In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section White-Collar Crime

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources
  • Defining White-Collar Crime
  • Corporate Crime
  • Women and White-Collar Crime
  • Theoretical Perspectives
  • Estimating the Costs
  • Crime Control and Prevention

Criminology White-Collar Crime
Sally S. Simpson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0020


The meaning and definition of white-collar crime is deeply contested. Most criminologists recognize that white-collar crime is different from traditional “street” crime. Disagreements center on the scope of the behavior and who, ultimately, is classified as a white-collar offender. Generally, white-collar crimes are offenses conducted by guile or concealment that involve “upper world” offenders. Broad definitions of white-collar crime can include harmful acts which are not illegal (deviance) to more narrow definitions that are tied exclusively to violations of criminal law. Depending on which definition is used, white-collar offenders may include governments, businesses, chief executive officers, professionals, welfare cheats, and individuals who illegally download software or purposefully underreport income on their taxes.

Introductory Works

Disagreements about what white-collar crime is and how it should be studied have been part of the criminological landscape since Edwin Sutherland first called attention to crimes by persons “in the upper or white-collar class, composed of respectable or at least respected business and professional men” (Sutherland 1940, p. 1), and contrasted these offenders and offenses with those concentrated mainly in the lower classes. Later, in a systematic study of crimes by corporations, Sutherland offered a formal definition of white-collar crime as “a crime committed by a person of high social status and respectability in the course of his occupation” (Sutherland 1949, p. 9). Sutherland’s approach to white-collar crime challenged conventional wisdom about the characteristics of crime and criminals, existing theories about the purported causes of crime, and the relative importance of criminal versus other systems of justice processing (such as regulatory and civil justice systems). Although legal scholars in particular objected to Sutherland’s ideas—especially Paul Tappan (see Tappan 1947)—the term “white-collar crime” has been readily adopted into the vernacular of criminology.

  • Sutherland, Edwin H. 1940. The White-collar criminal. American Sociological Review 5:1–12.

    DOI: 10.2307/2083937

    Sutherland’s presidential address to the American Sociological Association. He asserts the importance of white-collar crime and the need for further social scientific consideration.

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

    One of the first systematic treatments of crimes by business and the application of differential association as a theoretical framework to account for these crimes.

  • Tappan, Paul W. 1947. Who is the criminal? American Sociological Review 12.10: 96–102.

    In a legal critique of Sutherland’s definition of white-collar crime, Tappan asserts that for an act to be considered a crime, there must be a violation of criminal law, a guilty finding in a criminal court, and punishment levied for that violation. Available online.

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