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Scholars of corporate violence study the ways in which corporations—not simply individual actors within a corporation—engage in activities that are harmful or socially injurious. Sometimes these acts are illegal; other times they are not. In other words, it is not only illegal corporate activity that is capable of causing harm.
Acts of corporate violence may include the harms caused by corporate action or inaction. Corporate actions that are violent may be intentional or unintentional, and corporate inaction includes all the things corporations fail to do that cause harm. Corporate violence, then, may include a wide array of activities and/or failures to act.
Victims of Corporate Violence
There are several categories of victims of corporate violence, such as individuals, groups of individuals (e.g., employees and consumers), and the natural environment. Several case studies conducted by scholars of corporate violence illustrate the harms caused to these categories of victims.
One case that illustrates violence against workers is the Imperial Food Products fire in Hamlet, North Carolina. In this instance, 25 workers died in a fire at the Imperial Foods processing plant when plant managers locked the fire escapes to prevent employees from stealing chicken nuggets. Other forms of violence against workers can result when companies do not follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) laws, thus failing to protect workers.
For example, with the deaths of several miners in recent years, attention has been given to the subject of unsafe working conditions. However, those who study corporate violence have noted that there is a long history of some corporations in the mining industry failing to adequately protect workers (e.g., “black lung” disease, collapsing mines, fires and explosions). Finally, some corporations have been accused of conspiring with paramilitary death squads in economically undeveloped countries to prevent unionization through acts of violence directed toward union organizers and/or employees.
Consumers have also been victimized by corporate violence, which has been documented in a substantial body of research. One example is the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in 1996 where 105 passengers (and 5 crew members) were killed as a result of ValuJet’s failure to follow Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. Other groups of consumers who may have been victims of corporate violence include those killed or injured because of fires in Ford Pinto cars resulting from design flaws, women who were harmed by the Dalkon Shield (an IUD birth control device known to be the cause of uterine infections, blood poisoning, and the deaths of 12 women), children born with birth defects because their mothers had taken thalidomide (a drug used to offset morning sickness), those who have died or have serious illnesses caused by the effects of products sold by major tobacco companies, and those involved in accidents linked to unsafe tires.
While consumers and workers are easy to identify as victims, violence to the environment and its subsequent harmful effects on humans have not always been easily recognized as corporate violence. Recently, however, researchers have begun exploring the ways in which corporate violence to the environment is a significant threat to the natural habitat as well as to large groups of people.
One of the most widely publicized cases of corporate violence to the environment was Love Canal. Between 1942 and 1953, the Hooker Chemical Company dumped toxic chemicals in Love Canal, near Niagara Falls, New York. The toxic site was sold to the community for a dollar, and local officials decided to build a school there. Schoolchildren, as well as the families living near Love Canal, were exposed to toxic waste. The results were increased health problems in the community, including significantly higher rates of miscarriages of pregnancies, increased rates of birth defects, and chromosomal abnormalities in the children born to mothers exposed to the toxins.
Another significant environmental disaster was the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill where nearly 250,000 barrels of oil were spilled when the Valdez oil tanker ran aground on a reef off the coast of Alaska. The spill covered nearly 1,000 miles of Alaskan coastline, and the environmental impact of the Valdez oil spill was devastating: tens of thousands of birds and coastal mammals were killed, significant damage was done to the fish population, and hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to clean it up.
Other examples of corporate violence against the environment include the toxic waste dumped by the nuclear weapons industry, asthma and other respiratory illnesses caused by air pollution, and the environmental and human damage caused by the chemical herbicide known as Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War. In recent years, some multinational corporations have moved production plants to countries that do not have many laws regulating pollution, and the environmental damage has been significant.
Differences Between Corporate Violence and Interpersonal Violence
While the harms caused by corporate violence and interpersonal violence may have similar consequences, David Friedrichs has argued that corporate violence is different from other forms of interpersonal violence in at least four distinct ways. These differences may be summarized as follows: first, corporate violence is indirect in that one person is not directly assaulting another; second, corporate violence, by its very nature, is collective; third, the effects of corporate violence are usually difficult to link to the policy or policies that created them; fourth, corporate violence is motivated by a desire to maximize profits while reducing costs. Examples that illustrate each of these differences can be found in the extant literature on corporate violence.
The indirect and collaborative nature of corporate violence can easily be seen in that the managers and other people of power within the corporation do not have direct contact with the victims of corporate violence. As such, it is easy for corporate managers to view the victims in abstract terms (i.e., to view them as “units” or “costs” rather than people). Oftentimes, the moral accountability for decisions that are made within the corporation to move forward with the
production and distribution of a dangerous product is diffused among several people (i.e., it is someone else’s responsibility). For example, Kermit Vandivier has documented the ways in which groups of B. F. Goodrich managers and engineers attempted to hide design flaws in the aircraft brakes they were creating, because of time constraints in getting the brakes to their customers. At each turn, managers and engineers displaced any personal responsibility for the consequences that were likely from the design flaws, and were ready to release a defective and potentially harmful product into the market.
In addition, it is difficult to uncover specific policies that lead to corporate violence. When corporate violence occurs, it is often difficult to link the harms caused to specific policies and/or individuals making the corporation responsible. In some cases, “whistle-blowers” will come forward and shed light on the misconduct of a corporation. Oftentimes, however, it is not until great harm is caused and someone in the media or a governmental agency conducts an investigation that the policies are uncovered.
Finally, the motivation for corporate violence is not malevolence directed toward the victim, but rather the desire to maximize profits while reducing costs. Indeed, many forms of corporate violence could be eliminated or drastically reduced if corporations reduced profits by spending extra money to reduce pollution, recall unsafe products, and provide safe working conditions for employees. However, this is not likely to happen since there are strong corporate mandates to externalize—or pass on to someone else—the costs associated with making profits.
- Aulette, J. R., & Michalowski, R. J. (1993). Fire in Hamlet: A case study of state-corporate crime. In K. Tunnell (Ed.), Political crime in contemporary America (pp. 171-206). New York: Garland.
- Bakan, J. (2004). The corporation: The pathological pursuit of profit and power. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Derber, C. (2004). The wilding of America: Money, mayhem and the new American dream (3rd ed.). New York: Worth.
- Ermann, D., & Lundman, R. (Eds.). (2002). Corporate and governmental deviance: Problems of organizational behavior in contemporary society. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Friedrichs, D. O. (2004). Trusted criminals: White collar crime in contemporary society. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson.
- Kauzlarich, D., & Kramer, R. C. (1998). Crimes of the American nuclear state: At home and abroad. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
- Matthews, R. A., & Kauzlarich, D. (2000). The crash of ValuJet flight 592: A case study in state-corporate crime. Sociological Focus, 3, 281-298.
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