Type of Document Dissertation Author Van Slyke, Shanna URN etd-10272009-160114 Title Social Identification and Public Opinion on White-Collar Crime Degree Doctor of Philosophy Department Criminology and Criminal Justice, School of Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title Thomas G. Blomberg Committee Chair William D. Bales Committee Member William D. Berry University Representative Keywords
- White-Collar Crime
- Public Opinion. Social Identification
Date of Defense 2009-10-16 Availability unrestricted AbstractWhite-collar crime accounts for billions of dollars in annual losses but traditionally has been viewed as less serious and less deserving of harsh punishment compared with street crime. This pattern can be observed in public opinion surveys, law-enforcement resource allocations, and criminal justice system sanctioning. Scholars usually distinguish between different types of white-collar crime—bitterly noting the irony that broadened definitions of white-collar crime have perpetuated status-based disparities the very concept was designed to bring to light. Some of these scholars, particularly those study public perceptions, have begun to question the conventional wisdom of widespread public apathy toward the crimes of U.S. economic and political elites. They have pointed at Watergate in the 1970s, the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the wave of national corporate financial failures emerging in 2001–2002, and they have proposed that public outrage stemming from these widely publicized political and economic scandals should serve as a catalyst for sentencing reform that would more accurately tailor punishments to the harms caused. Lengthy prison sentences given to corporate executives and chairman—such as Bernie Madoff’s June 2009 150-year prison sentence—seem to support the argument that a national attitudinal shift has translated into more severe punishments for white-collar offenders. But one could characterize recent severe white-collar sentences—most notably in this regard, Shalom Weiss’s 840-year prison term—as aberrations that are both expressively powerful and functionally indistinguishable from a life sentence with no chance of parole. As such, far from bridging the gap between harm and punishment, these extreme reactions would also fail to represent the majority of white-collar offenders’ experiences with the criminal justice system. Despite financial losses stemming from white-collar crime, most white-collar offenders are not prosecuted as criminal offenders and do not comprise the bulk of U.S. jail and prison populations.
The present study addresses this paradox between harm caused, perceived seriousness and desired punitiveness, and the theoretical void in the white-collar crime literature by incorporating the concepts of ingroup favoritism and outgroup hostility from the social psychological literature on social identity theory. The study’s purposes, then, are to determine whether there are observable differences in punitiveness toward white-collar and street offenders and then to test the applicability of the proposed integrated theory to explaining punitiveness by employing a representative telephone survey of 400 Floridian adults in 2008. The survey tested 10 hypotheses in several ways: An offense- and an offender-based definition of white-collar crime is used as well as nonviolent economic street crime, incarceration and disenfranchisement support serve as dependent variables; and two forms of offender identification (social and racial) and two forms of threats (offense seriousness and victim identification) are assessed. Incarceration support is modeled for six offenses: elite white-collar crime (corporate fraud and government bribery), consumer fraud white-collar crimes (false advertising and car sales fraud), and nonviolent economic street crimes (motor vehicle theft and burglary). The six offenses were then collapsed into three crime categories designed to represent three basic social status groups and to address the white-collar crime definitional debate: elite white-collar crime (high-status white-collar crime), consumer fraud white-collar crime (middle-status white-collar crime), and nonviolent economic street crime (low-status non-white-collar crime). No violent street crimes were included to enhance the comparability between the street crimes and white-collar crimes; likewise, the selected street crimes were economically motivated so they would also have the same basic motive (unlike non-violent street crimes like vandalism or drug use).
Bivariate correlations revealed differences in public opinion, but the definition of white-collar crime (i.e., offense or offender based) and the measure of punitiveness (i.e., support for incarceration and for disenfranchisement) impacted the results. Multivariate logistic regression results indicate that offense seriousness had the consistent effect on increasing punitiveness for street crimes, but rarely influenced punishment recommendations for white-collar crimes—particularly those of the powerful corporate and government elites. However, little support emerged supporting the hypotheses derived from social identity theory.
Rarely have past studies identified variables that are related to punitiveness toward white-collar offenders, be they theoretical or control variables. The present study, on the other hand, drew from the available research literature, identified the theoretical concept of social identification, and empirically tested this concept’s association with incarceration and disenfranchisement recommendations for white-collar and street property offenders. Social identification was not always related to punitiveness; moreover, the hypothesized positive effect of social identification interacting with perceived seriousness failed to materialize. Yet social identification itself increased punitiveness in several models and this is an advancement of our knowledge about public opinion on white-collar crime—albeit an advancement in need of refinement. Theoretically, this study introduced the idea of social identity to the study of white-collar crime, a phenomenon that has long been anecdotally characterized as crime by seemingly normal and respectable individuals, but which has recently exhibited signs of increased governmental intervention and sanctioning. The unexpected findings were explained by drawing upon labeling theory and by discussing the differential roles of information in influencing punitive attitudes. A different causal model is then suggested wherein strength of incriminating evidence is predicted to moderate the effect of social identification on punitiveness toward white-collar offenders. In this revised model to be tested in future research, social identification is not predicted to interact with seriousness to influence punitiveness; rather, it is hypothesized to influence punitiveness indirectly through its influence on perceptions of guilt.
The conclusion focuses upon the contradiction between the U.S. government’s relative neglect of white-collar crime and contemporary empirical evidence on public punitiveness toward white-collar and street offenders. Bernie Madoff’s recent 150-year is revisited, and it is concluded that recent examples of harsh white-collar crime sanctioning do not reflect a significant shift in attitudes. Instead, returning to social identity theory, it is proposed that certain offenders have gotten singled out in order to for the government send a symbolic message of intolerance toward corporate crime while at the same time, the criminogenic opportunity and motivation structures of U.S. finance capitalism are left untouched and ineffectively regulated, thus perpetuating the problem of white-collar crime.
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