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Why commit White-Collar Crime? – Part 3

Why commit White-Collar Crime? – Part 3

Having looked over the past few articles at how many general theories do in fact have some ability to explain white-collar crime, this article we’re going to look more at arguments that support Sutherland’s belief that a newer theory was required to explain white-collar crime.

Labelling theory is one of the few general theories of crime that does not appear to be able to explain white-collar crime very well, as for most crimes the label of ‘criminal’ is applied due to the fact people are from a lower class background or a particularly criminal area. Those who are from upper class backgrounds are unlikely to be labelled as criminal already, so it is unlikely that this is pivotal in them deciding to commit crime. Furthermore, if they had already been labelled as criminal, then they would not have the means to commit white-collar crime, since big high-class businesses will generally not hire anyone who already has a known label of criminality. On the other hand, perhaps the label in the case of white-collar crime could be a self-label, where eventually the individual accepts themselves as a criminal and decides that they no longer care about acting in a criminal way.

Having looked at many general theories of crime, it seems that they do offer some strong explanations for why people in the upper classes do commit white-collar crime. They can need a bit of adapting, but the basic framework existed in most cases to explain white-collar crime as well as the ‘typical’ lower class crime. That being said, Sutherland, who coined the term white-collar crime and, as mentioned in a previous article, had very strong ideas about how it should be explained, came up with his own theory for why it occurred. This is known as Differential Association Theory.

This theory is based on ideas from Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, whereby an individual copies the behaviour of those around them. In Sutherland’s theory, people may not just learn and imitate others’ behaviours but also learn their beliefs. He suggests that when we are exposed to more beliefs that support criminality than those that disagree with it, we will act in a criminal way. He then went on to say that we can learn both the beliefs in support of criminality from others, but can also learn the techniques to commit crime as well. Sutherland believed that this would explain all types of crime, including both lower-class and white-collar crime.

This theory does appear to make some sense. In his book on the topic, Sutherland provides accounts of people starting new jobs and they recall being persuaded to act criminally because that was what everyone else did and there was a certain level of pressure that if they did not they would be fired. This can also explain why criminal activities diffuse between various businesses, as people learn each other’s tricks and want to keep up. Furthermore, it makes sense considering that there will be isolation from negative attitudes towards this crime in the workplace. No one will speak out against it, yet lots of people will speak in support of it, meaning an individual feels it is alright.

To conclude, over the last few articles, we’ve had quite an in depth look at how different theories can explain white-collar crime, and it certainly seems as though there are lots of very good explanations out there. The only problem is, which one should we focus on, and which can help us in our criminal justice system the most. Perhaps the next step is to develop a more holistic over-arching theory that uses all of these explanations together so that we can understand the best course of action from here.


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