Edwin Sutherland’s theory of Differential Association evolved from the Chicago School of sociology, which observed that crime occurred more frequently in areas lacking social organization and institutions of social control (Gomme, 37). Crime was usually explained by multiple factors – such as social class, age, race, and urban or rural location. Sutherland developed his theory of Differential Association in order to explain how these factors were related to crime (Cullen & Agnew, 122). It had been observed that once high rates of crime were established in a geographical region, the pattern reoccurred, with “new generations of inhabitants sustaining the pattern” (Gomme, 37). Sutherland was thus interested in explaining how such a cross-generational transmission of delinquent values occurred (Lilly et al., 42). In his theory of Differential Association, he posited that criminal behaviour is a result of a process of socialization, during which criminal “definitions” are not only transmitted culturally (Gomme, 37), but are actually learned through social interactions with intimate groups (Winfree & Abadinsky, 193). The theory is outlined in nine propositions.
The first proposition posits that criminal behaviour is learned. (Sutherland & Cressey, 123). Just as one learns to tie his or her shoelaces or to prepare a meal, so too does one learn to pick a lock or copy a credit card. Sutherland is careful, however, to note that learned behaviour is neither invented, nor inherited. (Sutherland & Cressey, 123). The skills and techniques required for criminal activity are not innovations, and they are not automatically obtained from birth, or through association with criminals; rather, they are acquired through a process of learning.
In the second proposition, Sutherland refutes the possibility that criminals and deviants must witness criminal behaviour in order to learn it. Rather, he states that one learns criminal behaviour through social interaction and communication (Sutherland & Cressey, 123). In a family structure, for example, one may learn to respect and obey the law, or to believe in a certain religious worldview. This communication-based discovery and realization also occurs when learning about criminal activities. For example, one may come to learn about prostitution through discussion with others, and by witnessing the nonverbal responses of these others towards the activity, such as rolling the eyes or staring.
Sutherland’s third proposition begins to explain the observations of Shaw and McKay, who observed that consistent high rates of crimes within members of similar social conditions. He argues that most learning of crime and deviance takes place in interaction with members of intimate, personal groups, and that methods of impersonal communication – such as television, films or newspapers – are less influential or effective in learning (Sutherland & Cressey, 123). The greater implication of this proposition is that it locates trust at the root of social interactions that encourage deviance. For example, children and youth would likely first learn how to shoplift or how to graffiti public spaces from their close friends, rather than from general acquaintances.
The fourth proposition expands Sutherland’s concept of learning to identify what is acquired through communication with intimate others that enables criminal activity. He describes how through this learning process an individual gains not only the skills and techniques required to commit the crime, but also the “motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes” that accompany the behaviour (Sutherland & Cressey, 123). Merely learning how to commit a crime is not cause alone for one to actually engage in the activity. Instead, Sutherland calls attention to a subjective component: individuals also learn, or assimilate, the social, cultural and psychological attitudes that drive a violation of the law (Sutherland & Cressey, 123). Such rationalizations and attitudes also explain the common excuse for criminal behaviour as warranted or deserved. A rapist, for example, may reason that his or her actions were justified as the victim was “asking for it” by flirting or by wearing revealing clothing, an attitude he or she likely developed through association with others of similar beliefs.
The fifth proposition further elaborates upon the issue of criminal motivation: as individuals are surrounded by a “cultural conflict” of competing ideas from both law-abiding citizens and criminals, pro-criminal or anti-criminal intentions are developed based on learned conceptions of the law as either “favourable” or “unfavourable” (Sutherland & Cressey, 123). In other words, one develops opinions of the law that either encourage or discourage action. For example, one who drives faster than the speed limit (“speeds”) may justify his or her actions by viewing the law as unnecessary; he or she may view the limit as unreasonably low, or judge that the road is clear and safe and that a limit should not be imposed.
As Sutherland points out, however, interaction with pro-criminal groups does not necessarily produce criminal behaviour. Thus in the sixth proposition, Sutherland argues that an individual becomes delinquent only when “definitions favourable to violation of law” exceed “definitions unfavourable to violation of law” (Sutherland & Cressey, 123). In other words, it is not the amount of exposure to criminal ideology that is important, rather it is the ratio of attitudes (“definitions”) towards crime – whether pro-criminal or anti-criminal influences are stronger – which determines whether an individual embraces criminal behaviour or not (Lilly et al., 42). For example, although recreational marijuana use is illegal in much of North America, an individual may be exposed to opinions from close friends who view laws prohibiting its use as unfair and without scientific foundation, and who provide assurance that the chances, and consequences, of getting caught are minimal. In such a case, the individual would be exposed to more “definitions” that encourage the law violation than those that discourage it, and therefore would be driven to behave criminally.
In the seventh proposition, Sutherland avoids oversimplifying the social learning processes, by describing how “excess definitions” (associations, attitudes, patterns, etc.) are affected by four factors: “frequency, duration, priority and intensity” (Sutherland & Cressey, 123). How often, for how long, how early in life, and from whom an individual is exposed to criminal associations will affect the relative impact on an individual’s behaviour. For example, a young child who is raised by a drug-addicted parent will be exposed to stronger definitions of deviant behaviour than a teenager who witnesses a cousin snorting cocaine at a party. In this case, the child would be frequently exposed (frequency) for many years (duration) in early life (priority) to pro-criminal definitions.
The eighth proposition reiterates the logic behind the criminal learning process. Sutherland explains that, like any other skill or knowledge, the process by which one attains and develops pro-criminal and anti-criminal patterns is the same as any other learning process (Sutherland & Cressey, 124). In learning, one is not only able to imitate or reproduce behaviour, but rather understands and develops it. A thief who steals cars or burgles houses, for example, will hone his or her skills to become more efficient and effective in doing so, learning over time to become quieter, faster, and more precise in such activities.
Sutherland’s final proposition makes the important claim that the motivations for criminal and law-abiding behaviour cannot be the same, and therefore crime cannot be a result of general needs and values, such as a desire for wealth or social status (Sutherland & Cressey, 124). The actions of a student who plagiarizes an essay or assignment, for example, cannot be justified by a general desire to do well academically; this would not explain why all students do not participate in the same deviant behaviour.
- Gomme, Ian McDermid. The Shadow Line: Deviance and Crime in Canada. 4th ed. Toronto: Thomson Nelson, 2007.
- Lilly, J. Robert, Francis T. Cullen, and Richard A. Ball. Criminological Theory: Context and Consequences. 4th ed. London: Sage Publications, 2007.
- Sutherland, Edwin H., and Donald R. Cressey. “A Theory of Differential Association.” (1960) Criminological Theory: Past to Present. Ed. Francis T. Cullen and Robert Agnew. Los Angeles: Roxbury Company, 2006. 122-125.
- Winfree, L. Thomas, and Howard Abadinsky. Understanding Crime. 2nd ed. Toronto: Nelson Thomson, 2003.