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The Routledge International Handbook of the Crimes of the Powerful
Gregg Barak
Crimes of the powerful and the definition of crime
Publication details
David O. Friedrichs
Published online on: 17 Jun 2015
How to cite :- David O. Friedrichs. 17 Jun 2015 ,Crimes of the powerful and the definition of crime
from: The Routledge International Handbook of the Crimes of the Powerful Routledge.
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Part I
Culture, ideology and the
crimes of the powerful
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Crimes of the powerful and
the definition of crime
David O. Friedrichs
In 1897 an English-language book by Cesare Lombroso, Criminal Anthropology, was published.
Lombroso’s approach to understanding crime was tremendously influential in the development
of criminology in relation to its focus upon conventional, individual offenders and the application of a positivistic approach to the study of crime and criminality. Lombroso, an Italian physician, is quite uniformly identified as a pioneer criminologist, and typically, significant space is
devoted to his career and his ideas in any history of criminology. For Lombroso – and for most
criminologists who have followed in his wake – crime is principally an activity engaged in by
the powerless, but in the year following the publication of Criminal Anthropology, in 1898, a
French judge, Louis Proal, published a book entitled Political Crime. The book was published by
D. Appleton and Company as part of a “Criminology Series” edited by W. Douglas Morrison,
including his own book, Our Juvenile Offenders, The Female Offender by Cesare Lombroso and
William Ferrero, and Criminal Sociology by Enrico Ferri. Proal addressed the crimes that are carried out in the political domain, with the most consequential of these perpetrated or directed by
powerful political leaders. Among other topics, the book addressed tyranny, war and corruption.
Proal and his book are almost wholly unknown to contemporary criminologists, and Proal’s work
is not addressed in standard histories of the development of the field of criminology and criminological theories. Yet let us suppose it had been the other way around: that it was Proal and not
Lombroso who became an iconic figure in the history of criminology. If it had played out this
way the whole character and focus of criminology might be quite different, with the majority
of criminologists focused upon the crimes of the powerful. The crimes of the powerless would
in this scenario be a somewhat more limited focus of criminological research and exposition.
There is significant resistance among many criminologists to engaging with the definitional
issues relating to crime or to specific types of crime. This author has encountered over the
years any number of comments on “tedious” and “interminable” definitional discussions. Many
criminologists clearly prefer to “get on with the work” of addressing specific theoretical and
empirical questions that arise in relation to crime and its control, as opposed to devoting time and
intellectual energy to dialogues relating to definitional and conceptual issues. Such impatience is
understandable on a certain level, and the downside of becoming “imprisoned” by definitional
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D. Friedrichs
conundrums to the point where one is hindered from addressing concrete and consequential
“real-world” issues needs to be acknowledged. But the premise here is that avoidance of core
definitional issues has costly consequences in relation to theoretical and empirical progress. All
too often, we end up with criminologists talking past each other or generating a bottomless well
of confusion and misunderstanding because the core concept of “crime” is not clearly defined.
Addressing the definitional issues has to be a fundamental starting point for any coherent discussion of crimes of the powerful. The historical focus principally on the crimes of the powerless,
not the powerful, is significantly a function of how crime has been defined and imagined.
There is a long and enduring history of invoking the term “crime” without any attempt
to define it. For many people the meaning of the term “crime” is clearly taken to be obvious.
The term crime is most widely equated with conventional criminal offenses, or violations of the
criminal law that are exemplified in the United States by the FBI’s index crimes: murder, rape,
assault, robbery, burglary, auto theft, larceny and arson. This is the type of crime traditionally
of most concern to the American public, along with drug-related offenses and recent concerns
about terrorism, and these offenses account for most of the “mass imprisonment” of the recent
era (Abramsky, 2007). The largest proportion of criminological scholarship addressing crime
through the present era encompasses one or more of these types of crime. But there is also a long
tradition critical of the limitations of a conventional conception of crime (Hall, 2012; Henry and
Lanier, 2001; Tifft and Sullivan, 1980). Accordingly, the claim is made that much of the focus of
mainstream criminologists is seriously skewed.
If criminology as an enterprise has focused very disproportionally on the crimes of the powerless as opposed to the crimes of the powerful, why is this so? It is rooted in part in the historical
circumstance of embracing a certain conception of crime, which over time becomes reinforced
and reified. The media and the broader public discourse on crime, as well as the political classes,
are disproportionally focused upon conventional forms of crime. Graduate students in criminology came to adopt the conception of crime of their professors and mentors, and a cohort effect
continues to reinforce this conception of crime and criminals (Savelsberg and Flood, 2004).
Career advancement is best realized by focusing on the types of crime that is the primary focus of
the public as well as of those who shape the curriculum of criminal justice and criminology programs. The vast majority of students who enroll in such programs are focused upon conventional
criminals and their control. Powerless offenders, often institutionalized, are more readily available
as research subjects than powerful offenders. Furthermore, powerful entities are well positioned
to derail or retaliate against research projects directed at their activities. Powerless entities have no
such influence or clout. Altogether, a confluence of factors militate against a focus upon crimes
of the powerful, and those who choose to do so must often contend with various forms of direct
and indirect pressure to shift their attention elsewhere.
Defining crime and the criminological mainstream
As Robert Agnew (2011: 13) notes, little space and time are devoted to considering the definition of crime in mainstream texts and in discussions of crime and criminological phenomena.
Much mainstream criminology clearly adopts a taken-for-granted approach to what the term
crime (and criminal) refers to, with a strong if not exclusive emphasis upon conventional types of
crime. A volume entitled The Future of Criminology, edited by Rolf Loeber and Brandon C. Welsh
(2012), exemplifies this pattern. Nowhere in this volume do we find any discussion of the meaning of crime or criminal: it is taken for granted that readers understand what these terms refer
to (i.e., conventional law-breaking and “street” criminals). There is no acknowledgment of any
kind that crime and criminals may exist outside the conventional framing of such activity. Nor
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The definition of crime
is there any acknowledgment that “the future of criminology” extends beyond the criminological mainstream, and accordingly there is at a minimum an implicit if not explicit dismissal of the
notion that any criminological concerns outside the mainstream criminological framework are
part of a legitimate criminological enterprise. The exclusion of a vast range of willfully harmful
endeavors – by states, corporations, and other hugely powerful entities – is immensely limiting
for a criminology that aspires to remain relevant in the twenty-first century. This type of institutionalized parochialism – which is quite pervasive within criminology – may be attributed at
least partially to the dismissal of definitional and conceptual issues.
Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi’s (1990) “general theory of crime” is – within the
American context – the single most widely cited and widely tested criminological theory of
the present era (see, e.g., Cohn and Farrington, 2012; Goode, 2008; Madfis, 2012). This general
theory holds that crime (all crime) is best explained as a function of low self-control and poor
parenting. Indeed, Gottfredson and Hirschi claim that this explanation applies not just to those
types of behavior that are commonly characterized as “crime,” but to the whole range of patterns of deviant conduct (e.g., all forms of substance abuse) as well as proneness to accidents
and so forth. The popularity of this theory may well be the attractiveness of adopting a form of
explanation with a limited number (as opposed to a multiplicity) of variables, and the availability
of standard instruments for testing the theory which allow for the generation of findings in a
quantifiable form, with the application of impressive multiple regression equations and so forth.
Gottfredson (2011: 36) has recently argued against the adoption of either a legalistic definition of
crime or a disciplinary definition of crime, in favor of a behavioral definition of crime as “part
of a much larger set of behaviours that provide (or appear to provide) momentary benefit for the
actor but which are costly in a longer term.” It should be obvious that such a definition of crime
inherently aligns crime with the behavioral patterns of members of society who are powerless,
not powerful, and skews the study of crime almost exclusively to street crime. On the one hand,
Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990: 191; Gottfredson 2011: 39) have referred to white-collar crime –
and organizational crime specifically – as “rare.” On the other hand, they have also claimed that
the profiles for white-collar and conventional offenders are virtually parallel. Both claims have
been challenged, as have the huge limitations of the general theory in relation to understanding
white-collar crime (Friedrichs and Schwartz, 2008). Crimes of the powerful are anything but
rare, and powerful criminals have dramatically different profiles from conventional offenders.
Donald Palmer (2012), a professor of sociology and organizational behavior, argues that organizational wrong-doing is in fact “normal.”
The criminological critique of the mainstream conception of crime
At least some criminologists who would be classified as falling within the parameters of the
criminological mainstream acknowledge the limitations of the traditional, mainstream criminological way of defining and studying crime. Robert Agnew (2011), in Toward a Unified Criminology, specifically engages with the work of a range of critical criminologists and puts forth an
integrated definition of crime that seeks to find some common ground between mainstream and
critical criminological approaches to defining crime. The advantages of this integrated definition of crime, which promotes a broadening of the scope of criminological concerns, are fully
addressed by him. John Hagan (2010), in his Who are the Criminals?, offers a potent critique of
the conventional, mainstream framing of the problem of crime, with its highlighting of street
crime or conventional crime and its relative inattention to suite crime or high-level white-collar
crime. Hagan has produced several recent books on genocide and international criminal justice
in relation to crimes of states. Both Agnew and Hagan have been recipients of major forms of
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recognition by the criminological establishment and are highly respected contemporary criminologists. Accordingly, their critiques of the mainstream way of defining of and conceiving of
the problem of crime are at least potentially influential. Joachim Savelsberg (2010) is another
prominent criminologist aligned with the mainstream who has argued for criminological attention to human rights violations. It remains to be seen whether a critical mass of mainstream
criminologists will heed the call for an expanded scope of criminological concerns.
There is a long-standing tradition of critique of conventional conceptions of crime that
have been advanced by self-described radical or critical criminologists (see, e.g., DeKeseredy
and Dragiewicz, 2012; Tifft and Sullivan, 1980; Watts et al., 2008). Richard Quinney (1970)
introduced in The Social Reality of Crime an influential conception of crime as a construct put
forth by the powerful to reflect their interests. The “humanistic” definition of crime put forth
by Schwendinger and Schwendinger (1970) is quite familiar and has been widely cited. The
approach to conceiving of crime as “crimes of capital” by Raymond Michalowski (1985), in
Order, Law and Crime, was another noteworthy contribution. Stuart Henry and Mark Lanier
(2001), in an in-depth consideration of the definition of crime, have advanced a “prism of crime”
definition (see also Agnew, 2011). For some criminologists, the term crime itself is inevitably
so limiting and so constrained by its historical meaning that it should be abandoned in favor of
“social harm” as the focus of our concern, with criminology itself being replaced by “zemiology,” or the study of harm (see Friedrichs and Schwartz, 2007; Hillyard et al., 2004). A call on
the part of Victoria Greenfield and Letizia Paoli (2013) for creating “a framework to assess the
harms of crimes” represents one recent initiative to increase the focus on the harm dimension
inherent to definitions of crime.
Altogether, the radical and critical critiques of the definition of crime promote attention to
the crimes of the powerful, and take a form which recognizes that the crimes of the powerful
tend to be exponentially more consequential than the crimes of the powerless.
Who are the powerful?
If the definition of crime itself is contentious, the notion of “the powerful” also requires some
attention. It is widely recognized that “power” is a key force (some suggest the key force) in the
world inhabited by human beings, and many tomes have been devoted to addressing the concept
of power (e.g. Hearn, 2012). We need not engage with this large literature here, but one should
acknowledge that the powerful is a somewhat elastic term. It can be stretched to encompass the
unambiguously powerful but can encompass as well parties and entities that have only some
degree or measure of power. We have powerful entities (e.g., major corporations) and powerful individuals. In some cases, power is structurally embedded within the political economy; in
other cases, power is situational and circumstantial. Political dictators in totalitarian states – with
Hitler and Stalin being the paradigmatic historical cases – are the most unambiguously powerful
individuals, and in both cases these individuals were responsible for inspiring and setting into
motion crimes on a monumental scale. In the public sector, high-level political and governmental
officials have formidable power; but what of government bureaucrats and low-level government
officials, such as police and corrections officers? They certainly have some power, and they may
exercise considerable power in carrying out specific or implied orders of their superiors, or they
may be abusing the power they have to further their own personal agendas or as expressions of
personal biases. Police abuse of power – some of which is mundane and some especially serious
(e.g. misuse of deadly force)—has long been recognized and studied (e.g., Eitle et al., 2014). In
the private sector, CEOs of major corporations and financial institutions also have formidable
power, but lower level executives as well as managers and foremen have situational power.
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The definition of crime
As C. Wright Mills (1956) famously highlighted in his classic book, a “power elite” of the top
government, military and corporate people has disproportionate power within society, and has
various interconnections with each other to advance common interests and to make trade-offs
between themselves in relation to differential power exercised in different realms. The empirical
validity of Mills’ claims has been challenged from the outset (Domhoff and Ballard, 1968; Hearn,
2012: 70). But at a minimum the exercise of power is hugely asymmetric in contemporary society, and at least some significant interlocks and intersections of interests occur within the highest
reaches of society. In relation to crimes of the powerful specifically, the identification of any such
interlocks and intersections is one key challenge. Altogether, we need to recognize that the powerful may be conceived of in traditional terms, as individuals; in modern terms, as organizations;
and in postmodern terms, as networks.
The definition of white-collar crime and crimes of the powerful
Within American criminology in particular, Edwin H. Sutherland is surely the highest profile
figure associated with a challenge to the conventional definition of crime. For some commentators, Sutherland is the most significant criminologist of the twentieth century. His introduction
of the concept of “white-collar crime” is among his more important contributions. We need not
here revisit in any detail Sutherland’s (1945) celebrated exchange with law professor Paul Tappan
(1947), who complained that Sutherland’s application of the term “white-collar crime” to a
range of activities not specifically declared crimes by legislative criminal law was unwarranted.
But the essence of Sutherland’s response to Tappan has remained hugely influential among subsequent students of white-collar crime: the inclusion of violations of civil and administrative law
as well as of criminal law could justifiably be encompassed by the term “white collar-crime”
because the white-collar “class” has too much influence over lawmaking generally and criminal
lawmaking specifically. Accordingly, limiting the definition of white-collar crime to actions
specifically proscribed by the criminal law excludes a vast amount of obviously immensely
harmful activity carried out by the white-collar class. In effect, limiting oneself to the activities
specifically proscribed by the criminal law in relation to white-collar crime plays directly into
the hands of corporations and other powerful social actors who have succeeded in preventing the
“crime” label from being applied to a wide range of demonstrably harmful activities in which
they engage.
For all of the credit Sutherland deserves in relation to introducing the concept of white-collar
crime to the field of criminology – and, more broadly, to the public discourse on crime – he can
also be faulted for having contributed to the long, ongoing historical confusion on the appropriate meaning of the term “white-collar crime.” Sutherland simply did not devote enough thought
and consideration to the definitional issue at the outset of his work on white-collar crime, and
accordingly invoked the term in quite different ways with quite different meanings.
Due to space limitations, I will not here undertake a review of the historical development
of the concept of white-collar crime since Sutherland, other than to make a few pertinent
observations (but see Friedrichs, 2014). First, this history has been characterized by much confusion (Geis, 2007). Second, while the term “white-collar crime” has been applied to hugely
powerful organizations and individuals, it has also been applied to utterly powerless individuals
(e.g., cashiers and stock room employees who steal from their employer). And third, some of
the most widely known studies of white collar crime (e.g., the Yale studies) have incorporated
powerless white-collar crime offenders, in part because doing so contributes to operationalizing key variables. My own solution to the definitional conundrum has been to use the
term “white-collar crime” as a broad, heuristic, umbrella term encompassing a wide range of
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core, cognate, hybrid and marginal specific types of such crime (Friedrichs, 2010). Corporate
crime and occupational crime are the two principal core types. But in relation to crimes of
the powerful, specifically: corporate offenders (or at least large corporations as offenders) are
intrinsically powerful, while occupational offenders range from the relatively powerful (e.g.,
wealthy physicians and lawyers) to the wholly powerless (e.g., low-level employee pilferers),
and everything in between. The concept of state-corporate crime – extensively addressed elsewhere in this handbook – captures the hugely consequential cooperative activity of powerful
entities. Within the financial sector, one has especially powerful entities and actors whose illegal and unethical activities are also hugely consequential, and have been relatively neglected by
criminologists (Barak, 2012; Friedrichs, 2013; Hagan, 2010). If the term “white-collar crime”
is often used to refer to crimes of the powerful, it is clear then that it is not in fact synonymous
with this term. Frank Pearce (1976), in a book entitled Crimes of the Powerful, has been credited
with coining this term, at least within criminological discourse (Whyte, 2009: 1). Pearce did
not specifically define “crimes of the powerful” but rather demonstrated the relevance of a
Marxist approach for understanding the significance of crime perpetrated by the powerful.
As was suggested earlier, many others – including Marx and Engels, Louis Proal, E.A. Ross,
and Willem Bonger – had drawn attention to such crime, but the term itself has only been
quite widely invoked in recent years. David Whyte’s (2009) Crimes of the Powerful: A Reader is
one reflection of the current institutionalization of the term, as is this handbook. In the sections that follow I will limit myself to commenting on only some dimensions of crimes of the
The most powerful actor of all? The state
If Sutherland made a huge contribution to the evolution of criminology by directing criminological attention to hugely powerful entities – major corporations – he wholly disregarded an
even more powerful entity: the state. The late William J. Chambliss’ (1989) 1988 American
Society of Criminology presidential address, on state-organized crime, deserves a historical status
parallel to Sutherland’s 1939 American Sociological Society presidential address, introducing the
concept of white-collar crime. Just as one can identify progenitors for the crimes of respectable
businesses – including Marx and Engels – one can also identify those who anticipated Chambliss
in calling attention to the crimes of states. But in both cases, for various reasons, it was Sutherland
in the case of white-collar crime and Chambliss in the case of state crime who inspired significant
(and growing) numbers of criminologists to take up the study of crimes of states – including
quite a few contributors to this volume. If the notion of crimes of corporations was controversial
at the outset – beginning with Paul Tappan’s oft-cited critique – the notion of crimes of states
(to say nothing of criminal states) has been even more controversial, with many commentators
taking the view that harms carried out in the name of states is a matter of concern for students
of international relations, but is not a criminological phenomenon. By now various overviews
of state crime as a criminological phenomenon (e.g., Barak, 1991; Green and Ward, 2004; Rothe,
2009) have been published, as have anthologies (e.g., Chambliss et al., 2010; Rothe and Mullins,
2011). There is a newly established journal, State Crime, and criminological articles and papers
relating to state crime are increasingly well represented in journals and at conferences. In sum,
the criminology of crimes of states has now been fully legitimized as a focus of criminological
inquiry. But it remains somewhat paradoxical that the most consequential crimes of all by arguably the most powerful “actor” of all – the state – have only in the recent era become a focus of
substantial criminological attention. Quite a number of contributors to this handbook address
crimes of states and their control.
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The definition of crime
Mundane crimes of the powerful
The criminological literature on crimes of the state disproportionally attends to the largest scale
of such crimes, especially genocide, war-related crimes, state terror, torture, and fundamental
denials of basic human rights (e.g., Green and Ward, 2004; Chambliss et al., 2010; Rothe, 2009).
I have myself contributed to this literature, also with a focus on such crimes (Friedrichs, 1998,
2010, 2011). And perhaps this is as it should be, as these large-scale crimes of the powerful have
broad, diffuse consequences. There are also crimes of the powerful in the private sector, with a
focus predominantly on environmental destruction, the creation of unsafe working conditions,
and the production of unsafe products. I will here restrict myself to mundane crimes of the
powerful in the public sector, or mundane crimes of the state. Mundane crimes of the powerful
are relatively neglected by criminologists. Don C. Gibbons (1983), in an article published more
than 30 years ago, addressed the issue of “mundane crime.” Dictionary meanings of the term
“mundane” include dull or routine, and Gibbons pointed out that a range of “commonplace,
low visibility and often relatively innocuous instances of law-breaking” (1983: 214) made up a
significant portion of the crime problem in modern societies. Gibbons’ list of mundane crimes
includes: drug abuse violations; gambling; offenses against the family; driving under the influence;
liquor laws; drunkenness; disorderly conduct; and vagrancy. The salient point here is that these
commonplace, rather innocuous offenses on the one hand account for a huge proportion of all
arrests in the United States, and on the other hand have low social visibility and many (but not
all) of these mundane crimes attract little attention from criminologists. On a personal note, my
interest in mundane crimes of the powerful was prompted by a bizarre, 18-hour ordeal trying to
cross the border from Cambodia into Vietnam with a travel companion (Elizabeth Windle) in
March 2014. We finally had to sign confessions for our visa-related errors.
The mundane crimes of the powerful refer to the routine exercise of power by relatively lowlevel agents of the state – civil service or justice system bureaucrats and enforcement personnel – in
ways that impose significant costs on vast numbers of people, especially in developing countries.
That such mundane crime in developing countries is part of the legacy of colonialism – wherein
colonial power imposed hugely oppressed bureaucratic regimes upon indigenous peoples – is one
more dimension of the tragic consequences of colonialism (Haque, 1997; Sumner, 1982). These
mundane abuses of power surface in relation to applications for necessary permits across a wide
range of activities, from obtaining visas to peddling licenses to residential permits. The low-level
agents who perpetrate these offenses may be characterized as the “petty powerful.” Their power
is situational, circumstantial, and contingent. In a strict sense, of course, a significant percentage
of such abuse occurs when the petty powerful enforce “letter of the law” requirements mindlessly and in a rote fashion, even when these requirements are clearly irrational, dysfunctional,
and counterproductive. Such enforcement of laws and regulations may be characterized as a form
of “structural” abuse of power; i.e., abuse in the sense of identifiable harmful consequences even
when the agent is technically in compliance with what is called for by the law or regulation. The
source of abuse in such cases may be traced back to those who create the laws and regulations
in the first place. The petty powerful may pride themselves in such cases with carrying out their
job strictly in accordance with formal requirements and expectations. But for at least some of
the petty powerful the intrinsic satisfactions of exercising power over other people, in some cases
people with significantly higher social status within the broader societal context, is a core motivating factor, and a form of sadistic pleasure may be derived from compelling groveling responses
and visible suffering upon those over whom one has situational power. In some circumstances the
petty powerful may abuse the formal power they have by requiring those over whom they have
power to go through procedures outside of what is formally required, simply to demonstrate that
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they can exercise such power over other people. Of course the solicitation (or routine expectation) of bribes to provide some form of permit is a classic form of abuse of power by the petty
powerful, and is pervasive (even institutionalized) across the developing world, in particular.
The Arab Spring was apparently triggered by such a mundane crime of power. A Tunisian
fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, had been routinely subjected to abuses by police empowered
to supervise these vendors. As one account notes, “The cops took visible pleasure in subjecting
the vendors to one indignity after another – fining them, confiscating their scales, even ordering them to carry their stolen fruit to the cops’ car” (Fisher, 2011). In December 2010, Bouazizi
was once again contending with police officers who tried to block his path and take his fruit;
his uncle complained to a police chief. A policewoman called in by the chief was outraged, and
returned to the marketplace to confiscate Bouazizi’s fruit. A physical confrontation followed, and
Bouazizi was slapped in the face, shamed in front of some 50 witnesses. He got no satisfaction
from a city hall clerk when he complained. Bouazizi subsequently set himself on fire in protest of
this treatment, and died three weeks later in a hospital burns unit. This episode is widely regarded
as setting in motion the uprisings across the Arab world. Yes, the corrupt and oppressive practices
of autocratic leaders were a prime focus of these uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere. But
surely there is good reason to believe that the pervasive experience of the mundane, routine acts
of low-level government agents – police, inspectors, clerks, and all the rest – provided a hugely
important source of inspiration for the uprisings.
Emerging conceptions of crimes of the powerful: crimes of globalization
If criminology as a field has produced a very large body of literature on some types of crime, it has
almost wholly neglected other types of crime. “Crimes of globalization” is one such neglected
type of crime. I co-authored an article with my daughter Jessica, published in 2002, on “Crimes
of Globalization and the World Bank: A Case Study.” This project evolved out of Jessica Friedrichs’ experience of living among river fishermen in Thailand, in 1999, whose traditional way of
life was being destroyed by a World Bank-financed dam. Since I had long been interested in the
crimes of the powerful I was struck by the fact that the policies and practices of an immensely
powerful entity – the World Bank – were causing demonstrable, severe harm to powerless people
in a developing country, and this type of “crime” had been wholly neglected by criminologists.
Crimes of globalization, then, refer to the crimes of the international financial institutions, not
just the World Bank but the International Monetary Fund as well. The harmful activities of
these international financial institutions did not fit into any recognized criminological typology
“box”: obviously, not those capturing the whole range of conventional types of crimes, but the
international financial institutions are neither corporations nor state entities, in the conventional
sense, so their harmful activities also do not fit into the categories of corporate crime and state
crime. Can these harmful activities be justifiably characterized as “crime,” however? As Maureen
Cain (2010) argues, in her parallel advancement of the term “global crime” for these activities
of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, this is in fact crime when the harms
involved could and should have been foreseen by the international financial institution policy
makers. And there is much evidence to support that claim.
Since the publication of the original article on crimes of globalization in 2002, a number
of other criminologists have applied this concept to other cases involving the World Bank or
the International Monetary Fund, and I have co-authored recent book chapters and a book
on this topic (Friedrichs and Rothe, 2013; Rothe and Friedrichs, 2014; Rothe and Friedrichs,
2015). One core argument of this book: In a rapidly changing, globalizing world, some types of
crimes (e.g., crimes of globalization) are likely to achieve greater significance and recognition,
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and other types of crimes (e.g., low-level conventional or street crimes) are likely to be less of a
problem or challenge for a range of reasons.
Concluding observations
A criminology of the crimes of the powerful should adopt as its starting point recognition of the
traditional approach to defining crime almost exclusively as crime committed by the powerless.
The criminological mainstream, with a self-identify as a scientific endeavor, is inherently biased in
favor of definitions of crime that lend themselves easily to operationalization. This bias inevitably
privileges attention to the crimes of the powerless rather than to the crimes of the powerful.
A “prospective” criminology in a complex, globalized world looks ahead toward anticipating
key emerging developments and changes in this world, and recognizes that the meaning of the
core term “crime” itself inevitably evolves with these developments and changes (Aas, 2007).
It is an illusion, surely, that the term “crime” may be defined in only one way, and that any
such definition would be universally acknowledged and adopted. Any invocation of the term
“crime” requires some specification of just which definition or meaning of the term is being
adopted within the context of this invocation. Increasingly, the application of the term “crime”
to activities of the powerful, not the powerless, is a core dimension of an evolving criminological
This chapter is dedicated to the memory of Gil Geis – who addressed the definitional issues
relating to white-collar crime so fully and wisely – and to the memory of Bill Chambliss – who
played a key role in initiating contemporary criminological attention to crimes of states and other
powerful actors and entities. They were both warm, wonderful human beings, and great friends
to many of us. An earlier, quite different version of this chapter was presented as an invited Presidential Panel paper at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Atlanta in
November 2013, and was subsequently posted on the ASC website (under “Resources”).
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