1.5. Conflict View

Shanell Sanchez and Kate McLean

A third perspective of how we define crime or create laws is referred to as the conflict view, commonly associated with the philosopher Karl Marx. The conflict view sees society as a collection of diverse groups, defined by class, age, occupation, etc. This view recognizes that the creation of laws is divisive and inequitable – not a process supported by consensus, as discussed previously. [1]

Further, the conflict view suggests that different social groups are often in constant conflict with one another, with social class representing a major axis of conflict. Unlike the consensus perspective, the conflict view would suggest that criminal law is influenced by those with wealth, power, and social position in society. Essentially, laws are made by a select group in society, and the laws protect the ‘haves.’ Definitions of criminality are shaped by the values of the ruling class and do not emerge from ‘moral consensus’. Can you think of a specific crime, or criminal law, that is not only controversial, but appears to reflect the interests of powerful social groups? [2] There are many examples we use in the criminal justice field that demonstrate the conflict view in action.

Edwin Sutherland: White Collar Crime

Edwin Sutherland, a sociologist, first coined the term white-collar crime during his presidential address at the American Sociological Society Meeting in 1939, later publishing articles and books on the topic. [3] Specifically, he was concerned with the criminological community’s preoccupation with low-status offenders and “street crimes,” and the lack of attention given to crimes that were perpetrated by people in higher-status occupations.

Sutherland wrote a book, White Collar Crime, that sparked much debate in this time. [4] Still today, there is a limited focus on white-collar crime and even less enforcement of relevant laws in the United States. From the conflict view, this would be because white-collar and corporate crimes are disproportionately committed by the ‘haves’ who write and enforce the law. Going back to how we define crime in society, white-collar crime is still a contested one.

Currently, there are different views of how one should define white-collar crime: is it based upon the status of the offender, the type of offense, the underlying organizational culture? Are white-collar crimes primarily committed by corporations, or driven by the profit motive? The FBI studies white-collar crime in terms of offense, so official data for white-collar crime does not reveal demographic background of the offender. The UCR will be covered more fully in chapter two, but it is data collected from police departments, and compiled by the FBI.

  1. Hawkins, D. (1987). Beyond anomalies: Rethinking the conflict perspective on race and criminal punishment. Social Forces, 65(3), 719–745, https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/65.3.719
  2. Boundless. (2016). The conflict perspective. Sociology – Cochise College Boundless, 26.
  3. Sutherland, E. (1940). White-collar criminality. American Sociological Review, 5(1), 1-12.
  4. Sutherland, E. (1949). White-collar crime. Dryden Press.
  5. Barnett, C. (N.D.). The measurement of white-collar crime using: Uniform crime reporting (UCR) data. U.S. Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation


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Introduction to the U.S. Criminal Justice System Copyright © 2019 by Shanell Sanchez and Kate McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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