Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory Explained


Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory proposes that people learn their values, motives, techniques, and attitudes through their interactions with other people. In the world of criminology, it is this process which helps a person “learn” how to become a criminal. When the choices to commit a crime seem “normal” within the environment of an individual, then the risks of becoming a criminal become higher.

The theory looks at the act of learning how to become a criminal, but doesn’t address why criminal behavior is chosen over behaviors that are more accepted as a societal norm.

Sutherland’s Theory Can Be Stated in 9 Propositions

There are many ways to approach Sutherland’s differential association theory. There are several factors that are often considered to be influential in the learning process of a criminal. This might include their socioeconomic status, the relationship their parents have with each other, or the acceptance of criminal behavior by an individual with whom they have a close attachment.

The approaches may be many, but the principles of Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory can be described through 9 key propositions.

  1. All criminal behavior is considered to be a learned behavior.
  2. Criminal behaviors are learned through the interactions that one person has with others through variable communication processes.
  3. The principle component of the learning process for criminal behaviors occurs within the intimate personal circles and relationships of the individual.
  4. The learning process for criminal behavior can include many different components. This may include specific techniques that can be used to commit a crime. It may include specific motives and rationalizations. It can also include the attitudes which are necessary to go against what is considered a societal norm.
  5. The direction of motives and drives is learned from the favorable or unfavorable interpretation of the legal codes which exist in that person’s jurisdictions.
  6. People choose to become criminals because there is an excessive number of favorable conclusions to violating the law compared to the unfavorable conclusions that they are able to determine.
  7. Differential associations can be extremely variable. They may vary in intensity, priority, duration, and frequency.
  8. The process of learning criminal behaviors through association involves the same mechanisms that people use for all other types of learning.
  9. Criminal behavior may be an express of generalized values or needs, but it is not explained by those needs since non-criminal behaviors have the same requirements.

The differential association theory predicts that individuals will choose a path toward criminal conduct when the balance of favorability leans toward breaking the law instead of abiding by it. Then, if the decision to break the law is seen in a favorable way by those who are most intimate with the individual making the decision, the positive aspects of being a criminal will be reinforced in their mind.

Differential Association Theory and Practical Crime

Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory is not an evaluation of what would be considered a “practical crime.” Sometimes people decide to break the law because there is a basic need which they need to have fulfilled.

  • If someone is hungry, they will be more likely to steal food or money so they can have their need for food satisfied.
  • If someone is thirsty, they will be more likely to steal something to drink if they do not have access to public water resources.
  • If someone does not have a place to live, they may steal property access for some time so they can have a roof over their heads.

The use of needs in the differential association theory is equivocal to values, but only when there isn’t the perception of a life-threatening consequence involved. Someone who hasn’t eaten in three days will steal a candy bar for a very different reason than 14-year-old kid who is looking to experience a thrill.

Yet there are also certain motivations that are in place for practical crime when compared to non-practical crime. Criminal behaviors are often motivated by the need for money, to achieve social status, or meet an internal craving. Non-criminal behaviors are often motivated by the same needs. So there may be a certain practicality to certain crime that is committed, but the temptation to commit a practical crime will be greater in those, according to Sutherland, who grew up or are currently in an environment that would support criminal actions over non-criminal actions.

World Views and the Differential Association Theory

People will view the world differently based on what happens to them throughout their life. Someone who grew up with abusive parents sees the world differently than someone who had loving parents who never harmed them. Kids who went through divorce or abandonment see the world differently as adults than kids who had a two-parent household.

Even kids in two-parent households that are viewed as unsupportive will see the world differently as adults than kids with supportive two-parent household.

Employment, social relationships, and even personal politics can all be world views that affect the decisions made within the scope off the differential association theory. But because individuals respond to the same situations differently depending on their personal experiences, Sutherland argues that it is the experience, the world view, that is what leads to criminal conduct – not the situation itself.

What Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory Means for the United States

In the United States, there is this idea that everyone has an opportunity to pursue the “American Dream.” The goal is to create a comfortable life for oneself and is a better life than what one’s parents had. In American culture, there is a certain respect for the individuals who are able to achieve this, even if they took criminal actions in order to make it happen.

On a societal level, the US often celebrates the criminal if they are able to pull off a criminal act successfully. This is why there is a certain “romanticism” with stories like D.B. Cooper.

D.B. Cooper purchased a one-way ticket from Portland to Seattle in 1971. He boarded the flight, which was a Boeing 727, carrying a briefcase while wearing an overcoat and suit. Cooper got a drink, paid for it, and then passed a note to a flight attendant that he had a bomb.

The note also said that he wanted $200,000 in $20 bills with two parachutes waiting for him when the flight landed in Seattle. The FBI paid the ransom, but photographed and documented each bill. Once the demands were met, Cooper released the passengers.

The pilots were then ordered to fly to Mexico City at 200 mph at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Just twenty minutes after the plane took-off, one of the flight attendants noticed the hijacker tying something to his body. The rear staircase indicator light came on in the cockpit. By 8:13 pm, D.B. Cooper, the money, and the parachutes had left the aircraft.

As the years have passed, clues have been found. In 1978, an information placard from the flight was found in Castle Rock, WA. Two years later, $5,800 of the ransom was found buried along the Columbia River. Part of one of the parachutes was found in 2008.

The rest of the money has never been found. It has not been discovered in circulation. D.B. Cooper has never been located, although some have claimed that he is a family member of theirs.

The actions of Cooper are clearly illegal. Yet because he committed this crime over 40 years ago and was never caught, his actions are sometimes celebrated in American society. This celebration can have an effect on an individual’s learning process, which can then contribute to the decision to commit their own crime.

Criticism of the Differential Association Theory

Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory thinks of a human being like a sponge. Instead of being a logical, rational being, all humans, according to Sutherland, are reflections of other people who are influential in their lives. If someone has a group of friends who are criminals, then they are also likely to become a criminal because the social bonds are greater than the moral bonds which may exist.

The criticism of this theory is that it doesn’t take into account the specific personality traits that a person may have. People can choose to change their environments, even as children, to surround themselves with people who feel that criminal conduct is immoral. People can also be surrounded by non-criminal influences and choose to rebel against them, choosing to become a criminal instead.

People can be individually motivated. They can be independent. They can be rational actors. This means all of the factors that could influence a person to become a criminal through the differential association theory can become inconsequential.

Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory has been the backbone of modern research into criminal conduct. When a crime is committed, one of the first investigatory tools used is to look at that person’s background. Influential factors can be determined and this is information that society can use to prevent similar crimes in the future.