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Why a Special Issue on “White Collar Crime”?

Contribution to a renewal of collective sociological interest in France
Gilles Chantraine et Grégory Salle
Traduction de Matthew Cunningham
Cet article est une traduction de :
Pourquoi un dossier sur la « délinquance en col blanc » ? [fr]

Texte intégral

There can be no doubt that ours is the first age really to have posed, explicitly and in every area of life, the great political problem: not just in the form of the struggle for power within existing political institutions, or the right to transform those institutions (and a number of others), but as a problem of the total reconstruction of society, calling in question the family unit along with educational practice, the notion of deviance and criminality along with the relations between ‘culture’ and life. (Castoriadis, 1984 [1978], 253-254 – italics ours)

The rich hold the law in a purse... (Rousseau, 1964 [1764], 890)

  • 1 Marlowe, the “electronic sociologist” whose daily chronicle is available online, regularly compiles (...)
  • 2 In 2013, there were three exceptions on television that deserve to be singled out, even if they hav (...)
  • 3 C. Wright Mills (2000 [1956], 343-344) expressed it in these words more than a half-century ago: Ma (...)
  • 4 On these two concepts, see Blic, Lemieux, 2005; Boltanski et al., 2007.

1The “Kerviel” affair, the “Cahuzac”, “Woerth-Bettancourt”, “Strauss-Khan”, “Tapie-Lagarde” and “Karachi-Takieddine” affairs; the “Clearstream”, “Amazon” and “Mediator” affairs; the “lasagne” and “horsemeat” scandals; “Dassault Système”… Whether the events are presented in an overly personalised way or stay on the more general level of a product, company or network, clearly if the French media had concentrated all of its efforts on demonstrating the indisputable topicality of this special issue, it could not have done better!1 An international glance—from the “Mediaset” affair in Italy to the corruption scandals tarnishing the reputations of Canada’s big city mayors and Britain’s Lords—should be enough to convince anyone. And in many cases, the media coverage itself is certainly part of the subject to be studied: it is generally compromised by a personalising bias (and a psychologising one if necessary), presenting the culprit as nothing but a “black sheep” guilty of a purely individual blunder2. This coverage tends to obscure not just the fact that law-breaking by elites (individuals or groups like companies) is a perfectly trivial, everyday matter, but also the fact that it is made possible by structural configurations that must be taken into account if a true sociological understanding of the observed phenomena is to be achieved3. This being the case, we must admit that over the months we have been working on this special issue, it has been difficult not to closely follow the steady stream of news (even limiting ourselves to France!) about affairs and scandals4 that could be described as “white collar crime”. Although today, for various reasons linked to the academic division of labour and the excessive specialisation it engenders, sociologists certainly pay too little attention to the question of the “weight” of their subject, almost every day brought new confirmation that it was indeed a weighty, important subject—especially if one accepts the idea, rarely expressed in so-called newspapers of reference, that economic and financial crimes enjoy increasing impunity, compounded by a long tradition of tolerance (Godefroy, Mucchielli, 2010). In a word, it is an inescapable subject for the social sciences.

  • 5 White collar crime was hardly mentioned in the book Crime et sécurité, l’état des savoirs published (...)

2Yet the subject is surprisingly neglected in France and, to a lesser extent, by the French-speaking academic community, including areas of specialisation dedicated to analysing norm breaches of every kind; the two coordinators of this special issue do not at all exclude themselves from the pack, this being a new theme for them. Fifteen years ago, on the occasion of a twenty-year review (1977-1997) of research and debates in the journal Déviance et Société in the context of unusually intense media coverage of “irregular elites” (Lascoumes, 1997—see also in this special issue “A Stain on Edwin’s White Collar”), Mucchielli (1999, 29) cautiously pointed out: we are perhaps glimpsing the resurgence—for now still fragmentary—of an analysis of white collar crime. It was a cautious formulation that showed how unfashionable the theme was at that time. A few pages later, the article quoted Dutch academic René van Swaaningen, lamenting that this leading journal in the field of deviance and penality remains unprecedentedly negligent on typical subjects of critical investigation like white collar crime, linking this negligence to a more general loss of critical thinking (ibid., 30); it is a judgement that L. Mucchielli placed in perspective without invalidating it5.

3Since then, despite the work of some authors, particularly those appearing in this thematic special issue of Champ Pénal/Penal Field, it is difficult to speak of an influx of contributions on the subject—far from it. Several recent initiatives should of course be highlighted, such as a study day on the penal system’s handling of industrial crimes, a seminar on ecological crime and penal law, and a journal’s special issue on the theme “companies and deviance”6. They raise hope of increased collective sociological interest in France, to which this special issue would like to contribute. For a good ten years, we have also been seeing some enlightening statistical data on criminal penalties relating to economic and financial crime (Delabruyère, Hermilly, Ruelland, 2002). Nevertheless, all of this is still not equal to the challenge. Through the notion of “white collar crime”, the whole common or dominant conception of justice and injustice, of what is laudable and culpable, has indeed been shaken to its foundations. And at least since Durkheim’s time, we have known that the question of crime serves as an excellent starting point for an analysis of society in general7, and also that it is a decisive political problem, as Cornélius Castoriadis suggested in his time in the quote used as an epigraph here. This discrepancy between the scope of the subject and the relative scarcity of relevant studies was the principal motivation for organising the study day at Lille 1 University in February 2011, which served as a springboard for this special issue.

4This also explains the form of a special issue that is essentially a collection of case studies. The study day was all about taking stock of research on these issues in France, with a view to at least sketching an instructive outline if it was not possible to be exhaustive. Beyond or beneath the available bibliography, it was simply a matter of finding some small answer to the question: who is currently working on what, and how? We saw this as a necessary first step to reviving this theme. Moreover, we thought it would be fruitful, at least at the first stage, to start again from the singularity of cases, situations and configurations, without immediately imposing this or that theoretical framework or survey method. What was lost in terms of unity of approach was gained in sociological fascination. In so doing, we widely opened the question box. By what social mystery are politicians who are known to be corrupt able to avoid or survive public condemnation, and then stand for re-election? Through what processes and mechanisms does a large company succeed in self-servingly negotiating the definition of the offences of which it is accused in order to avoid penalties, or to have them reduced bit by bit? How were radical left-wing activists of the 1970s to condemn the impunity of crimes committed by members of the dominant classes and find ways of curbing these, when they did not trust a legal system they considered not only subservient to the dominant classes, but structurally harmful in its operation? How do ordinary people conceive of corruption? To what definitions, hierarchies and attributions do they refer when deciding whether corruption is “major” or “minor”, culpable or pardonable? These are a few of the questions raised in this special issue. Some are purely descriptive, while others can be expressed more in the form of a riddle, or draw attention to a social contradiction that merits examination. We believe this will provide some perspective, supplying elements that can stimulate future research.

  • 8 In this respect, the financialisation of capitalism in recent decades has partially put a new light (...)

5This structure has obvious limitations. Its heterogeneity could appear to guarantee a fragmentary analysis just when we are pleading for a more systematic examination of a phenomenon that, it must be repeated, is fully integrated into, and permitted by, the ordinary legal economic game8, in relation to which it does not at all constitute an anomaly or contingent deviation. Here as elsewhere, it is worth recalling some simple but helpful advice from C. Wright Mills in its “Comment on Criticism” (Mills, 1957, quoted in Summers, 2008, 142):

You’ve got to remember that you are dealing with historic materials; that they do change very fast; that there are counter-trends. And you’ve always got to balance the precision of knife-edge description with the generality needed to bring out their meaning for your time. But above all, you’ve got to see the several major trends together—structurally, rather than as a mere scatter of happenings adding up to nothing new, in fact not adding up at all.

6Also, after the initial pleasure one may derive from seizing upon a subject that is both highly topical and little conducive to scholastic chatter, the serious problems begin. We are dealing with a great diversity of situations, strongly focusing on France but also looking at bedlamites in Belgium (Carla Nagels), in Greece (Ivan Thomi) and at the international level (Anthony Amicelle). The charges against the main protagonists of these affairs are highly diverse in themselves. Some are rare and require a certain technical skill, others are perfectly ordinary, indeed trivial. We are also dealing with very different actors (companies and heads of companies, elected individuals and bodies, banks and bankers, senior officials, etc.) whose principles of action are shaped by the operation of institutions and organisations with distinctive characteristics. The accusations of responsibility, the judicial processes, the social cost of the phenomena in question, etc., retain specific properties depending on the situation. Correlatively, as Alexis Spire shows in his contribution to this special issue, the notion of white collar crime has been the subject of debate when it comes to its contours and content, especially in the United States. Particularly problematic is the restrictive nature of its original definition, introduced by Edwin Sutherland, a founding figure whose introduction to White Collar Crime (1983 [1949]) is translated into French for the first time in this special issue (see the Box 1 below). The definition only took account of the crimes that social individuals and groups belonging to the dominant classes commit in the course of their professional activity. This excludes, for example, deliberate acts of violence or illicit drug use in private by elected leaders, corporate executives and senior officials—infractions committed in all social classes, but for which the poorer classes have less resources for avoiding the police and the judicial circuit. Hence the unstable or at least variable conceptual consistency of the notion of “white collar crime”, an expression that Sutherland himself considered provisional and experimental.

Box 1: Why translate Sutherland into French today?

  • 9 See François Denord’s portrait (2012, VII-XXVII) in his preface to the French translation L’élite a (...)
  • 10 On this subject, see an interview with Howard Becker on the subject of “criminology” to appear in a (...)
  • 11 See Lascoumes, 1999, 187-190 for an introductory portrait (in French) and Gaylord, Galliher, 1988 a (...)
  • 12 Richard A. Wright concludes his portrait of Sutherland in the Encyclopedia of Criminology published (...)
  • 13 Even in the United States it can be said that if Sutherland is recognised as a figurehead, it is mu (...)
  • 14 In addition to his tribute in Élites irrégulières, he has produced the only French translation to d (...)
  • 15 Sutherland is nevertheless mentioned – he’s even the first author mentioned – in the “delinquency” (...)

Why now translate Edwin Hardin Sutherland (1883-1950)—in this case the introduction to his chief work White Collar Crime in its “uncut” version published in 1983, a considerably bowdlerised version having been originally published in 1949? For reasons that perhaps have less to do with the literal content of the message than with the principal idea he introduces and the desire to thereby better acquaint French academics with a seminal moment, a break in sociological thought on the phenomenon of crime. Let us explain.
The contents of the text are of course important. In it you find a clear description of the book’s general argument, and the reversal of perspective this effects. And one can retrospectively imagine how disturbing, even subversive it could have appeared from the perspective of mainstream academia in 1940s America. It is not by chance that the book was censored by its publisher Dryden Press, which forced Sutherland to substitute initials for the real names of incriminated companies to make them anonymous. When Sutherland distanced himself from commonly held ideas, he was first and foremost challenging “scholarly common sense”. For this reason, even the watered-down version provoked
lively reactions from the “establishment”, both sociological and criminological (Lascoumes, 1999, 189), one of the chief accusations being that of political subversion. The conservative arguments made against Sutherland were subsequently repeatedly reiterated. And Edwin Sutherland’s sacrilegious book is still targeted by the reactionary forces of the American political scene. There is probably no more emblematic example of this than a pamphlet entitled The Sociological Origins of “White-Collar Crime” (Baker, J., 2004), published in 2004 under the aegis of the Heritage Foundation, one of the most important neoconservative think-tanks in the US. The title is misleading because as one reads the text, it becomes clear that what the author intends to expose is not so much the notion’s sociological origins, but rather its supposed “socialist” origins, even though Sutherland presented it as provisional, needing to be deepened and discussed. The text is almost amusing since it is unintentionally parodical, so extreme and ideologically charged is its position (elaborated, of course, under the pretext of exposing Sutherland’s ideological bias). It accuses Sutherland of having made a mockery of the fundamental principles of penal law. He is also reproached with having focused on the class membership of individuals (social classes whose existence is in any case denied) without regard for the acts being studied, and to have turned attention away from “real crimes” while attacking the behaviour of business communities, which are the nation’s true, admirable, living forces. Carried away by his own vilifying fervour, the author hyperbolically condemns the perverse influence Sutherland is said to have had on the American legal system—an influence that is in fact greatly overestimated.
This sort of caricaturisation is all the more misplaced in that it would be difficult to make Edwin Sutherland into a character as colourful and into a social critic as acerbic as Charles Wright Mills
9 a few years later, or an academic figure as unusual as Howard S. Becker after that10. Although the heterodox nature of his trajectory and of some of his writings is beyond question, the man who was elected president of the American Sociological Association in 1939 was neither a maverick nor a radical in the American sense11. Sutherland was above all guided by moral principals inspired by religion, and he remained a fervent defender of free enterprise and the competitive system (Lascoumes, 1999, 190) as long as adequate regulation prevented abuses. Nevertheless, from the 1930s, several of the theories he quite clearly targeted anticipated those that Becker (who quotes Sutherland in the first chapter of the book) was to oppose more systematically in Outsiders: on the one hand, pathologising explanations based on biomedicine which naturalise and ontologise the boundary between norm and deviance, or normal and abnormal; on the other hand, psychologically based compartmentalism/behaviourism that excludes all consideration of the construction and legitimisation of social norms, not to mention their unequal application.
Thus the text is interesting in itself: the essential is all there. And even if the argument has lost some of its piquancy over time, it is no less acute. Of course, Sutherland’s text is not formally brilliant; he was under pressure from his publisher to adopt a tone supposedly consistent with scientific objectivity. The style is not at all incisive: its forced didacticism and ponderousness even make it heavy and repetitive, and the argument, though clear and forceful, is not terribly sophisticated. And his argument occasionally betrays a certain confusion between crime as defined by penal law, broader transgressions as viewed from the perspective of other legislative and regulatory sources, and popular conceptions of crime, including those of elites. Be that as it may, in
hindsight its publication represented a rupture, a decisive moment in the history of the human and social sciences. And without lapsing into overblown analogies12, the true value of this moment has not yet been recognised, at least not in France13. Despite the efforts of Pierre Lascoumes14 to raise awareness of Sutherland’s work in this area, as well as a few recent writings (particularly those of Thierry Godefroy, Gilles Favarel-Garrigues, Alexis Spire and Marc Leroy), Edwin Sutherland is not (yet) a “name” on this side of the Atlantic. The name does not even appear as an entry in the most voluminous and complete human sciences dictionaries (Mesure, Savidan, 2006)15. This translation will hopefully make some small contribution to correcting this injustice.

  • 16 One example of a track to follow would be the sociology of popular music. Hollman (2013), for examp (...)

7Nevertheless, this special issue is not simply a disparate collection of articles. It follows a number of main threads. Three cross-disciplinary analytical axes can be distinguished, though others could certainly be found. The first relates to strategies used by the powerful and their allies (lawyers, accountants, etc.) to dilute responsibility, redefine the committed acts as pardonable and avoid penalties: this is particularly the case in the contributions by Pierre Lascoumes, Olivier Mazade and Carla Nagels. A second thread concerns the relationship between norms on paper (proper legal norms or other procedural and institutional norms) and norms in practice (such as those relating to anti-laundering in Anthony Amicelle’s article, or those relating to bank regulation in Judith Assouly and Damien de Blic’s article), particularly from a judicial perspective; several articles provide detailed descriptions of judicial processes and their results. A third thread deals with conceptions of white collar crime by people at the bottom, and/or ordinary people’s struggle to influence the process of categorising and curbing the offences committed (Jean Bérard, Ivan Thomi). This also opens the way to a consideration of the continuity between scholarly debates and everyday discourse on the definition and treatment of illegality16.

  • 17 In another genre and with his customary bite, writer Hans-Magnus Enzensberger (1967 [1964], 109-110 (...)

8Reading some of these contributions, one cannot help detecting, at least in certain passages, the scent of subversion, even though the commonplace, sociologically normal nature of the legal violations committed by the social agents most endowed with material and symbolic capital should be obvious, and even though these infractions are either reflective of their class position (such as tax exile) or belong to the most socially common categories (drug use, sexual abuse…). It is as if one had to constantly reassert, almost as a new thing, something that should serve as a point of departure. This gives a sense of the deep anchoring of our “spontaneous” (that is to say inherited) conceptions. Yet it’s not as if sociology had not arrived at a few solid conclusions, some of them established by moderate intellectuals little suspected of instinctive or self-interested malevolence towards the upper classes. Sociology has long contributed to bridging the gap (artificial yet very tenacious in our way of thinking) between common crime and business crime, in two connected ways. First, by showing that crime of the powerful was a sociological phenomenon that was just as customary, just as common as that of the destitute, regardless of whether or not the crimes were of the same category. This is certainly Sutherland’s major contribution and what earned him censorship: the objectivisation of white collar crime itself instead of the criminal person or personality. Second, by demolishing the idea of a radical separation—from a formal, intentional, situational point of view—between criminal companies and companies in general. It is worth remembering what William Foote Whyte wrote in Street Corner Society (1993 [1943], 146): the rackets function in Cornerville [a fictional name given to Boston’s North End] as legitimate business functions elsewhere17. This shifting of lines also applies to the separation between criminals on the one hand, and agents of the repressive system or guardians of the law on the other. Here again, Whyte was first to anticipate what Foucault later elaborated under the name of “differential administration of illegalities”. Whyte asserted that observation of the situation in Cornerville indicates that the primary function of the police department is not the enforcement of the law but the regulation of illegal activities (ibid., 138). Do the most popular crime-thriller films, novels and TV series—American ones in particular—say otherwise? In another genre, have we forgotten that in his famous text, Charles Tilly (1985) described war making and state making as “organised crime”? In short, if there is something disturbing about sociology and the social sciences more generally, this is because some of their best-known representatives have shown that the gap between the most legitimate and the most dissolute activities is sometimes as wide as the thickness of a piece of paper—or less.

  • 18 For example these sharp words by Max Horkheimer (1993 [1974], 201): Populations that leave other po (...)

9This is as much as to say that what can—for the sake of convenience, perhaps at the risk of giving rise to misunderstandings—be called the social construction of crime, must more than ever remain central to investigations. As Foucault said (2001b [1981], 1022), it is necessary to question what deserves to be punished. What is one to make of the current overlap permitted between what is punishable by law and what is practically not?… The overlap between what is “criminal" and what is not—either because it is only immoral, or is benevolently tolerated, or is even frankly encouraged—is (also) the sinews of war; it has, moreover, been a regular target of social criticism18. How is it possible that some predatory or destructive activities whose human and social costs and damage can be colossal are not considered criminal, but simply morally shocking, if not acceptable? This is the question that an examination of white collar crime “naturally” leads to. In this respect, in recent years the unfolding of the “crisis” of capitalism—“crisis” being the name of a method of government (Collective, 2009)—has offered a fascinating spectacle in its own way. When American economist Philip Mirowski (2013) humorously included among his “thirteen commandments” of neoliberalism in time of crisis: “Thou Shalt Redefine Crime”, he was not so much identifying the emergence of a new way of thinking about crime and its control, but rather poking fun at the dominant classes’ redoubled efforts to evade the long arm of the law.

  • 19 Reading these contributions from the perspective of our respective research, which is deeply rooted (...)

10This is all to say that although our primary objective is to offer instructive case studies that could inspire new research, stimulate comparisons and parallels, serve as material for a sociological generalisation, etc., the aim is still to analyse the “differential administration of illegalities” according to a Foucauldian concept that has recently resurfaced (Fischer, Spire, 2009). Tackling the theme of white collar crime after previously examining it from the perspective of prison—an angle that exerted a certain influence on how we read the texts assembled here19—naturally leads to this problematisation. And yet, the concept is broader than it might appear. We know that for the author of Discipline and Punish, the supposed “failure” of prison, which had become a perpetual factory of recidivism and “professional” delinquency, was the glaring underside of its success. If the institution endures despite the obvious failure of its rehabilitation pretensions, this is because it fulfils a positive social function that goes beyond its deterrence and isolation functions. It serves as a foundation for the differential administration of illegalities (the most important component of which is the creation of “delinquency”, a political concept rather than a social phenomenon), which is economically and politically useful in three ways (Foucault, 2001b [1981]). First, by concentrating social fears on a specific target that is as diffuse as it is concrete, delinquency is a pretext and ingredient of facilitated public consent for the extension and reinforcement of police power. Second, illegalities are tolerated as soon as they become economically viable by being fully integrated—if in a disguised, indirect way—into profits benefitting the dominant classes and, if need be, controlled by legality (linked, for example, with prostitution, the arms or drugs trade, etc.). Third, as Foucault said in his elaboration of the Marxist critique of the political ambiguity of an under-proletariat that can be manipulated by the bourgeoisie in class struggles, established criminals constitute a “reserve army” that can be mobilised by elites to do their dirty work, by serving as strikebreakers or police informers (for a good example, see Chauvin, 2010, 235-275) and more generally to maintain a division between the people and the plebeians. The result is that the great gradation of illegalities (Foucault, 2001a [1976], 66-67) does not look like a reasonable hierarchy of injuries and nuisances, but more like a strategic matter of calculations and profits: penality does not simply “check” illegalities; it “differentiates” them, it provides them with a general “economy” (Foucault, 1991 [1975], 272).

11One guesses that the marginal posterity of the concept “differential administration of illegalities” and, above all, of the work programme it names, can be partly explained by the size of the task, which requires an analysis that combines three guiding premises or principles. First, highlight the means and effects of this differential treatment not just in its written consecration (codes, laws, regulations, circulars, in short the whole hierarchy of regulatory texts) but also in the concrete operation of the criminal justice process (hence the issue of the professional uses of law and the legally rationalised social determinants of legal decisions: see Lenoir, 1996). Second, do away with scholarly spontaneous conceptions and common sense, change one’s conceptual tools and writing reflexes to take note of the “double overstep” taken by the concept of illegalities with regard to the legal notion of infraction and the criminological notion of delinquency (Lascoumes, 1996). Third—and here the task becomes significantly more complicated—define the differential administration of illegalities as a nerve centre of sociopolitical relations of domination: if one can speak of justice, it is not only because the law itself or the way of applying it serves the interests of a class, it is also because the differential administration of illegalities through the mediation of penality forms part of those mechanisms of domination (Foucault, 1991 [1975], 272). The least we can say is that the programme is vast but as topical as ever.

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Baker Jr., J. S., 2004, The Sociological Origins of “White-Collar Crime”, Legal Memorandum, Heritage Foundation, n° 14, October, 6 p.

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1 Marlowe, the “electronic sociologist” whose daily chronicle is available online, regularly compiles lists of top media stories on scandals of every kind (going beyond the single case of white collar crime of course) as they appear in the dispatches of Agence France Presse (AFP), placing them in perspective over time. For example, the chronicle of 28 August 2013 compares the most recent affairs with those specifically between December 2004 and July 2007.

2 In 2013, there were three exceptions on television that deserve to be singled out, even if they have certain faults. First, the investigation by the Cash Investigation team, “Le scandale de l’évasion fiscale: révélations sur les milliards qui nous manquent” (France 2), as well as two documentaries, “Goldman Sachs, la banque qui dirige le monde” and “Évasion fiscale – Le hold-up du siècle” (Arte), not to mention older documentaries like “The Corporation” (Canada, 2003) and “Inside Job” (US, 2010).

3 C. Wright Mills (2000 [1956], 343-344) expressed it in these words more than a half-century ago: Many of the problems of “white collar crime” and of relaxed public morality, of high-priced vice and of fading personal integrity, are problems of structural immorality. They are not merely the problem of the small character twisted by the bad milieu. Several articles in this special issue address this aspect, particularly that of Judith Assouly and Damien de Blic and that of Olivier Mazade; see also Hamidi, 2009, on the Pechiney affair.

4 On these two concepts, see Blic, Lemieux, 2005; Boltanski et al., 2007.

5 White collar crime was hardly mentioned in the book Crime et sécurité, l’état des savoirs published a few years later (Robert, Mucchielli, 2002), the purpose of which, as its title indicates, was to present an overview.

6 Study day “Punir les crimes industriels. Avancées et résistances dans le traitement pénal des désastres industriels”, organised by Pascal Marichalar and Laure Pitti in the context of the seminar “Maladies industrielles et mobilisations collectives”, Cresppa-Csu, with the support of the DIM GESTES of the Île-de-France region (May 2013); the seminar “Délinquances écologiques saisies par le droit répressif” in the context of “environmental penal law afternoons”, University of Paris Ouest (2012-2013), and the "Entreprises et déviancespecial issue of the journal Terrains & Travaux (Barraud de Lagerie, Trespeuch, 2013). This is not to mention contributions from actors in the penal field, such as those recently of magistrates Éric Alt and Irène Luc (2012).

7 In 1980 Jean-Denis André made similar remarks about ecological crime: The structure of the notion of ecological crime is not dissimilar—like all conceptual constructions—to an ideological system of representations. […] Ecological crime formalises the ecological crisis that itself stems from various modes of the operation of our social system (1980, 406).

8 In this respect, the financialisation of capitalism in recent decades has partially put a new light on everything. Since the 1990s, some authors (for example Calavita, Tillman, Pontell, 1997, 29) have been highlighting the fact that white collar crime opportunity structures differ according to whether they apply to the circulation of goods (industrial capitalism) or to the circulation of capital (financial capitalism).

9 See François Denord’s portrait (2012, VII-XXVII) in his preface to the French translation L’élite au pouvoir by C. Wright Mills. Mills’ books White Collar: The American Middle Classes and The Power Elite were published in 1951 and 1956 respectively.

10 On this subject, see an interview with Howard Becker on the subject of “criminology” to appear in a special issue of Cultures & Conflits, 93, 2014 (in the section "Foucault et la criminologie”, coordinated by Fabienne Brion and Didier Bigo).

11 See Lascoumes, 1999, 187-190 for an introductory portrait (in French) and Gaylord, Galliher, 1988 as well as Meier, 2013 for an intellectual biography, plus the foreword to the book, by Gilbert Geis and Colin Goff.

12 Richard A. Wright concludes his portrait of Sutherland in the Encyclopedia of Criminology published by Routledge (which incidentally quotes Hermann Mannheim saying that Sutherland would deserve the Nobel Prize for criminology if it existed) with a somewhat bold parallel between Edwin Sutherland and Albert Einstein, both men having opposed the common conceptions of their time...

13 Even in the United States it can be said that if Sutherland is recognised as a figurehead, it is much more because of his “differential association” theory than because of his work on white collar crime.

14 In addition to his tribute in Élites irrégulières, he has produced the only French translation to date (Sutherland, 1999), that of chapter six of the book, which was a republication of an article published in 1945 in the American Sociological Review.

15 Sutherland is nevertheless mentioned – he’s even the first author mentioned – in the “delinquency” article by Laurent Mucchielli (2006, 244), but it is specifically the Sutherland of Principles of Criminology.

16 One example of a track to follow would be the sociology of popular music. Hollman (2013), for example, has attempted to objectivise the similarities between representations of crime as conveyed through a few famous American rap songs and the various criminological theories. However, one notices that what collar crime is absent from this article; to include it, one could add this: Take notes: real gangstas wear trench coats / Grey suits, black ties and they seek votes / And you’re not to be misled / They’ll kill you in your fuckin’ bed / They don’t sell dope, yo, excuse me, yes they do / But they don’t look that much like me or you (Ice-T, Message to the Soldiers, LP Home invasion, 1993).

17 In another genre and with his customary bite, writer Hans-Magnus Enzensberger (1967 [1964], 109-110) said the same in his analysis of the Chicago mafia. He never stopped bringing it back to the most legal matters through multiple analogies, describing Al Capone as nothing but an entrepreneur out to conquer new markets, enabling a few reversals of perspective: Capone owed his success not to attacking the country’s social order, but to his straightforward adherence to its premises […] Adaptation at any cost, unbridled assimilation, the most modern practices, highly capitalistic skill: this is what contributed to the remarkable success of gangsters in Chicago. He later added (ibid., 115): American gangers became colourless and boring; they are ordinary sharks of the upper middle class; characters from an American sociology textbook.

18 For example these sharp words by Max Horkheimer (1993 [1974], 201): Populations that leave other populations exposed to hunger when wheat lofts are full to bursting, honourable people living near prisons in which the poor vegetate in stinking misery just because they wanted to improve their lot or could not overcome their problems, are all criminals, if objective infamy is called crime.

19 Reading these contributions from the perspective of our respective research, which is deeply rooted in the area of prisons, though coming from different approaches (one of us emphasising prison experiences and trajectories and the other emphasising how it is handled politically), produces a effect of asymmetry that is striking both in terms of objective resources and subjective experiences. Whereas prisoners primarily speak of how prison reinforced their inability to change their existence (dispossession, stigmatisation, reduction of initiative in the margins of manoeuvre, “tactics of the weak”), what these analyses bring to light is the persistence—despite the penal threat—of the ability of the powerful to master their own destiny (destigmatisation, dilution of responsibility, “tactics of the strong”).

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Gilles Chantraine et Grégory Salle, « Why a Special Issue on “White Collar Crime”? »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], Vol. X | 2013, mis en ligne le 14 novembre 2013, consulté le 21 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Gilles Chantraine

Tenured CNRS researcher at the Center for Sociological and Economic Research and Studies (CLERSÉ, Lille).

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Grégory Salle

Tenured CNRS researcher at the Center for Sociological and Economic Research and Studies (CLERSÉ, Lille).

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