“Differential association theory is a part of social learning theory which is based on the principle that an individual becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions learned.”
1. “Differential Association theory is a part of
social learning theory which is based on
the principle that an individual becomes
delinquent because of an excess of
By Vinaya Joseph,
LL.M Third Semester, Govt Law College Ernakulam
4. Differential Association theory
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.
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.
8. 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
3. Most learning about criminal behavior happens in intimate personal groups and
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.
9. Nine Propositions of Differential Association Theory
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
7. All differential associations aren’t equal. They can vary in frequency, intensity, priority,
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.
10. Understanding the Approach
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.
11. Is differential association social learning theory?
Social learning theory is not a competitive with differential association theory. Instead, it is a broader theory
that retains all of the differential association process in Sutherland's theory and integrates it with
differential reinforcement and other principles of behavioral acquisition, continuation, and cessation.
12. Understanding the Approach
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.
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.
14. Key Takeaways: Sutherland's Differential
Sociologist Edwin Sutherland first proposed differential association theory in 1939 as a learning theory of
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.