Sociology Mind
2011. Vol.1, No.2, 81-89
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/sm.2011.12010
White Collar Crime and Informal Social Control: The Case of
“Crisis Responders” in the Swedish Banking and Finance Sector
Oskar Engdahl
Department of Sociology, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden.
Received February 16st, 2011; revised March 15th, 2011; accepted March 18th, 2011.
Drawing upon case studies on the type of white-collar offenders frequently called “crisis responders”, this article
critically examines Sampson and Laub’s general theory on informal social control. In the article, this theory is
for the first time confronted with data not used in its development and prior testing. Based on the evidence, the
theory retains its validity for the white-collar offenders considered, insofar as their crime was closely connected
to a perceived threat of identity loss, distrust in social support obtainable from others, and lack of supervision
and monitoring at workplace. At the same time, the argument is made that the notion of interdependence relied
upon in this theory needs to be developed more fully if it is to take into account the kind of dependency relations
tying these particular offenders to their environment.
Keywords: Informal Social Control; White-collar Crime; Crisis Responders
The theory of informal social control as advanced in the
work of Robert J. Sampson and John H. Laub has attracted
much attention in the recent years, being today proposed as a
general theory of crime. Parts of this work, which remains un-
der development, have been published in book format
(Sampson & Laub, 1993; Laub & Sampson, 2003), in antholo-
gies (Sampson & Laub, 2005b; Laub et al., 2006), and in lead-
ing periodicals (Sampson & Laub 1990; 2003; 2005a; Laub &
Sampson, 1993; Laub et al., 1998). The theses put forth in these
writings have become widely debated and critically scrutinized
by other researchers in the field (see, e.g., Uggen, 2000;
Giordano et al., 2002, 2007; Ezell & Cohen, 2005; Bottoms,
2006; Thompson & Petrovic, 2009), and are featured promi-
nently in criminology textbooks and both introductory and ad-
vanced level course materials.1 Through all these channels
Sampson and Laub manage to make a dynamic and influential
contribution to general theory building in the discipline.
In advancing their work, Sampson and Laub have relied on
empirical data typical of criminological studies more generally.
The evidence they have drawn upon relates mostly to crime of
violence, theft, and drug-related crime, all committed by high-
rate offenders in socially disadvantaged communities. This is
primarily also the type of data used in the evaluation and testing
of Sampson and Laub’s theses. No studies deviating from es-
sentially the same empirical foundation have been published to
date. In view of the influence and the global aspirations of
Sampson and Laub’s theory, this state of affairs can only be
deemed less than satisfactory.
As a corrective, therefore, this article looks at novel evidence
derived from qualitative analysis of white-collar offenders,
confronting the theory with its implications. More precisely, the
study reported below tackles white-collar crime committed in
the course of normal business activities within the Swedish
banking and finance sector by individuals classifiable as “crisis
responders” (Waring et al., 1995; Weisburd et al., 2001). In
broader research, crisis responders form a frequently noted but
theoretically less elaborated category of criminals, with charac-
teristics quite different from those marking the materials used
in the research tradition forming around Sampson and Laub.
The purpose of this article is therefore twofold: To contribute to
the theoretical reflection on the social circumstances making
the crime of the crisis responders more likely, and to examine
whether Sampson and Laub’s theory on informal social control
yields useful tools for improving our understanding of white-
collar crime.
In what follows, I will first provide an overview of Sampson
and Laub’s thoughts on informal social control. The discussion
is extended to the claims and empirical support of their theory
as well. Next, the empirical material relied upon in previous
studies is reviewed, along with prior research on crisis re-
sponders. Thereafter the findings from my own research are
presented in three separate sections, corresponding to three
central elements of Sampson and Laub’s theory: interdepend-
ence and social capital, supervision and monitoring, and situ-
ated choice and identity transformations. The main observations
concerning the crime of crisis responders are given together
with concrete examples illustrating them and then juxtaposed
with Sampson and Laub’s own conclusions. Lastly, the major
conclusions from this discussion are summarized along with its
implications for further research.
Sampson and Laub on Informal Social Control
Sampson and Laub base their understanding of why people
begin, alter, and end their criminal careers on the fundamental
assumption of classical social control theory according to which
delinquency or crime is more likely to occur when an individ-
1See, e.g., Paternoster & Bachman, 2000; Piquero and Mazerolle, 2001;
Bernard et al., 2010: 316-319; Cullen et al., 2005; Lilly et al., 2007;
Williams III and McShane, 2009: 209-212.
ual’s bond to society is weak, broken, or attenuated. More spe-
cifically, the point Sampson and Laub make is that absence of
informal social control associated with interpersonal relations
and attachment to social institutions (family, education, labor
market, etc.) causes the kind of obligations, emotional ties, and
stakes in conformity to dissolve that otherwise impose signifi-
cant costs for translating criminal propensities into action, in-
hibiting criminal behavior in an individual. In addition, infor-
mal social control also affects opportunities for engaging in
crime through its role as a supervision and monitoring mecha-
Drawing from their own original research and a broad survey
of work already carried out in the field, Sampson and Laub
(1993) have been able to narrow down on a set of specific fac-
tors they see as having significance in this respect. In especial
they point out the importance of parenting styles and emotional
attachment to parents in childhood, peers and schools attach-
ment in adolescence, and marital stability and employment in
adulthood. Despite how disparate these phenomena may seem,
maintain Sampson and Laub, essentially they are but so many
manifestations of informal social control impinging on an indi-
vidual throughout life’s different phases. Informal social con-
trol is therefore best understood as age-graded in its effects,
explaining the onset, continuity, variation in, and desistance of
criminality by the same general process.
The hallmark of this theory is precisely the notion that in-
formal social control is age-graded and shapes the propensity of
individuals to engage in crime throughout the life course. And
it is also here that Sampson and Laub’s most original contribu-
tion lies, both theoretically and in terms of their empirical work.
In their investigations, they have gone on to demonstrate how
crime frequency varies in the course of an individual life cycle
according to the strengthening or weakening of social bonds,
regardless of the person’s life phase. They have, for instance,
shown that, for the same individuals, there is a tendency to
commit fewer crimes after getting married and becoming em-
ployed, compared to when they were single and without jobs
(Sampson & Laub, 2003), and that even high-rate chronic of-
fenders burdened with significant childhood and adolescence
risk factors desist from crime after gaining steady employment,
marrying, or entering into military service in adult life (Laub &
Sampson, 2003; Sampson & Laub, 2003). On this account the
authors have found reason to stress that “there are important
variations in adult criminal trajectories that cannot be predicted
from childhood, contra the policy world and much yearning
among criminologists” (Sampson & Laub, 2005b: 175; see also
Sampson & Laub, 2003: 588).
Sampson and Laub take a particular interest in how salient
life events in adulthood can strengthen the social bond and
function as “turning points” for persistent offenders, leading
them to forgo their life in crime. Such critical junctures may
occur when social circumstances cause individuals to be ex-
posed as it were from the outside to social control and routine
activities that impose a structure on their everyday life, while in
a life situation that makes their acceptance of or positive re-
sponse to this exposure possible so to speak from the inside.
Here the question may be of starting a family or taking on a job,
both of which tend to promote an increasing sense of responsi-
bility and expose the alternative of continuing with criminal
activities as something irrelevant or outright unacceptable. Such
changes become all the more consequential in their effect when
the new circumstances also bring separation from the criminal
circles and problems that led the person on a course of criminal
conduct to begin with and then kept her or him there (the
so-called knife-off effect). Sampson and Laub emphasize that
this often takes place in a multi-stage process, in which the final
outcome-termination of a criminal career was not nearly always
something consciously chosen at the outset. As Laub and
Sampson (2003: 278f.) themselves put it, “many men made a
commitment to go straight without even realizing it. Before
they knew it, they had invested so much in a marriage or a job
that they did not want to risk losing their investment.” With this,
the authors want to draw the attention to the interaction be-
tween structure and agency, stressing that the choices people
make are always situated: we choose to exploit or forgo an
opportunity insofar as the decision to do so is likely to bring us
something of value, based on past experience and the present
situation. It may therefore be that the criminal lifestyle is main-
tained because it is perceived as something “attractive, exciting,
and seductive,” offering an opportunity to “articulate resistance
to authority” (Laub & Sampson, 2003: 164-165, 179-186).
Sampson and Laub do, however, point out that social ties can
also have the opposite effect if they are felt to be too restrictive.
For this reason they stress the importance of interdependence in
the social bond, which, in the authors’ own account, distin-
guishes their approach from those of others (Sampson & Laub,
1993: 18, 21; Laub & Sampson 1993: 311; 2003: 41f.). Inter-
dependence owes its centrality to the fact that through it both
parties gain something positive out of the relationship, which
they then do not want to risk by resorting to criminal activities.
In this way, social ties reduce the likelihood of crime being
committed, serving as they do both a control and a support
function that individuals can make use of during different
stages of life. To put it in more precise terms, interdependent
relations function as social capital, representing “social and
psychological resources that individuals can draw on as they
move through life transitions that traverse large trajectories”
(Sampson & Laub, 1993: 18f.; Laub et al., 2006: 315). With
reference to Coleman (1990) Sampson and Laub understand
social capital as an “investment process” linked to concrete and
ongoing social relations embedded in institutions like family,
school and work where closure (“connectedness”) of networks
among people are of importance (Laub & Sampson, 1993:
310-311; 2003: 41f.; Sampson & Laub, 1993: 18). Sampson
and Laub emphasize that social capital is formed through the
development of ties between parent-child, employer-employee
etc. given that interdependent systems of obligations and re-
straint are created in these relations. The development of social
capital is a reciprocal process and, as they state it, “[T]he mere
presence of a relationship (e.g., marriage) among adult is not
sufficient to produce social capital, and hence, the idea of social
capital goes beyond simple structural notions of role change
(i.e., married versus not married) to capture the idea of em-
beddedness” (Laub and Sampson, 1993: 310f.).
White-Collar Crime and Crisis Responders
Sampson and Laub’s theory builds on an impressive inven-
tory of criminological research to date (Sampson & Laub,
1993), and to develop their work further the authors have in the
subsequent years conducted an imposing amount of both quali-
tative and quantitative empirical research. In this effort,
Sampson and Laub have even been able to enlist empirical
support for their theses from studies carried out more or less
independently of their own frame (Horney et al., 1995; Ezell &
Cohen, 2005; Ezell, 2007). Their theory, in a word, rests on a
relatively solid empirical foundation, even if critical reactions
and calls for further development of some of its elements have
hardly been lacking.2 The data used by those testing and devel-
oping it further has almost without exception been focused on
what could be broadly termed “street crime”, primarily crime of
violence, theft, and drugs, usually committed in socially disad-
vantaged neighborhoods and communities by “serious” or
“high rate” offenders (Horney et al., 1995; Giordano et al.,
2002; 2007; Ezell & Cohen, 2005; Ezell, 2007; Thompson &
Petrovic, 2009). Sampson and Laub’s own empirical material is
a “textbook case” of this same analytical orientation. Their
theory in all its essentials is founded on data comprising 500
male delinquents committed to reform schools in Boston, Mas-
sachusetts, during their adolescence, as matched against data on
500 nondelinquents from the same area. This material was
originally collected by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck at the Har-
vard Law School in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. What Sampson
and Laub added to it was a reanalysis and broadening of this
data, the latter through additional document collection and in-
terviews with a selection of the now 70-year-old “Glueck boys”
covered by the original materials (Laub & Sampson, 2003). The
work the authors completed was nearly heroic in its proportions,
yielding a data sample of what is to all accounts the longest
known longitudinal study in the field of criminology to date
(Laub et al., 2006: 322).
So far, Sampson and Laub’s theory has not been critically
examined or even discussed in light of research on white-collar
offenders. Considering its stated aspirations to generality and
its influence in the field, however, the need for confronting it
with just such material is nonetheless pressing. In the present
article, an attempt at doing so is made through an analysis of
cases consisting of a group of offenders from the Swedish
banking and finance sector classified as “crisis responders”. In
sharp contrast to Sampson and Laub’s research material crisis
responders is white collar offenders who committed their crime
in the course of normal business activities and up until getting
caught led a regular life in ordered social settings (in terms of
education, employment, housing, family status, etc.). All of the
crimes committed were directly connected to the offender’s
perceived personal financial crisis involving her or his family
or working life, with the offenders therefore classifiable as
“crisis responders” (Waring et al., 1995: 215; Weisburd et al.,
2001: 59-64).
Crisis responders are estimated to make up a large part of all
convicted white-collar offenders in the commonly used data on
white-collar and economic crime (Waring et al., 1995; Weis-
burd et al., 2001: 218; see also Alalehto, 2003). It is also essen-
tially this same category of offenders that features in the studies
by Cressey (1953) and Zeitz (1981) on embezzlement cases. In
research on white-collar and occupational crime, too, relatively
much attention has been paid to crisis responders (Waring et al.,
1995; Weisburd et al., 2001: 59-64; 2008: 184; Alalehto, 2003:
23; Leeper-Piquero & Benson, 2004; Leeper-Piquero & Weis-
burd, 2009: 157).
Within research on economic and white collar crime, crisis
responders are often highlighted as a category of criminals
showing a basically positive attitude towards and in general a
tendency to comply with the prevailing laws and regulations.
For this reason they prefer to steer clear of criminal solutions,
and even when presented with a lucrative opportunity for crime
characteristically let pass the chance to take advantage of it. A
crisis that threatens something of high value for them may
nonetheless provide compelling enough motivation for the cri-
sis responders to embrace illegitimate means if no other alter-
native seems feasible. Consequently, this category of offenders
has also come to be looked upon as representing a type of Mer-
tonian innovators (Waring et al., 1995; Weisburd et al., 2001).
In terms of their own subjective experience of the situation in
which they find themselves at the time of the crime, and the
immediate circumstances surrounding it, crisis responders have
already been relatively well analyzed in the literature, on the
descriptive and conceptual levels at least (Cressey, 1953; War-
ing et al., 1995; Weisburd et al., 2001; 2008). Very little, how-
ever, has been said about how the perception of a crisis and the
readiness to commit crime evolve and grow decisive in the
matrix of the personal relationships and social networks envel-
oping them. What this means is that it should be possible to
develop Sampson and Laub’s theory further, in the interest of
obtaining an explanatory model more rigorous than the ones
currently on offer. In the sections that follow, therefore, I will
advance the argument that it is essentially changes in the social
bond that trigger the crises and structure the access to
(il)legitimate means that then in turn induce crisis responders to
commit their crime. First, after some initial remarks about the
material and method used for the study, I will examine
Sampson and Laub’s claim that social relations must be char-
acterized by interdependence and generate social capital if they
are to minimize the likelihood of crime. Second, the argument
that the inhibitory effect of social ties on crime derives from
their function as a mechanism for supervision and monitoring is
considered. Lastly, I will discuss how possible changes in iden-
tity may bear on the situational conditions inducing individuals
to opt for criminal behavior.
Data and Method used in the Current Study
Throughout the discussion I will be making references to se-
lected cases from my own study by way of illustration and
validation. The cases selected are typical for the entire group of
crisis responders and therefore useful for their ability to dem-
onstrate and highlight essential characteristics (Yin, 1989: 61;
Flyvbjerg, 2006). This manner of proceedings seems appropri-
ate since the aim indeed is to “solve qualitative problems such
as finding out what happens, understanding what this leads to,
and uncovering the relationships through which different events
are connected” (Honigmann, 1982: 84). The cases used in this
way are collected from a study involving a total of 74 crime
cases. In these cases individuals have been convicted for crimes
committed during the years 1990-2010.3 The crimes in question
2As the primary purpose of this article is to examine Sampson and
Laub’s theory in the light of empirical data not used in its development,
such critical contributions are nonetheless omitted from my discussion.
For some examples, see instead Warr, 1998; Uggen, 2000; Giordano e
., 2002; 2007, and Simons, et a
. 2002.
are mostly embezzlement and breach of trust and, in some cases,
theft, fraud and insider trading. Of the full sample (N = 74) the
focus in this article is on the cases which could be classified as
clear examples of crisis responders (N = 46).
The material was collected through regular contact with
crime investigators at police departments, banks, brokage firms
and other actors in the branch. The analyzed material mostly
consists of what has been uncovered in the investigations con-
ducted by the affected companies and the judical legal systems.
This material consists of police interrogations with suspects and
witnesses and various documents seized by the police such as
records, invoices, contracts, lists of business transactions,
e-mail, personal letters and notes and personal investigations. In
terms of gender, age, level of income and education, terms of
employment, occupational position, employer firm size, work-
place location, and type of crime and its monetary value, the
distribution among the study participants was fairly balanced.
The collected material has been used to reconstruct the se-
quence of events in which the criminal acts have been embed-
ded. The material has been treated as “traces” of the committed
acts and by analyzing them I have tried to find out what has
happened and under which conditions it all has taken place. In
this work I have paid particular attention to following the money
and assets from the crime. Questions regarding how the money
has been taken, from whom it has been taken and how it sub-
sequently has been used have all been of particular importance
to answer. How the money has been handled has therefore been
a starting point for both the collection of the material and the
analysis. Information about the offenders personal experiences
as well as their various situational and contextual factors of
their crimes have been analyzed in relation to the offenders way
of committing the crime. The purpose of this has been to help
elucidating the mechanisms and conditions leading to delin-
quency (Cressey, 1953: 14).
Nonshareable Problems and Loss of Social
The most conspicuous finding of the group of crisis respond-
ers was that in all cases the crime committed had an immediate
connection to a personal economic crisis affecting the of-
fender’s work or family life whose content and consequences
the offender nonetheless attempted to hide from her or his en-
vironment. Losses and debts from deals gone sour, negligence
and oversight at workplace, and a lifestyle beyond one’s means
(investments in a new home, vacation trips, cars, designer
clothes, gambling, and the like) represented some of the most
notable problems in this respect. What was common to all in-
stances is also that the financial crisis brought on as a conse-
quence was closely associated with social problems, evident in
the anguish with which the need to disclose the issue to others
and seek their help in resolving the matter was met. Fearing the
consequences of stigmatization, the offenders had little trust in
finding a sympathetic ear in their environment while believing
their position in family and/or professional life to be at stake
should the problems be revealed.
A good example of this dilemma was a bank manager who,
over a period of four years, embezzled money from the branch
where she worked, in order to avoid having to tell her husband
that she, without the latter’s knowledge and consent, had spent
the money meant for their shared expenses on other purposes
instead. The husband was meticulous in his manner, conscien-
tious in his duties, and spoke often of the importance of paying
bills on time. Upon learning that the joint account that was to
be used for the expenses of their fashionably located house had
been overdrawn due to his wife’s falling behind with her own
contributions to it, he became extremely irritated. Adding to the
husband’s aggravation was the circumstance that the bank
manager spouse had even been reminded of the matter which,
due to worsening interest rates, the rising cost of living, and
stagnating salaries, had only become that much more urgent in
the prevailing economic climate. For this reason, he had often
mentioned the necessity to “tighten the belt” and “live accord-
ing to one’s means.” That, however, was precisely where the
problem lay. The bank manager had not just been neglectful in
making her deposits on schedule, as assumed by her husband:
she simply lacked the means to make the transfers expected
from her. For despite the husband’s admonitions and the
tougher economic times, she had convincingly insisted that
even now they were able to afford accepting invitations from
their friends to join them for vacation trips, and then paid con-
siderably more on them than what the husband had been told.
Behind all her actions there was a fear of losing contact with
the friends in question should their invitations be declined,
which fear was but magnified by the brusque dismissal by
which her every suggestion for a more affordable alternative
had been met. In addition, the bank manager had spent consid-
erable amounts of money on her wardrobe, something she
thought necessary to meet the expectations at her place of work
and, as she herself expressed it, to “cheer up” her husband on
various occasions.
Soon enough, the bank manager was in arrears with all her
payments, having used up her credit limits and overdrawn her
accounts. In the end, she had no resources left to continue pay-
ing her share of the common expenses in the household budget.
The situation grew critical. She and her husband had always
trusted each other in economic matters, which trust she now felt
she had betrayed. As a result, she became only more and more
entangled in problems whose dimensions and type were entirely
new to her, while the husband’s fits of irritation over her per-
ceived “slackness” became more and more frequent. She felt
ashamed of her behavior and began to fear that she would no
longer be able to win the sympathy and support of her husband
for her betrayal. She also started being afraid of her husband’s
going “nuts” and “ballistic” if he ever were to find out about
her doings. Bowed down by shame and fear, she dared not ap-
proach her coworkers or family to confide in them her troubles
and feelings. At the age of forty-two, she then committed her
first crime in an attempt at embezzlement at her own bank
The bank manager’s actions and social situation represent a
typical case among those I researched. In my materials, it was
without exception always a question of individuals finding
themselves enmeshed in problems whose scope and nature they
were not used to handling. They felt shame for what they had
done, and believed they would be jeopardizing something
3The ambition has been to collect all cases relevant for the area. Due to
the fact that cases of this sort are never recorded by official authorities
in a way that they are searchable in some kind of register, and because a
great deal of those crime committed never are uncovered or handled in
a way that they get to public attention there is – of course – a great risk
of missin
relevant cases
meaningful to them if their problems were to be disclosed to
others. In other words, they suffered from what Cressey (1953)
characterized as “nonshareable problems,” doubting that the
mental and social capital that they were accustomed to relying
on and that would be needed for finding a legitimate solution to
their problems would still be accessible to them. For this reason,
they had little trust in their ability to solve their problems in
open communication with their environment. Instead, they
made use of the opportunities availed them by their work to
engineer a solution behind the scenes. Access to other people’s
money was then utilized to avoid emotionally all too straining
and risky encounters, providing an alternative way to solve
relational problems when openness and candor were not an
option (Engdahl, 2008).
This kind of reasoning stands well in line with Sampson and
Laub’s thesis that social capital which inhibits criminal inten-
tions is most readily mobilized in relationships characterized by
interdependence. Absent that quality, the possibility of having
one’s voice heard becomes adversely affected. In the case of
crisis responders, this may happen as a result of mistakes and
shortcomings that have left them unable to live up to the de-
mands and expectations on which the support and influence
they had been able to enjoy in their social relations was prem-
ised. The understanding of their decitfulness and destroyed
social capital finds expression in a sense of discomfort and even
outright fear at the thought of talking about one’s problems and
priorities, not expected to be recognized as legitimate by the
environment (Kemper, 1978; Habermas, 1987). One could say
that they got “strained” as a result of the insight about their
deceit and destroyed social capital (Agnew, 2006; Agnew,
Leeper-Piquero, & Cullen, 2009).4 At the same time, crisis
responders nevertheless continue to depend on the recognition
and resources of their environment for their ability to maintain
(or improve) their personal standing in social life. However, the
action of the crisis responders has another aim as well: that of
preserving their work and family relationships intact (or im-
proving them). The hidden actions are intimately coupled to the
suspicion that adequate support may not be obtainable for the
crisis responder’s priorities from those around one, as the
power to decide on its allocation now rests with the others; the
crisis responder her- or himself is no longer able to influence
the terms that govern her or his status in the relationship.
Rather than a result of a weakened social bond, as proposed
by Sampson and Laub, the crisis responders’ hidden actions
may be better conceptualized as an outcome of shifting power
relations, relegating them to a more subordinate position in
which they find themselves increasingly dependent on the
goodwill of others for their ability to maintain their relation-
ships on previous terms. By concealing their problem, crisis
responders adjust their image visible to others, so as to better
meet the demands and expectations inherent in the relationship
and secure continued acceptance. Yet, by doing so they also
end up excluding something significant of themselves, “giving
up major parts of [their] self in order to stay in the relationship”
(Scheff, & Retzinger, 2001: 25; Scheff, 1997: 77). In this situa-
tion, they are then forced to deal with their problems before a
party they feel themselves inferior to and questioned by, while
at the same time seeking this party’s recognition; and it is pre-
cisely this fact that compels them to pursue possibilities for a
hidden solution lest their future prospects of maintaining the
relationship become jeopardized as a consequence of exposing
oneself to others (Bowen, 1978: 478).
To sum up, we can thus observe that criminal solutions be-
come topical for this category of white-collar offenders in
situations where they find themselves deeply enmeshed in
problems, remain locked in relations of subordination and de-
pendency, and question their resources of social capital. For a
crime to be carried out in these circumstances, to be sure, it is
additionally required that the person in question perceives there
to be a possibility for a hidden solution to begin with. In the
following section, the role of supervision and monitoring in this
scenario is therefore brought into focus.
Hidden-Action Space and the Absence of Supervision
and Monitoring
It is a common understanding that economic crime is a phe-
nomenon made possible by lax or lacking controls creating
opportunities for wrongdoing (Bussman, & Werle, 2006: 11;
Vaughan, 1983). Existing research gives no reason to doubt
such conclusions. In the case of the white-collar offenders in
my sample, built-in opportunities for crime were of course in-
cluded in very nature of their work, as employees in the bank-
ing and finance sector entrusted with not only administrative
responsibilities but also the financial and technical tools to
effectively manage those responsibilities. In addition, the indi-
vidual offenders in my study had also acquired specialist
knowledge and technical skills that made overseeing and
monitoring their activities more complicated, and they all had
been given relative freedom in attending to their duties. The
instructions given them had generally been insufficient and the
standard for administrative routines lax, with the day-to-day
control and supervision frequently compromised or entirely
lacking, either out of pure pragmatic considerations or owing to
priorities centered on business expansion and profit margins.
As an example illustrating such circumstances, we may con-
sider a case involving a broker working for a prestigious Swed-
ish asset management firm with the responsibility for the firm’s
options business. During his time with the firm, the broker’s
status, responsibilities, and freedom of action had all steadily
increased along with his ability to cope with the pressure put on
its brokers to make deals, create profits, and expand trading
activities. The firm’s interest in the latter was as pronounced as
its concern for controls and administrative efficiency and pro-
cedure was unapparent. Its attitude in this respect was ex-
pressed in no unclear terms when the broker’s supervisor, in
reviewing his work on new administrative tools for the options
traders, told him to “Screw the paperwork! You are here to do
business.” The scant interest in management and procedures
affected the quality of supervision and monitoring regarding the
4One clarification seems important to make since I am making this
remark about strain. The emotional state of strain mentioned above
does not - from my point of view - contradict Sampson and Laubs the-
ory. The reason for this is that “the state of strain” in this case (and the
others) is a result of what Sampson and Laub would call attenuated
informal social control. The relationship in question is threatened and
attenuated when the actors in question realized that the consequences o
the act makes it impossible for them to live up to others expectations
and that they therefore cannot count on the acceptancy and the suppor
that they are dependent on and so far have had. This insight is what is
causing the strain (and not the reverse). Anyhow Sampson and Laubs
theory should usefully be developed using the concepts and theories
from the strain theory.
broker’s activities, too. The issue was only compounded by the
fact that the type of transactions under the broker’s responsibil-
ity, as well known in the firm, was exceedingly complex in
nature, with the result that the broker could soon begin to boast
superior knowledge and understanding of the field in the com-
pany of his colleagues, superiors, clients, and auditors alike.
While the latter had access to all records related to his transac-
tions, they never fully understood the illegal nature of some of
the deals made. This was an ignorance that the broker clearly
felt he could live with in his immediate environment:
The audits were done by a couple of ladies … They often
came in and sat down to ask questions that they themselves had
no real understanding about, and I gave them the answers.
Obviously they could then never ask about [the client account I
managed independently, on my own]… Like, whether this ac-
count was in good shape or not or whether it was actually los-
ing money. That would have been hard to find out, too. I don’t
think they could have detected it, given their competence level.
Aided by the deficient controls in place at the firm, the bro-
ker was able to utilize his unique knowledge and experience to
conduct transactions whose nature those around him could
never fully understand. The broker then made use of this ad-
vantage in a criminal fashion following a failed deal made on
behalf of one of the firm’s biggest, most demanding, and valu-
able clients. The deal in question was but one of the many
transactions the broker carried out for this client every day,
having earned his trust and received his blessing to do so at his
own discretion and with the instructions only to “Do the deals
you think will be good.” To that extent the broker had then
made himself guilty of no wrongdoing thus far. In their magni-
tude, however, the losses from the bad bet were something out
of the ordinary, amounting to slightly above one million US
dollars, and thus the possibility that the broker might lose his
client should this learn about the details was suddenly very real.
For the client’s trust that the broker enjoyed had been won only
gradually; early on, the relationship had been marked by close
scrutiny from the client’s side, given his impression that the
broker generally took liberties in his dealings with client ac-
counts, taking unacceptable risks. The fact that the broker suc-
cessfully passed the trial period and was subsequently given the
responsibility for managing this particular client’s account
brought him much prestige among his colleagues as well as
increasingly challenging work assignments. Another circum-
stance affecting his situation was that this responsibility was
given him as a replacement of a colleague who, now reassigned,
had caused this same client multimillion losses from a series of
bad bets made on his behalf.
Despite the regular, almost daily contacts between them, the
broker never managed to inform his client about the losses he
now had caused to him, afraid of losing his position and the
prestige he had earned through hard work at the firm. The elitist
culture at his workplace, showing low tolerance for failure and
expecting everyone to find their own solutions without undue
outside assistance, only added to the broker’s hesitation. Instead
of approaching others openly about his failure, he then opted to
try and hide his results, seeking to recoup the damage caused
through new transactions that would help to permanently bury
his losses in the company’s books. At the time, he had no doubt
that he would succeed in this, too – a confidence he shares with
the above-reported bank manager and other crisis responders
studied to date. Absence of controls and access to necessary
technical skills allow a situation to arise in which crisis re-
sponders can feel themselves capable of gaining access to the
“back regions” where there is room for hidden actions making
possible a concealed solution based on means and resources
entrusted to them (Engdahl, 2009). In consequence, the costs of
this solution, involving the risk of being caught and the mental
strain and exertion implementing it entails, are estimated to be
relatively insignificant compared to the risks and the emotional
ordeal that go with being open about the problem. In other
words, crisis responders see themselves as having too much to
lose by openness. Insofar as we can then say that crisis re-
sponders choose to commit their crime, this choice, as Sampson
and Laub too are careful to point out, is to a high degree situa-
tionally conditioned and marked by fear of identity loss. This is
an issue we will look at a little more closely next.
Situated Choice under Threat of Identity Loss
In the last few years, Sampson and Laub have shown in-
creasing interest in the kind of choices and considerations en-
tering into a decision to commit (or abstain from) crime. In
particular, they have turned to the question of how changes in
identity may encourage one to abandon the criminal way of life.
According to Sampson and Laub, this may come about, for
example, as a result of new responsibilities brought on by
changes in family or employment status that may make crimi-
nal solutions lose their previous allure and appear as irrelevant
or inconvenient instead. The circumstances surrounding the
cases in my own study provide a mirror image of this precise
possibility. In all of them, the problem at hand entailed a risk of
being divested of responsibilities, authority, powers, and rela-
tionships holding high value for the individuals in question,
achievements, moreover, on which their life’s project and iden-
tity had been founded. In the case of the bank manager above,
this involved the possibility of losing highly valued social rela-
tionships, whereas for the options broker it was the future of a
highly valued professional career that was at stake. Thanks to
the continuously greater independence and responsibility given
him in his assignments, the broker had grown very much at-
tached to his work. For him, work was “fun” and provided in-
teresting challenges experienced as a “24/7-kind of thing” that
his “whole life rotated around.” Correspondingly, his salary too
went up steadily and at a rapid pace during his time with the
firm. In the other cases I studied, again, it was a question of
individuals who were unable to extricate themselves from a
lifestyle built around, or an identity bound up with, the posses-
sion of an expensive-to-maintain family estate, a status-yielding
property, or expensive cars, or a gambling habit.
The specific purpose for which the money obtained through
the criminal activity was to be spent thus varied from case to
case. What was common in all cases, however, was the choice
the offender made to prioritize her or his work or family role,
lifestyle, or way of life over openness and the chance of losing
social relationships that openness would have entailed. Conse-
quently, the criminal activities in which these cases culminated
might be best understood as a defensive response aimed at
safeguarding a position or lifestyle that, having been attained
through significant investment of time and effort, had now
come under threat – as a way of protecting the integrity of the
self, in other words. The problems the crisis responders face
appear threatening since they entail the risk of bringing about a
negative transformation in their (social) identity. In Sampson
and Laub’s own terminology, one could probably say that the
crime of the crisis responders results from their exposure to
problems of a scope and kind (i.e., nonshareable problems) that
they are not in the habit of dealing with, while being emotion-
ally too involved with their projects to be able to respond to this
exposure in a candid and open fashion. They perceive them-
selves to have neither the mental readiness and social support
required to address the problem in the full glare of publicity,
nor the willingness to give up the life they are currently leading.
A fundamental feature in these cases is the deep preoccupa-
tion shown by crisis responders with an identity or a project
that relegates the needs and desires of others to the background.
Thereby the possibilities for successfully reversing course or
falling back on something else are curtailed when the crisis
responder’s own resources to drive forward and complete such
a project are depleted or found wanting. It is difficult for a cri-
sis responder, however, to step outside of her- or himself to
plan for alternatives. Instead, the situation becomes character-
ized by a certain risk-proneness, especially when the emotional
involvement with one’s project is particularly strong (Merton,
1968: 195; Alalehto, 2000; 2003). The relationships with others
then becomes increasingly marked by a concentration on one’s
own needs and desires, which, especially when combined with
poor supervision and control at workplace, feeds a tendency for
the offender-to-be to morally cut her- or himself off from others
(Scheff, 1997: 77; Scheff, & Retzinger, 2001: 170). Thereby
the obligations towards others implied in any stakes in confor-
mity, which normally would act to inhibit crime, are weakened.
With that, the appeal and even perceived necessity of criminal
alternatives is further magnified simultaneously as the risks
involved in not committing the crime become more obvious.
Discussion and Conclusions
Sampson and Laub’s work on informal social control repre-
sents one of the more significant efforts in theory building in
contemporary research about crime and criminality. Its influ-
ence has been considerable and continues to grow. In my re-
search reported above, a pioneering effort was made to apply
this theoretical framework to an analysis of data comprised of
white-collar offenders only. In the main, it can be concluded
that the theory has shown its usefulness in advancing our un-
derstanding of the mechanisms encouraging crime among the
type of white-collar offenders in my sample. Support for the
general thesis of the theory, that it is attenuated informal social
control that initiates crime, is confirmed first and foremost by
the finding that criminal activity, for this group at least, was
triggered by the perpetrators’ doubts regarding their own ability
to mobilize the support from their social environment. The
crimes were also facilitated by the absence of supervision and
monitoring. Of particular significance here is the degree to
which the deliberations accompanying the perception and at-
tempted resolution of problems by the perpetrator remain emo-
tionally charged. In their research on men who had successfully
broken with their criminal past, Sampson and Laub (2003: 143)
report having been “struck by the pride” that their study par-
ticipants showed over their accomplishment. In the cases I
studied, this emotional dimension was made equally manifest in
the feelings of shame over one’s shortcomings, anguish before
the need to come out in the open and expose oneself to others,
and fear at the prospect of losing one’s status and social rela-
tionships. The intensity of these feelings was palpable enough
to make further study of their role in the criminal process a
priority (Giordano et al., 2007), with special focus on the sig-
nificance of social support, interdependence, and crime as an
attempt at preserving social relations intact. It is in this respect,
too, that we can see a need for further clarification in aspects of
Sampson and Laub’s theory if we are to extend its explanatory
Sampson and Laub, to be sure, have put much emphasis on
the interdependence of social ties, stressing that it is this quality
that separates their approach from most others. To my knowl-
edge, they have nonetheless failed to develop this theme further
or explain whether, and how, this notion might in fact differ
from terms such as weak, broken, and attenuated social bonds
cultivated elsewhere in their work. Consequently, it remains
unclear whether the theory is actually capable of dealing with
the type of ambivalent relations found for instance in my own
cases. But white-collar workers are also generally a part of, and
dependent on, the established society in ways that vary signifi-
cantly from the categories of criminals studied by Sampson and
Laub. In my own study, this became particular evident in that
the crisis responders’ crime was ultimately aimed at preserving
their existing social relationships, something that differs drasti-
cally from the case of those who, in the commission of their
crime, show little concern for their social environment or who,
by engaging in criminal activities, rather want to mark their
distance from it. While in the latter two cases it indeed is a
question, respectively, of weak and broken social bonds, the
crime of the crisis responders, as seen from my examples, is
instead shaped by a situation in which a power shift has left
them in an increasingly subordinate position in their relation-
ships, relationships moreover that maintain their strength while
devolving into dependency. Interdependence is then a thing of
the past, making it all the more difficult to gain a hearing for
one’s needs and desires. The feeling of having betrayed a trust
placed in one in the form of responsibility and powers received,
along with a failure to live up to the environment’s expectations,
with no one else but oneself to blame, seem to be other key
determinants in the crisis responders’ decision to hide their
problems (rather than handling them out in the open or through
outward aggression or vindictive action) (Kemper, 1978: 50ff.;
Barbalet, 2001: 123ff).
Finally, it is also worth noting that the crisis responders in-
cluded in my study almost without exception committed their
first crime in adulthood. Although Sampson and Laub make the
argument that even adult-onset offending can be explained
within the framework of their theory, no more than preliminary
empirical evidence has been offered to date to back up this
claim (Eggleston, & Laub, 2002). Overall, late onset of offend-
ing remains a little researched territory, and as of yet the pro-
posals put forth regarding the notion of negative turning points
that could then explain the phenomenon have not been met with
serious discussion (Eggleston, & Laub, 2002: 614; Zara, &
Farrington, 2010). While Sampson and Laub have shown that
exposure to social support in adult age opens up positive turn-
ing points (which quite concretely mean cutting off the criminal
social connections of the past and replacing them with an ex-
perience social support/control and an opportunity to forge a
new identity) and may thus lead to desistance from future crime,
the findings from the present study, in quite the opposite fash-
ion, point to the possibility that the same may in fact initiate
life-long law-abiding citizens into criminal behavior instead. As
shown above, involvement in problems of hitherto unencoun-
tered type and dimensions, a threat to an identity resting on
one’s social roles and relationships, and doubts about the
available social support make up the main characteristics of
such negative turning points in an individual’s life. If properly
conceptualized, the notion of turning points as advanced by
Sampson and Laub should then lend itself to an analyzing adult
onset offending as well, providing new impetus for developing
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