How do criminologists define corporate crime?

A standard definition of corporate crime would read as follows: ‘Illegal acts or omissions, punishable by the state… which are the result of deliberate decision- making or culpable negligence within a legitimate formal organisation.’ (McLaughlin & Muncie 2006: 74). With reference to how corporate crime has been defined by criminology, in this essay I will firstly explore how conventional criminology, (that which predates the 1970’s), ignored or marginalized corporate crime (Crawford 1998). I will then discuss the significance of the contribution that Critical criminologies, most notably Marxist Criminology, have made to this debate. I will then go on to consider the seriousness of corporate crime, exploring some of the problems with statistics that attempt to measure the ‘crime problem’. This will be followed by a discussion on criminology post 1970, notably administrative criminology and the implications this has had on crime prevention initiatives in the 1980’s with relevance to corporate crime.
The problem with early ‘criminological’ theories, notably classicism and positivism, was not the inaccurate definition that they gave of corporate crime in so much as they ignored it. Crime was considered an individualistic matter (see Taylor, Walton & Young 1973; Vold et al 2002) with positivists arguing that crime was ‘tangible’ and ‘quantifiable’ (McLaughlin & Muncie 2006: 302), two labels that many contemporary authors would be hesitant to assign to corporate crime (See Slapper & Tombs 1999 & Green 1990). It was Sutherland’s groundbreaking research on white collar crime in the 1940’s that brought corporate crime to the forefront of the criminological agenda (Williams 2008:56) and thus seems to be a sound starting point for discussion. For the sake of argument, we will consider white collar crime a sub category of corporate crime, defined by Sutherland (1940) as a crime committed by a person of high social status and of respectability in the course of his employment. (A standard definition of corporate crime as the one that I have given earlier does not have the pre requisite of social status or respectability). Nevertheless, criticisms of Sutherland’s definiton of white collar crime, most notably by Nelken (see Nelken in Maguire et al 2007: 733-766) would apply to corporate crime, the first of these being that the behaviours that Sutherland regards as crimes are socially contentious e.g. taking long breaks or misusing the telephone at work. Other crimes that are mentioned are wide ranging and have nothing in common e.g. bank embezzlement and fiddling at work (see Nelken in Maguire et al 2007: 738). Nelken quotes Geiss (1968) who states that socially controversial crimes risk blurring the boundaries between what is criminal and what is not criminal (see Nelken in Maguire et al 1997:740). More generally, corporate crime has been said to be difficult to define because it covers a wide range of crimes and is complicated by terminology such as ‘business’ or ‘organisational’ often used in its place (see Slapper and Tombs (1999)). Crawford (1998) argues that definitions of corporate crime cannot be dicussed without recognising that there is a link between corporate crime and organisational crime. In the end, Nelken argues that bearing all this in mind, perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether definitions of white collar crime within criminology should match legal definitions of white collar crime (Nelken in Maguire et al 2007: 742). Perhaps at this stage, before proceeding to look at Marxist criminologies, it is worth mentioning that matching criminological definitions of crime with legal definitions would not resolve the problem of wide ranging crimes as these will only increase with time. The definition of crime changes according to the social and historical context, as social interactionists raised this very point in the 1960’s arguing that crime is a social construction (Taylor, Walton & Young, 1973: ). Here we can see the beginnings of a more critical understanding of crime, moving away from the focus being on the offender to questions being raised, such as ‘who defines what is a crime?’ bringing into discussion the role of power.

We will now move on to a short discussion about the contribution of Marxist criminology, as most work on corporate crime has originated from this school of thought (McLaughlin & Muncie 2006: 75). This is because Marxist criminology raises the importance of ‘power’ and the state, arguing that those in power shape the laws in order to protect their own interests (Vold el al 2002: 256). According to Vold (2002), this explains why the cost of street crime in America is $18 billion per year and why the cost of corporate crime is $1 trillion per year (2002: 255). Vold argues that twice as many people die because of illegal workplace conditions as they do from criminal homicide. In answer to the main question, we can safely assume that these statistics illustrate that corporate crime is a serious problem. It has been argued by others that failure by criminal justice agencies to control street crime serves the interest of the ruling class by diverting the public’s attention away from the people in power (who the public are greater victims of) and keeps the public in constant anxiety about lower class crime (Reiman, 1998 in Vold et al 2002). This may explain as we shall see further on why crime prevention initiatives have ignored corporate crime. Marxist criminology may have been criticised for not offering any realistic solutions to the crime problem (Lea & Young 1984), however with the rights given to corporations to have the right of ownership over genetic materials taken from living organisms (Manning, 2000), we can see some of the potential problems to come. Going back to statistics, no discussion on the seriousness of corporate crime can be complete without mentioning the problems with empirical research in its quest to measure how serious corporate crime is.
One way of looking at the phenomenon of ‘seriousness’ is to measure levels of corporate crime. This however presents quite a challenge as corporate crime is one such crime where they may be no clear victim. Crawford (1998) offers this as one explanation as to why crime prevention initiatives are difficult to implement in addressing corporate crime (1998:166). Although some crime prevention surveys have included commercial and other white collar crimes (Pearce: 1996), Crawford (1998) argues that surveys are still required to use what he terms ‘popularly meaningful’ definitions of crime, which means that this limits the range of crimes that are included in surveys (1998:166). All of this gives more credibility to the notion that there is a ‘dark figure of crime.’ (see Coleman 1996) especially where for example corporate crime is omitted from victim surveys such as the British Crime Survey (Swale 2007: 123). Despite these problems with crime statistics, this does not explain why government crime prevention initiatives that are the result of criminological research ignore corporate crime (Box 1983).
If positivism and classicism ignored corporate crime the same can be said of administrative criminology which emerged in the late 1980’s and which gave birth to situational crime prevention initiatives in the 1980’s (see Hughes 1996). The ideas of administrative criminology were a rehash of classicist notions of the criminal as being rational and calculating. Situational crime prevention was however concerned with manipulating the physical environment for e.g. through using surveillance techniques like CCTV or improving architectural design. However as many have argued situational crime prevention agendas have ignored crimes committed by the powerful such as governments and crimes against human rights aswell as the police (Cohen 1993; McLaughlin 1996). The reason put forward by Hughes as regards the lack of focus on corporate crimes is because situational crime prevention inititiatives agendas have been set by the demands of the government.
This essay has explored how early criminology predating the 1970’s ignored or marginalized corporate crime. The 1960’s saw the beginnings of more critical thinking, notably with the emergence of social interactionism and then in the 1970’s Marxist Criminology which focussed its attention away from the offender and on to the state as the object of study. It was from Marxist Criminology that much research on corporate crime emerged and which had provided some explanation as to why corporate crime is still not considered part of the ‘crime problem’. Marxist criminology is however not without its critics (see Lea & Young, 1984). As we have shown, administrative criminology which paved the way for crime prevention initiatives again ignored corporate crime and reverted back to previous classicist ideas, with a focus on crime as being individualistic (see Hughes, 1996). As regards to how serious a problem corporate crime poses we need to be certain about how much corporate crime there is. However, due to the problems that I have considered with statistics this is tricky. What we can be certain of is that with developments in science and technology and e.g. the commodification of DNA (Nelken in Maguire et al 2007:765) we can only take it as inevitable that as Social Interactionists have suggested, this will result in the creation of newer crimes (see Taylor, Walton & Young 1973), for which reason we should abandon our search in coming to a more comprehensive understanding of corporate crime.
Carrington & Hogg (2002) Critical Criminology: Issues, debates, challenges Devon:Willan Publishing
Crawford, A (1998) Crime prevention and Community Safety Essex: Pearson Education
Hughes, G (1996) Understanding Crime Prevention Buckingham: OUP
Lea & Young (1984) What is to be done about Law & Order London: Pluto Press
Maguire et al (1997) Oxford Handbook of Criminology Oxford: OUP
McLaughlin & The Sage Dictionary of Criminology Muncie (2006) London: Sage
Swale, J (2007) Sociology of Crime and Deviance Oxfordshire: Hodder Education
Taylor, Walton & Young (1973) The New Criminology London: Routledge
Vold et al (2002) Theoretical Criminology Oxford: OUP
Williams, K (2007) Textbook on Criminology Oxford: OUP

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