Volume 2, Issue 1, June 1999
ISSN 1096-4886 http://www.westerncriminology.org/Western_Criminology_Review.htm
Matthew B. Robinson
Citation: Robinson, Matthew B. 1999. "What You Don't Know Can Hurt You: Perceptions and Misconceptions of Harmful Behaviors Among Criminology and Criminal Justice Students." Western Criminology Review 2(1). [Online]. Available: http://www.westerncriminology.org/documents/WCR/v02n1/robinson/robinson.html
This research examines students perceptions of various behaviors, some criminal, and others known as excluded harms. The latter are harmful behaviors which either do not fall within the purview of the criminal law, or do but are not pursued vigorously by agencies of social control. The study explores student perceptions to discover which behaviors they consider to be the most harmful, the most frequent, the most serious, and those they perceive to be the most threatening to their personal safety. The study also analyzes the relationship between the prior victimization of students and their perceived victimization risks. Not surprisingly, the findings illustrate that even students in criminology and criminal justice misperceive the greatest threats to their own personal safety. The author places these findings within the context of mainstream criminological curricula.
Keywords: risk perception, criminal victimization, white-collar crime, students, undergraduate education
Research into perceptions of crime risk has focused upon street crime, especially violent crime (Robinson 1994). This research has neglected perceptions of crime risk for other types of crime (e.g., white-collar crime). That the primary emphasis of investigation into perceived crime risks has been conducted on crimes that have been considered "serious" by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (i.e., the eight index offenses of the Uniform Crime Reports), is understandable because these behaviors are perceived to cause the most physical and property damage to American society (Robinson 1994; Rosoff et al. 1998), even though this may be one of many prevalent myths about crime (Kappeler et al. 1996). In addition, since white-collar crimes are more complex and often involve numerous individuals and conspiracies, and because data collection and enforcement efforts have historically focused on street crimes, the publics ignorance toward such acts is understandable (Rosoff et al. 1998).
Research is lacking on the perception of risks to personal safety from "excluded harms," defined here as harmful behaviors that either do not fall within the purview of the criminal law, or do but are not pursued vigorously by agencies of social control. This is alarming given the growing evidence that excluded harms, such as "white-collar" crimes (Sutherland 1977a, 1977b), "elite deviance" (Simon and Eitzen 1993; Simon 1999), "corporate violence" (Frank and Lynch 1992), and those "crimes by any other name" (Reiman 1996) committed by our "trusted criminals" (Friedrichs 1996) cause more physical and property damage than all eight serious crimes combined. In his pioneering studies of white-collar crime even Sutherland (1977b:5) suggested that the "financial cost of white-collar crime is probably several times as great as the financial cost of all the crimes which are customarily regarded as the crime problem." Financial harm resulting from excluded harms is less important than the damage done to "social relations" through violation of trust (Sutherland 1977b:5) and the violent, physical harm caused to people. The evidence is very clear that more people are killed and injured every year through intentional, reckless, and negligent behaviors that are not legally considered "crimes" than by those behaviors that are considered criminal (Frank and Lynch 1992; Reiman 1996; Robinson 1998; Rosoff et al. 1998).
There is a common perception, even among some criminologists, that the effects of white-collar crimes (and other excluded harms) may be scattered over long periods of time and over millions of people, with "no persons suffering much at a particular time" (Sutherland 1977a:269). Yet, there is growing evidence of immense damage caused by excluded harms. For example, Frank and Lynch (1992:1-11) document the costs of physical damage to individuals and society by means of deadly pollutants, preventable work-related "accidents" (as they are called), occupational diseases and deaths, and faulty consumer products. Reiman (1990:58-63) illustrates the injuries and deaths caused to innocent Americans because of hazardous working conditions. Simon and Eitzen (1993:49-73, 113-4, 121-56) and Simon (1999) discuss individual cases of fraud by companies in the United States and trace harms to the savings and loan scandals and tax breaks given exclusively to the rich. They also document the dangers associated with unsafe products, working conditions, and food products. Friedrichs (1995:70-88) shows the harms associated with corporate violence against the public, consumers, and against workers, and illustrates harms resulting from fraud, tax evasion, price-fixing, price gouging, false advertising, and so forth. Weisburd and his colleagues (1991:22-38) document the nature and extent of anti-trust violations, multiple types of fraud, bribery, tax violations, and embezzlement. Rosoff et al. (1998) illustrate case study after case study of crimes against consumers and the environment that are committed by government, public officials, and doctors. Moreover, Robinson (1998) highlights the tremendous physical and financial harms resulting from the manufacture, advertisement, and use of cigarettes in the United States. With the almost unlimited opportunity to engage in such behaviors, coupled with the lack of investigation into them, the actual incidence and prevalence of excluded harms are hard to accurately establish. Nevertheless, damages associated with these types of excluded harms clearly dwarf damages from all street crimes combined (Friedrichs 1995:53-8).
Many believe that violence resulting from excluded harms is not prevalent enough to be seen as "a general indicator of crime seriousness" (Weisburd and Schlegel 1992:359). Excluded harms are not perceived as serious "crimes" relative to typical street crimes, but this may be the result of the relative lack of emphasis given to excluded harms. As noted by Friedrichs (1995:58), despite the fact that most people are not victimized by serious street crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, burglary and aggravated assault, the "most common image of a crime victim" is that of a victim of street crime. This is true in spite of Friedrichs assertion that "all of us, without exception" are victims of some form of excluded harm, "often without being aware of it."
People probably do not generally perceive excluded harms to be serious threats to their personal safety or property (Rosoff et al. 1998). This can be attributed to several factors. First, victims of excluded harms are often unaware of their victimization, since there is little direct contact between the offender and the victim (Friedrichs 1995:58; Weisburd and Schlegel 1992:359), making such acts less "obvious" (Sutherland 1977a:269). Second, when excluded harms are committed and detected, they are not frequently reported through the television medium (Chermak 1995). When these acts are discovered, their perpetrators are "treated tenderly" by the mass media (Geis and Meier 1977:4; Welch et al. 1998; Williams 1992), so that the white-collar criminal is portrayed such a way that "images of evils are hard to generate" (Levi 1992:190). Victimization from some excluded harms carries little "emotive baggage" (Levi 1992:170). In fact, victims of harmful behaviors such as white-collar crime may even be seen as blameworthy for their own victimization, since in cases of monetary offenses like fraud, the victims "parted with the money or goods voluntarily, albeit under false circumstances" (Levi 1992:189; also see Friedrichs 1995:60-1). By inference, when the victim is to blame, the offender may not be.
Third, coverage of street crime in the media has recently dramatically increased (Chiricos 1995; Welch et al. 1998), especially the reporting of bizarre, random acts of violence (Barlow, Barlow, and Chiricos 1995; Marsh 1991; Ruel 1994). This has occurred despite decreases in actual crime rates (Chiricos 1995). Therefore, citizens who are exposed to selective media reports about certain types of crimes and not others (Barak 1995) are effectively coerced into worrying about street crimes exclusively. The result is that the public has a "condoning, indifferent, or ambivalent attitude" to excluded harms such as white-collar crimes (Aubert 1977:171-2). Even when members of society perceive some excluded harms as serious problems, they are not behaviors that make us feel unsafe in our homes or neighborhoods (Weisburd and Schlegel 1992:361).
Some groups in society may perceive greater threats from excluded harms because of their increased awareness of them. For example, university and college students majoring in programs of criminology and/or criminal justice (CCJ) may be more likely to be exposed to concepts such as white-collar crime, corporate crime, elite deviance, or excluded harms (at least more than other university students), but this depends on the focus of their programs and the specific make-up of the curriculum within their programs. If it is true that students majoring in CCJ are being exposed to material on such harmful behaviors, they logically should perceive such acts as harmful, frequently occurring, and serious. They also might perceive them as posing significant risks to their personal safety. To the degree that CCJ students are not being exposed to information on such harmful behaviors, they may not be informed about the harmfulness, frequency, or seriousness of excluded harms, or view them as posing significant threats to their personal safety and property. Since the focus of study in CCJ programs is on crimes of the poor, and the theoretical study of crime has been on crimes of the disadvantaged (Weisburd and Schlegel 1992:354), there may be some reasons why even CCJ students would be uninformed about the harms associated with excluded harms.
There is also reason to believe that CCJ majors are no more informed than other university students about what a typical crime looks like and what crimes occur with the greatest frequency. For example, Vandiver and Giacopassi (1997) show that both introductory level and senior criminal justice students vastly overestimate the annual incidence of crime-related mortality, and have distorted perceptions of relative harms caused by various harmful behaviors. The authors suggest that this is in part due to outside influences such as the news media, which have historically focused on street crimes and ignored other harmful acts of more powerful and influential groups.
The purpose of this research is to examine the perceptions of various harmful behaviors among a sample of CCJ students. Specifically, the author sought to discover what harmful behavior students consider to be the most harmful in the United States, the most frequently occurring, the most serious behavior, and the behavior that they perceive to be the most threatening to their personal safety. The study also analyzes the relationship between the prior victimization of students and their perceived risk of victimization.
A questionnaire was constructed and administered to nine CCJ and business classes at a large southeastern university of over 30,000 students. A final sample size of 566 respondents from five CCJ classes (n=294 CCJ students) and four business classes (n=272 business students) was obtained for study. Only those students majoring in one or the other major were selected to participate. Business students were selected as a comparison group primarily for two reasons, one substantive and the other practical. First, since many forms of excluded harms are committed by businesses and their employees, the author thought it would be relevant to probe the perceptions of students who one day may work in the corporate world. Second, the business school agreed to allow the researcher to conduct the study utilizing a sample of its students.
The CCJ students were enrolled in a program that is both theoretical and applied in nature. CCJ students are required to complete courses such as criminology, criminal justice, law enforcement, courts, and corrections. The questionnaire results show that none of the CCJ or business students had taken a formal class on white-collar crime, corporate crime, elite deviance, or a related subject. This is because no formal classes were offered on this subject within either department/school at the university. CCJ students may have been exposed to material related to excluded harms in more general CCJ courses such as criminology and criminal justice, but this was not determined.
The questionnaire consists of numerous subjects, including:
Students were asked specifically about their victimization experiences from: exposure to toxins in the environment, being injured at work due to hazardous conditions, consuming unsafe food or drink products, having fraudulent purchases charged to credit cards, being intentionally overcharged for products or services (all excluded harms), and being sexually assaulted, being assaulted with a gun or knife, being mugged, having someone enter your residence when you are not home, being carjacked, and having something stolen from you (all street crimes). The questions related to perceptions of risk asked about these same behaviors, plus "how safe do you feel from murder" (street crime).
Since the CCJ students had not been formally exposed to classroom material on excluded harms, the following hypotheses were postulated:
- CCJ students are no more likely than business students to list an excluded harm as the most harmful behavior in the United States;
- CCJ students are no more likely than business students to list an excluded harm as the most frequently occurring harmful behavior in the United States;
- CCJ students are no more likely than business students to list an excluded harm as the most serious harmful behavior in the United States; and
- CCJ students are no more likely than business students to indicate that an excluded harm posed the most significant threat to their personal safety.
ANALYSIS AND INTERPRETATION
Table 1 displays the reported average levels of perceived risks among CCJ and business students for the twelve harmful behaviors. The behaviors are listed in descending order by average perceived risk. Students in the sample report highest perceived victimization risks for theft, followed by being overcharged for products or services, burglary, mugging, aggravated assault, carjacking, sexual assault, fraudulent credit card charges, consuming unsafe drink or food products, murder, being injured at work, and becoming ill due to toxins in the environment. Thus, in both groups of students, perception of risk was generally lowest for excluded harms and highest for traditional street crimes.
In addition, Table 1 shows the self-report victimization rankings among the respondents, also listed from highest to lowest. Students generally report the highest levels of perceived risks for those behaviors that they report being a victim of. The highest victimization levels are reported for theft (n=156), followed by burglary (n=96), mugging (n=48), sexual assault (n=34), and aggravated assault (n=18). No students report having been harmed by carjacking, being overcharged for products or services, fraudulent credit card charges, consuming unsafe drink or food products, being injured at work, or becoming ill due to toxins in the environment.
Mean Levels of Perceived Risk
from Harmful Behaviors, by Major,
and Rank of Actual Self-Reported Victimization
Theft Overcharged for products
or services Burglary Mugging Assault Carjacking Sexual assault Fraudulent credit card
charges Consuming unsafe
products Murder Injury at work/unsafe
Overcharged for products or services
Fraudulent credit card charges
Consuming unsafe products
Injury at work/unsafe conditions
*On a scale of 0 to 10, "How safe do you feel from the following potentially harmful behaviors?" where 0=very safe and 10=very unsafe.
Overall, there are no meaningful differences between the CCJ and business majors in their average levels of perceived risk for any of the twelve behaviors. Since the sample was not randomly selected, tests of statistical significance are not reported. However, Table 2 shows that when students are asked to identify the one most harmful behavior in the United States, CCJ majors are more likely than business majors to identify some excluded harm (16 percent versus none, respectively). In addition, CCJ majors were slightly more likely than business majors to identify an excluded harm as the most frequently occurring harmful behavior in the United States (6 percent versus 1 percent, respectively). However, only one percent of CCJ students and no business students identified an excluded harm as the one behavior that is the most serious in the United States. Most CCJ and business students listed one of the violent index offenses of the Uniform Crime Reports as the most harmful behavior, the most frequently occurring behavior, and the most serious harmful behavior in America. The highest percentage of CCJ and business students claim that murder is the most harmful, the most frequent, and the most serious behavior in the United States.
Percent Reporting an "Excluded Harm" as the Most Harmful Behavior, Most Frequently Occurring Behavior, and Most Serious Behavior
Overall, business students seem slightly less aware than CCJ students of the actual threats posed by excluded harms, as CCJ students were slightly more likely to identify some excluded harm as the most harmful and most frequently occurring behavior in America. Of those who listed an excluded harm, the highest percentage of CCJ students listed fraud as the most harmful, the most frequent, and the most serious behavior in the United States. However, CCJ students did not perceive higher personal risks from such excluded harms, despite their increased awareness. This may be due to factors which have a greater impact on perceived risk, such as previous victimization, exposure to media crime stories, and so forth. In fact, Table 3 demonstrates that self-reported victims of particular types of crimes were consistently more likely than non-victims to express higher average levels of perceived risks from those crimes. No comparisons can be made between victims and non-victims of any excluded harms, since none of the respondents reported having been victimized by such offenses.
Mean Levels of Perceived Risk
From Harmful Behaviors,*
Self-reported Victims Versus Non-victims
*On a scale of 0 to 10, "How safe do you feel from the following potentially harmful behaviors?" where 0=very safe and 10=very unsafe.
SUMMARY AND DISCUSSION
This study examines criminology and criminal justice (CCJ) student perceptions, i.e., which behavior they feel is the most harmful, the most frequently occurring, the most serious, and which poses the greatest threat to their personal safety. It also examines whether perceptions of risk correspond with students previous victimization experiences. CCJ students are compared with business students. Among the sample of students, the behaviors that students perceive to pose the greatest threat to their personal safety generally correspond with the students prior criminal victimization experiences. In addition, victims of self-reported crime report higher average levels of perceived risks than non-victims. This supports a well-established relationship in the literature that criminal victimization can increase perception of risk (e.g., see Balkin 1979; LaGrange et al. 1992).
This study does not find any meaningful differences between CCJ and business students in their levels of perceived risk for any of twelve studied behaviors. CCJ students are slightly more aware than business students of the harms associated with the excluded harms studied, because they are slightly more likely than business students to list an excluded harm as the most harmful and the most frequently occurring behavior in the United States. However, this increased awareness does not produce a perception of hightened personal safety risk. Also, no students in the sample report victimization from any excluded harm studied, suggesting either that they had not experienced harm as a result of such actions or that they were simply not aware of their own victimization.
The findings of this research generally support the hypotheses that CCJ students who are not exposed to formal classroom material on excluded harms are no more likely than a group of non-CCJ students to indicate that excluded harms are the most harmful, the most frequently occurring or the most serious behaviors in the United States, or that excluded harms pose risks to their personal safety. The author assumes that had CCJ students been exposed to this type of material, meaningful differences would have been found between CCJ students and a comparison group of non-CCJ students who were not exposed to the material. This hypothesis is untested, but it would make an interesting subject for future study. Future longitudinal research could examine the effects of exposure to material on excluded harms over the course of a students college or university enrollment. Students could be surveyed as they enter the program and at various stages after they have been exposed to the material. The effects of specific curricula on students perceptions could be explored through future comparative studies of students enrolled in different CCJ programs.
The students in this sample who are currently studying "crime" are not clearly aware of the risks posed by excluded harms, and they do not recognize the harms associated with such acts, do not perceive them to occur with great frequency, and do not perceive them to be serious. Still, the findings for this particular sample are not surprising given the nature of curriculum at the university studied. At the university of study, there are no courses regularly offered on the topic of excluded harms, white-collar crime, corporate crime, or related subject matter. There is no reason to believe that any of the students in the sample were formally exposed to classroom material on these types of harmful behaviors.
Given the growing evidence that excluded harms are harmful, frequently occurring, and serious, these findings are troubling. The CCJ students in this study do not know, but nevertheless may be harmed by such behaviors. More than fifty years after Edward Sutherland introduced the concept of white-collar crime, a form of excluded harm, proper emphasis on the harms associated with such acts is still lacking, even among some CCJ students. Academic institutions, especially those with CCJ programs, should give strong consideration to encouraging the study of excluded harms. If students studying crime do not perceive excluded harms as harmful, frequently occurring, and serious, who will?
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Matthew Robinson is in the Departments of Political Science/Criminal Justice at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. His research focuses primarily on criminological theory, criminal victimization, and crime prevention. His most recent publications appear in the British Journal of Criminology, Journal of Crime and Justice, the Advances in Criminological Theory series, Journal of Security Administration, International Journal of Risk, Security, and Crime Prevention, Environment and Behavior, and the American Journal of Criminal Justice.
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