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date: 17 September 2021

(p. ix) Preface

(p. ix) Preface

Like it or not, we are emotional creatures, and one reason why crime is a perennially attention-grabbing subject of political discourse and scientific research is because it speaks to our emotions. It scares us. That is, most of us are scared of traditional forms of street crime. Who hasn’t woken up in the middle of the night worried that the front door isn’t locked? Who hasn’t felt on edge entering a deserted parking garage late at night? The possibility of being the victim of a predatory attack in these situations provokes a viscerally primed alertness and a readiness to fight or flee. But such emotional reactions are rarely evoked by the types of crime that are the subject of this Handbook: that is, white-collar crime. The prospect of falling victim to a fraudulently marketed collateralized debt obligation is more likely to provoke bafflement than gut-wrenching fear. Not surprisingly, therefore, white-collar crime typically does not rank high as a matter of public concern even though the threat that it poses to the economy and to civil society exceeds that of street crime by several orders of magnitude. White-collar crime has also long occupied a marginal position in criminology, and the lack of attention that criminologists devote to it can be traced in part to its complexity.

Just because a problem is complex, however, does not mean that it is wise to ignore it. Indeed, complex problems are the ones we should worry about the most, because they pose harms that are hard to see and that cannot be solved with simple solutions. This volume was motivated by a desire to shed light on a problem that is all too often passed over by both researchers and policymakers. We hoped that by bringing together a collection of clearly written and approachable articles on the many facets of white-collar crime and white-collar crime control, we could advance both scholarly and public interest in this important global problem. The essays cover not only the traditional domains of white-collar crime scholarship but also new theoretical developments related to our understanding of the causal factors that underlie white-collar crime and new developments in public policy regarding its control.

This Handbook is divided into eight parts and begins with the debate over the definition of white-collar crime. This debate has gone on since the concept was introduced over three-quarters of a century ago. For many scholars, the white-collar criminal is envisioned as an older, wealthy, white male who orchestrates the theft of millions or who exploits others for personal or business advantage. Even though this stereotype is probably what the general public has in mind when it pictures the white-collar offender, scholars have proposed alternative definitions. These alternative definitions focus on the nature of the crime (clandestine and based on deception) rather than the social and demographic characteristics of the perpetrators. At present, both definitional (p. x) approaches are used in the field, and as the two chapters in part I as well as chapters in other parts make clear, the choice of definition has theoretical, empirical, and policy implications.

Regardless how it is defined, though, the impact of white-collar crime cannot be denied. Two essays in part II explicate the monetary, physical, and social costs that are imposed by white-collar crime on those directly victimized by it as well as the costs it imposes indirectly on the economy and society in general.

“Why do they do it?” This question has intrigued criminologists, as well as just about everybody else, for a long time, but it seems especially puzzling in the case of white-collar crime. Perhaps this is because white-collar crime seems counterintuitive. It is easy to understand why a person who is homeless or addicted to illegal drugs might resort to criminal activity to stay alive or to avoid the pains of withdrawal. But this need-based reasoning does not seem to apply as well to the people who commit white-collar crimes. Some answers to the “why” question can be found in the chapters in part III. These chapters focus on the demographic and psychological characteristics of the people who commit white-collar crimes and on their reasons for doing so. Because of changes in the nature of work and the enlarging of economic opportunities for women and racial and ethnic minorities, there are reasons to believe that the pool of potential white-collar offenders is growing and changing in its demographic composition, suggesting that the prevalence of white-collar type crimes may also be increasing.

Throughout most of its history, the study of white-collar offenders has been based on the assumption that they are psychologically normal and socially well integrated into mainstream society. White-collar offenders are thought not to suffer from the developmental and social disadvantages that plague street offenders. Accordingly, investigations of white-collar offenders have been restricted to only one stage in the life course: adulthood. The exclusive focus on white-collar offenders as adults is now out of step with the rest of criminology, where life-course and developmental perspectives now dominate. However, as the chapters in part IV demonstrate, there are signs that this situation is changing. Researchers have begun to investigate whether there are adolescent precursors to white-collar crime, and they have started to apply the principles, concepts, and statistical techniques of developmental theory to white-collar offenders. It is too early to say where this new theoretical approach will lead, but, at a minimum, it represents a step toward bringing the study of white-collar crime closer to the theoretical mainstream of criminology.

One of the distinguishing features of white-collar crime is that it is almost always integrated into or parasitic upon legitimate economic activities. As the structure and organization of legitimate economic activities change so, too, does white-collar crime. Thus, the nature of the white-collar crime problem that is found in a particular society or a particular historical period depends on the larger cultural and institutional context. The essays in part V delve into the complex interconnections that exist among economic fluctuations, cultural variations, and trends in the nature and prevalence of white-collar crime.

(p. xi) Part VI deals with another contextual feature of white-collar crime. It is often situated in an organizational context. This context influences both opportunities and motivations for white-collar offending. While organizations provide a setting in which white-collar offenses by individuals can occur, organizations themselves can also be conceived as offenders. The chapters in this section explore the criminogenic properties and dynamics of organizations and also address the factors that may lead to organizational self-restraint.

The final three parts of the volume—VII, VIII, and IX—focus on the tough problem of controlling white-collar crime. The control of white-collar crime is complicated for two main reasons. First and more important, since white-collar crimes are almost always integrated into legitimate economic activities, it follows that steps taken to control white-collar criminals inevitably affect legitimate businesspeople. Although regulatory restrictions are necessary to protect the common good, they also impose costs on legitimate businesses and reduce their efficiency. Trade-offs have to be made, and this stubborn reality is a source of continual political conflict and debate. The chapters in part VII explore how regulatory policy is made, how it is enforced, and its overall effectiveness.

Second, the clandestine nature of white-collar offenses makes them difficult to detect and investigate using the traditional legal tools available to law-enforcement agencies. Nevertheless, even though regulation is the most important means of controlling white-collar crime, the criminal justice system also has a role to play. Unfortunately, it is a role that is fraught with logistical difficulties and confounded by policy conundrums. As the essays in parts VIII and IX show, white-collar crimes pose challenges for investigators and prosecutors because the crimes often involve organizations as well as individuals and raise ethical questions about who or what should be held accountable. Finally, when white-collar offenders are convicted in criminal court, what should be done with them? Should they be sentenced harshly to satisfy the principle of just deserts, or should the penalties they suffer as a result of their “fall from grace” mitigate the severity of their sanctioning?

Such questions animate the study of white-collar crime and make it an exciting and ever-changing area of criminological investigation and public policy. We believe the essays presented in this volume will help readers explore these questions and help them to see that even though white-collar crime may not speak to the emotions like violent crime does, it poses far more important and far-reaching challenges to all of us.

Michael L. Benson, Shanna R. Van Slyke, and Francis T. Cullen

April 23, 2015 (p. xii)