Volkswagen’s CEO, Martin Winterkorn, recently stepped down from his post amid a scandal over manipulated emissions tests. Researchers at West Virginia University found that VW cars used “defeat devices” to dodge emissions standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. To what extent is Winterkorn responsible for this corporate skullduggery? And does the usage of these devices constitute a “crime”?

Classic sociological theories try to explain corporate scandal as a result of an amoral calculus: individual decision makers in an organization weigh the costs and benefits of their actions without concern for whether they are ethical. One example is the Ford Pinto debacle, when the company failed to recall Pintos with defective gas tanks because its “internal ‘cost-benefit analysis’” indicated the financial costs of recalling outweighed the potential cost of human lives.

In contrast to a model that emphasizes individuals, sociologists have shown that risky decision making often stems from the normalization of deviance within an organization. Conforming to the culture of the organization, employees as a group often redefine deviant actions as normal or commonplace. In the Ford Pinto case, fuel tank ruptures were categorized as acceptable risk due to prevailing safety priorities and long-standing industry norms.

The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster serves as yet another example in which escalating levels of technical failure were redefined as normal and acceptable. With the increased importance placed upon bureaucratic pressures, NASA’s cultural understandings of risk acceptance, and high levels of organization secrecy, launching rockets with dangerous technical problems became routine and rule-abiding due to cultural understandings of risk acceptance.

The media typically draw on the individualistic amoral calculus theory, framing scandals as a result of a few “bad apples” while hiding the social context that shapes norms within organizations. Still, it’s quite possible that the people behind the Volkswagen emission fraud will not be tried as criminal. Our definitions of what is criminal reflect societal beliefs rather than the “objective” dangers and risks posed to us. As such, we tend to focus on the crimes of the poor and downplay those of elites and corporations. Volkswagen’s fudging of emission performance might be defined as “corporate non-compliance” rather than “criminal.”

Originally posted at There’s Research on That!

Ryan Larson and Amber Powell are graduate students studying the sociology of crime at the University of Minnesota. Larson’s research interests extend to quantitative methodology/statistics, sport, and media; Powell’s to victimization and the intersectionalities of race and gender. They both write for The Society Pages.