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Toward an Integrated Theory of White-Collar Crime

James William Coleman

Theory of White-Collar Crime James William Coleman The American Journal of Sociology , Vol. 93, No.

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

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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. It 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.


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, at 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, at 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 communitie~.~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 at 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 at 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 individual, financial crimes involving such things as tax evasion that are not a direct part of the offender's occupation, and crimes committed by middle- class persons who are not of "high social status." To include these areas, I have defined white-collar crime elsewhere as "a violation of the law committed by a person or group of persons in the course of an otherwise respected and legitimate occupation or financial activity" (Coleman 198Sa, p. 5). Some would hold that those violations must be against the criminal law and that offenses that involve only civil penalties should not be included. But, as Blum-West and Carter (1983) point out, the differences between civil and criminal law are far fewer than is usually believed, and my definition includes both types of violations.

White-Collar Crime

research on white-collar crime in holding motivation to consist of a set of symbolic constructions defining certain kinds of goals and activities as appropriate and desirable and others as lacking those qualities. An oppor- tunity is defined as a potential course of action, made possible by a particular set of social conditions, which has been symbolically incorpo- rated into an actor's repertoire of behavioral possibilities. Thus, a poten- tial course of action becomes an opportunity only when someone is aware of it. In popular speech, the use of the word opportunity is generally restricted only to those things an individual actually wants to do. We speak of the opportunity to double an investment not the opportunity to have cancer surgery, but the definition given above would accept any possible course of action as an opportunity. An opportunity can, nonethe- less, be characterized as attractive or unattractive from the standpoint of a particular individual. One opportunity may also be said to be more attractive than another, in a general sense, if it is more appealing to the majority of the individuals to whom it is available. Because social structure becomes a reality only through its effects on the behavior of individual persons (Collins 1981), my analysis will begin with an examination of the motivational patterns of white-collar offend- ers. I will then consider the ways social structure influences motivation and determines the patterns of opportunities available to the occupants of different social statuses.


There is a strong tendency among the general public and even many psychologists and criminologists to see the criminal as an abnormal indi- vidual with significant biological or psychological differences from other people. Yet, despite the popularity of such theories, they have seldom been applied to white-collar offenders. There have been virtually no scientific attempts to uncover a hereditary component in white-collar criminality or to attribute it to a biological condition of some other origin. Nor has there been a significant effort to link white-collar crime to family background or abnormalities in early socialization. While somewhat greater attention has been given to the psychological makeup of white- collar offenders, this line of investigation has proved no more rewarding. Sutherland ([I9491 1983; Cohen, Lindesmith, and Schuessler 1956) ar- gued strongly for the psychological normality of white-collar criminals, and studies of different groups of white-collar offenders by Blum (1972, pp. 145-57), Bromberg (1965, pp. 377-400), Spelling (1944), and Spencer (1965) support this conclusion. Although those four researchers do posit some common psychological characteristics as causal factors in their sub- jects' criminal involvement, there is far too little consistency in their

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findings to conclude that such personality theories have much explana- tory value. Because there seems to be nothing unusual in the biological makeup or socialization of most white-collar criminals, researchers have had to look elsewhere to explain the motivation for their offenses. Although there are many social-psychological paradigms that might be applied to this prob- lem, the interactionist approach has proved to be the best suited and has been used in the vast majority of the research on this question. Unlike psychiatric perspectives, which see motivation as the product of biolog- ical urges or unconscious desires, interactionists see motivation as a sym- bolic construct. The meaning that individuals attribute to a particular situation and to social reality in general structures their experience and makes certain courses of action seem appropriate while others are ex- cluded or ignored. But socially created symbolic constructs not only define reality, they also allow individuals to anticipate the kinds of re- sponses their behavior is likely to bring and adjust their actions accord- ingly. Thus, individual motivation is seen to include a general symbolic construction of reality, definitions of various individual situations, con- struction of some ends as valuable and others as undesirable, and a set of expectations about the kinds of responses different behaviors can be ex- pected to evoke (Mead 1934; Mills 1940; Foote 1951; Cressey 1969; Cole- man 1978). Because behavior is evaluated in terms of the actor's symbolic con- struction of the responses anticipated from others, the expectations of significant others and the generalized expectations of society as a whole are critical elements in individual motivation (Mead 1934, pp. 152-63). But the fact that the generalized other is held to be a central element in thought and behavior poses a problem for an interactionist theory of white-collar crime because most criminal activities are likely to violate the societal expectations it embodies. Although Sutherland was the first to apply interactionist theory to the analysis of white-collar crime, he never explicitly recognized this contradiction. It was Cressey's ([I9531 1971) work on the way embezzlers "adjust" the symbolic construction of their behavior to conform to generalized social expectations that first came to grips with this problem. In his interviews with institutionalized embezzlers, Cressey found that his subjects used a number of common "techniques of neutralization" (Sykes and Matza 1957) to allow them- selves to maintain a nondeviant self-image while still engaging in criminal activities. Most of the embezzlers interviewed by Cressejr adjusted their construction of their criminal behavior by telling themselves that they were just borrowing the money and would soon return it. As one subject put it, "I figured that if you could use something and help yourself and replace it and not hurt anybody, it was all right" (Cressey [I9531 1971,

White-Collar Crime

p. 101). Cressey's respondents also reported using several other justifica-

tions, but the claim that they were just borrowing the money was by far the most common, probably because it is so well suited to neutralizing the definition of embezzlement as deviant behavior. Such symbolic constructions are often referred to as rationalizations by

interactionist theorists, but the term carries a different connotation in this context than it does in everyday speech. To interactionists, a rationaliza- tion is not an after-the-fact excuse that someone invents to justify his or her behavior but an integral part of the actor's motivation for the act (see Cressey 1969). Most of Cressey's embezzlers, for example, would not have committed their offenses if they had defined such activities as simple theft instead of as borrowing. The borrowing rationalization so common among embezzlers is much less appropriate for most other kinds of white-collar crime. There are, however, ample data from both sociological research and the public state- ments of convicted offenders to construct a typology of the techniques of neutralization used by white-collar criminals. One of the most common of these techniques is the denial of harm. When convicted white-collar of- fenders are asked to explain their behavior, they frequently claim that their actions did not harm anyone, and they have therefore done nothing wrong. A Westinghouse executive who was one of the defendants in the 1961 heavy electrical equipment price-fixing trials expressed this justification when he was asked if he thought his behavior was illegal. He

I assumed that a criminal

action meant hurting someone, and we did not do that" (Geis 1977,

p. 122). Similar justifications were expressed in Zeitlin's (1971) study of

workers discharged for stealing from their employers. As one of his sub- jects put it: "It's not really hurting anybody-the store can afford it" (p. 22). Moreover, survey data show the public to be more tolerant of theft from large businesses and government than from smaller, more vulnerable organizations, probably because theft from a larger organiza- tion is perceived as less damaging to the victim (Smigel 1956). Individuals involved in organizational crimes frequently justify their behavior by claiming that the laws they are violating are unnecessary or even unjust. Complaints about "government interference" in the free market are, of course, common in the business community, and business leaders often use the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism to criticize laws and regulations that they consider inappropriate. Because laissez-faire ideology holds many of the regulatory laws to be more harmful to the public than the business practices they prohibit, it can be used to justify a host of business crimes. Clinard (1952, p. 69), for example, concluded that gasoline dealers' belief that the wartime rationing of gasoline was unnecessary was a "rationalization for the violations which were occur-

responded: "Illegal? Yes, but not

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ring," and similar attitudes certainly play a role in many violations of worker safety, environmental, and antitrust legislation. However, ideological considerations are probably less important among small- business people than the perception of the fairness of the regulations in their individual cases. Ball's (1960) study of rent control in Honolulu found no significant difference in violation rates between landlords who felt that controls were necessary and those who felt they were not. But there were significantly higher rates among landlords who believed that the rent ceiling applied to their property was less than its "fair" value. Another common rationalization holds that certain types of criminal

behaviors are necessary to achieve vital economic goals or just to survive. Chibnall and Saunders (1977) cite the case of a former city councilman in Britain who justified his part in a corruption scandal in these words: "I am by nature a wheeler-dealer. How else can you be a successful politi-


appeal to necessity to justify his participation in the price-fixing conspi- racy: "I thought we were more or less working on a survival basis in order to try to make enough to keep our plant and our employees" (Geis 1977,

.?" The same Westinghouse executive quoted earlier also used the


122). The sales manager of a competing company made the same point:


the spirit of the [price-fixing] meetings only appeared to be correcting

There was not personal gain in it for

me [sic]. The company did not seem actually to be defrauding [anyone]. Corporate statements can evidence the fact that there have been poor profits during all these years" (Geis 1977, p. 123). This appeal to necessity is especially common among those who partici- pate in illegal activities because their employer expects it. Sutherland cites the case of an idealistic young college graduate who reported losing two previous jobs because he refused to become involved in unethical activities. After finding that his third employer had the same expecta- tions, he said, "I sometimes felt disgusted and wanted to quit, but I argued that I did not have much chance to find a legitimate firm. I knew the game was rotten, but it has to be played-the law of the jungle and that sort of thing" (Sutherland [I9491 1983, pp. 241-42). Employees in large corporate organizations may find the pressure to become involved in illegal activities particularly difficult to resist. A corporate manager's chances of finding another position with comparable pay and benefits depends on his or her record of success with previous employers, and the threat of dismissal is a powerful one. But fear of losing an important assignment or being passed over for promotion is nearly as strong a threat to achievement-oriented executives as outright dismissal. Another of the managers involved in the heavy electrical equipment price-fixing case justified his criminal activities by claiming: "If I didn't do it, I felt some- one else would. I would be removed and swebody else would do it" (Geis

a horrible price level

White-Collar Crime

1977, p. 124). Moreover, there is ample evidence that such fears are often justified. A report to the Securities and Exchange Commission concern- ing Lockheed's involvement in foreign bribery states that "the Committee was told by several witnesses that employees who questioned foreign marketing practices damaged their claims for career advancement" (Clinard and Yeager 1980, p. 65). A closely related technique of neutralization involves transfer of re- sponsibility from the offender to a large and often vaguely defined group to which he or she belongs. When asked to explain their criminal activi- ties, admitted offenders repeatedly claim that 'everybody else is doing it too.' As one embezzler put it: "In the real estate business you have to

paint a pretty picture in order to sell the property. We did a little juggling and moving around, but everyone in the real estate business has to do that. We didn't do anything that they all don't do" (Cressey [I9531 1971,

p. 137). One of the major themes of the 'everybody's doing it' rationaliza-

tion is that it is unfair to condemn one violator unless all other violators are condemned as well. The following statement of a defendant in a British corruption case is typical in this regard: "I will never believe I have done anything criminally wrong. I did what is business. If I bent the rules, who doesn't? If you are going to punish me, sweep away the sys- tem. If I am guilty, there are many others who should be by my side in the dock" (Chibnall and Saunders 1977, p. 142). Such justifications imply that criminal behavior must be some sort of individual choice and that a person is not responsible for his or her behavior when merely conforming to the expectations of others. Thus, corrupt employees often claim that they have not done anything wrong because their actions were considered acceptable behavior by their peers (see Geis 1977, p. 142). These justifications are very important ones, for opinion polls indicate that business people not only believe that their peers are willing to commit unethical acts but that they are actually doing

so. A study by the Haruard Business Review found that four out of five executives felt that some of the generally accepted practices in their indus- try were unethical and that four out of seven believed that other execu- tives would violate a code of ethics if they felt they would not be caught (Baumhart 1961). A 1975 survey of top officials in America's 57 largest corporations found that they believed unethical behavior to be wide- spread in industry and that it had to be accepted as a part of everyday business activities (Silk and Vogel 1976). Another study concluded that:

"Most managers believed that their peers would not refuse an order to market off-standard and possibly dangerous products (although a major- ity said they would personally reject such orders), and a majority thought young managers automatically go along with superiors to show loyalty" (Madden 1977).

American Journal of Sociology

Finally, occupational criminals commonly justify their offenses on the grounds that they deserve the money. Research shows this to be a particu- larly common rationalization for employee theft. Gerald Mars's (1974, p. 224) study of dockworkers found many types of pilferage were defined as a "morally justified addition to wages" or an "entitlement due from exploiting employers." Zeitlin (1971) found similar attitudes among em- ployees who stole from retail stores. One of his subjects felt that the "store owed it to me," while another said, "I felt I deserved to get something additional for my work since I wasn't getting paid enough" (p. 22). Gov- ernment workers also use these same rationalizations, especially since they often feel they are underpaid in comparison with their counterparts in private industry. One former city councilman gave the following ac- count of his reasons for becoming involved in corruption: "People like me are expected to work full-time without salaries, without staff, or even postage stamps. I for one couldn't afford such a situation. And that is where Poulson [a businessman seeking special favors] filled the came to the conclusion that I was missing out, that I could combine my real desire to give public service with what they call a piece of the action" (Chibnall and Saunders 1977, p. 143). Of course, many other justifica- tions are also used by white-collar criminals, but the six rationalizations just discussed are by far the most commonly mentioned both in the public statements of accused offenders and in confidential replies to sociological investigators.



Although the existing body of interactionist research presents a convinc- ing account of the motivations of white-collar offenders and the ways in which they neutralize the symbolic constraints on their behavior, it fails to explain the origins of the motivations it describes. Consequently, its attempt to explain the origins of white-collar crime fails as well. The answer to this question must ultimately be found on the structural, not the social-psychological, level, and the failure of interactionist theorists lies precisely in their failure to root their analysis in the political economy of industrial capitalism. This is not to imply that current interactionist theory has no explana- tion of the origins of these motivational structures, for it clearly does. The problem is that the explanation it offers focuses so heavily on the social- psychological level that it breaks down when followed to its logical con- clusion. Simply stated, the interactionist position is that the symbolic constructs that motivate criminal behavior are learned from association with others. Sutherland provides the most comprehensive statement of this idea in his theory of differential association: "The hypothesis of dif-

White-Collar Crime

ferential association is that criminal behavior is learned in association with those who define such behavior favorably and in isolation from those who define it unfavorably, and that a person in an appropriate situation engages in such criminal behavior if, and only if, the weight of favorable definitions exceeds the weight of unfavorable definitions" (Sutherland [I9491 1983, p. 240). In one sense, Sutherland denies the possibility of true deviance. He argues that individuals automatically conform to the expec- tations and definitions of their associates and that criminal behavior does not occur without such social support-certainly not a position Mead would have a~cepted.~The theory of differential association thus trans- forms crime from a problem of deviant individuals to a problem of de- viant groups, but, in so doing, it still fails to answer the question of the origins of criminal motivation. Even if it could be shown that all criminal behavior is learned from association with others, we still must ask why certain groups foster criminal motivations and others do not. Current interactionist theory supplies no an~wer.~ In order to back out of this dead end, we need to reexamine how the construction of the motivational patterns of white-collar offenders is han- dled in the interactionist literature. The taxonomy of rationalizations presented above provides a great deal of information about the way offenders justify their criminal behavior but tells us little about why that behavior is attractive in the first place. There is, however, no question in the public's mind about the attraction of white-collar crime. The respon- dents in Lane's (1954) sample of business and government leaders clearly reflected the consensus of the public when they claimed that white- collar criminals were simply out to make a "fast buck," and, for once, there is little reason to doubt the conventional wisdom. The desire for financial gain is indeed an obvious part of the motivation of most offend-

Mead (1934) felt that the self contains two different components: the "I" and the "me." The me is a passive reflection of the responses an individual's behavior produces in others, but the I is the spontaneous, creative side of individual behavior that is capable of free action, independent of external pressure. Sutherland himself clearly recognized the role of structural variables in the etiology of criminal behavior, but he failed to integrate them into his explanation of white- collar crime. The theoretical conclusions presented in chap. 15 of White Collar Crime (1983, pp. 240-57) place heavy stress on the importance of differential association. He also included a brief discussion of two facets of social disorganization that encourage

white-collar crime-the anomie created by the transition from laissez-faire policies to a more regulated economic system and the conflicts between the business community, which is strongly organized for criminal activities, and the government, which is much more weakly organized to prevent them. But he did not seem as convinced of the value of the disorganization approach as he was in his earlier work on the origins of crime (see, e.g., Sutherland 1934, pp. 63-74). He concluded that the explanation of crime in

general in terms of social disorganization hypothesis up to the present time" (1983, p. 257).

has not proved to be a very useful

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ers. Perhaps too obvious, for interactionist theorists seem to have ac- cepted the importance of financial self-interest as a motivation for white- collar crime with little critical analysis, and it is precisely such an analysis that provides the necessary link between structural and social-psychologi- cal variables. The idea that wealth and success are central goals of human endeavor is part of a larger complex of beliefs that may be termed the "culture of competition." The foundations of this worldview can be traced at least as far back as the 17th century. Its reflections can be seen in the work of Hobbes, Locke, and other social thinkers of that era who formulated what MacPherson (1962) has termed the theory of possessive individ- ualism. Reaching its peak in the 19th century, this vision of human nature is still deeply embedded in contemporary culture and supplies many of the key assumptions of the culture of competition (Lukes 1973). From this perspective, each person is seen as an autonomous individual with the powers of reason and free choice, who is, in large measure, responsible for his or her own condition. The pursuit of economic self- interest and the effort to surpass their fellows in the accumulation of wealth and status are of critical importance to these autonomous individ- ual actors. As Wuthnow (1976, p. 105) puts it: "Becoming successful was more than simply one path a person could choose. It was in a very real sense a badge of one's intrinsic worth." In contrast to traditional values, the competitive struggle for personal gain is defined as a positive, not a selfish or harmful, activity. Competition is thus a builder of character, a test of personal worth, and a powerful stimulus to individual achieve- ment that ultimately produces the maximum economic value for society as a whole. The competitive economic struggle typical of life in capitalist society is seen as a battlefield on which the most capable and the hardest- working individuals emerge victorious. Over the years, these beliefs have become a fundamental legitimation for social inequality because they imply that the poor deserve their inferior position because of laziness, incompetence, or some other personal failing (Feagin 1975). In contrast to the stigmatization of the poor, "winners" are admired for the ability and drive that made them successful. One element of the culture of competition that the theorists of individ- ualism have seldom discussed is the pervasive sense of insecurity that has always been a powerful undercurrent in the culture of industrial capi- talism. This fear of failure permeates every stratum of contemporary society from the corporate leaders to the underclass. The following de- scription of the subculture of lower-class street hustlers would, for ex- ample, apply equally well to the world of achievement-oriented business executives or to the culture of competition in general: "Full-time hustlers As is the case in any jungle, the hustler's every

never can

White-Collar Crime

waking hour is lived with both the practical and subconscious knowledge

that if he ever relaxes, if he ever slows down, the other hungry, restless foxes, ferrets, wolves, and vultures out there with him won't hesitate to

." (Malcolm X 1965, p. 109). This same fear of

failure in the competitive struggle for wealth and success is just as clearly reflected in the middle-class world of American television: "Television's

with few excep-

tions prime time gives us people preoccupied with personal ambition. If not utterly consumed by ambition and the fear of ending up as losers, these characters take both the ambition and the fear for granted" (Gitlin 1983, pp. 268-69). This fear of failure is the inevitable correlate of the demand for success, and together they provide a set of powerful symbolic structures that are central to the motivation of economic behavior. This undercurrent of fear is nothing new to the culture of competition, and contemporary consumer culture is undoubtedly as materialistic and success oriented as any in history. But a number of social theorists argue that the growth of huge, impersonal bureaucracies and the increasing influence of the social sciences, which view individuals as partially or wholly determined by their social environment, have weakened the "rugged individualism" of the 19th century (Mills 1951; Riesman 1950; Whyte 1957; Wuthnow 1976). There is little doubt, for example, that some persons become involved in organizational crimes because of their identification with the interests of their employer and not because of their desires for personal success. But, any weakening in the individualistic orientation of contemporary culture must be seen in the perspective of its original strength. The primary motivation of the vast majority of organi- zational criminals is still the personal rewards they expect from their employer, not an altruistic desire to help their organization. Moreover, the key components of the culture of competition in motivating the white- collar criminal-the desire for wealth and success and the fear of fail- ure-have, if anything, grown stronger in the 20th century. Yet human motivation is never a simple phenomenon, and those two desires cannot account for the motivation of all white-collar criminals. Some crimes result from the effort to live up to the expectations of friends and associates in the offender's occupational world or from an unreflec- tive acceptance of a set of definitions that make certain criminal activities seem to be a normal part of the occupational routine. Examples include the bureaucratic functionaries who obediently carry out their superiors' orders with little or no thought about the consequences and members of occupational subcultures who participate in an pattern of illegal activities in order to win the acceptance and support of their peers. However, when analysis is extended beyond single individuals to encompass the entire group that sustains such criminogenic attitudes, the influence of the cul-

make him their prey

world is relentlessly upbeat, clean, and materialistic

American Journal of Sociology

ture of competition reappears. While some of the lower-level func- tionaries involved in organizational crimes may be acting from a sense of conformity or obedience, executives usually make the decision to violate the law because of their desires for wealth and success. Similarly, individ- ual members of a deviant occupational subculture may merely be going along with the expectations of their peers, but a collective desire for financial gain is the primary force creating and sustaining such expec- tations. Thus far, we have traced the motivation for white-collar crime back to the culture of competition, but it is necessary to take this analysis a step further and examine the origins of this competitive ethos. Whatever one makes of the claim that human beings are endowed with some "acquisi- tive instinct" or are inherently egocentric, it is clear from the wide range of variations among different human societies that most such behavior is learned. Anthropological studies of hunting and gathering societies have found little of the acquisitive materialism so typical of industrial societies. The values of hunting and gathering societies are strongly egalitarian, and the formal status hierarchy and the system of social classes and ranks that make the struggle for success possible simply do not exist. It was no coincidence that the first written expressions of possessive individualism come from the 17th century, the same period in which the modern capitalist economy was developing. As MacPherson (1962, p. 4) put it, those assumptions "correspond substantially to the actual relations of a market society." Of course, some elements of the culture of competi- tion were present in agricultural societies, because they generally had a well-defined class system and a certain amount of surplus wealth for which to compete. But, given the low level of social mobility and the traditional restrictions on economic life, the culture of competition and its criminogenic motivations were a far weaker cultural force in agricultural societies and were virtually unknown in most hunting and gathering societies. The reason for the extreme differences between hunting and gathering societies and industrial ones can be traced back to their environmental and economic foundations. An important share of the cooperative, egalitarian ethos of most hunting and gathering societies can be attributed to the fact that such societies produce little surplus wealth. They cannot support a system of status competition based on the accumulation of wealth because they lack the vast store of material goods that are the object of competition in industrial societies. In a work originally pub- lished in 1905, Willem Bonger (1969, p. 37) argued that:

As soon as productivity has increased to such an extent that the producer can regularly produce more than he needs, and the division of labor puts

White-Collar Crime

him in a position to exchange the surplus for things that he could not produce himself, at this moment there arises in man the notion of no longer giving to his comrades what they need, but of keeping for himself the surplus of what his labor produces, and exchanging it. Then it is that the mode of production begins to run counter to the social instincts of man instead of favoring it as heretofore.

Bonger couches his analysis of the effects of this growing economic sur-

plus in rather moralistic terms, arguing that it produces a growth of egoistic rather than altruistic motivation, but his work nonetheless points up the important role of surplus wealth and market exchange in the formulation of motivational patterns typical of industrial societies. Many ethnographic studies since Bonger's time have shown that ex- change relationships in hunting and gathering societies are indeed based on sharing and reciprocity. Lee (1979) found that the bands of !Kung bushmen he studied in the Kalahari Desert shared all the available food equally. Most of the !Kung's food is gathered by small groups of foragers. When food is brought back to the camp, it is divided among all members of the band. It makes no difference whether an individual has been foraging, hunting, or just sleeping; everyone receives the same share. Dentan (1968) found a similar pattern of distribution among the Semai of Central Malaya. Animal meat is highly prized among these people, but even when a hunter succeeds in killing a large animal, he still has no more claim on its meat than any other member of the band. When the animal is brought back to camp, it is cut up into equal portions and distributed to all who are hungry. No special status or reward is given the hunter. He is not even thanked by the other members of the group, for, as Dentan

(1968, p. 49) puts it,

saying thank you is very rude, for it suggests

first that one has calculated the amount of a gift, and second that one did not expect the donor to be so generous." Significantly, the Indians living along what is now the northwest coast of the United States and Canada, whose fishing activities generated a more substantial surplus, were less egalitarian and more competitive than other hunting and gathering peo- ples (Benedict 1934; Harris 1980, pp. 233-37). The displacement of the open sharing of reciprocal exchange by the calculated self-interest of market exchange creates very different attitudes among those involved in economic transactions and, ultimately, in society

as a whole (see Bonger [I9051 1969, pp. 37-38; Engels [I8841 1972; Leacock 1978). Market exchange is inevitably tied to ideas of profit and loss, and often the greater the gain of one trading partner, the lower the profit of the other. Thus, as production for market replaces production for immediate consumption, competition and the quest for personal gain tend to displace the cooperative sentiments fostered in reciprocal ex- change. Of course, reciprocal exchange is still common among relatives

American Journal of Sociology

and friends in even the most capitalistic industrial societies, but it is market exchange that predominates. In addition to the accumulation of surplus wealth and the growth of market exchange, a third factor in the development of the culture of competition is the use of money as a medium of exchange. Because money provides an objective standard for measuring profit and loss, it further reinforces the spirit of competition and the depersonalization of economic exchange (Amsel 1973). Finally, the pervasive sense of insecurity so char- acteristic of the culture of competition reflects the underlying social and economic insecurity of industrial capitalism. Such societies are hierarchi- cally organized, with great differences in status among their members. But, unlike traditional agricultural societies in which status is fixed largely by family background, there is far more mobility in industrial societies, and consequently an individual's status is far less secure. Em- ployment, the single most important source of social status and economic reward, is subject to many unpredictable threats. Employees are often vulnerable to arbitrary dismissal or demotion at the whim of their superiors, and there is always the danger that the firm on which one's future depends may slip into bankruptcy or that the vicissitudes of the economy may force large-scale layoffs. The existence of a substantial group of the able-bodied unemployed serves as a constant reminder of the dangers of economic failure and the need to maintain one's competitive drive.


The culture of competition is an extremely important part of the culture of contemporary industrial capitalism. It is obvious, however, that mod- ern life is not the Hobbesian war of all against all that such a system of values could be expected to produce if unfettered by other restraints. One such restraint comes from the influence of different social ideals, such as the values of cooperation and mutual support, which are so important in family and friendship groups. But, although very few people question the validity of those values in principle, their effectiveness as a constraint on white-collar crime is limited by the increasing segmentation of social life in industrial society (Bellah et al. 1985, pp. 2 7-5 1). The economic sphere is usually constructed as a separate realm from the world of home, family, and friendship, and both worlds contain their own values and operative principles. In the social world of economic activity, the culture of compe- tition is the dominant cultural force, and the idea that one must look out for the well-being of one's competitors is considered hopelessly naive. A more important barrier to the formulation of motivation for white-

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collar crime lies in the normative restraints on economic life that attempt to provide rules of the game within which the struggle for personal gain is expected to be waged. These normative restraints include such things as the need for honesty, fair play, and ethical practices in business, as well as the injunction to follow the laws and standards imposed by govern- ment authority. But, like the culture of competition itself, these norms can be understood only in the context of the structural forces in which they have their roots. Despite the strong support the economic system provides for the ideals of competitive individualism, it is clear that the pursuit of economic self-interest must be contained within some norma- tive boundaries-or social and economic chaos would be the ultimate result. The economic rationality necessary to industrialism demands that exchange relationships be based on some set of mutually accepted stan- dards. Without these rules, exchange relationships would become vastly more difficult for all parties involved, and many of the complex economic relationships characteristic of modern society would be virtually impossi- ble to maintain. By making the struggle for personal gain appear fairer to its participants, these standards also help to legitimize the economic order in the eyes of the majority of people who do not stand out as particularly successful competitors. The demands of social life outside the economic realm also require normative restraints, and some of those are inevitably applied to economic behavior in even the most segmented societies. The restrictions placed on activities that are seen as wantonly destructive of human life or a physical danger to the community are typical examples. These ethical standards for economic behavior are easily combined with the values of competitive individualism on the theoretical level, but in actual practice there is often an obvious contradiction between the two. While the pronouncements of public figures tend to emphasize theory and ignore the practical contradictions, there is little doubt in the public's mind that those who are willing to violate ethical standards enjoy a significant competitive edge over those who are not. In the words of the popular homily: "Nice guys finish last." This contradiction is a major source of tension in modern society that is not only reflected in the survey research on the ethical standards of business managers (Baumhart 1961; Silk and Vogel 1976; Madden 1977) but also in countless literary and artistic works. Indeed, the laws, regulations, and standards defining white-collar crime reflect this contradiction and the effort to demand compliance with ethical standards for economic behavior in the face of the extreme pressures of competitive individualism. The rationalizations examined by the interactionist theorists represent a different approach to resolving this contradiction, one that tends to weaken the normative restraints rather than reinforce them. The relative strength of these two cultural forces and the way the

American Journal of Sociology

contradictions between them are resolved are, therefore, critical factors in determining the motivation for white-collar crime. The purveyors of mass culture expose virtually everyone to both sets of values through the expec- tations and assumptions they weave into their vision of taken-for-granted reality. Yet, despite such general societal influences, individuals in differ- ent statuses are still exposed to very different constructions of reality. Of particular relevance to the study of white-collar crime are the work- related subcultures that expose their members to a particular worldview while providing some degree of insulation from the generally accepted definitions of social reality. As Holzner (1972, p. 95) puts it, the "epis- temic communities that provide the locus for specialized reality construc- tion in society on the basis of work concerns or ideological commitments [often] show tendencies toward isolation and segregation from the rest of society, and thus isolation from the generally shared reality of the in- terpretive order." There are at least three distinct types of these subcultures that may be interwoven in various occupational settings. First, every complex organi- zation has its own distinctive subculture. Not only do such subcultures promote attitudes and definitions that help shape the motivation for specific offenses, but there is also an "ethical tone" in an organization that, in a general way, either reinforces or opposes the normative stan- dards for economic behavior (Clinard and Yeager 1980, p. 60). Over and above the organizational subculture, there are industry subcultures that express the attitudes, beliefs, and definitions common to organizations in a particular subsector of the economy (Barnett 1984). Finally, there are occupational subcultures among those who work in the same careers. Because persons in the same profession work in different organizations and in different industries, occupational subcultures crosscut the other subcultures, providing a different channel for diffusion of new ideas, information, and definitions. These work-related subcultures tend to isolate their members from the mainstream of social life and its construction of realty. As Peter Drucker (1972, p. 88) writes of corporate executives: "Contacts outside of business tend to be limited to people of the same set, if not to people working for the same organization. The demand that there be no competing outside

interests and loyalty

tion comparable to the 'military mind,' but places a considerable pre- mium on it." Members of professions such as law, medicine, and law enforcement are subject to similar pressures. They are expected to iden- tify with their profession, to support their colleagues, and to work to advance their common interests. Like the executives Drucker describes, a disproportionate number of these professionals' everyday social interac- tions are with others who share the same subculture.

not only breeds a parochialism of the imagina-

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Because of this isolation, work-related subcultures are often able to maintain a definition of certain criminal activities as acceptable or even required behavior, when they are clearly condemned by society as a whole. There are numerous examples of executives who expressed genuine surprise and even shock that other people looked at their illicit activities as criminal behavior. Typical is the statement by one General Electric executive that price fixing "had become so common and gone on for so many years that we lost sight of the fact that it was illegal" (Geis 1977, p. 123). Carey's (1978, p. 384) description of the attitude of Richardson-Merrell Company employees, who concealed tests showing the dangerous side effects produced by one of their company's drugs, reflects this same normative isolation: "No one involved expressed any strong repugnance or even opposition to selling the unsafe drug. Rather, they all seemed to drift into the activity without thinking a great deal about it." But the influence of such subcultures works both ways and may also discourage criminal behavior. For example, the same police subcul- tures that defined some types of corruption as providing a kind of harm- less fringe benefit also condemned the acceptance of "dirty money" from narcotics dealers (Knapp Commission 1972; Pennsylvania Crime Com- mission 1974). Subcultures in such professions as medicine and dentistry have a similar dual influence. Strongly held sentiments of group solidarity and collegial support make it much more difficult for enforcement agents to punish wrongdoers, yet at the same time those subcultures still hold out high standards of ethical behavior as the ideal for their members. Of course, the formulation of criminal motivation depends on far more than the definitions to which an individual is exposed by virtue of his or her occupational position. The ideas, values, attitudes, and beliefs indi- viduals bring into the workplace play a decisive role in determining which of the definitions that they learn on the job become part of their taken-for-granted reality, which are given only tentative acceptance, and which are rejected out of hand. Early socialization is especially important in shaping an individual's vision of the world, but many other experiences are a part of this ongoing process of reality construction. Membership in groups such as those based on kinship, religion, or friendship often serve as a counterbalance to the influence of occupational associations. But their importance depends on the way an individual actor goes about the task of constructing a meaningful world. Some persons maintain a highly integrated definition of self and the reality it inhabits, and their behavior is guided by a symbolic network that weaves together elements from all the social worlds in which they participate. But others have a far less global sense of reality and experience no difficulty in following one set of standards and definitions on the job and a contradict,ory set in other social relationships. The increasing segmentation of personal reality is an often-

American Journal of Sociology

noted characteristic of industrial society (Holzner 1972; Bellah et al. 1985),and contemporary men and women are probably more comfortable with a multidimensional view of self than was true in the past (Ogilvy 1977). Yet, at the same tine, what Wuthnow (1976, pp. 70-71) terms "the quest for wholeness" and the "desire that one's experiences somehow make sense in relation to one another" remains an important force in all social life.


Any analysis of the motivation of white-collar offenders can be of only limited explanatory value unless it is placed in the context of the actual opportunities available to individual actors. No matter how strong an individual's motivation may be, if there is no opportunity, there will be no crime. The variations in the menu of opportunities presented to the occupants of different social statuses are one of the principal ways struc- tural constraints shape individual behavior, and the distribution of such opportunities plays a major role in the etiology of white-collar crime. Moreover, motivation and opportunity are often closely associated in a particular setting. Many of the rationalizations that are such an impor- tant part of symbolic motivational structures are formulated in response to a particular set of structural opportunities and have little meaning in another context. And, by the same token, an opportunity requires a symbolic construction making that particular behavioral option psycho- logically available to individual actors, and that construction may also include potential rationalizations. Thus, an individual may learn of both the opportunity for a particular offense and at least part of the motivation for committing it at the same time in the same setting. The two are, nonetheless, clearly distinct, for a motivation is a subjective construction of an individual's personal desires, while an opportunity is rooted in a set of objective social conditions. Opportunities may be characterized as attractive or unattractive from the standpoint of a particular actor (or group of actors). An opportunity's attractiveness is determined by at least four factors. The first is the actor's perception of how great a gain he or she might expect to reap from the opportunity. Second is the perception of potential risks, such as the likeli- hood that a criminal act will be detected and the severity of the sanctions that would be invoked if detection indeed occurs (Hollinger and Clark 1983a, 1983b). The third factor is the compatibility of the opportunity with the ideas, rationalizations, and beliefs the individual actor already has. Finally, the evaluation of an illicit opportunity is made in compari- son with the other opportunities of which the actor is aware and is there- fore influenced by the actor's entire opportunity structure. A decrease in

White-Collar Crime

the availability or attractiveness of legitimate opportunities will normally increase the attractiveness of illegal opportunities. The attractiveness of an opportunity for white-collar crime is not, however, an inherent char- acteristic of the opportunity structure, the opportunity itself, or of the motivation of the individual actor; it arises out of the relationship among them. The next step in this analysis is to describe and attempt to account for the distribution of the opportunities for white-collar crime. Unfortu- nately, the available empirical research does not allow me to do either with any degree of certainty. The most obvious shortcoming is the lack of sufficient research examining a wide enough range of variables. But there are also some difficult methodological problems that weaken the research that has been done. Virtually all the quantitative measures of white-collar crime used in these studies are based on reports by regulatory and crimi- nal justice agencies. Although those statistics are certainly influenced by the underlying crime rate, they also reflect a number of extraneous vari- ables such as the likelihood of detection and the priorities and procedures of the agencies themselves. A second problem is that some of the varia- tion in the distribution of white-collar crime results from the distribution of motivation as well as the distribution of opportunity. Even if there were precise data available on the distribution of white-collar offenses, separating opportunity from motivation would still require careful analy- sis. Yet, despite these difficulties, it is useful to draw some preliminary conclusions both as a summary of the current state of our knowledge and as a basis for further research.

Law and Enforcement

In one sense, the law is the most basic of all forces shaping the distribu- tion of opportunities, for it is the law that ultimately determines which behaviors are considered criminal offenses. A comprehensive analysis of the origins of the current structure of legal norms is beyond the scope of this paper. There is little doubt, however, that these norms are the prod- uct of conflicts among many competing social interests, the outcome of which ultimately reflects the structure of power and the internal contra- dictions of contemporary industrial capitalism. The high degree of eco- nomic concentration characterizing such societies gives the corporate elite far more power than any other segment of society, but it is not unlimited power. Under the right circumstances, abuses by elite groups may stimu- late popular discontent that requires some sort of legislative response to maintain the legitimacy of the system. In addition, some white-collar crime legislation, such as the statutes regulating stock and bond trading or prohibiting embezzlement, is actively supported by business interests,

American Journal of Sociology

while other proposals for reform split those interests, drawing support from some and opposition from others (e.g., automobile safety legislation) (Coleman 1985a, pp. 123-50; 1985~). Once a particular set of activities is labeled illegal, its attractiveness to potential white-collar criminals is strongly influenced by their perceptions of the certainty and severity of punishment. Although it would not be accurate to say that an actor's perceptions are based solely on a realistic assessment of the situation, the activities of the enforcement bureaucracy certainly play a major part in the formation of these attitudes. A knowl- edge of the pattern of the state's enforcement efforts and the likelihood and severity of the punishment for different offenses is therefore impor- tant to our understanding of the attractiveness of various opportunities for white-collar crime. The available data once again leave much to be desired, but it does appear that the severity of punisbment for a particular type of offense varies inversely with the power and influence of the typical offenders. Several studies show that, both in terms of the percentage of convicted offenders given jail terms and the length of those sentences, street crimes (non-white-collar crimes) are punished more severely than occupational crimes, and occupational crimes are punished more severely than organi- zational crimes (Seymour 1973, pp. 45-46; Bureau of National Affairs 1976, p. 11; Clinard and Yeager 1980, p. 296). Sanctions for organiza- tional offenses are also directed against entire corporations, but the penal- ties in such cases are even more lenient than those given to individual defendants. The Wisconsin study found that the average fine levied against the largest American corporations was only about $1,000- obviously not a serious penalty for firms which commonly make hundreds of millions of dollars a year in profits (Clinard et al. 1979, p. 291). Since virtually no one disputes the fact that street criminals are as a whole far less wealthy and less influential than occupational criminals and that organizational offenders (corporations) have far more wealth and in- fluence than any single individual, this evidence clearly supports the conclusions stated above. It should be pointed out, however, that this relationship has been shown only for general categories of offenses, not for individual defendants. Because there is no reliable indicator of the total incidence of white- collar offenses to compare with the rates of prosecution and conviction, it is far more difficult to appraise variations in the certainty of punishment. However, the distribution of cases brought against white-collar offenders is also consistent with the hypothesis of an inverse relationship between power and the likelihood of prosecution. That is, there are a very large number of prosecutions for street crimes, far fewer for occupational crimes, and only a handful of prosecutions for organizational crime. For

White-Collar Crime

example, the Wisconsin study found only 56 cases in which corporate executives were charged with criminal offenses for their involvement in organizational crimes, yet the study examined all the reported cases in- volving America's 477 largest corporations during a two-year period (Clinard and Yeager 1980, p. 291). McCormick (1977) found that fewer than 700 criminal charges had been brought against antitrust violators in the 80-year period from 1890 to 1969 and that most of the early cases were brought against labor unions, not big business. Yet, a survey of the chief executives of the 1,000 largest firms in the United States found that 58% believe that antitrust violations were a "way of life" in American industry (Green et al. 1972, pp. 149-SO), and appraisals by two different studies conclude that price fixing is quite prevalent in the United States (Green et al. 1972, p. 150; Clinard et al. 1979, p. 184). Victims also play an important part in determining the likelihood and severity of punishment for different types of white-collar offenses. Many white-collar crimes, such as antitrust violations, victimize a large number of persons who individually lose only a small amount. Often, victims of such crimes are not even aware that they have been victimized. These offenses can be expected to carry a lower chance of detection because few victims are likely to complain to enforcement agencies. Offenses in which each victim suffers an obvious loss at the hands of a clearly recognizable offender are more likely to come to the attention of the enforcement bureaucracy. Pressure from victims can also be expected to increase the severity of the sanctions given a particular offense, as would the level of the general public's concern about a particular offense at the time it is uncovered. Thus, illegal disposal of toxic wastes would be more risky after a series of well-publicized cases that had focused public attention on the dangers of such activities. Other things being equal, it would also be expected that the greater the financial loss and the more the physical injuries caused by an offense, the greater the punishment would be. However, this relationship is often obscured by the fact that the harm caused by a crime is also related to the size and influence of the offenders. Larger, more serious crimes are more likely to be committed by larger organizations with greater resources for protecting themselves.


Both the distribution of opportunities and their relative attractiveness vary significantly from one industry to another. The demand for profit is one of the most important economic influences on the opportunity struc- ture for organizational crime. But, because this demand is such a perva- sive part of business organization in capitalist societies, many criminolo- gists have lost sight of the fact that it varies significantly from one sector

American Journal of Sociology

of the economy to another. There is a sharp cleavage in the structure of opportunity between profit-seeking private organizations and govern- ment agencies. Government employees are seldom, if ever, involved in such organizational offenses as price fixing, consumer fraud, false adver- tising, stock manipulation, or deceptive sales practices. Even though accusations of bribery are often made against government officials, their involvement is usually as individual occupational offenders, not as agents acting in the interests of their employer. It is clear, moreover, that the explanation of this sharp difference in the patterns of criminal involve- ment is to be found in the opportunity structure, not in differences in motivation. Because government agencies are not profit-seeking organi- zations, there is no reason for them to reward their employees for involve- ment in such organizational offenses. Of course, this is not to say that the demand for profit inevitably leads organizations into criminal activities; but the absence of that demand does eliminate many illicit opportunities. There has been considerable research examining variations in the crime rate among different industries in the business (profit-seeking) sector. The most heavily researched topic has been the effect of market structure on crime, especially the relationship between antitrust violations and the degree of economic concentration in an industry. Because there is no reason to suspect that market structure has a significant effect on the symbolic motivations of employees, most or all of the effects of market structure can be attributed to differences in the opportunities it creates. This research might therefore be expected to make a significant contribu- tion to our understanding of variations in the opportunity structure among different industries. However, the findings of this research are contradictory, and no clear conclusions about the effects of market struc- ture on criminal behavior can be drawn from the current evidence. Bur- ton (1966), Riedel (1968), and Pfeffer and Salancik (1978) found the high- est rates of antitrust violations in industries with intermediate levels of concentration; Hay and Kelly (1974) found more violations in highly concentrated industries; and Posner (1970), Asch and Seneca (1969), and Clinard et al. (1979) reached mixed conclusions or found no differences at all. One of the principal problems is, once again, the necessity of relying on the reports of enforcement agencies as the sole indicator of the rate of antitrust violations. There is, however, general agreement on one point, although it is based as much on theoretical as on empirical grounds. The opportunities to engage in antitrust violations are less attractive to firms in industries with a very low concentration ratio, because such a conspi- racy would require so many participants that it would be extremely difficult to conceal. Although it has been the subject of less empirical research, there are similar disagreements about the effects of market structure on the inci-

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dence of bribery. Clinard and Yeager (1980, pp. 165-66) hold that brib- ery is most common in highly competitive industries, but Kugel and Gruenberg (1977, p. 36) take the opposite position, arguing that because "oligopolistic markets are characterized by lack of price competition, international payoffs become a kind of nonprice competition." Data from the international payoff scandals in the 1970s suggest that bribery is common in both competitive and collusive industries but takes different forms in each. Most of the payoffs by firms, such as aircraft manufactur- ers, that were in highly competitive international markets were made to influence particular purchasing decisions while the petroleum industry, long characterized by the absence of competition (Blair 1975), aimed its corruption at public officials with the hope of improving the overall cli- mate for the operations of petroleum multinational^.^ But, because it is doubtful that more than a small percentage of all the incidences of bribery ever came to light even during this well-publicized scandal, these conclu- sions can be regarded as only a tentative hypothesis. Because of the weakness of the quantitative data, other researchers have used a case-study method, analyzing conditions that contribute to the rates of particular white-collar offenses in particular industries. Far- berman (1975) and Leonard and Weber (1970) concluded that the eco- nomic organization of the automobile industry virtually forces individual dealers to engage in shady business practices. They argue that the oligopolistic firms that control the supply of new automobiles pressure their franchises to sell their cars at an extremely low price in order to increase their sales volumes, and dealers are therefore forced to make up their losses through repair and service rackets and other fraudulent activ- ities. Denzin (1977) found similar conditions in the liquor industry. Distil- lers impose rigid sales quotas on their distributors that force them to give untaxed, under-the-table incentives to retailers in order to keep their volumes up. Needleman and Needleman (1979) have, however, criticized the assumption in such studies that the participants are coerced into criminal activity. They argue that in most cases it is more accurate to talk about "crime-facilitative" rather than "crime-coercive" systems. Their study of the securities industry, for example, found many conditions that made criminal activities easier but did not actually force individuals to participate. More specifically, the Needlemans found that the legal doc- trines limiting the financial risk in handling stolen securities, the strong financial incentives to keep up market flow, and the traditions of trust and professional solidarity in the banking industry all combine to facili- tate securities theft.

For a breakdown of the known offenses by industry, see Kugel and Gruenberg (1977,



American Journal of Sociology

Although these studies were not specifically cast in terms of the oppor- tunity structure, the criminogenic conditions described clearly have their primary effects through their influence on the opportunities that confront individual actors in those industries rather than through the motivation of potential criminals. The "crime-coercive systems" described by Farber- man, Leonard and Weber, and Denzin sharply reduced the legitimate opportunities for financial success, thus making the illicit opportunities more attractive. The "crime-facilitative systems" described by Needle- man and Needleman increased the attractiveness of illicit opportunities by reducing the likelihood of strong sanctions. Another variable influencing the opportunity structure in an industry is what Edward Gross (1980) calls "organizational setsn-groups of similar organizations whose actions are visible to one another. The key point about these sets is that they tend to have an internal system of strat- ification with dominant, middle-level, and marginal organizations. The relatively small number of firms at the top of these stratified organiza- tional sets greatly increases the attractiveness of antitrust conspiracies because it reduces the number of firms that must become involved and thus reduces their chances of being discovered. Gross also argues that the tendency for organizations to focus their attention almost exclusively on the activities of other members of their set, and the great complexity of relationships among participants in different sets, makes it easier for outsiders to conceal fraudulent schemes that cut across set boundaries. Variations in the regulatory environment also play a major role in determining the opportunity structure in different industries. Tightening legal controls on an industry shifts the balance of opportunities by crimi- nalizing attractive patterns of behavior, while a decrease in regulation shifts the balance in the opposite direction. Thus, more tightly regulated industries can be expected to present their employees with a wider variety of criminal opportunities. One of the most important influences shaping an industry's regulatory environment is the products it makes. Industries whose products cause serious and clearly identifiable harm to the public tend to be subject to more stringent regulation than other industries. Examples include pharmaceutical manufacturers, whose products may mean life or death for their users, the automobile industry, which has been subject to an increasing number of safety and environmental regula- tions, and the chemical industry, which produces a wide variety of hazardous substances. There is considerable evidence that illegal practices spread from one organization in an industry to another (Sutherland [I9491 1983, pp. 246- 50; Clinard and Yeager 1980, pp. 60-63; Cressey 1976). Some of this tendency can be attributed to the diffusion of motivation discussed in the previous section, but other processes appear to be involved as well. Along

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with motivations and rationalizations, knowledge about the availability of criminal opportunities and specific techniques necessary to carry them out also diffuse throughout an industry (Barnett 1984). The illegal activi- ties of a firm also have a direct effect on its competitors. For one thing, seeing a competitor increase its profits by illegal means is likely to en- hance the attractiveness of such behavior, while the failure of a competi- tor's illegal enterprise is likely to have the opposite effect. Profits gener- ated by illegal means may also allow a firm to lower its prices or take other advantages over its competition, thus reducing the attractiveness of the competition's legitimate opportunities and encouraging all firms in the industry to become involved in similar illegal practices.


Most of the quantitative research on the organizational level has focused on a single issue: the effects of an organization's profitability on its in- volvement in criminal activity. The general conclusion of this research is that the attractiveness of illicit opportunities increases as profitability declines. George Katona's (1946) study of wartime price-control legisla- tion concluded that firms in the meat and laundry industries were more

likely to comply with the law if their profits were rising than if they were declining. Lane (1954) reached the same conclusion about fair-trade vio- lations in the New England shoe industry-manufacturers were more likely to break the law when profits were going down. Barnett (1984) found a positive correlation between bankruptcy rates and the violation of tax laws in Sweden. However, he failed to find a relationship between an index of overall economic performance and tax violations. Staw and Szwajkowski (1975) found that firms cited for antitrust violations had been earning lower profits than firms that were not. The Wisconsin study

of corporate crime also concluded that

as well as relatively poorly performing firms in all industries tend to violate the law to a greater degree" (Clinard and Yeager 1980, p. 129). Despite the relatively large number of studies indicating that low profitability encourages corporate crime, a great deal of caution is still required in drawing any firm conclusions. For one thing, reports from government enforcement agencies once again provided the only measures of actual criminality. Moreover, the strength of the correlation in most of these studies was not very great, so profitability seems to explain only a small amount of the variance in crime rates. Finally, some of the relation- ship between low profitability and crime is probably due to the greater ease of rationalizing criminal behavior seen to be necessary to the survival of an organization and not to the opportunity structure itself. It nonethe- less seems logical to argue that low levels of profitability are a reflection of

firms in depressed industries

American Journal of Sociology

the absence of legitimate opportunities, which, in turn, promotes crime by increasing the attractiveness of the available illicit opportunities. An organization's system of social control also exerts a strong influence on the attractiveness of different criminal behaviors. Most corporations maintain some official policy condemning illegal activities by their em- ployees. Yet, the literature on white-collar crime is full of examples of top corporate officials who were not only unconcerned about the organiza- tional crimes of their subordinates but made intentional efforts to avoid knowledge of such activities. Employees involved in organizational crimes are commonly rewarded for the results their illegal behavior brings (e.g., higher profits) while suffering no penalties as long as they avoid

1977). Some organizations, such

as the notorious Equity Funding Corporation, go much further, and explicitly require illegal activities of employees in certain positions (Blun- dell 1978). Those involved in occupational crimes are unlikely to receive such tacit or explicit organizational support, yet there are still significant differences in the way organizations respond when they are victimized by employees. Some organizations take strong measures to prevent or to

uncover and punish employee thefts and embezzlements, while others show far less interest. Some employers even look at certain types of employee theft as a kind of fringe benefit that need not be viewed too seriously as long as it stays within appropriate limits (Horning 1970). There has been some speculation that certain types of organizational structures, especially the multidivisional organization common among most large corporations, are particularly conducive to criminal behavior. One argument is that multidivisional corporations distribute responsibil- ity among so many different individuals that no one takes responsibility for the ultimate consequences of corporate activities. Gross (1980) holds that the proliferation of semi-independent organizational structures with responsibilities for different tasks increases the likelihood that some of them will engage in illegal activities simply because it creates so many more autonomous organizational actors. Considerable research indicates that corporate structure places especially difficult demands on middle management. When top management sets goals that cannot realistically be attained by legitimate means, great pressure is placed on middle man- agers to pursue whatever illegal opportunities are available. For example, Kramer (1982) argues that the extremely difficult goals set for the devel- opment of the Ford Pinto-that it weigh less than 2,000 pounds and cost less than $2,000-ultimately caused the safety problems for which it became infamous. Managers were forced to reject safety modifications that would have increased the weight of the car and later launched a cover-up to conceal the problem. Several surveys of middle managers have found that they are often afraid to be honest with their superiors and

detection by outside authorities (see Geis

White-Collar Crime

feel they are under significant pressure to compromise their ethical stan- dards (Baumhart 1961; Brenner and Molander 1977; Clinard 1982).


Although most of the research on white-collar crime has focused on the industry and organizational level, it is equally important to examine the structure of opportunities associated with different statuses in organiza- tions and the independent professions. However, the great diversity of such statuses and the paucity of sociological research make it possible to present only a few examples of the forces that influence the distribution of opportunities. The attractiveness of the opportunities for bribery, for instance, depends to a substantial degree on the economic value of the services the occupant of a particular status can offer in exchange for corrupt payments. One of the reasons corruption is more common in the enforcement of narcotics and vice laws than in the enforcement of other legal norms is that organized criminals supplying those illegal goods and services are willing to pay large sums of money to gain the cooperation of the police (Knapp Commission 1972; Pennsylvania Crime Commission 1974). Other occupations with rich opportunities for corruption include purchasing agents, government inspectors, and politicians. The opportu- nities for embezzlement seem to vary with the degree of financial trust placed in the holders of different occupational positions. Accountants, bookkeepers, and clerks have many opportunities for embezzlement, while other employees in the same organizations may have none. Oppor- tunities for fraud and other illegal financial manipulations appear to be greatest in occupations with direct involvement in financial dealings such as those of salespeople and upper-level executives. One of the most important determinants of the illicit opportunities available to professionals is the financial arrangements determining their remuneration. Professionals working on a fee-for-service basis have nu- merous opportunities to persuade their clients to consent to profitable but unnecessary procedures, while those working on salary have nothing to gain from such activities. It is difficult to determine how common such fraudulent practices actually are, but there is considerable evidence that unnecessary medical procedures are a serious and widespread problem (Brody 1976; Rensberger 1976). A subcommittee of the House of Repre- sentatives concluded that there are 2.3 million unnecessary surgical pro- cedures a year in the United States that result in an annual loss of about 11,900 lives (Brody 1976). Similar charges have been made about "over- lawyeringn-the practice of persuading uninformed clients that they need more legal services than they actually do-although the results are sel- dom as physically harmful as those in the medical ~rofession.

American Journal of Sociology

This problem is not, however, the exclusive result of the fee-for-service method of payment. Another important factor is the ignorance of clients about what kind of services they really need and the strong emphasis on mutual trust in the professional-client relationship that leads many clients to an unquestioning acceptance of the professional's judgment. The fact that a substantial portion of medical and dental bills are paid by insur- ance further decreases the client's concern about unnecessary services and overcharging, thus decreasing the chances of punishment and increasing the attractiveness of illegal opportunities. The feelings of mutual identifi- cation and support that develop in occupational subcultures and the resis- tance of professionals to outside regulation serve to provide further pro- tection for the professional involved in occupational crime. Occupational subcultures also facilitate white-collar crime by promot- ing the spread of knowledge and techniques necessary to transform a potential course of criminal action into a psychologically available oppor- tunity. Because these subcultures generally contain individuals employed in many different industries, they provide a source of communication independent of the industry or organization in which an individual works. Accountants, physicians, and lawyers, for example, learn about opportunities for white-collar crime as they learn their profession and are socialized into its subculture. Similarly, the striking similarities in the patterns of corruption found in the New York and Philadelphia police departments in the early 1970s (Knapp Commission 1970; Pennsylvania Crime Commission 1974) strongly suggest the transmission of criminal techniques through an occupational subculture shared by officers in both departments. Occupational subcultures thus serve as part of a network of communication that transmits information about opportunities and tech- niques for white-collar crime.


The objective of this paper has been to create a unified theoretical frame- work to explain the causes of white-collar crime. However successful this endeavor has been, much remains to be done. Existing research has established the general outlines of the rationalizations used to justify white-collar crimes, but larger and more comprehensive quantitative studies are needed to determine more clearly the distribution and relative importance of the different rationalizations and to search for other com- mon justifications that may have been overlooked. Scientific attention should also be directed to the variations in the original motivations for white-collar offenses. A good place to start such investigations would be a quantitative exploration of the relative strength of the culture of competi- tion and the normative restraints on it among different groups and differ-

White-Collar Crime

ent organizational segments of society. An examination of the develop- mental changes in the balance of these two forces as individual actors respond to different environmental influences and career contingencies may also yield valuable information. Another fruitful area for research lies in the comparative study of the culture of competition. A quantitative assessment of the relative strengths of this system of beliefs in capitalist and communist nations would be particularly interesting because indus- trialized communist nations share many of the structural characteristics that gave rise to the culture of competition (great surplus wealth, monetarized market exchange, and a high degree of social inequality), yet their official ideology condemns most of the central tenets of the culture of competition as the product of a corrupt capitalism. A comparative analy- sis of the opportunities for white-collar crime created in those two types of societies would also be valuable if reliable quantitative measures could be used. Much more work must also be done to clearly delineate the struc- ture of opportunities for white-collar crime in capitalist societies. Broadly based studies of the variations in opportunities among different occupa- tional statuses and in different industries would be particularly useful in this regard.


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