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White-Collar Crime: History of an Idea

The Evolution Of White-collar Crime, White-collar Crime From The Enforcement Perspective, Conclusion

Crimes committed by persons of respectability have drawn the attention of societies throughout history. In the United States, interest in such phenomena far antedates the first public use of the concept of white-collar crime by Edwin Sutherland. The muckraking tradition at the turn of the century produced many persons who condemned abuse of position for private gain. Sociologist E. A. Ross, in Sin and Society, drew attention to "the man who picks pockets with a railway rebate, murders with an adulterant instead of a bludgeon, burglarizes with a "rake-off" instead of a jimmy, cheats with a company prospectus instead of a deck of cards, or scuttles his town instead of his ship" (p. 7).

The varied misdeeds denoted by Ross give an early hint of both the value of the concept and the difficulties that have plagued its use. The value is essentially social and evocative. It connotes not a particular type of crime or a statutory violation, but a concern for some combination of abuse of trust, authority, status, or position. In a society whose criminal justice system deals mainly with common crimes and common offenders, it bespeaks a concern for the misdeeds of the haves rather than the have-nots, and it raises the specter of class bias in law enforcement. However, its signifying power is precisely its weakness as an analytical tool, for its meaning shifts with changes in the character of society and in the underlying values and interests of the varied scholars and policymakers who invoke it. It is thus a distinctively social, rather than legal, concept, one suffused with vagueness and ambiguity.

STANTON WHEELER

DAN M. KAHAN

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law