Sutherland's Differential Association Theory Explained

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Differential association theory proposes that people learn values, attitudes, techniques, and motives for criminal behavior through their interactions with others. It is a learning theory of deviance that was initially proposed by sociologist Edwin Sutherland in 1939 and revised in 1947. The theory has continued to be enormously important to the field of criminology ever since.

Key Takeaways: Sutherland's Differential Association Theory

  • Sociologist Edwin Sutherland first proposed differential association theory in 1939 as a learning theory of deviance.
  • Differential association theory proposes that the values, attitudes, techniques, and motives for criminal behavior are learned through one’s interactions with others.
  • Differential association theory remains important to the field of criminology, although critics have objected to its failure to take personality traits into account.

Origins

Before Sutherland introduced his theory of differential association, the explanations for criminal behavior 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 hadn’t produced any scientifically-backed theories for criminal activity. Sutherland saw this as a call to arms and used rigorous scientific methods to develop differential association theory.

Sutherland’s 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 theory’s continued pertinence is its broad ability to explain all kinds of criminal activity, from juvenile delinquency to white collar crime.

Nine Propositions of Differential Association Theory

Sutherland’s theory doesn’t account for why an individual becomes a criminal but how it happens. He summarized the principles of differential association theory with nine propositions:

  1. All criminal behavior is learned.
  2. Criminal behavior is learned through interactions with others via a process of communication.
  3. Most learning about criminal behavior happens in intimate personal groups and relationships.
  4. The process of learning criminal behavior may include learning about techniques to carry out the behavior as well as the motives and rationalizations that would justify criminal activity and the attitudes necessary to orient an individual towards such activity.
  5. The direction of motives and drives towards criminal behavior is learned through the interpretation of legal codes in one’s geographical area as favorable or unfavorable.
  6. When the number of favorable interpretations that support violating the law outweigh the unfavorable interpretations that don’t, an individual will choose to become a criminal.
  7. All differential associations aren’t equal. They can vary in frequency, intensity, priority, and duration.
  8. The process of learning criminal behaviors through interactions with others relies on the same mechanisms that are used in learning about any other behavior.
  9. Criminal behavior could be an expression of generalized needs and values, but they don’t explain the behavior because non-criminal behavior expresses the same needs and values.

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 behavior when the definitions that favor violating the law exceed those that don’t. Definitions in favor of violating the law could be specific. For example, “This store is insured. If I steal these items, it’s a victimless crime.” 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 unfavorable to violating the law push back against these notions. Such definitions can include, “Stealing is immoral” 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 favors stories of mafia kingpins, such as the TV show The Sopranos and The Godfather films, the exposure to this media may impact the individual’s learning because it includes some messages that favor breaking the law. If an individual focuses on those messages, they could contribute to an individual’s choice to engage in criminal behavior.

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.

Critiques

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 one’s 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 don’t 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.

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