; White Collar Crime DAVID NELKEN INTRODUCTION The media increasingly report cases of business or professional people caught out in serious offences sometimes for behaviour which they d
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White Collar Crime DAVID NELKEN INTRODUCTION The media increasingly report cases of business or professional people caught out in serious offences sometimes for behaviour which they d


White-Collar Crime

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									White-Collar Crime



The media increasingly report cases of business or professional people caught out in

serious offences, sometimes for behaviour which they did not expect to be treated as

criminal, and for which it is often difficult to secure a conviction. Such Jekyll and

Hyde contradiction between respectability and crime raises questions which are unlike

those posed by other types of criminal behaviour. Why do they do it when they have

so much to lose? How representative are they or their practices of other businessmen

or business life in general? Is there one law for the rich and another for the poor?

One of the biggest difficulties in approaching this subject is to find a way of putting

dramatic and newsworthy cases of business misbehaviour in some sort of context and

proportion. Study of the distribution and frequency of white-collar crimes is made

problematic by the fact (not in itself unimportant) that, especially in the common law

countries where the concept was first formulated, most white-collar crimes are not

included in the official statistics which serve as the basis for debates about 'the crime

problem'. The usual difficulties of interpreting the statistics of crime are greatly

magnified here (Levi 1985). Falling back on the information recorded by specialised

enforcement agencies, (often not even made public), serves mainly as a source for

describing methods of control rather than the misbehaviour being controlled. Nor can

it be assumed that there is any uniformity in the meaning of data obtained in this way.

A few agencies are reactive, and depend on complaints, others are proactive but the

level of enforcement is restricted by limited resources ( in Britain factories are
inspected for safety offences on average once every four years ). Much regulation is

geared to using prosecution as a last resort - thus the number of prosecuted offenders

says little about the theoretical level of crime; conversely, the number of visits or

warnings cannot be used as an index of the incidence of deliberate law breaking.

There is a danger of double counting where the same behaviour is dealt with by

different agencies or where one firm has more sub-units than another. This also

creates problems about defining recidivism - which were ignored by Sutherland in his

pioneering study (Sutherland 1949). There are problems of classifying the date and

location of some of these offences (a factor which often helps secure their immunity).

Shifts in legislative mandates, and in the number, expertise, politics and motivation of

enforcers make a treacherous basis for studies of changes in offending patterns over

time. Finally, supplementing official statistics with victim reports is difficult because

the victims are often unaware of their victimisation; and even where this is not the

case, as in organisations subject to fraud, there is often unwillingness to admit to

vulnerability (see Levi and Pithouse, forthcoming).

These difficulties mean that discussions of the subject in textbooks are often forced to

rely unduly on newspaper reports or on the activities of crusading journalists (see e.g.

Coleman 1985; but see now Punch 1996). Obtaining information in this way

complicates the task of assessing the accuracy, frequency or representativeness of the

cases reported. Are 'scandals' by definition unrepresentative of normal life, or should

we rather see them, as Punch does, as occasions which expose typical practices and

mechanisms of deviance - especially the way 'illict solutions are found to managerial

dilemmas' (Punch 1996). What is clear is that newspapers, or those who feed them

their stories, initiate crime control campaigns for reasons which may have little to do
with the long - term trend in the misbehaviour at issue. It is therefore often hard to

tell, here as elsewhere, whether business or financial crimes are increasing or are just

more newsworthy, or to decide if apparent change is the result of an increase in a

given kind of misbehaviour or more the consequence of a trend towards the use of

formal and legal, rather than informal, means to deal with it.

Despite these problems there have been some useful studies drawing on agency

records to survey the rate of corporate offending (Clinard and Yeager 1980) or even

on court records to establish the type of offenders normally apprehended for what the

authors call 'middle -class crimes' (Weisburd et. al. 1991). What we know about

white-collar crime also comes from interviews with enforcers as well as observation

of their work (e.g. Carson 1970; Hawkins 1984; Hutter 1988, 1997, and cf. Nelken

1991); interviews with businessmen (e.g. Lane 1953; Braithwaite 1984 ); biographies

of and retrospective accounts by offenders (e.g. Geis,1968); participant observation in

offending organisations (e.g. Nelken 1983: chapter 2); experimental techniques such

as those used by consumer organisations (Green 1990: chap 2), as well as other

sources (and for useful methodological hints on researching these type of offences

see Levi 1985).

Although most of the literature on white-collar crime is American major contributions

have been made by other English-language scholars such as Braithwaite, Carson, and

Levi. The equivalent term for white-collar crime is also widely found in other

languages, and even used in foreign court proceedings. There are also interesting

contributions, sometimes in foreign languages, which could serve as a useful starting

point for comparative research (e.g. Tiedemann 1974; Cosson 1978; Magnusson
1985; Clarke 1990b; Delmas-Marty 1990; Zigler 1990; Van Duyne 1993; Passas and

Nelken 1993; Savelsberg 1994). But the common use of the term can be misleading.

Despite the similarities of modern industrialised economies, there are important

differences in general and legal culture which affect the meaning of and response to

white-collar crime (and its contrasting category of ordinary crime). These contrasts

have not yet been sufficiently explored (see Nelken 1994a; Levi and Nelken 1996;

Nelken 2000). In Civil law countries such as Italy there are few of the special

enforcement agencies used to deal with occupational offences found, for example, in

America, Britain and Australia. Instead, normal police forces, often spearheaded by

specialised financial police, conduct investigations of economic crime, and

businessmen or politicians with white-collars regularly see the inside of prisons

(though few seem to stay there for long). American outrage over business

misbehaviour may be connected to what Wright -Mills ( 1963 / 1943) saw as the small

town values of American social reformers, as well as to a peculiar, American, love-

hate relationship with big businesses ( are they the ultimate proof of capitalist success

or a threat to the market and to the individual?) In countries with a strong Catholic

heritage the respectability attached to capitalist profit - making may be less secure

than in Protestant countries (Ruggiero 1996).

Much of the literature on white-collar crime continues to be concerned to demonstrate

the seriousness and diffuseness of such offending, and to show that its costs and

damages dwarf that of conventional, or ordinary, crime (for a recent summary of

attempts to measure the impact of white collar crime see Slapper and Tombs 1999:

37-41, and 54-84). More than any other type of crime white collar offences are also

attacked for undermining the basis of trust which holds society together (for example
by discrediting those in authority or positions of privelege who are supposed to be

models of respectability). Colossal fines and settlements are imposed in cases of some

financial crimes, for example, Michael Milken, the junk bond king, paid over 650

million dollars in court ordered restitution even before sentence. The collapse of the

Savings and Loan institutions (similar to what in Britain are described as Building

Societies), in the United States in the late 1980s, may end up costing a trillion dollars.

This is many times the cost of the Marshall Plan or the Korean war; but the real

impact is blunted because the costs are to be covered by a US government 50 year

loan (Pontell, H.N. and Calavita, K. 1993; Calavita et. al 1997; Zimring and Hawkins

1993). Contrary to what is supposed by some definitions (e.g. Edelhertz 1970) there is

also no reason to exclude violence and death from the province of white-collar crime.

There are a number of case-studies which document this, even without going into

more controversial but important calculations of the overall number of fatal accidents

or diseases occurring at work which could have been prevented and prosecuted ( Box,

1983: 28ff; Hills 1988; Slapper 1991). Carson's study of the loss of life in the

exploration for oil in the North Sea (confirmed by later events such as the blowing up

of the Alpha oil rig in 1988 with the loss of 168 lives), for instance, showed that many

lives could have been saved with rudimentary attention to safety considerations (

Carson 1982). The devastating consequences of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the

chemical explosion at Bhopal, the suffering caused by the sale of the drug

thalidomide, or the contraceptive known as the Dalkon shield, are other well known


Despite all this evidence, white-collar crimes are still subjected to very different

interpretations. It might seem odd that sociologists, familiar with Durkheim's
argument that society considers dangerous those behaviours it responds to as criminal,

rather than the other way round, should keep trying to prove that white-collar crime is

really criminal simply because it causes great harm. The answer must be that they

hope in this way to influence the social definition of such conduct. Debates over the

causes and control of white-collar crime do connect to different political evaluations

of the misdeeds of business or capitalism. Political conservatives tend to favour

structural explanations of business malpractice rather than personal guilt - thus

changing places with liberals in comparison with their positions on ordinary crime

(Zimring and Hawkins 1993). But even authors with very different political views

argue that corporate crime requires 'a shift from a humanist to a structuralist

problematic' - though they continue nonetheless to apply the criminal label to the

behaviour which results from such a structural problematic (Slapper and Tombs


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