Social Privilege as Skillful Impression Management

Let me put it differently. The difference then lies in certain criminals functioning from an upper-class, dominant habitus which entitles them to a better – read "non-criminal" – social perception. Their cultural and social capital allows them to be viewed as upstanding individuals.

This is really no different than arguing, as Bourdieu and Passeron argued in La Reproduction, that white-collar criminals – such as Madoff – possess a dominant habitus and forms of capital that make them more at ease within social settings from which they will commit their crimes, just like upper-class kids have a habitus that match more closely the cultural expectations of the educational system (manners, speech patterns, etc.) which makes them more at home within the system and creates a more peer-like relationship with the teachers.

In the case of white-collar criminals, their upper-class habitus is basically a guarantee of initial non-criminal perception. In this sense, social privilege turns into a form of interactive skill: the capacity to produce effective impression management.

It is partly this possession of a habitus that is more homologous to that of members of the criminal justice system (especially the judicial part of it) that explains the kid globe glove (thanks, Jay!) treatment white-collar and corporate criminals receive, compared to the punishment handed down to the riff-raff who commit less socially costly crimes, but have the misfortune of a subordinate habitus that endowed them with less social and cultural capital, more at odds with the norms of the criminal justice system.

And as Todd Krohn notes, not only do upper-class criminals get treated significantly more leniently than street criminals, they also get to not be entirely blamed for the crimes they have committed. Indeed, regarding street criminals, one will often invoke "don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time" motto, whereas for white-collar criminals like Madoff

It’s actually a two-fer: Madoff gets some exoneration and the system also escapes blame as responsibility for the current troubles gets redirected from political and structural considerations to moral ones attributed to people lower on the social ladder.

2 thoughts on “Social Privilege as Skillful Impression Management

  1. Yes, Madoff’s habitus allowed him to succeed for so long in his Ponzi scheme. It also gave him access to victims who had (note past tense) a lot of money. And yes, fifty billion sounds like a lot of money. But the financial actions that have wrought such havoc on the economy were not criminal. So the people who perpetrated them were not literally white-collar criminals. I think one of the reasons for the focus on Madoff is that what he did is so clearly criminal.

    Street crime does less financial harm than does white collar crime, but the public focuses on street crime. In the current meltdown, white collar crime has done less financial harm than has legal action, but the public focuses on Madoff.

    I think the reasons in both cases are similar: ease of understanding; intent of the perpetrator to do harm; directness of the relation between perpetrator and victim.

    • Indeed, when it comes to crime or deviance, public outcry / outrage is more likely to occur if one can put a name or a face (Madoff, Enron) to specific actions and their consequences (the Enron employees getting their pink slips). Moral tales of innocent victims and evildoers always play better.

      This is, I think, an issue when such personalization blocks systemic explanations: Madoff is not the only individual who scammed other wealthy people and organizations (there are comparable cases in England and France), Enron did not just collapsed out of nowhere.

      Just sticking to individual cases of misdeeds (legal or not but morally questionable in all cases) allows for “bad apple” types of explanation and distract from examining the systemic conditions that made such individual (Madoff) or organizational (Enron) behaviors possible and encouraged in the first place.

      And whereas for street crime, it is easy to see explanations flows from individual to category (if a welfare mother commits a street crime, the media will easily jump to “what’s wrong with welfare mothers”), in the case of “high crimes and misdemeanors”, such jump is not as often accomplished.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *