While many certainly agree that white collar crime presents serious legal issues the sociological implications, regarding deviant behavior, is not always obvious. No discussion inspires a proper balance for analysis without a relevant definition of our terms. According to a ‘Sociology’ glossary, published by the McGraw-Hill Higher Education (2014) group deviance is defined as “Behavior that violates the standards of conduct or expectations of a group or society.” The same glossary defines the concept or theory ‘anomie’ as a Durkheim term for “the loss of direction felt in a society when social control of individual behavior has become ineffective” (“Sociology Glossary,” 2014). In an effort to clarify the matter, yet another definition of deviance yields what Plummer argues. He says that societal deviance can rightly be distinguished from situational deviance, in that “the various categories of behavior that are either illegal or which are ‘commonly sensed’ by people to be deviant” defines it (“Sociology Central Teaching Notes – Crime and Deviance,” 2014). In any case, this research paper asserts that the deviant behavior of white collar criminals often goes unpunished, depending upon the amount of pressure put upon those in political control of a society. This concept involves the distribution of white collar crimes according to class, ethnicity, age, and gender. But the main focus of this paper looks at the situation in sections that discuss: (a) Why the behavior is deviant, (b) How the deviants view their activity, (c) A review of positive and negative impacts of the behavior on society, (d) A commentary on the way society has responded to this kind of behavior, and (d) An illustration of the Anomie theory on deviance, to explain how key academic scholars view the topic.
Why Behavior Is Deviant
According to the Higher Educational Online Learning Center for Sociology, the glossary definition of ‘deviance’ states “Behavior that violates the standards of conduct or expectations of a group or society” (“Online Learning Center – Sociology”). Behavior is therefore deviant when it somehow transgresses what is accepted as the conventional norms of society in a formal way. Behavior is deviant because it desecrates, disobeys, and defies the standards of conduct which the group (society members) has outlined as legally proper. The aspects of legality particularly applies to the white collar criminal. As academic scholars Knottnerus, Ulsperger, Cummins, and Osteen (2006) suggest white collar crime can involve “ritualized symbolic practices” within a corporate environment (p. 2). They use the deviant behavior of the Enron Company as an example, citing its failure as white collar corporate crime. Glencoe (2008) states “white collar crime is any crime committed by respectable and high-status people in the course of their occupations” (p. 220). Glencoe helps explain why behavior is deviant.
According to Glencoe (2008) behavior is deviant when behavior “departs from societal group norms,” that can “range from criminal behavior (recognized by almost all members of a society as deviant) to wearing heavy makeup” (204). However, Glencoe admits that the reasons for identification of deviant behavior is difficult to pin down. He explains that in terms of a social definition, behavior is deviant because it violates what may be socially acceptable in a particular society. While white collar crime certainly qualifies, other types of behavior may be deemed as deviant also. The reason why is because they breach the accepted values (legal or otherwise) of societal parameters in the sense of negative impacts. Glencoe argues that positive deviance exists also. The definition provided to clarify what positive deviance is states it as an “overconformity to norms—leading to imbalance and extremes of perfectionism” (205). An example that illustrates this definition of why behavior is deviant occurs when healthy eating, and pursuit of a lean body, are taken to extremes. The concept can push a person to the point of anorexia. Violent crime would certainly characterize why behavior is deviant. Yet the classic examples of white collar crimes, the topic herein, cover a wide range of deviant behaviors such as: bank fraud, identity theft, company embezzlement, forgery, falsifying financial documents, insurance fraud, lying to Federal tax entities, and the list goes on.
In terms of deviant behavior, white collar crime exhibits special features. While it may be true that some of the deviant behaviors mentioned above, (casino and tax cheating, and littering) fall under the auspices of deviant behavior, white collar crime is different. White collar crime is unfortunately expensive to every element of society. Today the Internet has enabled an outlet for even greater devastation of this deviant behavior. More than likely, the secretly quiet proliferation of online fraud persists, but the case of the Enron scandal is traceable
How the Deviants View Their Activity
In terms of deviant behavior, white collar crime exhibits special features. One way the deviants view their activity is as a means to get what they want. They view their deviant activity, in a manner of speaking, as the rules do not (or should not) apply to them. This is not to suggest that deviants, particularly in the case of those who commit white collar crimes, feel no conflicting thoughts or emotions. They simply view their activities as bridging a gap between the attainment of what society values as desirable goals, and the means of achieving them. For example, Glencoe says deviance is “most likely to occur when there is a gap between culturally desirable goals, such as money and prestige, and a legitimate way of obtaining them” (210). The explanation is derived from Merton’s Strain Theory, an offshoot of the Anomie theory. The mind of the white collar criminal deviant may view their activity, therefore, as an alternative way to meet the acceptable goals of society. Instead of working on a job, or operating a legitimate legal business, the white collar crime deviant steals money, or cheats his or her way to more material gain and success. Despite this centralized view of themselves, in embracing an acceptance of their deviant activity, it is important to remember that white collar crime has crippling effects – both on society at large, and individuals.
While it may be true that some of the deviant behaviors such as casino and tax cheating, littering trash out of a moving vehicle, and speeding each fall under the auspices of deviant behavior, white collar crime is different. Martinez (2014) reminds us that its costs in the U.S. accounts for “an estimated $250 billion to $1 trillion in economic damages each year. White collar crimes include: bank fraud, blackmail, bribery, counterfeiting, credit card fraud, embezzlement, extortion, forgery, insider trading,” and the list goes on and on (p. 4). Depending upon the situation, the deviants may see their activity as a one-time aberration or as a deviant career. In the case of a white collar crime activity that may take the form of life insurance fraud, whereby the deviant and illegal perpetrator fills out a form – then later fraudulently collects the money – they see themselves in the aberrant view. An ongoing case of white collar criminal deviants, as in the case of Enron, perceive themselves as masters of deception continuing the activity as a long-term deviant career. The electronic environment of the Internet provides ample opportunity to achieve deviance in the realm of white collar crime, simply because what document requirements in the past had scanned human eyes now may be ‘filed’ digitally.
The Positive and Negative Impacts of the Behavior on Society
As aforementioned, deviant behavior may represent a negative or positive behavior, in terms of outcomes. One positive impact upon society is when a deviant is obsessively controlling about keeping their bodily weight thin, and slightly underweight. If the person is healthy and able to work well, then this deviant behavior is a positive impact upon society, contributing to the economic well-being of a state, nation, or group. Another example of a positive impact of deviant behavior illustrates a person who does not wish to work for anyone else, regardless if the company or corporation is a reputable one. Such an individual refusing to work for someone else may opt to build their own business, thus becoming an entrepreneur and contributing a positive impact upon society. Bill Gates or Steve Jobs are examples of deviants whose behavior made a positive impact upon society. They delivered excellent digital and computerized business product that made the world a better and more efficient place.
One example of a negative influence upon society by deviant behavior can be represented by those who write a bad check. It costs banks time and money to track down the losses, and raises banking fees for consumers as well as insurance rates. Another negative impact of deviant behavior upon society is when a person overeats to the point of gross obesity. They become a drain upon the healthcare system when their bodies manifest all kinds of diseases associated with obesity. These include heart failure, diabetes, and vascular obstructive disorders. As a result and negative impact on society healthcare costs rise for everyone. Waiting times for all patients causes a jam in scheduling and seeing doctors for everyone.
Obviously there can be both positive and negative impacts upon society regarding white collar deviant behavior. Deviant behavior in general, such as a poor illegal migrant worker sneaking over the Mexico-Arizona border to seek a better life reflects pros and cons in the situation. A negative impact happens when so many illegals enter the United States that a socio-economic drain on the entire national welfare structure ensues. Positive impacts many include that this undocumented populace represents a ‘cheaper’ labor force, such as business or residential cleaning. It is crucial at this juncture to remind the reader that a negative or positive impact rests in the eyes of the beholder. Nevertheless, the main negative aspects of high-level white collar crime and deviant behavior are due to its widespread nature, and nonchalant legal enforcements. We must not forget that while the most erudite of sociologists rattle on about various theories of socially acceptable behaviors, the power elites make the laws. Those in control of disseminating resources hold the political reins of power. What is deviant behavior today, could be the ‘norm’ in society tomorrow.
In his paper entitled, ‘Unpunished Criminals: The Social Acceptability of White Collar Crimes in America,’ Joseph Martinez discusses the situation. Enron is not the only culprit to have committed instances of corporate deviant behaviors. Martinez (2014) notes the Lehman Brothers scandal, and the Wayne County, Michigan Mislabeled products case as other exemplary embarrassing blights on the reputations of corporate America. The fact that other corporate giants have been documented as exhibiting deviant criminal behavior tells you how widespread the problem is. Like a tip of the iceberg, who knows how deep the rotting rabbit hole goes? Adler and Laufer (2012) reiterate that “These developments reinforce the central arguments of anomie theory by emphasizing the importance of considering characteristics of the organizational system in explaining unethical and criminal acts” (p. 188). Deviant and criminal make for unpleasant, poisonous bedfellows. Why are high crimes of white collar corporate deviant behavior so widespread and acceptable? Martinez (2014) provides a hint and explains “Not only do high-level executives often have well-paid legal defense teams to get them out of trouble, but they have the resources to prevent the public from having a full understanding of what they really did” (p. 13). The scholar goes further, and demonstrates that since they control media these corporate power broker deviants can act as ‘spin doctors,’ framing news events to their tastes, and in their favor. How can the average person argue with the ghost they cannot see who lurks behind this wall of dishonesty and deception?
Normally statistics form a reasonable gauge to ascertain or enumerate the exact damages caused by high white-collar crimes and deviant behavior. But according to Martinez (2014) “white collar crimes often lead to immeasurable damages and ripple effects which cannot be quantified” (p. 14). He also says the negative social consequences result in the public loss of trust and confidence, especially with dishonest financial institutions like banking systems.
Discussion on the Way Society Has Responded to This Kind of Behavior
Since society’s hierarchical status can often grant benefits to the few at the expense of the many, enforced conformity only goes so far. For example, Glencoe (2008) states “white collar crime is any crime committed by respectable and high-status people in the course of their occupations” (p. 220). To complicate the situation, if a street-thug writes a bad check is this act not a deviant act of white collar crime? Society responds to white collar crime deviant behavior in different ways, depending upon the offender. If a poor black person with a criminal record writes a series of bank checks, or forges paycheck amounts from their employer, this man or woman will have a high probability of seeing maximum punishments in jail time. If the culprits are white men in positions of running multi-million dollar corporations, and committing Federal tax and accounting fraud in the name of the company, are far less likely to do prison time. See the hypocrisy? Understand how ambiguously slippery the slippery slope is. However, Glencoe (2008) continues to explain that white collar crimes are multiple time more numerous than street crime, affecting “illegal working environments” (p. 220). The author claims that despite the obscene costs of billions in taxpayer losses, most of these big-ticket white collar deviant behaviors in crime go either: (a) unpunished, or (b) given lenient slaps on the wrist.
It is difficult to provide a clear-cut example of how society has responded to, or coped with, the deviant criminal behavior of white collar crime. Many of these deviants are never caught. Knottnerus et al. (2006) describe the Enron white collar theft, as a crime reflecting corporate deviant behavior that became normalized inside their corporate culture. So apparently, Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling viewed their deviant behavior legitimate in their own perceptions. According to Knottnerus et al. (2006) Enron managed to restructure its accounting records to hide “$504 million in losses showing only a $36.6 million credit reserve loss” (Duffy 2002; Fusaro and Miller 2002, p. 3). Knottnerus and his team of scholars explain that to best comprehend the nature of the Enron crime “organizational deviance research” is required (p. 3). The theoretical approach aimed at framing the problem on the daily rituals held inside the company. The prevalence of acceptable behaviors held the key.
Regular citizens have responded by engaging more in social media, by watching and viewing non-profit news media outlets and becoming more active in online discussions. Although the heavyweight corporations can afford high-priced attorneys, and may even own mainstream media, they cannot ignore the collective sway of passionate public opinion. The reason why you know this is true is because every corporation has scrambled to join all types of social media. They value the power of ‘tweeting.’ While some people believe that fraud and unethical practices have risen high in the upper ranks of government, all is not doom and gloom. U.S. federal regulations have stiffened penalties for electronic white collar crimes, especially those associated with identity theft. At the end of the day the situation is a two-way street.
One theory was dubbed the structural ritualization theory. They held that its schema depended upon a structural core of group dynamics, with a cognitive underpinning. In other words, socially driven patterns of behavior were able to be “strongly influenced by the regularized patterns of behavior” (Knottnerus et al., 2006, p. 5). Their commentary often noted qualities of people becoming ‘embedded’ within the deviant behavior of criminal corporate culture, and the notions of ‘repetitive’ and ‘rank’ surfaced in the discourse. Obviously the perpetrators of this example of scandalized deviant behavior was not regarded as a ‘one-time’ incident, but proved to consolidate a collective long-term intention. This writer thinks that Glencoe was absolutely correct when he surmised that most white collar criminals escape appropriate punishments, if they receive punishment at all. The reason Enron was publicly scalded so harshly is because its white collar crimes, and deviant behavior, were so hugely flagrant that it was impossible to hide – once the nasty stuff was exposed. It is rather difficult to hide the unfair losses of a myriad of jobs held by the rank-and-file workers, many of whom had lost years of their hard work and 401K retirement funds. Some people had labored long years to reach their positions, and were too old to re-make careers and start all over again. Deviant behavior of white collar criminals is utterly devastating to individuals, families, and the public trust of economies.
Theory on Deviance from the Sociological Anomie Theory
The concept of anomie theory begins to take a familiar, and recognizable, shape when one mirrors the remarks of experts. In the book ‘The Legacy of Anomie Theory’ the author advances that “A culture is thus created within the firm where criminal practices are expected and encouraged” (p. 188). The book continues to infer that white collar crime, at the corporate level, encompasses a ‘counterculture’ that has an intoxicatingly lethal (yet powerful) influence on individual employee behavior (p. Adler and Laufer, 2012, 188). The basic idea charts the notion that when a person is faced with conflicting ethical principles, they need to make a tough choice. The harsh dilemma they are presented with is whether to follow the generally accepted social guidelines, or to abide by the unspoken ‘rules’ of the company. Glencoe suggests that unlike Conflict Theory, Anomie Theory reflects when a person may feel like an outsider within the larger society, thereby holding a weaker sense of being compelled to follow its acceptable standards. This may or may not represent any conscious decision, but rather the Anomie Theory suggests, according to Glencoe, an uncertainty “about how they should think or act” (210). Glencoe discusses the key academic scholar Merton’s belief that the ‘strain theory’ – an offshoot of Anomie Theory – is when people take actions to gain acceptable societal goals (wealth and prestige) in unacceptable (criminal) ways. In the textbook, “Merton calls this conformity” (210). In other words, socially approved goals are gained in socially disapproved manners.
Many types of social problems may be described as a failure to live up to a person’s responsibility to act in decent, common-sense ways. Criminal acts are illegal, at the risk of sounding redundant. To reiterate, one sociological report claims that anomie means “that people regard as unimportant the social expectations to respect the rights and the needs of others and prefer to look after their own interests even at their neighbors expense”(“Sociology Central Teaching Notes – Crime and Deviance,” 2014). If everyone acted this way social chaos would reign. Although researcher Dr. Ogaga Obaro (2014) approaches deviant behavior from a different theoretical perspective, he admits the functionalist theory has not been applied to explain corporate crime (p. 544). In conclusion, a captivating and interesting take on white collar criminology is framed by sociologist Brian Wolf. He has coined the phrase of “green-collar-crime” that sustains any negative impact against the natural environment (Wolf, 2011, p. 499). Wolf (2011) posits a theory that claims “Environmental criminology has emerged from a multidisciplinary body of work to specifically investigate the problem of crimes against the environment” (p. 500). The compelling part of his work is drawn from models of study derived from white collar crime perspectives, as a field of investigation. If you consider this idea, white collar crimes of large-scale deviant behavior can be committed against the environment. One obvious example might include wholesale, illegal dumping of nuclear or other kinds of harmful waste material. Deviant behavior, in terms of white collar crime, takes all sorts of forms.
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