Geis, Sutherland and white-collar crime

Part 1 of 2

By Robert F. Meier, Ph.D.



This article is excerpted and adapted from the 2001 book “Contemporary Issues in Crime & Criminal Justice: Essays in Honor of Gilbert Geis,” edited by Henry N. Pontell and David Shichor. This collection, published by Prentice Hall, was assembled in honor of Dr. Geis on his 75th birthday. We republish the article from the September/October 2001 issue of the ACFE’s The White Paper, the predecessor to Fraud Magazine, in honor of Dr. Geis who passed away Nov. 10, 2012. — ed.

Edwin Sutherland and Gilbert Geis share a strong mutual interest in white-collar crime. Both of these criminologists had made important contributions to the theory and research of white-collar crime at different times. My purpose here is to compare the contributions of these scholars to our understanding of white-collar crime. In so doing, I hope to elucidate the important contributions made by Gilbert Geis to this topic.

The thesis of this article can be stated simply: The promise in the pioneering work of Edwin Sutherland on white-collar crime has been fulfilled more in the works of Geis than in the works of any other scholar. That promise was vast, and there was much work to be done at the time of Sutherland’s death in 1950, in spite of his vigorous labor. 

While Sutherland’s mark was strong (he coined the term “white-collar crime”), one could argue that he left the study of white-collar crime in disarray, without a definitional rudder and sufficient empirical work to power the field beyond his initial foray. While Sutherland staked the initial claim, Geis exploited it to the point where it became a major area of study and public policy.

We will see that early ventures into the study of white-collar crime immediately after Sutherland’s death were tentative and not especially helpful in refining and building the concept. It would be nearly two decades after Sutherland’s death that the area of white-collar crime would come into its own, and the principal reason for that were the contributions of Gilbert Geis. 

This article examines both biography and intellectual approaches to discern the unique contributions of Sutherland and Geis in understanding white-collar crime.


It is now 63 years since Edwin Sutherland died, and with him criminology’s total preoccupation with conventional, or street, crime. But Sutherland’s contribution to modern understanding of white-collar crime has not been entirely clear. While he pioneered the subject matter, his legacy is marked by a lack of consensus by scholars both about the meaning of the term white-collar crime and the general approach that best generates the kind of theoretical and empirical understanding criminologists require. Sutherland was the leading figure in American criminology throughout most of the twentieth century, but that appellation is more likely due to his championing his theory of differential association, rather than his work on white-collar crime.1

In contrast with the cosmopolitan nature of white-collar crime, Sutherland’s biography is decidedly rural. He was born in 1883 in Gibbon, Neb., and spent almost all of his time to age 21 in Grand Island, Neb. (Population at the time was about 6,000.) He graduated in 1904 with a class of 70 others from Grand Island College, where his father was president. He then taught at Sioux Falls (S.D.) College for two years before enrolling as a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, where he stayed until 1908. From 1909 to 1911 he returned and taught at Grand Island College, finally returning to Chicago to finish his Ph.D. in 1913. Sutherland’s family was strongly religious, and his educational experiences, except for those at Chicago, were all at religious schools. (Grand Island and Sioux Falls Colleges were Baptist institutions.)

Sutherland’s first teaching position after his Ph.D. was at William Jewel College in Liberty, Missouri, another Baptist school. He remained there until 1919 when he began something of a cook’s tour of Midwestern universities: 1919-1926 at the University of Illinois (where his interest in criminology became systematized), 1926-1929 at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1935 at the University of Chicago, and from 1935 until his death in 1950 at the University of Indiana. 


Sutherland’s influential criminology textbook was first published while he was at the University of Illinois, and his theory of differential association first made its tentative appearance in an edition while he was at the University of Chicago.  

Sutherland had taught a criminology course every year from 1913 to 1921 but, he reports, “My organized work in criminology began in 1921 when E.C. Hayes, head of the department of Sociology at the University of Illinois, asked me to write a text on criminology for the Lippincott series” (Sutherland, 1973, 13). Sutherland was unable to draw from his dissertation research for his criminological contributions. Sutherland’s dissertation, titled “Unemployment and Public Employment Agencies,” dealt with labor problems in the city of Chicago.

Sutherland’s relatively provincial upbringing paralleled that of many of the sociologists at the University of Chicago. The faculty of the “Chicago School” stressed local issues and problems, and their reach seldom stretched beyond the city limits of Chicago. Sutherland was no hick, but he was the product of a relatively sheltered existence. Sutherland’s early life centered around Grand Island, but even his mature years never found him far — socially and intellectually — from those Midwestern roots.

Sutherland’s work with Chic Conwell (a student in one of his classes), his jarring exposure to big city life in Chicago, and his fondness for applying differential association to all forms of crime, each suggests the work of someone with first-hand knowledge of crime. But there is no record of Sutherland having had personal experience with crime. Sutherland adopted more of an insider position on his subject matter, but the closest he would come to real-life crime would be an encounter with an occasional wayward student or the library, not from personal experience.

He resorted frequently to documenting crime by means of anecdotes, one being a pedestrian recital of the small-time shenanigans of a college student who worked weekends as a shoe salesman — a story according to Donald Cressey that was based on “Sutherland’s personal experiences” (Geis and Goff, 1983, 178). The anecdote is indeed dull, and Sutherland may in fact have exaggerated it for illustrative purposes. 


Throughout his career, Sutherland adopted a social psychological perspective that focused on offenders. Sutherland was not a reductionist, but his starting point was always individual criminals, their offenses, and the learning experiences they had to bring them to their crimes. 

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