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Within the field of criminology, white-collar crime has been defined by Edwin Sutherland as "a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation" (1939). Sutherland was a proponent of Symbolic Interactionism, and believed that criminal behavior was learned from interpersonal interaction with others. White-collar crime, therefore, overlaps with corporate crime because the opportunity for fraud, bribery, insider trading, embezzlement, computer crime, copyright infringement, money laundering, identity theft, and forgery is more available to white-collar employees.
The term white-collar crime only dates back to 1939. Professor Edwin Hardin Sutherland was the first to coin the term, and hypothesize white-collar criminals attributed different characteristics and motives than typical street criminals. Mr. Sutherland originally presented his theory in an address to the American Sociological Society in attempt to study two fields, crime and high society, which had no previous empirical correlation. He defined his idea as "crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation" (Sutherland, 1939). Many denote the invention of Sutherland's idiom to the explosion of U.S business in the years following the Great Depression. Sutherland noted that in his time, "less than two percent of the persons committed to prisons in a year belong to the upper-class." His goal was to prove a relation between money, social status, and likelihood of going to jail for a white-collar crime, compared to more visible, typical crimes. Although the percentage is a bit higher today, numbers still show a large majority of those in jail are poor, "blue-collar" criminals, despite efforts to crack down on corporate crime.
Other fiscal laws were passed in the years prior to Sutherland's studies including antitrust laws in the 1920's, and social welfare laws in the 1930's. After the Depression, people went to great lengths to rebuild their financial security, and it is theorized this led many hard workers, who felt they were underpaid, to take advantage of their positions.
Much of Sutherland's work was to separate and define the differences in blue collar street crimes, such as arson, burglary, theft, assault, rape and vandalism, which are often blamed on psychological, associational, and structural factors. Instead, white-collar criminals are opportunists, who over time learn they can take advantage of their circumstances to accumulate financial gain. They are educated, intelligent, affluent, confident individuals, who were qualified enough to get a job which allows them the unmonitored access to often large sums of money. Many also use their intelligence to con their victims into believing and trusting in their credentials. Many do not start out as criminals, and in many cases never see themselves as such.
Modern criminology generally rejects a limitation of the term by reference, rather classifies the type of crime and the topic:
- By the type of offense, e.g. property crime, economic crime, and other corporate crimes like environmental and health and safety law violations. Some crime is only possible because of the identity of the offender, e.g. transnational money laundering requires the participation of senior officers employed in banks. But the Federal Bureau of Investigation has adopted the narrow approach, defining white-collar crime as "those illegal acts which are characterized by deceit, concealment, or violation of trust and which are not dependent upon the application or threat of physical force or violence" (1989, 3). This approach is relatively pervasive in the United States, the record-keeping does not adequately collect data on the socioeconomic status of offenders which, in turn, makes research and policy evaluation problematic. While the true extent and cost of white-collar crime are unknown, it is estimated to cost the United States more than $300 billion annually, according to the FBI.
- By the type of offender, e.g. by social class or high socioeconomic status, the occupation of positions of trust or profession, or academic qualification, researching the motivations for criminal behavior, e.g. greed or fear of loss of face if economic difficulties become obvious. Shover and Wright (2000) point to the essential neutrality of a crime as enacted in a statute. It almost inevitably describes conduct in the abstract, not by reference to the character of the persons performing it. Thus, the only way that one crime differs from another is in the backgrounds and characteristics of its perpetrators. Most if not all white-collar offenders are distinguished by lives of privilege, much of it with origins in class inequality.
- By organizational culture rather than the offender or offense which overlaps with organized crime. Appelbaum and Chambliss (1997, 117) offer a twofold definition:
- Occupational crime which occurs when crimes are committed to promote personal interests, say, by altering records and overcharging, or by the cheating of clients by professionals.
- Organizational or corporate crime which occurs when corporate executives commit criminal acts to benefit their company by overcharging or price fixing, false advertising, etc.