Steven Bittle on Crimes of the Powerful

Canadian criminologist Frank Pearce was the first scholar to use the term – crimes of the powerful.

His groundbreaking 1976 book of the same name provided insightful critiques of liberal orthodox criminology.

Steven Bittle
University of Ottawa

Historically, crimes of the powerful were largely neglected by criminologists –  but there is an important and growing body of work addressing this gap.

Now comes a group of scholars who have put together a new book –  Revisiting Crimes of the Powerful (Routledge, 2018).

It’s a collection of twenty-four essays by criminologists from around the world.

The book is edited by Steven Bittle, Laureen Snider, Steve Tombs and David Whyte.

Bittle is an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa.

“Sadly, there are more than enough crimes of the powerful that demand critical scrutiny, academic attention and popular and political attention,” Bittle told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “There are many great scholars out there doing important work on crimes of the powerful, but generally speaking it is a topic that is marginalized within academia and particularly within criminology, which is a field I work in.”

Why is that?

“There has been a real fixation on traditional forms of street crime and violence. That has been the history of criminological thinking. Those who take a critical stance on those issues still focus and have focused historically on those street crimes. That’s not to say that’s not important work. But there just hasn’t been a long history of academics looking up the social hierarchy. That has to do with crime being defined by the state. And of course, the state has never been that keen on implementing and enforcing laws against powerful individuals and institutions.”

You are one of one of four editors of this book – Steven Bittle, David Whyte, Laureen Snider and Steve Tombs. You have pulled together 24 scholars from around the world to write essays on different aspects of crimes of the powerful. What percentage of criminologists write about, teach about, spend significant time on corporate crime and crimes of the powerful?

“There is a robust group of critical criminology scholars around the world. The American Society of Criminology’s annual meeting is coming up next month in Atlanta. There is a strong group of scholars who work within the critical criminology division. And they have a strong sense of issues in relation to crimes of the powerful. But there is still a tendency, even for those who understand corporate crime or crimes of the powerful, to recognize it, but still focus on what is often termed true crimes.’”

“I’ll give you an example. Often, criminology departments will be teaching courses that make reference to crimes of the powerful. But it is something usually used to compare crimes of the powerful to the kinds of crimes they are talking about. They might make passing reference to corporate crime, but then they go back and focus on the more traditional types of crime as the topic of their courses and research.”

“I’m not saying that’s not important work. It is important work. But to embrace a perspective that looks at corporate crime as a structural problem that is rooted in capitalist society – that is still a relatively minor component of the criminology field.”

When you say minor – is it one out of ten criminologists who have an expertise in corporate crime and crimes of the powerful?

“I’m not exactly sure what that number would be. It’s a small but growing number. There is reason for optimism. There are more people entering the field because of the sheer amount of corporate crime. That’s leading a lot more people to looking at these issues.”

“In fact, there is a new journal being launched by some corporate crime scholars, some of whom are authors of this book. The journal is called The Journal of White Collar and Corporate Crime.”

“With the American Society of Criminology, which holds the largest conference every year, they now have a division of white collar and corporate crime. There is a growing awareness in recent years of those crimes and the importance of looking at them. I’m optimistic that is going to lead to a whole new generation of scholars who will look at these questions.”

The Journal of White Collar and Corporate Crime – will that be a monthly, a quarterly?

“A quarterly. It is still in the development stage. They will be publishing with Sage Publications. They are having their first board meeting at the American Society of Criminology meeting in Atlanta next month.”

Who is behind it?

“The North American founding editor is Gregg Barak. The European founding editor is Anne Alvesalo-Kuusi. Both contributed to the book – Revisiting Crimes of the Powerful.”

“If you go through all of these people writing in this book, even if they don’t take a strictly Frank Pearce perspective, they are keenly aware of Frank’s perspective from his work.”

When did you first come across Crimes of the Powerful. And what impact did it have on you?

“It was an immediate impact. In my first year in criminology, I was reading my criminology text, and you spend your entire semester looking at all of these crimes that are the main focus of criminological thinking. And then most introductory textbooks have somewhere toward the end an obligatory chapter on corporate crime or white collar crime. And I remember reading through that chapter thinking – this doesn’t make sense to me. It’s a field worried about inequality, violence and the abuse of power. Why just a chapter at the back of the book?”

“I can remember reading through that chapter and reading about the researchers who were pioneers in that field – people like Frank Pearce and Laureen Snider and David Friedrichs and Gregg Barak. But they were also referencing Ralph Nader. That was a testament not only to the importance of his work, but also an indication that there just were not that many scholars doing great work in that area. These scholars who were pioneering in the academic realm were turning to work by consumer advocates like Ralph Nader and the original muckrakers.”

The essays in the book Revisiting Crimes of the Powerful are fascinating. They vary widely from dirt digging essays to theoretical essays. There is one titled Pesticideland: Brazil’s Poison Market by Stephanie Khoury. That could come out of any of the Nader publications like the Multinational Monitor.

That raises the question of the public intellectual on corporate crime where academics like yourself and others engage in public debates more broadly outside of academia – write op-eds in newspapers, appear on TV news shows.

Do you see much of that?

“Most every author in the book is doing that kind of work. Stepping outside their academic role and doing that kind of public criminology.”

“Stephanie Khoury and David Whyte wrote a book titled Corporate Human Rights Violations: Global Prospects for Legal Action where they look at human rights abuses by corporations on a global scale. They are doing advocacy work on the ground wherever they are in their own way, whether that’s working within the union movement pushing for safer workplaces, or pushing for stronger laws to protect workers, or advancing workers’ rights, working with marginalized populations in the global south where they are being exposed or abused by corporate power.”

“I don’t think there are many people who look at white collar and corporate crime from a purely academic perspective. It is one of those topics that cries for some form of stepping outside of that traditional academic role to challenge the abuse of power.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Steven Bittle, 32 Corporate Crime Reporter 40(13), Monday October 15, 2018, print edition only.]


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