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The term white-collar crime was coined by Edwin H. Sutherland in his 1939 presidential address to the American Sociological Society. Sutherland’s focus was on crimes and regulatory offenses in business, politics, and the professions that were committed by persons in the upper classes. To be classified as a white-collar crime the behavior had to be carried out in the course of the offender’s occupational pursuits.
A major aim of Sutherland was to overthrow common explanations of crime, such as feeblemindedness and psychiatric disorders, traits that were not characteristic of the majority of upperworld offenders.
A subsequent influential definition of white-collar crime was advanced by a Yale Law School research team that emphasized the legal nature of the offense rather than the social and occupational position of the offender. The Yale focus paved the way for studies of persons who violated specific statutes.
Sutherland maintained that many white-collar offenders escape conviction only because they come from the same social class as judges, have gone to the same elite schools, and live in the same neighborhoods. In addition, prosecutors often are reluctant to pursue an offender charged with the violation of a complex statute and defended by the stars of the legal profession.
The study of white-collar crime has always been something of an outlier in the sociological domain, in part because it tends to be resistant to quantification. Besides, an understanding of the dynamics of white-collar crime often requires knowledge of economics, jurisprudence, and regulatory practice, among other matters. Nor are white-collar offenders, unlike juvenile delinquents, likely to become accessible for fieldwork research.
- Geis, G. (2007). White-Collar and Corporate Crime. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
- Sutherland, E. H. (1983) . White Collar Crime. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.