In 1940, Edwin Sutherland claimed that the discipline of criminology was operating with an inaccurate view of criminal behavior. He argued that criminology focused too much on the offending of working-class people via the causal mechanisms of poverty, psychopathy, and sociopathy. His theory on white-collar crime was an observation that people of high social class commit crimes and have their own forms of offending behavior. Of this behavior, Sutherland noted that it could be more far-reaching and damaging than offenses committed by the working class, while at the same time encountering less scrutiny and condemnation from society. By taking the first steps into the study of crimes of the powerful, Sutherland opened up discussion of a wide range of nonviolent, financially motivated offenses such as corruption of state officials, fraud, and embezzlement. He proposed the theory of differential association as an attempt to provide a more effective explanation of offending behavior inclusive of the offending of the rich and powerful.
During the 20th century, research into white-collar criminals and the professional con artist has revealed broad typologies of offending behavior and patterns of offending. Today, white-collar crime is a broad term that applies to a range of activities and has become shorthand for discussions of crimes that involve deception, abuse of trust, and intelligent criminals.
Media representations have emphasized these characteristics and portrayed white-collar criminals and con artists as offending elites, both in terms of social class and type of offending. Film and television depictions present an elaborate form of criminality based on guile and manipulation of victims. The image of the white-collar criminal, the professional con artist, and their victims in popular culture are equally nuanced and tap into ideas about the moral acceptability of this kind of offending. The influence of popular culture on attitudes toward white-collar crime is of great interest in the study of criminology.