Sutherland and Tappan’s Definition of White Collar Crime

Edwin H. Sutherland’s Criminology (1924), retiled Principles of Criminology in 1934, and was to become the most influential textbook in the history of criminology. He is known a man who claims that criminals are not simple minded person but did endorse the latter view, explaining different criminal behaviors through the relative influence of various geographic, economic, political, and sociological factors.

“Sutherland and his successors greatly expanded the scope of crime by shifting the focus to corporations and individuals in the upper socioeconomic classes. A lawyer-sociologist critic of Sutherland’s work, Paul W. Tappan, long ago noted that Sutherland’s definition of crime departed from the legal definition. Tappan charged that this development was a “seductive movement to revolutionize the concepts of crime and [the] criminal. According to Tappan, Professor Sutherland’s definition of “white-collar crime” includes “a boor, a sinner, a moral leper or the devil incarnate but he does not become a criminal through sociological name-calling (“Criminology”.

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Furthermore, the great sociologist does a very vulnerable job in describing white collar crime. So the study will dealt with approaches to define white collar crime of the well-known sociologist. The questions need further investigation on how this sociologies reacted up to their knowledge and understanding on the topic of with collar crime.

Thus the main issue to this paper is to get the point view with the two personalities to answer the question raise as to; are Sutherland and Tappan’s definitions or approaches to define white collar crime good or not? How are they similar and how are they different?

Definition of White Collar Crime

“White-collar crimes are those crimes specifically performed by professional workers. They include certain forms of fraud, insider trading, embezzlement, computer crime and forgery. It is estimated that a great deal of white collar crime is undetected. Such crimes are often contrasted against violent crimes (such as rape or murder) or blue-collar crime (such as vandalism or shoplifting). The term derives from the characteristic white-collar shirts worn by lawyers, bankers and other professionals associated with such crimes (“White Collar Crime”.”.

“The criminalities encounter feeble opposition and since their practices are often more lucrative than the typical criminal act, they distance their more scrupulous rivals in business and politics and reap an uncommon worldly prosperity. The key to the criminal is not evil impulse, but moral insensibility. The criminal prefers to prey on the anonymous public. He goes beyond this by convincing others to act instead of acting himself, which protects him from liability and being labeled a criminal, and is instead immune to such scrutiny. The criminality practices a protective impersonation of the good. The criminality counterfeits the good citizen. (“The Encyclopedia of White Collar.””.

“White-collar offenses shall constitute those classes of non-violent illegal activities which principally involve traditional notions of deceit, deception, concealment, manipulation, breach of trust, subterfuge or illegal circumvention.” Under that definition, the illegal purchase of prescriptions and music pirating clearly qualify. The Justice Department has recently promoted the idea that enforcement of federal crimes should be uniform. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that federal prosecutors will hand down millions (or any) indictments of seniors, parents, and children for these crimes (Wright, Richard.”

Other Related Literatures

The concept of elite crime: the man above is convicted of $250 million

in stock fraud, while the man at right … is convicted of stealing a

$2,500 car from his employer. Which man will serve significant, hard

time in prison?

“Religious fraud,” is the caption, “Religious fraud often involves

raising millions of dollars in the name of pious efforts, only to see

the believers’ money end up in the ministers’ bank account, paying for a

lavish lifestyle (“Focus on Corporation”.Oct 20, 2004.”.

Sutherland definition or approaches of white collar crime

“White collar crime is the illegal activities of people and organizations whose acknowledged purpose is profit through legitimate business enterprise. White collar crime involves illegal business practices (embezzlement, price-fixing, bribery) with merchandise that is ordinarily seen as a legitimate business product.  Normally, telemarketing fraud, and the SEC investigates securities fraud.  Trust violations are jointly investigated (“Intelligence Analysis of White Collar Crime”.”.

In the late 1930s, criminologist Edwin Sutherland first coined the term “white collar crime” to describe the criminal activities of the rich and powerful.  He defined it as “a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation.” As Sutherland saw it, the rich were engaged in a conspiracy to use their position for personal gain without regard to the law.  Today, it is recognized that persons in all social classes can commit white collar crimes, but the notion of getting away with disregard for the law still exists in the justice system’s tendency to treat these offenses as civil rather than criminal matters. It is the generally accepted wisdom in criminology that although Sutherland’s definition fall short in some ways, the underlying constructs of what he meant — deception and lack of physical force — remain constant, even while forms of the crime evolve.  The definition is considered a good 2005 update:  “white collar crimes are defined as illegal or unethical acts that violate fiduciary responsibility or public trust for personal or organizational gain.”  The typology includes: (1) crimes against government by public officials; (2) crimes against government by private citizens; (3) crimes against businesses; (4) crimes against investors; (5) crimes against consumers; (6) crimes against employees; and (7) crimes affecting public health.  The Green (1990) typology includes: (1) crimes for the benefit of one’s employer; (2) crimes by government officials; (2) crimes by professionals in the course of doing business; and (4) crimes by individuals in the course of their occupation.  Other typologies exist, such as the following:

·         Corporate crime — Usually occurs when a strongly competitive business environment fosters corporate irregularities (antitrust violations, price-fixing, false advertising)

·         Government crime — illegal and socially injurious cooperation between governments and corporate institutions (space shuttle disasters)

·         Occupational crime — Usually occurs when employees come across an opportunity to make extra money by bending or breaking the rules (theft, pilfering)

·         Professional crime — people or groups of people who systematically set out to look for opportunities to make money illegally (fraud, tax evasion, deceitful claims, phantom operations, false pretenses, forgery)

Tappan’s definition or approaches of white collar crime

“The state has a monopoly on behavior usually deemed criminal. It murders, kidnaps, and locks up people. Sovereignty has come to be identified with the unbridled – and exclusive – exercise of violence. The emergence of modern international law has narrowed the field of permissible conduct. A sovereign can no longer commit genocide or ethnic cleansing with impunity, for instance (“Legalizing Crime”.”.

Tappan proposed the legalistic approach, arguing that criminologists should study only persons who actually had been convicted of crimes. This view threatened Sutherland’s emerging research on white-collar criminals, because many corporations that violate the law are never prosecuted. Sutherland (1945) maintained that conviction is important in the study of public agency (or justice system) responses to crime, but it cannot be used in defining the subject matter of criminology, which must explain all forms of law-violating behavior. This behavioral definition of crime still prevails in modern criminology

Many acts – such as the waging of aggressive war, the mistreatment of minorities, the suppression of the freedom of association – hitherto sovereign privilege, have thankfully been criminalized. Many politicians, hitherto immune to international prosecution, are no longer so. Consider Yugoslavia’s Milosevic and Chile’s Pinochet.

But, the irony is that a similar trend of criminalization – within national legal systems – allows governments to oppress their citizenry to an extent previously unknown. Hitherto civil torts, permissible acts, and common behavior patterns are routinely criminalized by legislators and regulators. Precious few are decriminalized.

Certain social problems are not well understood in the broader society, and are only beginning to be delineated in academic scholarship. One such problem is the understanding, characterization, and handling of harmful organized group behavior. “Developing social structures which try to check individual behavior, and in the process we’ve built massive systems of human organization on the assumption that they are more efficient in helping us control and manage peoples’ actions, make our lives easier, and make sense of the world (“Lipshitt, Brian”.”. We have little realization of how these organizations impact on us or how we impact on them. Take the example of white collar crime. White collar crime can be understood as harmful group behavior which is often handled through regulating the behavior of the group. This takes place in a society which is focused on individual accountability to the law. In order to ameliorate this duality, we have developed systems of language, law and ideology which create individuals out of organizations. This arrangement confounds our attempts to understand and address the problem of corporate criminality. This paper approaches the problem of white collar crime from an institutional perspective in hopes of advancing our understanding of the organization of white collar crime.

Differences of Tappan and Sutherland of definition of white collar crime

One of the earliest challenges to Sutherland’s study was offered by Paul Tappan (1947). Tappan argued that Sutherland’s theory was flawed because he had categorized as “crimes” organizational activities which were sanctioned none criminally. As a central hinge point which has defined two distinct schools of inquiry into white collar crime, one legalistic and focused on the type of law violated, the other focuses on the offender. Sutherland’s tradition focuses on the offender. Sutherland addressed Tappan’s concerns in his monograph, arguing that white collar crime was different from crime committed by the poor. Principally in the administrative procedures which are used in dealing with the offenders and that variations in administrative procedures are not significant from the point of view of causation of crime.

“In other words, legalistic traditions assume that, for purposes of establishing the causes of criminal behavior, the only valid definition of “criminal” is that provided by the state – after the deed, processing and specific attribution of criminal guilt. However, Sutherland argued that the state specifically avoided defining the acts of the powerful as crimes but they were crimes all the same. Sutherland’s theory that criminal behavior was learned in a group setting needed additional refinement. Other personal motivating factors influenced the choices of criminals and led to their acts of crime (Cressy, 1953.”.

The two sociologists, has their own perspective according to their own likes and dislikes. I would rather say that, a person has a freedom to judge and make opinion of their own as long as it fits with the standard of the society. I can not judge to the two sociologist to which of them is right or wrong since both has a very strong asset to invoke what is right for them. I could only say, if the principles they got was accepted by society then nothing wrong with them as well. People can have their own limitation depending on how they got to use it in real situation that they might think it is good for them.


Cressy, 1953.


“Focus on Corporation”.Oct 20, 2004.

“Intelligence Analysis of White Collar Crime”.

“Legalizing Crime”.

Lipshitt, Brian.

“The Encyclopedia of White Collar.”

“White Collar Crime”.

Wright, Richard.