Criminology Middle-Class Crime and Criminality
Simon Singer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0212


Criminology tends to ignore its middle class. It has preferred to focus on lower-class crime and criminals. Serious violence is more prevalent among the impoverished. Crime rates are higher in inner-city, poverty-stricken neighborhoods than in outer-city, affluent suburbs. As a consequence, fewer middle-class and upper-class citizens populate America’s prisons. The poor are not only more likely to end up in prison, but also they lack the money to afford a good legal defense. Still, the middle-class commits its share of crime, often for many of the same reasons as the impoverished. They may become as addicted to illicit drugs for the same reasons as the less affluent. The middle class is not immune to depression, anxiety, and the sort of emotional strain associated with crime. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that middle-class adolescents will achieve the self-control of their parents and, as adults, may become embedded in a life of crime. According to Edwin Sutherland the capacity to steal and cheat is not dependent on social class, but rather on the learned behaviors, values, and norms that create the opportunities to commit crime. Sutherland directed criminological attention away from lower-class criminality when he published his 1949 book, White Collar Crime. The book soon became a criminological classic. But Sutherland defined white-collar crime as a crime committed by persons of high-status occupational positions. By focusing on the crimes of those corporate positions of power, he avoided a larger population of middle-class offenders. Criminologists have moved beyond Sutherland’s upper-class status occupational definition to include more members of the middle class. It is important to remember that class distinctions are hard to make. The term itself is in need of a definition; thus, researchers should proceed with caution. Any straightforward measure of social class based on a single indicator, such as income or occupational status, might miss significant class-related distinctions. Too broad a view of the middle class as those who do not fall into the category of impoverished would miss distinctions, such as those between the upper and lower middle class. The lower middle class might be defined by their position of full-time, low-wage employment. The upper middle class could be defined as persons who employ others. Thus, the upper middle class would constitute managers and owners of businesses, as opposed to those who are in nonsupervisory positions of employment. Opportunities for crime would differ based on positions of employment. For instance, nurses and doctors do not have the same opportunities for obtaining narcotics that they can illicitly sell. Doctors write prescriptions, while nurses administer the drugs. Both have opportunities that relate to their positions within a broadly defined middle class. Class distinctions and crime could also be linked to conditions of inequality as they can vary by time and place. Like crime itself, the middle class and its relationship to types of offending can be operationalized in a variety of ways.

General Overviews

No literature is available specifically dealing with middle-class crime and criminality. Rather, criminological research literature relates class dimensions to types of crime and criminality. As mentioned, the middle class includes large segments of the population, and so their types of crimes can range considerably. In contrast to a wealth of criminological theories to explain lower-class offending, few explicitly address middle-class offending. Moreover, few theories of crime are class specific, although they recognize variation in the opportunities of the affluent and less affluent for certain types of crimes. The research literature may be divided into studies that mention class in terms of Explanations of Middle-Class Offending, White-Collar Crime, Adolescent Criminality, and Illicit Drugs. Data for uncovering middle-class offending are drawn from official and nonofficial sources. Official sources tend to rely on court records to document the offender’s class, and this is most notable in research on white-collar crime. Nonofficial sources tend to rely on self-reported surveys, observational studies, and personal interviews. A good place to begin is with Sutherland’s classic (Sutherland 1949), in which he provides a definition and a method for documenting acts of corporate fraud. One of the reasons why official records are not the best source stems from the more hidden aspects of middle-class offending. Baumgartner 1988, an ethnography of a suburban community, relates how conflict is generally avoided among its middle-class professionals. The author draws on the term moral minimalism to discuss why those in the middle class do not call the police as readily as do their less affluent neighbors. Other observational studies further document a middle-class advantage in cases of adolescent offending. Chambliss 1973, a highly cited observational study of a lower-class and middle-class group of youth, illustrates how more affluent youth are better able to avoid arrest. Hirschi 2009 (published originally in 1969), a self-report study, shows no significant class difference in rates of delinquency based on parental class. The finding that social class is irrelevant is supported in Tittle, et al. 1978, a review of self-reported and official studies. Yet the finding that class has no effect is rejected by the authors of Braithwaite 1981 and Elliott and Huizinga 1983. For a further update in terms of adult criminality, Dunaway, et al. 2000 is a good place to start. In contrast to the finding that class has no effect, Hagan, et al. 1985 finds that when social class is measured in terms of positions of authority, the higher the class the more self-reported delinquency. The finding that affluent youth commit more acts of crime than less affluent ones is disputed in Jensen and Thompson 1990, and the claim remains controversial.

  • Baumgartner, M. P. 1988. The moral order of a suburb. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book deals with conflict in general, and not specifically criminality. It introduces the concept of moral minimalism to suggest that the middle class is more conflict averse than those who are less affluent. This is an ethnographic study of a suburban community. The author compares suburbanites from professional families with lower-middle-class nonprofessionals.

  • Braithwaite, John. 1981. The myth of social class and criminality reconsidered. American Sociological Review 46.1: 36–57.

    DOI: 10.2307/2095025E-mail Citation »

    Braithwaite disputes the point that social class is unrelated to criminality. He notes how types of offense matter. He further argues that self-reported data miss the serious violence that is recorded in official arrests and recalculates official data to show that social class matters in terms of types of offending. This makes sense given that we know that there is more street violence and higher rates of crime in impoverished inner cities than in affluent suburban communities.

  • Chambliss, William J. 1973. The saints and the roughnecks. Society 11.1 (November–December): 24–31.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF03181016E-mail Citation »

    A highly cited observational study of a middle-class and lower-class group of adolescent offenders. The middle-class offenders are referred to as the saints, while the lower-class ones are referred to as the roughnecks. Both groups engage in an equal amount of offending. However, the saints are less likely to be arrested. The roughnecks engage in more fights and are arrested more frequently for their own protection.

  • Dunaway, R. Gregory, Francis T. Cullen, Velmer S. Burton, and T. David Evans. 2000. The myth of social class and crime revisited: An examination of class and adult criminality. Criminology 38.2: 589–632.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2000.tb00900.xE-mail Citation »

    This article replicates and extends earlier research documenting the relationship between offending and social class. The extension is in terms of adult offending. The study is based on a sample of adults in a large city in the American Midwest. The authors find that no matter how class or crime is measured it generally has no direct influence on adult criminality. However, social class was related to the criminal involvement of nonwhites.

  • Elliott, Delbert S., and David Huizinga. 1983. Social class and delinquent behavior in a national youth panel: 1976–1980. Criminology 21.2: 149–177.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1983.tb00256.xE-mail Citation »

    Based on a large-scale longitudinal self-report study, the authors found that social class was related to serious offending. They report earlier self-report measures and discuss their implications. Class differences are found in the prevalence and incidence of serious offenses. They find that the incidence of serious delinquency is more highly correlated with class than the prevalence.

  • Hagan, J., A. R. Gillis, and J. Simpson. 1985. The class structure of gender and delinquency: Toward a power-control theory of common delinquent behavior. American Journal of Sociology 90:1151–1178.

    DOI: 10.1086/228206E-mail Citation »

    This article presents a class structured theory of delinquency that attempts to explain gender disparities. It is unique in predicting higher rates of delinquency among those higher in social class, as measured by neo-Marxian categories of power.

  • Hirschi, Travis. 2009. Causes of delinquency. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    Published originally in 1969. Hirshi’s highly cited book is a classic. It is significant for not only the use of survey data to test a control theory of offending, but also its statements about social class. Hirschi found that an adolescent’s social class had no impact on the likelihood of offending. Middle-class youth were just as likely to offend as lower-class youth. But Hirschi did report that the educational attachments of the adolescent are related to adolescent offending. The adolescent’s school performance measures were found to highly correlate with self-reported delinquency.

  • Jensen, Gary, and Kevin Thompson. 1990. What's class got to do with it? A further examination of power-control theory. American Journal of Sociology 95:1009–1023.

    DOI: 10.1086/229383E-mail Citation »

    Jensen and Thompson examined class distinctions in three US self-reported delinquency data sets. Contrary to Hagan, et al.'s findings, confirming a power-control theory of delinquency, they found no significant variation by class, particularly in terms of gender.

  • Sutherland, Edwin Hardin. 1949. White collar crime. New York: Dryden.

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    For all students of criminology Sutherland’s book is a classic. Sutherland developed his theory of white-collar crime in response to criminology’s obsession with lower-class criminality. He examined the sanctions for security and federal trade violations. He speculated as to the reasons why persons of high occupational status committed acts of fraud based on his theory of differential association.

  • Tittle, Charles R., Wayne J. Villemez, and Douglas A. Smith. 1978. The myth of social class and criminality: An empirical assessment of the empirical evidence. American Sociological Review 43.5: 643–656.

    DOI: 10.2307/2094541E-mail Citation »

    One of the first studies based on a compilation of a diverse set of surveys and official studies to document that social class is not significantly related to offending. Generally, no relationship was found for self-reported data, confirming Hirschi’s earlier finding. The authors’ use of the term myth is meant to critique anomie theory and its emphasis on lower-class offending. Critics of the use of self-reported data note that surveys are not particularly good at picking up the more serious categories of offenses—the ones that are considered relatively rare.

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