White Collar Crime: Term Definition

It is already known that corruption, as a social phenomenon, carries a real threat to the safety of any state. Nevertheless, traditional criminology for a long time ignored the problem of crimes related to the higher ranks of society. The first approach to understanding such crimes is connected to Edwin H. Sutherland, an American sociologist, who was the first to propose distinguishing higher ranks crimes from the traditional ones, defining such crimes, and proposing the term that designated such criminal behavior.

White-collar crime, a term proposed by Sutherland, and which is used since 1939, was defined as a crime “committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation.” (Strader, 2002). In that regard, this paper analyzes white-collar crime in general, as well as the contributions of Edwin Sutherland to that field as a first approach to address this issue.

In addition to the contribution to terminology, Sutherland was the first who studied the empirical correlation between crime and high society. The principles of his work lied in the fact that the traditional image of criminality was shifted along with the related stereotypes such as “disadvantaged young men from broken homes and decaying neighborhoods.” (Minkes & Minkes, 2008). It should be noted that these stereotypes were not ungrounded, where a series of studies in the 1920s and 1930s emphasized the connection between high criminality rates and social disorganization, which might have resulted in the shift toward lower-class crimes. (Minkes & Minkes, 2008).

Sutherland argued over these conceptions and pointed out the fact that because of such explanations, “vast areas of criminal behavior of persons not in the lower class had been neglected in prior studies.” (Minkes & Minkes, 2008).

The limitations of Sutherland’s studies can be seen through the comparison between his definition of white-collar crime and the definition presented by the United States Department of Justice in 1981. Although the USDOJ definition might also include some limitations, it nevertheless expanded that of Sutherland’s in terms of specifying the kind of knowledge the defendant should have, e.g. semi-professional, special technical and professional knowledge, and the means through which the crime is committed, i.e. deception. (Strader, 2002). Additionally, it is argued that despite Sutherland’s disregard of the psychological problems as a factor in white-collar crimes, his theory nevertheless was “more psychological or social-psychological than truly sociological.” (Galliher & Guess, 2009).

In that regard, it can be seen that defining white-collar crime is not an easy task, where generally the main issue might be in the fact that a broad definition would contain criminal crimes which do not fall under white-collar statutes. At the same time, a narrow definition, which will specify the conditions and the methods of committing the white-collar crime, would result in skipping many incidents just because they do not fit into such a category. (Strader, 2002).

White-collar crimes, despite the distinctions in the designation, are nevertheless crimes, with certain costs and consequences. In that regard, the main costs of white-collar crimes can be seen as financial. The consequences, in that sense, although carrying financial losses, also result in damage in social relations which can be seen through the decrease in social morale and the social organization. In that sense, if measuring common crimes such as theft by the amount of the financial loss suffered by the victim along with the moral damage, measuring white collar crimes can be difficult in terms that they cannot be judged merely by finances.

The common perceptions that led to acknowledge white-collar crimes as less serious than the traditional crimes have their roots in many factors. One of the factors can be seen through the stereotypes created for criminality in general, where traditional crime has an apparent definition of the victim. In that sense, people might find the state as a victim as an abstract definition, where people might tend to associate the victims with themselves, e.g. “the majority of [white collar criminals] are mundane and do not cause harm or extreme financial loss to large numbers of citizens.” (Shover & Hochstetler, 2006).

Accordingly, the raised concern of the white-collar crimes as serious crimes was caused by enforcement of white-collar crime statutes, where the subsequent coverage of trials resulted in a corresponding shift in the citizen’s perception. Such factors might include the rise in harms caused by white-collar criminals, where examples of white-collar crimes of the recent decades show that the victims in these crimes were citizens, such as losing life savings due to fraudulent practices, and corporations’ bankruptcy scandals resulting in huge losses to employee retirement accounts. (Strader, 2002).

It can be seen that white-collar crimes are a serious threat to society. In that sense, the contribution of Edwin Sutherland cannot be overestimated. Although things did change since the introduction of the white-collar crime concept, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge that Sutherland played a major role in changing the perception that crimes are unique to the poor and socially disadvantaged population. In that regard, many white-collar crimes can be far more dangerous than many of the traditional crimes committed by the aforementioned layer of the population and accordingly have more severe consequences.


Galliher, J. F., & Guess, T. J. (2009). Two generations of Sutherland’s white-collar war crime data and beyond. Crime, Law and Social Change, 51(1), 163-174. Web.

Minkes, J., & Minkes, A. L. (2008). Corporate and white-collar crime. Los Angeles; London: SAGE.

Shover, N., & Hochstetler, A. (2006). Choosing white-collar crime. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Strader, J. K. (2002). Understanding white collar crime. Newark, NJ: LexisNexis.

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LawBirdie. (2023) 'White Collar Crime: Term Definition'. 26 July.


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1. LawBirdie. "White Collar Crime: Term Definition." July 26, 2023. https://lawbirdie.com/white-collar-crime-term-definition/.


LawBirdie. "White Collar Crime: Term Definition." July 26, 2023. https://lawbirdie.com/white-collar-crime-term-definition/.