Differential association is when individuals base their behaviours by
association and interaction with others.
In criminology, differential association is a theory developed by Edwin
Sutherland (1883–1950) proposing that through interaction with others,
individuals learn the values, attitudes, techniques, and motives for criminal
behaviour. Differential association theory is the most talked-about of the
learning theories of deviance. This theory focuses on how individuals learn to
become criminals, but it does not concern itself with why they become criminals.
Differential association predicts that an individual will choose the criminal
path when the balance of definitions for law-breaking exceeds those for
law-abiding. This tendency will be reinforced if social association provides
active people in the persons life. The earlier in life an individual comes under
the influence high status people within a group, the more likely the individual
is to follow in their footsteps. This does not deny that there may be practical
motives for crime. If a person is hungry but has no money, there is a temptation
to steal. But the use of needs and values is equivocal. To some
extent, both non-criminal and criminal individuals are motivated by the need for
money and social gain.
Sutherland proposed differential association theory in 1939 and elaborated it in
1947. Initially, he applied his theory only to systematic criminal behaviour,
but, later on, extending his theory, he applied it to all criminal behaviour.
Sutherland forwarded mainly two explanations for criminal behaviour: situational
and genetic or historical.
The former explains crime on the basis of situation that exists at the time of
crime, and the latter explains crime on the basis of a criminals life
experiences. He himself used the second approach in developing his theory of
criminal behaviour. Let us take an example. If a hungry boy comes across a dhaba
(restaurant) and finds the owner absent, he steals a roti (loaf of bread).
In this case, the boy steals not because the restaurant owner was absent and he
himself was hungry but because he had learnt earlier that one could satisfy ones
hunger by stealing things. Thus, it is not the situation which motivates a
person to commit a theft; it is his learnt attitudes and beliefs.
Sutherlands main thesis (Principles of Criminology, Philadelphia, 1947) is that
individuals encounter many inharmonious and inconsistent social influences in
their lifetime and many individuals become involved in contacts with carriers of
criminalistic norms and as a consequence become criminals. He called this
process differential association.
Sutherlands 9 Points:
The principles of Sutherlands theory of differential association can be
summarized into nine key points.
1. Criminal behaviour is learned.
2. Criminal behaviour is learned in interaction with other persons in a process
3. The principal part of the learning of criminal behaviour occurs within
intimate personal groups.
4. When criminal behaviour is learned, the learning includes techniques of
committing the crime (which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes simple)
and the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.
5. The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of
the legal codes as favourable or unfavourable.
6. A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favourable to
violation of law over definitions unfavourable to violation of the law.
7. Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and
8. The process of learning criminal behaviour by association with criminal and
anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any
9. While criminal behaviour is an expression of general needs and values, it is
not explained by those needs and values, since non-criminal behaviour is an
expression of the same needs and values.
An important quality of differential association theory is the frequency and
intensity of interaction. The amount of time that a person is exposed to a
particular definition and at what point the interaction began are both crucial
for explaining criminal activity. The process of learning criminal behaviour is
really not any different from the process involved in learning any other type of
behaviour. Sutherland maintains that there is no unique learning process
associated with acquiring non-normative ways of behaving.
One very unique aspect of this theory is that it works to explain more than just
juvenile delinquency and crime committed by lower class individuals. Since crime
is understood to be learned behaviour, the theory is also applicable to
white-collar, corporate, and organized crime.
Sutherlands theory was supported by James Short Jr. on the basis of his study of
176 school children (126 boys and 50 girls) in 1955 (see, Rose Giallombardo,
1960: 85-91). Short measured degree of presumed exposure to crime and
delinquency in the community, frequency, duration, priority and intensity of
interaction with delinquent peers, and knowledge of and association with adult
Before Sutherland introduced his theory of differential association, the
explanations for criminal behaviour were varied and inconsistent. Seeing this as
a weakness, law professor Jerome Michael and philosopher Mortimer J. Adler
published a critique of the field that argued that criminology hadnt produced
any scientifically-backed theories for criminal activity. Sutherland saw this as
a call to arms and used rigorous scientific methods to develop differential
Sutherlands thinking was influenced by the Chicago School of sociologists. In
particular, he took cues from three sources: the work of Shaw and McKay, which
investigated the way delinquency in Chicago was distributed geographically; the
work of Sellin, Wirth, and Sutherland himself, which found that crime in modern
societies was the result of conflicts between different cultures; and
Sutherland's own work on professional thieves, which found that in order to
become a professional thief, one must become a member of a group of professional
thieves and learn through them.
Sutherland initially outlined his theory in 1939 in the third edition of his
book Principles of Criminology. He then revised the theory for the fourth
edition of the book in 1947. Since then, differential association theory has
remained popular in the field of criminology and has sparked a great deal of
research. One of the reasons for the theorys continued pertinence is its broad
ability to explain all kinds of criminal activity, from juvenile delinquency to
white collar crime.
Differential association theory was a game-changer in the field of criminology.
However, the theory has been criticized for failing to take individual
differences into account. Personality traits may interact with ones environment
to create outcomes that differential association theory cannot explain. For
example, people can change their environment to ensure it better suits their
perspectives. They may also be surrounded by influences that dont espouse the
value of criminal activity and choose to rebel by becoming a criminal anyway.
People are independent, individually motivated beings. As a result, they may not
learn to become criminals in the ways differential association predicts.
One critique levelled against differential association stems from the idea that
people can be independent, rational actors and individually motivated. This
notion of one being a criminal based on his or her environment is
problematic—the theory does not take into account personality traits that might
affect a persons susceptibility to these environmental influences.
Differential association takes a social psychological approach to explain how an
individual becomes a criminal. The theory posits that an individual will engage
in criminal behaviour when the definitions that favour violating the law exceed
those that dont. Definitions in favour of violating the law could be specific.
For example, This store is insured. If I steal these items, its a victimless
Definitions can also be more general, as in This is public land, so I have
the right to do whatever I want on it.
These definitions motivate and
justify criminal activity. Meanwhile, definitions unfavourable to violating the
law push back against these notions. Such definitions can include, Stealing
or Violating the law is always wrong.
The individual is also likely to put different weight on the definitions they
are presented in their environment. These differences depend on the frequency
with which a given definition is encountered, how early in life a definition was
first presented, and how much one values the relationship with the individual
presenting the definition.
While the individual is most likely to be influenced by definitions provided by
friends and family members, learning can also occur at school or through the
media. For example, the media often romanticize criminals. If an individual
favours stories of mafia kingpins, such as the TV show The Sopranos and The
Godfather films, the exposure to this media may impact the individuals learning
because it includes some messages that favour breaking the law. If an individual
focuses on those messages, they could contribute to an individuals choice to
engage in criminal behaviour.
In addition, even if an individual has the inclination to commit a crime, they
must have the skills necessary to do so. These skills could be complex and more
challenging to learn, like those involved in computer hacking, or more easily
accessible, like stealing goods from stores.
Sutherlands theory, however, has been attacked by many scholars like Sheldon
Glueck, Mabel Elliott, Robert Caldwell, Donald Cressey, Paul Tappan, George
Void, Herbert Bloch, Jeffery Clarence, Daniel Glaser, and others. The major
criticism is that it is difficult to empirically test principles, and measure
associations, priority, intensity, duration and frequency of relationships.
According to Paul Tappan (1947: 96-102), Sutherland has ignored the role of
personality or the role of biological and psychological factors in crime.
Sutherland has relegated these factors to an entirely subordinate position.
He has said that individual differences cause crime only as they affect
differential association; but the individual, as a unique combination of
heredity and environment, has a reality apart from the group.
Therefore, in opposition to Sutherlands contention, one may argue that
differential association causes crime only as it gives expression to individual
differences. George Void (1958: 194) has maintained that Sutherland has ignored
the role of secondary contact and formal groups in criminality.
Clarence Ray Jeffery (Cf. Johnson, 1978: 158) holds that Sutherlands theory
fails to explain the origin of criminality since criminality has to exist before
it can be learnt from someone else.
Mabel Elliot (1952: 402) says Sutherlands theory explains only systematic
criminal behaviour by which Sutherland apparently means criminal behaviour that
has become a way of life for an individual and is supported by a philosophy in
terms of which it is justified.
According to Donald Cressey (Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, May-June
1952: 51-52), Sutherland does not fully explore the implications of the learning
process itself as it affects different individuals.
He (Cressey) has further said:
It is doubtful that it can be shown
empirically that the differential association theory applies or does not apply
to crimes of financial trust violation or even to other kinds of criminal
Herbert Bloch (1962: 158) is of the opinion that it is virtually impossible to
measure associations in comparative quantitative terms. Glueck (1951: 309)
maintains that an individual does not learn every kind of behaviour from others;
many acts are learnt naturally.
Caldwell (1956: 183) says that individuals become what they are largely because
of the contacts they have but both constitutional or inborn hereditary structure
and intensity of environmental stimuli must be appraised evenly.
He has further said:
If the claim is made that this theory explains all
criminal behaviour, then it is doubtful whether the theory can be proved. But if
the theory merely means that many persons learn to be criminals through
association with others who do not have proper respect for the law, then it has
been reduced to an elaboration of the obvious a fate that has befallen many
other oversimplifications of human behaviour.
Daniel Glaser (American Journal of Sociology, March 1956: 433-44) modified
Sutherlands theory a little to explain from whom an individual learns crime. He
called this new theory as differential identification theory
that a person pursues criminal behaviour to the extent that he identifies
himself with real or imaginary persons from whose perspective his criminal
behaviour seems acceptable
He further said that one of the persistent problems in the theory of
differential association was the obvious fact that not everyone in contact with
criminality adopts or follows the criminal pattern.
What, therefore, is the difference in the nature or quality of the association
that in one case it leads an individual to accept the attitudes and behaviour of
a group, but, in another case, it only leads to an individuals acquaintance with
but not the acceptance of the behaviour characteristic of the group?
The answer lies in the choice of persons with whom an individual identifies
himself, and who serve as models for his behaviour.
It may be concluded that although Sutherlands theory has some serious
weaknesses, it does have some merit too. It calls attention to:
importance of social factors,
(b) the similarity between the process of learning
criminal behaviour and that of learning lawful behaviour, and
(c) the fact that
criminality cannot be explained entirely in terms of personality mal-adjustments.
Written By: Vibhana Anand