Crimes of the Powerful

The details
Sociology and Criminology
Colchester Campus
Undergraduate: Level 6
Monday 13 January 2025
Friday 21 March 2025
10 June 2024


Requisites for this module



Key module for


Module description

In the popular imagination and, to a large degree, in criminology itself, crime is associated with the poor and powerless.

However, it is clear that the most serious and harmful crimes are actually committed by apparently legitimate states, corporations and the political economies that they support. These crimes include torture, mass murder and rape of civilians, as well as large-scale financial crimes committed and facilitated by global corporations and financial institutions, and the destruction of the planet. This module will examine these crimes of the powerful, focusing specifically on organisations, their extraordinary power in the contemporary world, and their relative immunity to sanction.

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

• To shift common-sense and state-bound thinking about crime by introducing students to the most serious crimes and examining the reasons why these are relatively neglected in contemporary society and by criminology itself.

• To demonstrate how thinking about crime is ideological, colonial and imperial, and how this thinking and these crimes and harms support the status quo and undergird the serious harms linked to capitalist expansion and ‘business as usual’. These crimes and the ideologies surrounding them will be demonstrated to be linked unnecessary mass death and suffering and the destruction of the planet.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students will be expected to be able to:

1. Understand the ideological nature of crime and control and the relative immunity of states and corporations to sanction.
2. Understand that the poor are more so victims of crime rather than perpetrators.
3. Demonstrate a comprehensive ability to conceptualise organisational crime.
4. Critically evaluate the link between organisational crimes to broader global political economy.

Module information

Syllabus Information

Introduction to crimes of the powerful – concepts and context

This introductory session will indicate why crimes of the powerful are worthy of criminological attention and indicate the importance of the social harm approach in studying the powerful. It will introduce various conceptualisations and definitions of crimes of the powerful and draw distinctions and links between crime undertaken by powerful individuals and crimes carried out by organisations. It will also ask why criminology has largely ignored crimes of the powerful and mostly continues to do so.

State crime, colonialism and human rights

Military conquest, terrorism and war crimes committed by apparently legitimate modern states have killed, injured, robbed and raped innumerably more people than non-state crime and terrorism, and they continue to do so. This session introduces and traces the concept of state crime while presenting various examples of it. It considers how European colonialism forms a foundation for later crimes of states and corporations, considers how powerful states avoid criminalisation, and looks at the legal systems enacted to prevent and repair mass atrocity.

Genocide and mass murder of civilians in the 20th and 21st Centuries

In the 20th Century, civilian deaths increased from around 5 per cent of war-related deaths to 90 per cent, and a number of heinous genocides occurred including the killing of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. These forms of mass murder involve not only the actions of those in positions of power but institutional processes that encourage populations of 'normal' civilians to engage in and assist mass murder. This session will consider state-organisation of killing and examine how usually law-abiding people come to take part in such atrocities.

Mass sexual violence in conflict

Widespread sexual violence and mass rape are common features of state conflicts and integral to genocides. This session considers why sexual violence is so common in conflict and examines how states and their leaders direct and encourage it.

Corporate crime, capitalism and the global financial order

This session will sketch a short history of the corporation and its relation to modern states and capitalism. It will examine Edwin Sutherland's landmark work on US corporate crimes and provide examples of different types of corporate crimes and harms. It will also look at the role of shareholders, boards and corporate immunity, and outline the regulation and legislation (or lack of it) surrounding corporate malfeasance.

Focus on the assignment

This week will focus on how to approach the end of term assignment where students are asked to identify, contextualise and theorise a specific crime or harm of the powerful of their choosing. It will provide guidance to researching crimes of the powerful using secondary materials and it will introduce various sources that highlight corporate and state crimes. This session will be especially active and interactive encouraging in-class research.

Financial crime and the 2008 Financial Crisis

Banks and accountancy firms are the major players in the global economy and present themselves as prudent, moral and trustworthy. However, as illustrated by the 2008 financial crisis, major banks and accountancy firms colluded in investments and trading that massively enriched them but which led to financial collapse which was only resolved through public money 'bailing out' the failing global banking system. This session looks at the shady trading, lack regulation, and institutional denials that underpinned the crisis and considers what has been done to prevent it happening again.

State-corporate crime and the destruction of the planet

Illuminating the concept of state-corporate crime and the importance of a focus on harms in criminology, this session outlines how the destruction of the planet is lead by states and corporations working in conjunction to support a largely 'business as usual' approach that denies deleterious harm to the environment and regularly fails to criminalize it.

Neo-liberal colonialism and the 'war on terror'

The 'war on terror' has been arguably 'more criminal' than the activities of the groups it was aimed to counter, and it has certainly caused much more death and destruction of human life. This session looks at the 'allied' military and security service response to 21st century Islamist terrorism and examines claims that significant aspects of this response represent serious breaches of international law and are part of a new type of Western imperialism.

State-corporate crime and the Grenfell Tower fire disaster

The Grenfell fire disaster that occurred in a London social housing block in 2017 killed 72 people and injured and traumatised many more. This session examines the organizational processes and intersections of both the UK state and private companies involved in constructing, administrating and maintaining the property, and considers how this facilitated the severe negligence and cover-up that surrounded the fire and the serious harms that resulted.

Learning and teaching methods

This module will be delivered via:This module will be delivered via:1. One 1-hour lecture per week2. One 1-hour class per weekSupplementary readings, films and documentaries will be listed and linked via the Moodle platform. Lectures will introduce students to the major topics and concepts, while classes will be based on active student learning and discussions of key ideas. 
The module will contribute to the decolonisation of the curriculum by indicating how contemporary states, corporations and global financial institutions both undergird and are supported by past and contemporary forms of colonialism and imperialism, and how contemporary world order is Western, white and male.
The module will foster inclusivity through:
A variety of learning materials – articles, media reports, film and documentary.
A focus on the western, white and patriarchal basis of most crimes of the powerful.
A well organised module with clear and logical development of themes and topics with clear expectations for students.
Offering further academic support to students through office hours, the Moodle forum and the Department’s Student Support Manager.
Listen again will be available for all lectures and classes.
While the end of year examination will be a traditional essay format that should be very familiar to third year students, the coursework assignment will be a research-based project where students choose and analyse an instance of a crime/harm of the powerful (see assessment details below).


This module does not appear to have a published bibliography for this year.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Coursework weighting
Coursework   Assignment 1: Case study of a contemporary crime or harm of the powerful.    100% 
Exam  Main exam: In-Person, Open Book, 120 minutes during Summer (Main Period) 
Exam  Reassessment Main exam: In-Person, Open Book, 120 minutes during September (Reassessment Period) 

Exam format definitions

  • Remote, open book: Your exam will take place remotely via an online learning platform. You may refer to any physical or electronic materials during the exam.
  • In-person, open book: Your exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer to any physical materials such as paper study notes or a textbook during the exam. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
  • In-person, open book (restricted): The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer only to specific physical materials such as a named textbook during the exam. Permitted materials will be specified by your department. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
  • In-person, closed book: The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may not refer to any physical materials or electronic devices during the exam. There may be times when a paper dictionary, for example, may be permitted in an otherwise closed book exam. Any exceptions will be specified by your department.

Your department will provide further guidance before your exams.

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
50% 50%


Coursework Exam
50% 50%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr Darren Thiel, email:
Dr Darren Thiel



External examiner

Dr Emily Gray
University of Warwick
Assistant Professor of Criminology
Available via Moodle
No lecture recording information available for this module.


Further information
Sociology and Criminology

* Please note: due to differing publication schedules, items marked with an asterisk (*) base their information upon the previous academic year.

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