White Collar Crime and Theories Explained


The study of crime has been in existence for many centuries but has only gained prominence in recent times. This can mostly be attributed to popularization by the media especially in the West. Psychologists and criminal profilers have been gathering valuable data pertaining to the reasons behind any criminal act and behavior. They have managed to do this by conducting interviews and studying infamous criminals such as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer among others. One of the most acceptable conclusions as regarding this matter is that criminality is a result of nurturing and personality.

To this effect, criminologists such as Edwin Sutherlands and Hans Eysenck have come up with various theories of crime that explore the various characteristics of criminals and the various factors that drive them into criminal activities. Among the various types of crime is the white collar crime which has been in existence for a very long time. This discussion shall set out to explore various theories of crime as brought out by different theorists. A critical analysis of these theories shall be presented and their understanding as regarding to the causes of white collar crime exposed. The foundation of these theories shall be used as a basis through which an understanding of white collar crime can be derived.

White collar crime

Edwin Sutherlands as quoted by Strader (2002) defined white collar crime as: “crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation.” According to Sutherlands, the main focus in this definition was more inclined on the perpetrators of the crime (upper-class members of society) rather than why they did it. Throughout the study of crime, the general assumption as regarding to white-collar crime has been that these crimes are committed by individuals of respectability and with a high social status in the course of their occupation.

Brodeur and Ouellet (2004), states that crime requires planning and an evaluation of the risks and the benefits. The execution of any criminal act is hinged upon the occurrence of opportunities, the location, and the availability of targets. However, the extent of the crime depends on the belief system of the perpetrator. This means that if a criminal believes that committing a crime is justified, then there is no limit to what they can do.

Theories explaining white collar crime

The Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory

Burgess and Akers came up with this theory in 1966. It was a revision of the previous theory forwarded by Sutherland (Green, 2005). Their main aim was to re-evaluate Sutherland’s theory which tried to explain differential association using behaviorism. They based their argument on the fact that non-social effects such as operant conditioning also played a pivotal role in reinforcing criminal behavior (Green, 2005). Akers asserted that differential association with deviant peers to a large extent contributed to the introduction of deviant behavior in an individual. He stated that differential association is strengthened by differential reinforcement. This refers to the process through which new criminals learn how to gain from their acts and avoid being caught (See, 2004). The theory asserts that an individual’s interaction with criminals may psychologically influence him/her to commit crime. In regards to white collar crimes, this would explain why the offenders commit such crimes. They learn how to circumvent the laws and execute their crimes without getting caught. As Strader (2002) explains, key to a successful execution of white collar crimes is the ability of the perpetrator to cover his/her tracks efficiently.

The theory proposes that lack of self, control, peer pressure and lack of respect for the law are some of the factors that contribute to criminal behaviors. Strader (2002) states that people in the lower classes do not often involve themselves with this type of crime because they lack the power and opportunity to commit them. On the other hand, Green (2005) reiterates that this type of crime is often difficult to track or detect due to the complexities involved in corporate proceedings. According to Croall (2001), lack of proper supervision may lead some people into associating with criminals. Most of these crimes are committed in the office or at home with little to no possibilities of having eye witnesses. These environments enable the perpetrators to carefully plan and execute their crimes with a zero margin for errors.

This theory was based on seven pivotal assumptions (See, 2004). Burgess and Akers proposed that the execution of any criminal act is as a result of learned criminal behaviors. The second assumption was that criminal behaviors can be acquired not only from the social but also from nonsocial situation. In addition, they asserted that learning of such behaviors occurs in groups and it involved the attitudes and techniques as well as the procedures implemented to avoid detection and apprehension. Also, they argued that the availability and frequency of the rein forcer was a great determiner of the class of criminal behavior possessed by an individual (Brodeur & Ouellet, 2004). These assumptions best describe the environment at which white collar crimes are committed.

The rational choice theory

The rational choice theory of crime causation applies to white collar crimes in the following ways: the crime require some significant amount of courage to execute successfully. As See (2004) explains, crime no matter its intensity requires planning. Planning in this case refers to the procedures that should be followed from the start to the exit strategy. In addition to this, the perpetrator must analyze the costs (risks) and weigh them against the expected benefits. The rational choice theory assumes that criminal behaviors are as a result of choices and decisions made through the association of individuals with deviant parties. It further asserts that aspects of crime must be learnt (Croall, 2001). Statistics indicate that most white collar crimes are carried out by a group of people. From these parties, individuals gain useful insight on how and when to commit crimes as well as the measures that should be employed during the crime to ensure that the perpetrators are not caught. This theory therefore supports the fact that white collar crimes are learnt and they get worse as they are repeated over time.

Eysenck’s theory

The Eysenck’s personality theory holds that criminal actions and behaviors are to a large extent determined by biological and social factors. According to See (2004), human behaviors may be inherited from one generation to another. The author asserts that all humans have underlying desires. As such, it is only through socialization that these urges can be controlled. Therefore, a person with poor social skills develops a personality disorder which forces him/her to exhibit antisocial tendencies. Those that bring out these tendencies become criminals while those who suppress them become neurotics. This theory is therefore a proponent to the fact that criminals are social misfits trying to compensate for their weaknesses and satisfy their desires. The sociological theory of crime purports that crime is as a result of sociological influences. Examples of criminals in this category include money launders, robbers, embezzlers and corrupt officials.

The social theory

The social theory of crime can be used to further our understanding on white collar crimes. According to Hall (2007), white collar crimes are committed by people of class in society. As such, poverty, drug abuse and family conflicts cannot be stated as being primary causes of these crimes. Hall (2007) suggests that the perpetrators of these crimes do so in order to maintain a certain lifestyle and respect from the society. As such, these types of crime are fueled by greed. Over time, the money received as salary cannot fully meet he needs of such individuals and they start stealing from their companies, evading taxes and laundering money in a bid to secure as much money as they can.


The study of crime has been instrumental in analyzing the factors that make people commit crime, why they do it and the probability of committing them again. Various theories explaining white collar crimes have been highlighted and discussed. While it may be contended that an ideal society is one where people coexist in harmony thereby rendering punishments redundant, the realities of every day demonstrate the fact that the human race is far from achieving this utopia. A well organized criminal justice system is therefore a relevant tool and serves a significant role in the administration of the society. Understandings of these aspects of white collar crime are beneficial because they facilitate in understanding the criminal mind in terms of the factors that trigger or deter it. With such knowledge, it is easier to teach other people on how to analyze and detect various components of white collar crimes.


Brodeur, J., & Ouellet, G. (2004). What Is a Crime? A Secular Answer. Vancouver, Toronto: UBC Press.

Croall, H. (2001). Understanding white collar crime. Buckingham, Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Green, S. (2005). The Concept of White Collar Crime in Law and Legal Theory. Web.

Hall, A. (2007). Socio-Economic Theories of Crime. Web.

See, E. Student Study Guide for Ronald L. Akers and Christine S. Sellers’ Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Applications. Los Angeles, California: Roxbury Publishing Company.

Strader, J. (2002). Understanding White Collar Crime. USA: LexisNexis.

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