Social class – Crime and Deviance

Lesson objectiveTo explore social class in crime
Lesson outcomes• Assess why white collar crime is increasing
• Evaluate sociological contributions
• Explain what official statistics show


Newburn (2007) identifies a weakness in current sociological approaches as they tend to focus on crimes that consist of powerless crimes, rather than powerful crimes. E.g. working class people, according to statistics, commit more crimes, but they have the least amount of power in society. Sutherland (1982) highlighted that crime was not just a working class phenomenon, but was more widespread. He focused on introducing white collar crime as a key theme highlighting that most crimes of this nature go unnoticed. Crime statistics according to Sutherland are therefore inaccurate.


The police and Crime Survey of England and Wales note that no statistics are directly on social class and crime (from those who commit it). There are statistics on social class from the victims survey (see the file on the main page taken from theONS). The evidence, when collated, suggests that individuals are more likely to crime who have working-class characteristics rather than those who are middle. Although, middle-class individuals tend to commit more white-collar crime. Working-class are also more likely to commit more violent crimes.

The working-class and crime

  • Official statistics indicate that working-class individuals, mostly male, black and white are the main offenders.
  • One possible explanation of this is that most crimes committed by the working class are more detectable offences.
  • Theories e.g. Strain Theory provide explanations as to why this occurs.

Evaluation of the masculinity thesis

(Good) – The statistics support theories e.g. strain that lack of opportunity promotes crime.

(Bad) – There is still weak evidence that investigates why some individuals in social class turn to crime and others don’t.

(Bad) – We still don’t know how accurate official statistics are, however, the general consensus is that they exaggerate the amount of crime committed by the working-class.

The middle-class and crime

Timmer and Eitzen (1989) state while-collar crime and corporate crime and mostly committed in offices and boardrooms of businesses hence the term “crimes in the suites”. Pearce (1976) emphasises that these are also called ‘crimes of the powerful’ as the magnitude of the crime e.g. usually money, is so large that the impact dwarfs everyday crime.

Corporate and white-collar crime

The Collins dictionary creates a good definition for whilte collar crime:.

White collar crime – “an illegal act carried out in connection with their work by someone in a professional or clerical occupation, such as fraud”

Corporate crime has a harder time establishing a definition as different countries have widely different ideas.

The Ken Browne revision guide/ textbook (p.117) is the one you need to know, however:

“Corporate crime refers to offences committed by large companies, or individuals acting on behalf of those companies, which directly benefit the company rather than the individual”.


  • Most crimes of this nature are hidden from official statistics as they are hard to detect,
  • They often have no traceable victim, so it has a low conviction rate.
  • Some crimes have no victim, as both parties can benefit, meaning it’s very hard to find.
  • Often highly complex and cost a lot of money to investigate.
  • When these crimes go to court, often because of good solicitors from money, sentences are more lenient.


Two cool examples of corporate and while-collar crime are:


The next part you need to know focuses on sociological theoretical explanations of corporate and white-collar crime. The reason this isn’t present for working and middle class is that the general theories of crime explain these.


Strain theory

Individuals who tend to commit white-collar and corporate crimes tend to be middle-class. Middle-class, however, can still feel strain from material deprivation. Rather than turn to basic crime, they are more likely to use their skills of a good education to think in more innovative ways (Sutherland – see below).

Control theory

Those individuals who tend to commit white-collar and corporate crimes are socialised to be more aggressive and to take risks as these are the qualities supposedly of a successful businessman. Surtherland highlights that individuals who work with and are in the presence of others who commit crimes are more likely to conform to that action. Nelken (2012), suggests middle-class individuals have to show a face (lifestyle) and this can cause individuals to enter debt.

Differential Association

Sutherland (1983) creates “differential association theory” which is the name of his point mentioned in the overview. This also links with strain theory.

Marxist explanations

Box (1983), Slapper and Tombs (1999) argue that capitialism creates crimogenicness by forcing competition and the need to make profits. This is supported by selected law enforcement which allows white-collar criminals to go unpunished and instead focuses on the working-class.

Labelling theory

Nelken (2012) emphasises that white-collar criminals are often void of criminal labels as they are seen as being successful and most crimes are hidden covertly within businesses. Neutralisation is a term given whereby, crimes are often manipulated to become lawful by expert solicitors reducing sentences. Croall (2007), provides an example of environmental crimes where by dumping toxic waste, individuals could be poisoned and die, but because that wasn’t the intention of the crime, companies are often let off. Because of a low chance of acquiring a negative label, it only incites and promotes white-collar and corporate crimes.

Rational choice and opportunity theory

All the explanations show that with a low risk of labelling, sentencing and capture, middle-class individuals are more inclined to turn to crime that we think. Arguably, more than working-class.

The seduction of crime and edgework.

Katz (1988) and Lyng (2005), (postmodernists) draw our attention to the process and action of commiting crime. Commiting a crime with such high stakes and gain, individuals can see white-collar and corporate crimes as thrill-seeking and fun.

Evaluation white-collar and corporate crime

(Good) – It emphasises how crime statistics are manipulated and socially constructed.

(Good) – It highlights the white-collar and corporate crime exists on a large scale.

(Bad) – It doesn’t explain why some individuals commit crime, but not all. Why do only some businessmen and not all commit crime?

(Bad) – Marxists, especially, fail to explain why white-collar and corporate crime exist in non democratic countries.

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