White Collar Crime in History
September 18 - 20, 2014
Conference at the GHI
Conveners: Edward Balleisen (History Department /Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University), Hartmut Berghoff (German Historical Institute, Washington DC), and Christopher McKenna (Said Business School, University of Oxford)
Call for Papers
Daniel Defoe observed in the early 18th century that "[e]very degree of business" has "its invitation to do evil." Today, hardly a day passes without the media reporting on new allegations and legal proceedings relating to supposed professional misconduct on the part of corporate executives. The large-scale deployment of police and public prosecutors to conduct searches of company headquarters; judicial bodies cooperating transnationally to expose criminal practices; media reports on the arrest of managers and court proceedings that echo around the globe: all of these things are presently the order of the day.
After the big scandals of the early 2000s (Enron, WorldCom, Parmalat), the laws against economic crimes were tightened considerably and offenses were prosecuted more aggressively, at least in some economic sectors. The US led this trend and also claimed a global jurisdiction in many cases. Other countries followed this effort to punish white-collar crime more severely. Breaking the rules can now result in draconian punishments-up to the point of endangering the very existence of the companies implicated or threatening the livelihood of the involved persons. Despite this threat, some people and companies still take on the risk of committing such crimes. This raises many questions. What economic, company-related, and social conditions encourage this behavior? What accounts for the apparent increase of white collar crime in some areas and its decline in others? What background information sheds light on it? What motivates those who engage in such crimes?
For all the attention white collar crime has been receiving, no generally accepted scholarly definition of economic criminality exists. Very few historical studies have been published so far that could provide information about how economic crime has developed or how companies' involvement has changed over centuries. Clearly the impression conveyed by the media that business participation in economic crime is a new or at least relatively new phenomenon of the last few decades needs to be corrected. In the 18th century, colonial companies-for which the opposition between state and private interests was preprogrammed-were already rocked by large corruption and embezzlement scandals with great public impact. Reaching even further back to the fourteenth century, Barbara Hanawalt coined a special term for the economic offenses the nobility committed then: "fur-collar crime." Economic crime is as old as economic activity. Indeed, the Old Testament mentions corruption and fraud.
As industrialized societies came to be more dominated by national media organs and more structured by democratic politics in the decades around 1900, there were increasing accusations in all Western countries against large-scale enterprises, whether on account of the unscrupulous exercise of monopoly power, the exploitation of workers, the cheating of customers, or the bribing of officeholders. Using the media and politicians to "trust-bust" and scandalize individual firms and companies became an essential part of a public discourse that never let up in the 20th century. Even though the concentration of economic power in the big corporations from around 1880 was new and provoked corresponding counter-movements, violating laws and ethical principles-while newly discussed by politicians and effectively criticized in newspapers-was nothing new in itself. Nonetheless, the media scandals of these years contributed to companies becoming negative symbols for the social ills of modernity. This happened with the "robber barons" in the US and with the company Friedrich Krupp in Germany. The Krupp company headquarters was subjected in 1913 to police searches due to accusations of bribery. Managers had to stand trial for bribing officials on account of favors of low pecuniary value. The socially damaging large-scale capitalist became a fixed trope of a journalism that critiqued society.
In the second half of the 20th century, globally active companies like Nestlé, United Fruit, and Wal-Mart became the objects of boycotts initiated by people who accused them of unethical practices and outright law-breaking. The US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 was a direct reaction to corporate involvement in the Watergate Scandal and the revelation of the almost universal corrupt practices US multinationals engaged in, as well as the detrimental foreign policy implications these practices had (e.g., the Lockheed scandal). The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 was passed in response to a number of major scandals (Enron, Tyco International, Adelphia, Peregrine Systems, and WorldCom) that had cost investors billions of dollars and undermined public confidence in the securities markets. More recently, the lack of criminal prosecutions related to the global financial crisis has elicited a growing chorus of public complaints about "banksters" who seemingly float above the law.
This conference deals with the history of economic crime perpetrated by for-profit and not-for-profit corporations since the early modern period. The conference excludes industrial espionage, piracy, labor disputes, human rights violations, and environmental pollution, which might be included in many definitions of economic crime. This conference instead focuses on corporate fraud, corruption, embezzlement, misappropriation and malfeasance, electronic fraud, tax fraud, intellectual property theft, Ponzi schemes, illegal cartels, and collusion. We are interested both in occupational fraud (malfeasance directed by employees at their employers) and organizational fraud (malfeasance committed by firms against third parties).
We aim to analyze these crimes and the invention of new legal categories to reach new kinds of behavior. We further seek to probe their causes, conditions, and the penal, political, social, and other consequences they have for those who perpetrate them as well as for the shape of corporate governance across industrialized countries. We would also like to investigate the public perception of these crimes. In other words, our goal is to historicize economic criminal actions and public perceptions of them. The same goes for the learning processes and countermeasures adopted by states, trade associations, self-regulatory bodies, and companies-newly labeled the "compliance revolution." Thus the institutionalization of efforts to fight criminality by means of specialized law firms, the expansion of pertinent agencies like the SEC and the DoJ, the creation of non-governmental organizations focused on combating white-collar crime, or the establishment of public prosecutors' offices that focus on this problem, all fall within the thematic range of this conference.
In addition to papers that address economic criminality from a business history perspective, we also welcome contributions from legal history, ethnography, economics, management theory, political science, cognitive psychology, and sociology, including presentations of theoretical frameworks as well as individual case studies or considerations of broader trends and developments across time.
Please send a proposal of no more than 500 words and a short CV to
The deadline for submission is January 30, 2014. Participants will be notified by the end of February 2014. The conference will be held in English. Expenses for travel and accommodation will be covered.