American Sociological Association

Edwin H. Sutherland

Edwin H. SutherlandEdwin Hardin Sutherland

August 13, 1883 - October 11, 1950

Edwin H. Sutherland served as the 29th President of the American Sociological Society. His Presidential Address, "White-Collar Criminality," was delivered at the organization's annual meeting in Philadelphia in December 1939. Upon his death, an obituary for Sutherland was published in the American Sociological Review (ASR 15:801-3).

In his 1951 book, American Sociology: The Story of Sociology in the United States through 1950, Howard W. Odum provided the following biographical sketch of Edwin H. Sutherland (pages 190-194):

Sutherland, like many of the leading sociologists, as already noted, came to sociology from another field. Like Odum, he was teaching Latin and Greek in a small college. He had planned to take graduate work in history, but found that a course in sociology was a prerequisite for graduate work in history, and consequently he took a correspondence course in sociology to meet this requirement. From this he decided to select sociology as a minor while keeping history as a major. Following his A.B. at Grand Island College in 1904, Sutherland entered the University of Chicago and took one course in sociology during the summer of 1906. From this he became interested in sociology and decided to make sociology the major rather than the minor. He completed his Ph.D. degree work at the University of Chicago in 1913, at thirty years of age.

Sutherland, the twenty-ninth president of the American Sociological Society in 1939, was born in Nebraska in 1883, thus continuing the succession of sociologists born in the Middle West, received his doctorate from Chicago and continued his lifework over a long period of years in the middle western universities. After receiving his Ph.D. he was professor of sociology, William Jewell College, 1913-19; assistant professor of sociology, University of Illinois, 1919-25; associate professor of sociology, University of Illinois, 1925–26; professor of sociology, University of Minnesota, 1926-29; University of Chicago, 1930-35; head of the Department of Sociology, Indiana University, 1935-49. He was also visiting professor of sociology, University of Kansas, 1918; Northwestern University, 1922; University of Washington, 1942. He was president of Indiana University Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology; of the American Prison Association; of the Chicago Academy of Criminology; of the Sociological Research Association.

In addition to Sutherland's more than fifty contributed articles to journals, he collaborated in Recent Social Trends, being author of the chapter on crime; in Social Attitudes, by Kimball Young; in Prisons To-Day and Tomorrow. His main contributions include Unemployment and Public Employment Agencies, 1913; Criminology, 1924; An Ecological Study of Crime and Delinquency in Bloomington, 1937; Principles of Criminology, 1939; Twenty Thousand Homeless Men (with Locke), 1936; The Professional Thief, 1937; White Collar Crime, 1949.

Writing for American Sociology, Sutherland makes clear how his primary interest in theory does not conflict with his special field of criminology and how his special interest in criminology is primarily sociological. He says: "The ultimate objective of the sociologist should be to make universal propositions about society. Preliminary to this, of course, is a good deal of specific research on society. By 'society' here, I mean society in the abstract, rather than a particular community, region, nation, or other geographically bounded collection of people. I have selected criminal behavior as the specific area of concentration. My interest in criminal behavior is not in the control of crime, but rather in the light that an intensive study of this behavior may throw on society. In the study of criminal behavior from this point of view, I have been interested primarily in reaching a general or universal proposition that would at the same time be an explanation of criminal behavior and be consistent with and related to universal propositions which would explain other kinds of behavior. Moreover, I have felt that this explanation should be consistent with the statement . . . that the sociologist should attempt to understand society. I should like to be featured as a sociologist who was interested in the general theory of society, and attempted to assist in developing this general theory by concentrated study on criminal behavior."

Sutherland raised some important questions when he said, "I am somewhat discouraged about sociology because of the difficulty of formulating research problems that will be directly and explicitly connected with the general objective I have outlined above. It is relatively easy to state a research problem that is limited so that it is practicable for a master's or doctor's dissertation, but the importance of these research projects is generally questionable. This, I believe, is tending to produce a large number of detached and nonintegrated research studies, with the principal justification that they give concrete findings. As an academic discipline, sociology will be more attractive than it is now if it is linked up with vocational training and vocational opportunities. It is question-able, however, whether this will contribute significantly to the development of sociology as a science."

Sutherland's presidential address in 1939 on "White Collar Criminality" was one of the few such addresses that received front-page publicity in the daily newspapers. It was published in the American Sociological Review in February, 1940, Volume V, No. 1, and developed later into the volume on White Collar Crime. Here Sutherland has analyzed "white collar crime" to augment his hypotheses attributing the causes of crime to social phenomena rather than to "received" biological and emotional characteristics within the criminal. In this address the argument was made that many business and professional men commit crimes which should be brought within the scope of the theories of criminal behavior. Evidence concerning the prevalence of such white collar crime was secured in an analysis of the decisions by courts and commissions against the seventy largest industrial and mercantile corporations in the United States under four types of laws, namely: antitrust, false advertising, National Labor Relations, and infringements of patents, copyrights, and trademarks. This resulted in the finding that 547 adverse decisions were made, branding the behavior in question as illegal, yet only 49 (9 per cent) of the total were made by criminal courts and were ipso facto decisions that the behavior was criminal. In his analysis of the remaining 498 adverse decisions, Sutherland concluded by logical exposition that 473 of them involved criminality according to abstract criteria generally regarded by legal scholars as necessary to define crime, namely, legal description of an act as socially injurious, and legal provision of a penalty for the act. This differential implementation 'of the law in regard to the crimes of corporations in these 473 cases eliminated or at least minimized the stigma of crime. Sutherland says that it may be excellent policy to eliminate the stigma of crime in a large number of cases, but that the question at hand is why the law has a different implementation for white collar criminals than for others.

An estimate of Sutherland's work in relation to sociological theory has been given by Robert K. Merton, in his article on "Sociological Theory" in The American Journal of Sociology, Volume L, No. 6, pp. 462-73, 1945. Merton had defined six types of work, often lumped together, which he says have characterized the recent history of sociological theory. They are (1) methodology, (2) general sociological orientations, (3) analysis of sociological concepts, (4) "post factum" sociological interpretations, (5) empirical generalizations in sociology, and (6) sociological theory. He cites Sutherland's studies in white collar crime as an instructive example of conceptual clarification in his demonstration of an equivocation implicit in criminological theories that seek to account for the fact that there is a much higher rate of crime, as "officially measured," in the lower than in the upper social classes. These crime "data" have led to a series of hypotheses that view poverty, slum conditions, feeblemindedness, and other characteristics held to be highly associated with low-class status as the "causes" of criminal behavior. But in the light of Sutherland's clarification of the concept of crime to include white collar criminality among business and professional men (criminal behavior which is less often reflected in official crime statistics than are the misdeeds of the lower classes) the presumptive high association between low social status and crime may no longer obtain. The significance of such conceptual clarification, states Merton, "is that it provides for a reconstruction of data by indicating more precisely just what they include and what they exclude. In doing so, it leads to a liquidation of hypotheses set up to account for spurious data by questioning the assumptions on which the initial statistical data were based. By hanging a question mark on an implicit assumption that violations of the criminal code by members of the several social classes are representatively registered in the official statistics, this conceptual clarification had direct implications for a nucleus of theories."


Written by Stuart A. Queen, published in the American Journal of Sociology, 1950.

Edwin H. Sutherland died at Bloomington, Indiana, on October 12, 1950. Just a few weeks before this he had attended the meeting of the American Sociological Society in Denver, where his many friends enjoyed the genial smile and the quiet but penetrating comments that had characterized Mr. Sutherland as long as we had known him. 
To most teachers and students of sociology, Edwin Sutherland is known as a distinguished criminologist, the author of scholarly books and articles. But to a few who have known him since his own student days, the well-deserved recognition for professional attainment is overshadowed by our memories of Edwin Sutherland the man. To some of us he seemed at his best sitting at a table or strolling through a park while discussing some problem. I recall no instance of his becoming excited or indulging in oratory, but always he was thoughtful, clear, and forthright. He rarely missed the humorous aspects of a situation, but he engaged in no comedy. He was respectful of every view set forth by his associates, but he did not hesitate to present his doubts or objections. In turn the others listened with respect to him, for we knew he was honest and that he was setting forth conclusions based on careful observation and systematic inquiry. 

Edwin Sutherland was a man of strong convictions, but he was not argumentative; he was frank but never caustic. He was loyal to his friends and colleagues, and they were devoted to him. His graduate students were especially attached to this wise but unpretentious professor, whose interest in them was so obviously kindly and sincere. He was usually accessible to those who wanted to see him, yet he managed to save time for research and for following the scholarly work of other sociologists. 

His undergraduate work was done at Grand Island College in Nebraska, followed, after an interval of high-school and college teaching, by graduate study at the University of Chicago, where he received the Ph.D. degree in 1913. After that he spent six years on the faculty of William Jewell College in Missouri, where, as he put it, he had a chance to think out what he wanted to do, to plan his courses, and to give them a trial. In 1919 he moved to the University of Illinois, where Professor Hayes induced him to write a book on criminology. This experience seemed to fix Mr. Sutherland’s major interest, one to which he adhered with a consistency not displayed by all his admirers. In 1926 he joined the group then making sociological history at the University of Minnesota. In 1930 he became a member of the department which had prepared him for the doctorate at the University of Chicago. In 1935 he succeeded U.G. Weatherly as head of the department of sociology at Indiana University, in which position he continued until 1949. At that time he turned over the administrative work he had handled so well but continued as an active member of the department until his death. 

Among the honors which have deservedly come to Edwin Sutherland are these: president of the American Sociological Society, 1939; president of the Sociological Research Association, 1940-42; advisory editor of the American Journal of Sociology. Among his publications the following are especially worthy of note: Unemployment and Public Employment Agencies (1913), Criminology (1924), Twenty Thousand Homeless Men (with H. J. Locke) (1936), The Professional Thief (1937), Principles of Criminology (1947) and White Collar Crime (1949). 

Queen, Stuart A. (1950). “In Memoriam, Edwin Hardin Sutherland, 1883-1950” American Journal of Sociology, 56(4):359.

Get Involved


ASA needs you to serve the discipline

Join a Section

Explore ASA's community of specialists in the discipline

Join ASA

Join or renew your membership