9. Learning Theories

9.3 Differential Association Theory

Dr. Zachary Rowan and Michaela McGuire, M.A.

In the early 1930s, Jerome Michael and Mortimer J. Adler (1933) published a report titled Crime, Law, and Social Science that examined the state of knowledge in criminology and criminal justice. The conclusions from this report suggested that criminological research was futile and reflected the poor theoretical development and research methods at the time (Michael & Adler, 1933). Partially in response to this critique, Edwin H. Sutherland argued that the field needed a sociological approach to theory that could be empirically tested and explain known correlates of crime (i.e., gender, race, socioeconomic status). For instance, a meaningful theory of crime needed to be able to explain why offending is concentrated in adolescence and young adulthood, and declines subsequently thereafter. Now recognised as one of the most important criminologists of the 20th century, Sutherland (1947) developed differential association theory. Sutherland aimed to establish an individual-level sociological theory of crime that refuted claims that criminality was inherited. Instead, Sutherland explored the role of the immediate social environment which was often discounted in broader macro-level theories, and suggested that behaviour was primarily learned within small group settings.

Importantly, Sutherland (1947) sought to articulate a formal theory by presenting propositions that could be used to explain how individuals come to engage in crime. In his Principles of Criminology textbook, Sutherland articulated the following nine propositions:

  1. Criminal behaviour is learned. Stated differently, people are not born criminals. Experience and social interactions inform whether individuals engage in crime.
  2. Criminal behaviour is learned in interaction with other persons in process of communication. This communication is inclusive of both direct and indirect forms of expression.
  3. The principal part of the learning of criminal behaviour occurs within intimate personal groups. The important and key people in your social life are where such learning processes occur.
  4. When criminal behaviour is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes very simple; (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes. The learning process involves both instruction on how to commit crimes and why they might be committed.
  5. The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favourable or unfavourable. Definitions encompass an individual’s attitude toward the law. Attitudes towards the legality of crimes, deviance, or antisocial behaviour can vary.
  6. A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favourable to violation of law over definitions unfavourable to violation of law. The balance of exposure to definitions favourable or unfavourable to the law is the primary determinant of whether an individual will engage in crime. If exposed to more definitions that are unfavourable to the law, individuals will be more likely to engage in crime.
  7. Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. Not all associations (or interactions) are created equal—how often one interacts with a peer, how much time one spends with a peer, how long someone has known a peer, and how much prestige we attach to certain peers determines the strength of a particular association.
  8. The process of learning criminal behaviour by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning. Learning is a process not specific to crime but to all behaviour. Thus, the mechanisms through which we learn how to behave at work or in our families are the same general mechanisms that impact how we learn crime.
  9. While criminal behaviour is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those general needs and values, since non-criminal behaviour is an expression of the same needs and values. Behaviours can have the same end goal; however, the means to obtain this goal can vary. Selling drugs or working at a retail store may both reflect the need to earn money; thus, we cannot separate delinquent or non-delinquent acts by different goals. Other factors (e.g. the balance of definitions one is exposed to) determine whether or not a person engages in a specific behaviour (Sutherland & Cressey, 1978, pp. 80-83; italics specify text as originally written).

The primary component of the theory is the role of differential association(s). Individuals have a vast array of social contacts and “intimate personal groups” with whom they interact. Figure 1 below depicts some examples of different sources of social influences including friends, family, siblings, neighbours, and co-workers; all serve as different sources of social influence but the extent of their influence depends on factors that characterize the interactions (i.e., frequency, duration, priority, and intensity). Not all peers/associates have the same level of influence. Consider your own social world—whom do you spend the most time with, trust more, look to regularly for help? These individuals comprise your own intimate personal group that facilitates the definitions you might have regarding deviant or prosocial behaviour. For instance, an individual whose friends are extremely important to them and that they have known for multiple years would be anticipated to have a greater degree of influence on an individual’s behaviour than that of a new acquaintance from class or work. Overall, research demonstrates that affiliation with delinquent peers can explain the initiation, persistence, frequency, type of offending, and desistance (Elliott & Menard, 1996; Fergusson & Horwood, 1996; Matsueda & Anderson, 1998; Thomas, 2015; Warr, 1993, 1998).

Figure 9.1 Variations in Sources of Social Influence

The effect of affiliation with deviant peers on criminal outcomes is attributable in part to how these sources of social influence inform the degree of definitions favourable/unfavourable towards the law. Although Sutherland (1947) did not clearly operationalise the concept of definitions at the time, it is generally understood that definitions reflect the attitudes favourable to crime that enable individuals to approve or rationalize behaviour across situations (e.g., Akers, 1998). Figure 9.2 provides some examples of what might serve as definitions favourable/unfavourable to crime. Individuals that internalise and accept definitions more favourable to crime will be more likely to actively participate in criminal behaviour.

A diagram that provides examples of definitions favourable and not favourable to crime. Long description available.
Figure 9.2 Definitions favourable and not favourable to crime. [Read the text in this image in the Image Description]


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Zachary Rowan and Michaela McGuire, M.A. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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