In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Corporate Crime

  • Introduction
  • Definitions of Corporate Crime
  • Types of Corporate Crime
  • Consequences of Corporate Crime
  • Causes of Corporate Crime
  • Criminological Theory and Corporate Crime
  • Criminal Justice Response to Corporate Crime
  • Social Response to Corporate Crime

Criminology Corporate Crime
Brian K. Payne, Susannah Tapp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0185


The phrase “corporate crime” is traced to criminologists Marshall Clinard and Richard Quinney who, in their classic text Criminal Behavior Systems, called for a distinction among types of white-collar crimes. The authors identified corporate crime and occupational crime as general varieties of white-collar crime. Corporate crime refers to situations where corporate officials commit criminal or harmful acts for the benefit of the corporation, while occupational crime refers to situations where individual employees commit crimes against the corporation, workplace, or consumer during the course of employment. Much of the research on corporate offending has considered the characteristics of this offense type, with a great deal of debate centering on whether corporations actually “commit” crime. Those who study corporate crime generally conclude that corporate offending creates far more harm than traditional offending. Researchers also agree that traditional explanations for criminal behavior may not apply to corporate crime. Typically, traditional criminological theories ignore organizational factors, while explanations for corporate offending must consider these same factors to fully understand corporate offending. The criminal justice, or official, response to corporate offending is also different than the official response to traditional offending. The response to traditional offending tends to involve aggressive law enforcement responses and stiff penalties, while the response to corporate offending tends to involve reactive responses with minor penalties. In a similar way, the societal response to corporate offending tends to minimize the seriousness of these offenses.

Definitions of Corporate Crime

Distinguishing between types of white-collar crime, Clinard and Quinney 1973 was the first to use the phrase “corporate crime.” Later, Clinard and Yeager 1980 clarified that corporate crime included crimes committed by corporate officials with the aim of benefitting the corporation. Calavita and Pontell 1993 suggested that corporate crime should be conceptualized similar to organized crime with a focus given to the organization rather than the status of the offenders. Passas 2005 points out that some corporate misdeeds may not technically be illegal according to the criminal law. This ambiguity in the definition has been at the center of much of the debate surrounding corporate offending. Many researchers recognize that a definition of a behavior as illegal by the justice system does not necessarily label that behavior as criminal. Kramer, et al. 2002 provides an overview of the origins of the concept of state-corporate crime, a term that views harmful actions of state regimes as a type of corporate offending. Many of these offenses would not be treated as criminal by the justice system, but some researchers may label the behaviors as criminal. Machin and Mayr 2013; McMullan 2006; and Wright, et al. 1995 examine the role of the media in shaping definitions about white-collar crime.

  • Calavita, K., and H. N. Pontell. 1993. Savings and loan fraud as organized crime: Toward a conceptual typology of corporate illegality. Criminology 31.4: 519–548.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1993.tb01140.x

    White-collar crime is traditionally associated with high status offenders, with high social status offenders seen as corporate offenders and low status offenders as organized crime offenders. The authors suggest that, instead of focusing on the social status of the offenders, the focus should be on the types of offenses, to differentiate between organized crime and corporate crime.

  • Clinard, M., and R. Quinney. 1973. Criminal behavior systems: A typology. 2d ed. New York: Holt.

    A classic book describing the origins of the concept of corporate crime.

  • Clinard, M., and P. Yeager. 1980. Corporate crime. New York: Free Press.

    A detailed description of how criminologists can better understand and study corporate crime.

  • Kramer, R. C., R. J. Michalowski, and D. Kauzlarich. 2002. The origins and development of the concepts and theory of state corporate crime. Crime & Delinquency 48.2: 263–282.

    DOI: 10.1177/0011128702048002005

    A summary of the contributions of Richard Quinney to the study of white-collar crime. Specific attention is given to the concept of state corporate crime.

  • Machin, D., and A. Mayr. 2013. Corporate crime and the discursive deletion of responsibility: A case study of the Paddington rail crash. Crime, Media, Culture 9.1: 63–82.

    DOI: 10.1177/1741659012450294

    The media influence on what is and is not viewed as a crime by the media and, subsequently, society. Although the media does not excuse corporate misdeeds, when a corporation instead of an individual is responsible, it is more difficult for the media to frame the incident as a crime.

  • McMullan, J. L. 2006. News, truth, and recognition of corporate crime. Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice 48.6: 905–939.

    DOI: 10.3138/cjccj.48.6.905

    Many people determine what is true based on what is portrayed in the news. This article analyzes accounts of the Westray mine explosion in Nova Scotia. While the media exposed several elements of the Westray tragedy, the corporations were able to avoid larger blame by the failure of regulators to label the incident as a crime.

  • Passas, N. 2005. Lawful but awful: Legal corporate crimes. Journal of Socio-Economics 34.6: 771–786.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.socec.2005.07.024

    Not all forms of corporate misdeeds are illegal, but this does not mean that they are not harmful. By focusing research only on what the criminal justice system defines as criminally wrong, the harm done through actions that defy regulations, but not the law, is missed; and those harmed are minimized. The article raises awareness of, and argues for, criminalization of violations, sending a message that corporate wrongdoing is serious.

  • Wright, J. P., F. T. Cullen, and M. B. Blankenship. 1995. The social construction of corporate violence: Media coverage of the Imperial Food Products fire. Crime & Delinquency 41.1: 20–37.

    DOI: 10.1177/0011128795041001002

    Crime is a social construction in that what is defined as criminal will be considered a crime. This article is a content analysis of the Imperial Food Products Fire and finds that, although the media details harm caused by the fire, the event is not defined as a crime. Even when corporate misdeeds result in death, they are not considered crimes in the way traditional offenses would be.

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