In his differential association theory Edwin Sutherland proposes that criminal behaviour is learned. A person will be delinquent if there are prior attitudes that favour violations of the law, as opposed to attitudes that negatively evaluate violations of the law.
Edwin Sutherland’s theory of differential association assumes that criminal behavior is learned through contact with individuals who are themselves criminal.
It is therefore also called the “theory of differential contacts”. The term “association”, however, refines this idea by the realization that it is not sufficient to merely contact criminal persons, but that during these contacts the criminal definitions and attitudes must also be successfully conveyed.
The basic thesis here is that criminal behaviour is learned when more attitudes are learned that favour violations of the law than those that negatively evaluate violations of the law. Conversely, learning criminal attitudes, motives and definitions becomes all the more likely the more contact there is with people and groups who violate the law and the less contact there is with people and groups who live according to the rules.
In simple terms, one could say that contact with criminals leads to one’s own criminal behaviour by learning the corresponding behaviour in a model manner. This becomes even more likey when there is fewer contact to non-criminals.
Sutherland’s theory of differential contacts (see diagram) is based on nine theses which summarize the theory of differential association:
- Criminal behaviour has been learned.
- Criminal behaviour is learned in interaction with other persons in a communication process.
- The learning processes take place primarily in small and intimate groups (and thus less through (mass) media, for example).
- The learning of criminal behaviour includes the learning of techniques to commit a crime as well as specific motives, rationalisations and attitudes that favour criminal behaviour.
- The specific direction of motives and drives is learned by defining laws positively or negatively.
- A person becomes delinquent as a result of the predominance of attitudes that favour the violation over those that take a negative view of the violation.
- Differential contacts vary according to frequency, duration, priority and intensity.
- The process of learning criminal behaviour includes all the mechanisms involved in any other learning process.
- Although criminal behaviour is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by them. Non-criminal behaviour can also infer from exactly the same values and needs (e.g. sexual urges).
Implication for criminal policy
Sutherland’s theory of differential association stands for a rehabilitative ideal. Since criminal attitudes and activities can be learnt, these can be logically deduced and re-learned, or compliant behaviour, attitudes and rationalisation can be achieved in the first place.
In the sense of the ultimately decisive imbalance in theory between associated attitudes that favour violations of the law and attitudes that evaluate violations of the law negatively, it must therefore be the goal of justice and society to surround criminals with non-criminals or to dissolve social spaces in which predominantly people with deviant motives and patterns of action live.
Furthermore, criminal law must build on the ideal of rehabilitating offenders.
Critical appreciation & relevance
In the past, Sutherland was often accused of theoretical gaps in his concept, for which other theories or theoretical extensions were developed.
Thus Sutherland himself drew attention to the different needs and preferences of learning individuals, who significantly contribute to deciding whether deviant actions and attitudes are accepted or not.
Glaser pointed out, however, that it is not the number of people with deviant attitudes that is decisive for learning crime, but rather the degree of identification with one or a few people.
Cloward & Ohlin pointed out that access to illegitimate means or exclusion from legitimate means is a decisive factor.
Akers (and also Eysenck) extended Sutherland’s theory to include a detailed analysis of the learning processes taking place (conditioning, social learning/ observing a model, etc.).
Despite this, Sutherland’s crime-related learning theory has to struggle with the accusation of partial tautology, since the existence of delinquency must already exist for it to be passed on at all.
Furthermore, the theory of differential associations does not take into account instinctive and affect crimes, nor does it take into account the fact that the cognitive abilities of different individuals can also be varying.
Sutherland’s thesis also assumes a purely behaviorist view: The human being reacts automatically and reflexively to stimuli in the environment. Cognitive or unbiased aspects are not sufficiently considered here, yet Sutherland’s theory can be regarded as a far-reaching anti-biologistic theory. According to Sutherland, the consideration of social processes in the search for the causes of crime has only really taken its course and has certainly long since become predominant in criminological research alongside social-structural aspects. The idea that crime can be learned has turned the previously very perpetrator-oriented perspective into a sociological and socio-psychological one.
- Edwin H. Sutherland (1924): Principles of Criminology. Auflage von 1966, mit Donald R. Cressey, Philadelphia.