Social class and crime

Summary of social class and crime. Includes white/blue collar crime, corporate crime, state crime and occupational crime. Studies include:

  • Nelken
  • Sutherland
  • Tombs
  • Braithwaite
  • Hughes and Langan
  • Punch
  • Mars
  • Box

Would love some feedback if anything is incorrect - I'm going to be revising from this too :)

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Social class and crime
Most studies in sociology suggest that the most serious and frequent offenders are young
working class males. However, there may be a bias in the statistics that results in the idea
that `white collar crime' is underestimated...
WHITE COLLAR CRIME - middle class members of the business world - invisible and
BLUE COLLAR CRIME - working class members in society - often visible and more
likely to be punished.
Sutherland (1949) first used the term `white collar crime'. He challenged the assumption that
crime is mostly a working class phenomenon. However, his own definition is not helpful. The
problem with it is that he does not distinguish crimes committed for an organisation.
Writers have therefore distinguished between crimes:
CORPORATE CRIME - carried out on behalf of the organisation (e.g. tax evasion).
OCCUPATIONAL CRIME - benefits the individual at the expense of the organisation
(e.g. embezzling money).
White collar crimes are more technical, complex and discrete and often receive more lenient
punishments than blue collar crimes. For white collar crimes, there is a fine line between
what is acceptable and what is not. It is often about what is morally wrong rather than legally
Occupational/Corporate crime:
The study of these crimes developed from the work of Sutherland in the 1940s. He used the
term white collar crime to refer to crime committed by people who worked in offices. His
work overlaps with the interests of Marxists who were interested in the crimes of the
powerful. They share the concern that these types of crimes have been largely ignored,
whereas much work has centred on working class crimes.
The problem in the debate about what is a occupational/corporate crime is some are not
strictly illegal - for example low safety standards at work may meet the minimum legal
criteria. As Nelken (2002) points out, the debate about corporate crime is as much about
what is morally wrong than what is legally wrong.
Pearce and Tombs (1998) argue that corporate crime ought to extend to the manufacture
of cigarettes and alcohol - since both are linked to illness and death. Others point out that
transnational companies are committing crimes, even if this isn't a crime in the country it
takes place in (for example, low pay in countries abroad, harsh working conditions etc).
However, this debate goes beyond the limits of the law and looks at actions that have
harmful consequences.
Ditton (1977) and Mars (1982) have both studied theft by employees in a wide range of
occupations and found that minor theft was regarded as a legitimate part of the job.
Management often turned a blind eye to `fiddles', accepting them as a perk.

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Functionalists suggest that the difference between professionals (e.g. doctors) and most
other workers is how much trust can be placed in them (e.g. from patients).
According to Nelken (2002), there is a considerable amount of evidence pointing to
fraudulent claims from doctors/dentists against insurance companies in the USA.
Left realists argue that the enormous costs of conventional crime to society damages the
quality of people's lives. However, some argue that corporate crimes cost much more.…read more

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Financial frauds:
These include false accounting, insurance frauds and the making of false claims by sellers
about the benefits of pension schemes and saving plans. Fraud can involve vast sums of
money and the consequences can be extremely serious.
Views of white collar crime:
Compared to more visible/obvious types of crime such as burglary, white collar crime is
often treated differently by the public, courts, police etc.…read more

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When people in white collar occupations find the routes
to pay rises and promotions blocked, they sometimes innovate - just like members
of the working class. In other words, they turn to illegal means to become successful
and attain monetary goals. They experience the same strain to anomie - to
normlessness. This weakens the mechanisms of social control - the norms which
would otherwise restrain criminal behaviour.
Relative deprivation can be used to explain why well off, middle class people
experience a strain to anomie.…read more

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In fact,
criminal practices were quite normal.
Emotion based approaches:
More recently, the interest in emotions and the meaning of masculinity has spilled over into
explaining occupational and organised crime. According to Portnoy (2003), the reason so
powerful, rich people commit crime is for the thrills and excitement. The excitement is as
valued as the financial benefits.
Similarly, Punch (1996) argues that high finance is a world of `power struggles, ideological
debate, intense political rivalry, manipulation of information buffeted by moral ambiguity'.…read more

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Box (1983) points out the success the powerful have had in promoting the idea that
corporate crime is less serious and less harmful than street crimes. Box describes this as a
deliberate `mystification'.
Pearce (1976) was interested in why there were so few prosecutions against corporations
and senior business people. He concluded that they were so rare because it would
undermine the idea that most crime is carried out by the working class.…read more


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