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White Collar Crime Theories






White Collar Crime Theories

White-collar crime is defined as “illegal or unethical acts that violate fiduciary responsibility or public trust, committed by an individual or an organization usually during the course of legitimate occupational activity, by persons of high or respectable social status for personal or organizational gain (Benson &Simpson, 2009)”. A common white-collar crime theory is “Relative Deprivation.” It asserts that if a member of society or a group that lacks a way to achieve their wants, compares themselves with others who can easily fulfill these needs, they become frustrated. This builds resentment that can result in crime. This counters theorists reducing deviancy to individual volition. Since it proposes that comparison between groups result in feelings of inequality, it infers that the groups are dissimilar. This weakness is shown by intra-class white-collar crimes. Other assumptions include the idea that these comparisons result in negativity and that crime is due to a single causal variable.

A classical explanation for crime is the demonic perspective, which holds that crime results from demonic influences. White-collar criminals may claim their actions were a result of giving in to temptation or possession by evil forces. Biogenic perspectives approach white-collar crime via the analysis of biological factors. Malnutrition, mania and evolutionary patterns have been cited as possible links to criminal acts. Psychological approaches portray white-collar crime as psychopathologies whereby the individual’s unconscious leads to personality deviation. The focus is on personality disorders. Sociogenic theories look at the role the individual plays and their effect on society. Thus, emphasis is on the micro level aspects. The immediate social environment is blamed for crime in society, for instance, poverty (Benson& Simpson, 2009).

Rational Choice theory explains why a white-collar offender opts to engage in deviancy. Individuals choose criminal behavior by analyzing the course of action and chances of success. In contrast, Social Control holds that people’s relationships and beliefs encourage them to be law abiding. Morality is created in social order, assigning consequences to choices made. A weakness in social bonds triggers crime. The Social learning perspective states that white-collar crime results when people condition themselves to violate norms. As one learns a habit of norm violation, they will likely engage in deviance.

Interactionalism approaches crime in terms of the offenders’ symbolic construction of their social worlds. It refers to communication between individuals. Humans act toward things based on the meanings they ascribe to them during the communication process (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). The Labeling perspective focuses on the significance of labels (names, reputations) given to people. It is not the harm caused that makes an act “criminal”, but the label conferred on it. For example, drinking alcohol is harmful yet legal. Neutralization asserts that people who violate the law learn to nullify societal values allowing them to drift between lawful and unlawful behavior. When people have the opportunity to commit a crime, they have to neutralize values that would stop them. Structural Strain traces the origins of crime to tensions caused by the gap between cultural goals and the means available to achieve them. This imbalance between cultural goals and structurally available means can result in deviancy.

Conflict theory holds that crime originates from incompatible interests caused by the economic and social forces in society. Marxist views claim that the surplus population created by capitalism is seen as a threat to the rich who use laws to protect their wealth. In response, criminals commit crimes to free themselves from capitalism. The Radical form borrows from Marxism proposing that society is split along lines of economic prosperity. Hence, white-collar criminals can see stealing as a way to get even with excessively rich firms. Contemporary critical forms present a more balanced approach. They contend that poor people are usually the main victims of white-collar crime. Focus on the crimes committed by the wealthy is required. The contribution of white-collar crime to universal social injustices such as the laundering of drug money is also considered.


Benson, M. L., & Simpson, S. S. (2009). White-collar crime: an opportunity perspective. New York: Routledge

Gottfredson, M. R. & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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