Sutherland's Theory of Differential Association

A summary of Sutherland's theory of differential association for the G543 exam.

Turning to Crime- Upbringing- Learning from others


Criminal behaviour is learned. Sutherland believed that criminal behaviour was not inherited or a result of any other biological condition. He believed that the individual, without prioor influence from others, is incapable of inventing criminal behaviour.

Evaluation: How can there be crime if we cannot invent criminal behaviour? The first person to commit crime would not have learned criminal behaviour. Therefore there must be another explanation

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Criminal behaviour is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication. Sutherland believed that such communication usually involved verbal interaction, however it could also involve the use of gestures without words. This point supports the first by once again claiming that individuals cannot become criminal by themselves.

Evaluation: Again, how did criminal behaviour come to exist if it has to be learnt?

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The principle part of the learning of criminal behaviour occurs within intimate personal groups. Sutherland felt that intimate personal groups provided the largest influence on the learning of criminal behaviour. He felt that impersonal agencies of communication such as newspapers  and films (eg media) played a relatively unimportant role in the learning of criminal behaviour.

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Sutherland believed that when criminal behaviour is learned, the learning includes the techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes very simple, and the specific difrection of motives, drives, rationalisations and attitudes.

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The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favourable or unfavourable. Groups of people may see certain laws as pointless or discriminatory and therefore feel they can flaunt them or that it is right to break them, for example underage drinking laws.

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A person becomes delinquent because of an excess favourable to violation of law over definitions unfavourable to violation of law. This is the principle of differential association. Individuals become criminal due to repeated contacts with criminal activity and a lack of contac with non-criminal activity.

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Differential associations (number of contacts with criminals over non-criminals) may vary in frequency, duration, priority and intensity. According to Sutherland, a precise description of a person's criminal behaviour would be possible in quantitave form by analysing the number of contacts with criminals, which would lead to a mathematical ratio being reached. Unfortuanately, as he pointed out, an appropriate formula had yet to be developed due to the sheer difficulty inolved.

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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. In this point, Sutherland claims that criminal behaviour is learned just like every other behaviour. In other words, he felt there was nothing "special"  or "abnormal" about criminal behaviour, or criminals, thus going against the claims of biological and pathological theorists.

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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.

Eg. a thief generally steals in order to obtain money. However such an action is no different from the work of an honest labourer, so this need in itself cannot explain theft.

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Sutherland's theory is based on two key assumptions:

  • Deviance occurs when people define a certain human situation as an appropriate occasion for violating social norms or criminal laws.
  • Definitions of the situation are acquired through an individual's history of past experience.

The theory emphasises the social-psychological processes by which people produce subjective definitions of whether an action is criminal. Sutherland argued that it is necessary to examine the normal learning process whereby a person comes to define a particular situation as more or less appropriate for deviant behaviour. This is what happens in the peer group and the street gang as a young person moves away from parental influence. It seems a powerful explanation for certain types of violence, but falls short when applied to crimes committed by individuals acting alone.

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