Sutherland advocated theory of differential association which describes the
association with criminal how influences behavior of individual. It says that
individual not only imitate it but understands and also develops it as any other
social behavior. It also expounds that criminal behavior is determined by the
ratio of definitions favorable to crime versus unfavorable to crime. He also
stated that learning of criminal behavior depends on frequency, duration,
priority and intensity to exposure to criminal behavior.
Sutherland’s theory of differential association emphasizes importance of
association or companion. It suggests cause of criminality as learning of
criminal behavior. He says it is not because of inheritance criminality causes.
The criminality causes because of differential association or association with
criminals. He also says that trust also plays important role in learning
criminal behavior, because of trust or intimate relation with criminal
individual learns criminal behavior. He also hypothesized that criminal behavior
is determined by the ratio of definitions favorable to crime versus unfavorable
Concept of Differential Association:
Human from childhood learns various things till his death. The child first start
to imitate then in his life’s later stage he learns to understand and then
develops it. This important characteristic of human being is reflected in theory
of differential association.
It states that a person is likely to engage in crime when he or she has learned
more attitudes that are favorable to the violation of the law, than attributes
that are unfavorable to it. Learning takes place in course of social interaction
and criminal is learned in the same manner any other social behavior.
Thus crime is resultant of the learning of more attitudes that are favorable to
the violation of law.
The theory insists on the cognitive faculty of human being. It states that
criminal behavior learned by communication with criminals like one learns to tie
his or her shoelaces or to button his or her shirt.
Sutherland defines that criminal behavior is not learned by T.V., films or
newspaper but person is influenced by intimate groups as family, peers and
friends etc. Close relation with criminal who is present in family, peers and
friends may influence the person for criminal activity. The close environment of
child can make his tendency to crime if he learned criminal activities from such
environment. He proposed that intimate members of particular group share
relationship of trust and this plays a pivotal role in encouraging deviance. A
person’s behavior is basically influenced by their family as it is the first
social group he or she interacts with. Additionally he or she is more influenced
their peer groups through direct and indirect interaction.
The crime is not only action but also include motive and rationale behind it
which according Sutherland can also be learned. Thus it is not only imitation of
action but it is rather considers understanding also. He or she learns motive
and rationale behind crime through criminals.
Sutherland propose that individual has option to choose between pro-criminal
and anti-criminal intentions that he develops on learned conceptions of law as
either accepted or unaccepted notions. This develops opinion of law that either
encourages or discourages a particular action. Criminals are not inherently
deviant, they learned the deviance. It suggests that opportunity also plays
important role in learning criminal activity.
Sutherland states that an individual becomes delinquent only when “definitions
favorable to violation of law” exceed “definitions unfavorable to law”. For
example, definitions favorable to income tax fraud include “Everyone cheats on
their taxes” and “The government has no right to tax its citizens.” Definitions
favorable to drunk driving include “I can drive fine after a few beers” and “I
only have a couple of miles to drive home.” Definitions favorable to violence
include “If your manhood is threatened, you have to fight back” and “To maintain
respect, you can never back down from a fight.” These definitions favorable to
crime help organize and justify a criminal line of action in a particular
situation. They are offset by definitions unfavorable to crime, such as “Tax
fraud deprives Americans of important programs that benefit the commonwealth,”
“All fraud and theft is immoral,” “If insulted, turn the other cheek,” “Friends
don't let friends drink and drive,” and “Any violation of the law is wrong.”
These examples illustrate several points about definitions of crime. First, some
definitions pertain to specific offenses only, such as “Friends don't let
friends drink and drive,” whereas others refer to a class of offenses, such as
“All fraud and theft is immoral,” and others refer to virtually all law
violation, such as “Any violation of the law is wrong.” Second, each definition
serves to justify or motivate either committing criminal acts or refraining from
criminal acts. Third, these definitions are not merely ex-post facto
rationalizations of crime but rather operate to cause criminal behavior.
Sutherland recognized that definitions favorable to crime can be offset by
definitions unfavorable to crime and, therefore, hypothesized that criminal
behavior is determined by the ratio of definitions favorable to crime versus
unfavorable to crime. Furthermore, he recognized that definitions are not all
equal. Definitions that are presented more frequently, for a longer duration,
earlier in one's life, and in more intense relationships receive more weight in
the process producing crime.
He further attributes learning of deviant behavior to four factors, “frequency,
duration, priority and intensity” i.e. how often, for how long, how early in
life and from whom individual exposed to criminal association. For example, a
young child who is raised by a drug addicted parent will be exposed to stronger
definition of deviant because he is much more often and far long and early in
life exposed to deviant behavior. A person becomes a criminal when there is
strong influence as to acceptability of unlawful behavior as compared to lawful
behavior. This is the fundamental principle of differential Association theory.
This means that a person who associates with more member of society favoring
deviance have more chances of deviance than otherwise. This means that company
or association of person affects the behavior of the person. That relates also
to old religious sayings that always say to make friendship to good peoples
rather than bad people because company or association affects also behavior.
(1) Criminal behavior is learned as any other social behavior.
(2) More favorable attitudes to crime are learned with association with
(3) Trust plays important role in criminal behavior especially trust on criminal
because of trust child starts to imitate criminal behavior of adult and later
starts understanding delinquent behavior and learns rationale and motive behind
(4) Individual has option to choose between pro-criminal and anti-criminal
intentions that he develops on learned conceptions of law as either accepted or
unaccepted notions. This develops opinion of law that either encourages or
discourages a particular action. An individual becomes delinquent only when
“definitions favorable to violation of law” exceed “definitions unfavorable to
(5) Criminal behavior affects individual only when frequency, duration, priority
and intensity is much more.
1. Encyclopedia of Criminological Theory, Sutherland Edwin H.: Differential
Association Theory and Differential Social Organization: Francis T. Cullen &
Pamela Wilcox, SAGE Publications, Inc., pg. no. 4.
2. Juvenile delinquency: Dr. Sheetal Kanwal, Amar law publications, pg. no. 34.