Must Know Crime and Society Concept: Differential Association

(Edwin Sutherland)
Social learning theories use the cognitive processes of learning through observation or a direct instruction to explain social occurrences. One example of what learning theories seek to explain is how people adopt criminal behavior.

Edwin Sutherland, who is considered to be one of the most influential criminologists of the twentieth century, explains with his popular theory (Differential Association or Learning Theory) that there are nine principles to how someone learns the attitudes, values, motives, and techniques of criminal behavior:

  • 1.  Criminal behavior is learned.
  • 2.  Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.
  • 3.  The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups.
  • 4.  When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) Techniques of committing the crime. (b) 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 favorable or unfavorable.
  • 6.  A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to the violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of the law.
  • 7.  Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.
  • 8.   The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning.
  • 9.   While criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those general needs and values since non-criminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values. (Pfohl, 1994)

Though this theory is met with criticism (doesn't include human nature, origins of crime, etc.) it can be used to explain many issues. Some examples are people learning to be criminals via prison and children becoming deviants by playing with other deviants.

Sutherland came to this theory while he was researching white collar crimes. He believed that there are social learning processes that can turn any person into a criminal.

What are your thoughts on Sutherland's Differential Association theory? Share them in the comments.

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