal began to emerge. In both scholarly writings and through the popular media, the stereotypical image of an offender was that of a tough guy growing up on the wrong side of town. The emergence of other criminological theories, such as classic strain theories, continued to focus on crimes and criminals as originating from the lower classes and did little to alter the public image of a typical offender.

By no means was Sutherland the first person to recognize that crimes were not exclusively a lower class phenomenon. Other scholars and popular writers also noted that crimes and misdeeds were also being committed by businessmen and other respectable members of society. However, crimes committed by such people were seldom seriously considered by those scholars who wrote about or studied crime and were not a major concern of the public or policy makers when addressing the crime problem.

When Sutherland gave his groundbreaking speech to the American Sociological Society, he set out to challenge the traditional image of criminals and the predominant etiological theories of his day. The white-collar criminals he identified were often middle-aged men of respectability and high social status. They lived in affluent neighborhoods and they were all well respected in their communities. He went on to define white-collar crime “as a violation of the criminal law by a person of the upper socioeconomic class in the course of his occupational activities” (Sutherland 1941, p. 112). Despite Sutherland’s recognition of the importance of the white-collar crime category, it never achieved the centrality in criminological study that he proposed.

Where Sutherland did succeed was in generating lively discussions and heated debates surrounding the definition of white-collar crime. The ambiguities associated with the lack of a precise definition of white-collar crime can be traced back to Sutherland’s own writings. Geis (1992, p. 33), in reviewing the development of the term, notes that Sutherland “buried part of his definition in a footnote,” suggesting that this “attests to his indifference to the matter.” Sutherland himself would suggest that “this definition is arbitrary and not very precise. It is not necessary that it be precise, for the hypothesis is that white-collar crime is identical in its general characteristics with other crime rather than different from it” (1941, p. 112).

While Sutherland’s original – and now commonly considered as an offender based – definition of white-collar crime refers to an individual’s social status (e.g., respectability) and an occupational opportunity to commit the crime, many of his earliest examples of white-collar crime came from his study of seventy of the largest industrial and mercantile corporations in the United States (Sutherland 1945). The shift in the unit of analysis, from individual to organization, only added to the conceptual confusion of the concept. Sutherland argued that white-collar crime is crime because it is a violation of law, albeit criminal, regulatory, and civil laws, but a violation of law nonetheless. In order to further illustrate his point, Sutherland (1945) examined court decisions regarding antitrust violations, cases of false advertising, national labor relations infractions, and infringements of patents, copyrights, and trademarks. He found a total of 547 adverse decisions against the seventy corporations he examined and 473 of those decisions related to actual crimes committed. He noted that less than ten percent of the total decisions made it into the criminal court but argued all the same that the violations of regulatory and civil laws were also indicative of a crimes, those that he labeled as white-collar crimes. Legal scholars took issue with Sutherland’s (Caldwell 1958; Tappan 1947) inclusion of civil and regulatory violations as crimes as they are not violations of criminal statutes.

While Sutherland had hoped that the introduction of the concept of white-collar crime would ignite new strands of research and broaden the scope of acts considered by criminologists as normative criminal behavior, such was not the case. The study of white-collar crime fell into an inactive state for most of the 1950s and1960s (Geis 1992; Payne 2012). During this period of inactivity, some scholars argued for further restricting or tightening of the definition of white-collar crime. For example, Geis (1962) argued that white-collar crimes should be limited to the realm of corporate violations. This push toward a more restrictive definition of white-collar crime led to a fracture or a divide in the study of white-collar crimes, a distinction that Clinard and Quinney (1973) would later conceptualize with the terms corporate crime and occupational crime.

Research in the area of white-collar crime saw a rebirth of activity in the 1970s when definitions of white-collar crime began to move away from a myopic focus on offenders with high status or respectability and shifted to what is now referred to as an offense-based definition of white-collar crime. Edelhertz (1970, p. 3, 19–20) preferred a broad legally based definition of white-collar crime by defining it as “an illegal act or series of illegal acts committed by nonphysical means and by concealment or guile, to obtain money or property, to avoid the payment or loss of money or property, or to obtain business or personal advantage.” He further identified four subdivisions of white-collar crime: (1) personal crimes, crimes by persons operating on an individual, ad hoc basis, for personal gain in a nonbusiness context; (2) abuse of trust, crimes in the course of their occupations by those operating inside businesses, government or other establishments, or in a professional capacity, in violation of their duty of loyalty and infidelity to employer or client; (3) business crimes, crimes incidental to and in furtherance of business operations but not the central purpose of such business operations; and (4) con games, white-collar crime as a business or as the central activity of the business. This offense-based approach to defining white-collar crime was favored by many scholars and practitioners, though some preferred the term “economic offenses” over the already established “white-collar crime” phrase. The United States Department of Justice also utilizes an offense-based definition of white-collar crime, defining it as “nonviolent crime for financial gain committed by means of deception by persons whose occupational status is entrepreneurial, professional, or semi-professional and utilizing their special occupational skills and opportunities also, nonviolent crime for financial gain utilizing deception and committed by anyone having special technical or professional knowledge of business and government, irrespective of the person’s occupation.” The use of an offense-based definition of white-collar crime also created new avenues for studying and understanding these types of crimes.

The distinction between offender-and offense-based definitions of white-collar crime created somewhat of a fracture in theoretical and empirical scholarship on white-collar crime. Clinard and Quinney (1973) provided a clear distinction between the study of corporate crime and the study of occupational crime. Corporate crime would consist of illegal acts that are committed by an employee or an officer of the corporation or of the actions of the corporation itself when such actions would promote corporate interests or somehow benefit the organization. Occupational crime, on the other hand, was defined as “violation of the criminal law in the course of activity of a legitimate occupation” and would include any persons, regardless of position in the social structure, who commit an illegal act for his or her personal benefit in the course of their occupation (Clinard and Quinney 1973, p. 188).

Many researchers today continue to use the corporate crime versus occupational crime distinction when conducting research. Corporate crime scholars, for example, investigate both organizational defendants as well as individual actors engaging in crimes and misconducts that are designed to further the interests or benefit the organization. On the other hand, those who study occupational crime are more interested in the acts that are committed by individuals for their own personal gain. Corporate crime scholars tend to focus on understanding the criminogenic aspects of the organization and the surrounding business environment and as such, focus attention on examining the organizational context and the role that it plays in the decision-making process. Some have suggested that “corporate crime differs from other kinds of white-collar offenses (e.g., embezzlement) in three main ways: (1) offenders can be official representatives of the company or the company itself; (2) offenses are undertaken in the pursuit of corporate goals; and (3) violators are subject to criminal, regulatory, and civil law” (Simpson and Piquero 2002, p. 510).

Much has been written on the definitional issues surrounding the study of white-collar crime, but this debate is far from being settled. While the emergence of offense-based definitions created new opportunities for studying white-collar crime by using official measures of criminal behavior (e.g., police arrest records), the use of such data also provoked controversy. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system records data on white-collar crimes include fraud, forgery, and embezzlement; yet, because offenders arrested for these three crime types do not necessarily need to be employed to carry out the offenses, many critics argue that these are not really white-collar crimes. For example, Steffensmeier (1989, p. 347) argued that “UCR data have little or nothing to do with white-collar crime.” The category of fraud, for example, would include those offenders arrested for welfare fraud, check fraud, welfare fraud, wire fraud, and credit card or ATM fraud. Many critics would rather view these crimes as versions of theft rather than including them into the category of white-collar crime.

Further contributing to the definitional dilemma is the invention of new crime types, such as cybercrimes, intellectual property offenses, and the crime of identity theft. These offenses are often studied by white-collar crime scholars but do not nicely fit into the two-pronged categorization created by Clinard and Quinney (1973) as they are neither corporate crimes nor occupational offenses. Crimes such as these, however, would easily fit within one of the four subdivisions as identified by Edelhertz (1970) in his broadly defined definition of white-collar crime. The continued growth of technology and specialized skills sets is only going to further hamper the precise definition of white-collar crime. The irony to this definitional conundrum, which has plagued the study of white-collar crime since Sutherland first sensitized scholars and the general public to its existence, is the unnecessary focus on spurious offender attributes. The focus on identifying offenders by their attributes is precisely the point that Sutherland was fighting against.

Research Directions

For the most part, the study of white-collar crime has copied, mimicked, and otherwise followed the methodologies used to study crime more generally albeit at a much slower pace. The definitional problem plaguing the white-collar crime field has historically made studying this crime type somewhat difficult. As a way around this impediment, white-collar crime scholars have relied upon three primary means of data collection, case studies, official reports, and surveys, to study white-collar crime.

The earliest and most popular methods for studying white-collar crimes came in the form of case studies. The case study approach involves an in-depth study of one single specialized crime, criminal, or event. Data for such an approach are gathered from a variety of sources, including archival data including court records and news accounts, field research, and interviews (Payne 2012). The extant literature is replete with examples of notorious case studies of white-collar crimes and criminals. Perhaps the most notable example of a specific crime is Geis (1967) description of the 1961 price-fixing conspiracies in the electrical industry, and the most notable description of type of specialized offender comes from Cressey’s (1953) and later Zietz’s (1981) examination of convicted embezzlers.

Until the late 1980s, a statistically valid picture of white-collar crime and offenders was nearly impossible to create because of the dearth of quantitative data on the crimes and criminals. The shift toward an offense-based definition of white-collar crime allowed scholars to use official data sources such as police arrests, court and conviction records, as well as regulatory agency data to study white-collar offenses and offenders. For the first time, data collection efforts in the 1980s permitted a greater understanding of the offenses, offender characteristics, and overall criminal career patterns of white-collar offenders. Most notably, the Yale studies on white-collar crime, which were led by Wheeler et al. (1988; also see Weisburd et al. 1991), defined white-collar crime as “economic offenses committed through the use of some combination of fraud, deception, and collusion.” Wheeler and his colleagues proceeded to investigate a sample of 1,342 “white-collar offenders” drawn from persons who were convicted in seven selected Federal United States Districts over a three-year time period for eight different white-collar offenses including antitrust offenses, securities fraud, mail fraud, false claims, bribery, income tax fraud, lending/credit fraud, and bank embezzlement. Data on each offender was collected from presentence report and investigation reports which are prepared by a probation officer after an offender has been convicted for the sentencing judge. These reports contain an abundance of detailed data about both the offense and the offender; such information includes the circumstances of the current offense, the offender’s criminal history, as well as demographic and background information of the offender (e.g., level of education, employment status, familial situation). In addition to gathering information on white-collar offenders, data was also collected for a comparison group of offenders convicted in federal court for nonviolent financially oriented property crimes (e.g., postal fraud and postal forgery).

The Yale studies were extremely important and influential because they were among the first set of empirical studies that allowed white-collar crime scholars to investigate whether or not there were identifiable differences between white-collar and street offenders. Wheeler et al. (1988) found differences in the violation of different criminal statutes, differences in the pools of criminal victims, with victims of white-collar crimes more likely to be organizations as opposed to individuals, and differences in the complexity and duration of the offenses, with white-collar crimes involving more than five persons and lasting longer than one year. When examining the offenders themselves, it became clear that white-collar offenders were better educated than the comparison group of common criminals, were more likely to be white, and were less likely to be unemployed. Overall, two conclusions regarding white-collar offenders emerged: (1) the vast majority of convicted white-collar offenders were not, as previously believed, members of the highest social classes; rather, they appeared to be average middle-class citizens, and (2) a substantial number of the convicted white-collar offenders, approximately 40 %, had a criminal record (Piquero and Benson 2004; Weisburd et al. 1990). As Weisburd et al. (1991, p. 73) concluded, “whatever else may be true of the distinction between white-collar and common criminals, the two are definitely drawn from distinctly different sectors of the American population.” Finally, as is the case in the general criminological literature, subsequent analyses of the Yale data indicate that there is important variation within the group of white-collar offenders, such that overall offending patterns among individual offenders do not follow in “lock-step” (Piquero and Weisburd 2009).

The use of survey data has also been a popular way to study both street crime as well as white-collar crime and affords researchers much flexibility in the content and the specific types of questions asked. Two common approaches to survey research as it relates to collecting crime data are the use of self-report surveys, that is, directly asking offenders to indicate their involvement in criminal activities, and the use of victim surveys, where victims directly report their experiences with crimes. The use of self-report surveys is a challenging endeavor depending upon the specific criminal offense of interest. For offenses that are rare events, such as many types of both violent crimes and white-collar crimes, the base rate of positive reporting tends to be very low. Therefore, these types of survey approaches are best utilized with normative offenses such as drug and alcohol use and abuse.

The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) provides an alternative method for attempting to describe the amount of crime occurring throughout the United States. The NCVS is a household survey that specifically inquires about the level of victimization experienced by individuals living within the households selected into the study. Unfortunately, the focus of the NCVS has been almost exclusively on street crimes, primarily on crimes such as sexual assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and vandalism. While the NCVS has not been extremely useful in identifying and documenting the extent of white-collar crime, in 2004, the NCVS conducted a supplementary analysis that specifically asked victims to report on their experiences with identity theft – defined as the unauthorized use or attempted use of existing credit cards, the unauthorized use or attempted use of other existing accounts such as checking accounts, and the misuse of personal information to obtain new accounts or loans. The findings from this survey indicated that identity theft was a type of crime experienced by at least one person in 5.5 % of all households.

In order to gain a broader understanding of victimization experiences with white-collar crimes, the National White Collar Crime Center has conducted a series of national household surveys (conducted in 1999, 2005, and 2010) entitled, “National Public Survey on White Collar Crime” that examine a variety of different types of fraud. The most recent study asked respondents to report whether someone in their household had been victimized in the past twelve months of any of the following offenses: credit card fraud, price misrepresentation, unnecessary repairs, Internet monetary loss, identity theft, fraudulent business venture, false stockbroker information, or mortgage fraud. Findings showed that approximately 24 % of the respondents indicated that someone within their household experienced at least one type of victimization (Huff et al. 2010). Other more specialized databases collect information regarding the victim’s experiences with specific white-collar offenses. For example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) collects information in their Consumer Sentinel database on offenses such as complaints of fraud and identity theft, while the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) focuses on Internet-facilitated crimes.

One final survey approach to understanding white-collar crime is the use of public perception surveys. This methodological approach allows researchers to understand how the general public and even specialized groups such as criminal justice personnel view crimes relative to one another. This line of research tends to ask respondents, by phone or in-person surveys, how they perceive and/or view certain crimes, their seriousness, and how they believe each should be punished. The underlying focus of this line of research is to try to determine which crime types are deemed as “serious” by the survey respondents and also to gain an understanding of what the public believes the criminal justice system should do and how they should respond to such crimes. This information is seen to be important by many scholars because it has the potential to provide policy makers with a better understanding of public sentiments and lend some insight into which issues should be addressed first and possibly describe some potential courses of corrective action.

Measuring public perceptions of white-collar crimes has closely followed the existing criminological scholarship that examines the ranking of street crimes in terms of perceptions of the seriousness of the crime. Sellin and Wolfgang (1964) conducted the first public perception study that ranked the crime seriousness of a variety of crimes and found consistent responses across the seriousness ratings especially as they related to violent crimes. More recent public perception studies tend to show that Americans consistently rank white-collar crimes just as serious as street crimes (Kane and Wall 2006; Piquero et al. 2008; Rosenmerkel 2001; Schoepfer et al. 2007).


Historically, white-collar crime had been largely regarded as a deviant case, invoked primarily to provide a contrast to the common crimes and street criminals that dominate the field’s theory and research about crime and criminals. As such, the study of white-collar crime has not developed at the same pace or with the same specific level of detailed methodology that has been evinced in the larger criminological literature. For many scholars, this approach focused on an understanding of white-collar crime that is not only distinct from crime more generally but has led some observers to believe that the study of white-collar crime can contribute little to our understanding of crime more generally. Fortunately, this myopic view of white-collar crime is now clearing, and the study of white-collar crimes and criminals is beginning to be located within the larger criminological literature. White collar crime scholars are applying research strategies, techniques, and theories from the more general crime literature to the study of white-collar crime and offenders and scholars who in the past had little interest in understanding white-collar crime and now beginning to consider, discuss, and research its importance.


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