Differential Association Theory


Edwin Sutherland set out to develop a theory which would have the same characteristics as other scientific theories, namely, that "the conditions which are said to cause crime should be present when crime is present, and they should be absent when crime is absent." Sutherland recognized that while some types of crime are more prevalent in minority communities, many individuals in those communities are law-abiding. Similarly, among the powerful and privileged, some are lawbreakers; some are not. His theory is intended to discriminate at the individual level between those who become lawbreakers and those who do not, whatever their race, class, or ethnic background.

His theory gives priority to the power of social influences and learning experiences and can be expressed in terms of a series of propositions, which I am going to condense as follows:

1. Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.

2. That learning takes place primarily in intimate personal groups and includes not only the techniques of committing crime but the motives, rationalizations, and attitudes which accompany crime.

3. Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity, and a person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law.

4. The learning process involves the same mechanisms whether a person is learning criminality or conformity.

Thus it isn't a lack of social organization that characterizes communities and neighborhoods high in crime, but a differential social organization--a set of practices and cultural definitions that are at odds with the law.As Sutherland puts it: "In an area where the delinquency rate is high, a boy who is sociable, gregarious, active, and athletic is very likely to come in contact with other boys in the neighborhood, learn delinquent behavior from them, and become a gangster; the psychopathic boy who is isolated, introverted and inert may remain at home, not become acquainted with other boys in the neighborhood, and not become delinquent." Of course, it's not only the psychopaths who don't get out. In their book Growing Up Poor, Kornblum and Terry learn to recognize a group of super-achievers that come from neighborhoods where deviant values predominate but whose parents manage to keep them encircled in a round of nonstreet activities that centers around school, family, and church.

As the first criminologist to give sustained attention to white collar and organizational crime, Sutherland is also concerned that his theory apply to those from more privileged class backgrounds. To understand the behavior of the corporate criminal, or for that matter the corrupt cop, Sutherland would direct us to the values and mores of that person's immediate social circle. "Most communities," says Sutherland, "are organized for both criminal and anticriminal behavior." Sutherland's theory directs us toward the network of key social relations that differentiates the deviant and the conformist.

Sutherland's original hope is that we could put variables like the "frequency, intensity, and duration" of exposure to deviant and nondeviant definitions on a quasi-mathematical basis. Even if this isn't possible, and so far it has proved highly resistant to such specification, the real challenge of applying Sutherland's theory is to develop concrete criteria for these variables that are not after-the-fact. We have to be able to specify in advance of major law-breaking activities the networks and relationships that are propelling one individual toward crime and the other toward conformity. The two brothers, Darrin(Doughboy) and Ricky, in Boyz 'n the Hood, are a good example. At the time he is gunned down, Ricky is just hours away from learning that his test scores have qualified him for college, while Darrin is clearly destined for life in the "hood." At that point, we can pretty readily specify the exposures and relationships that have pointed each brother in a different direction. Ricky's best friend, Trey, is also college-bound; coaches probably play a role, because of Ricky's football skills; and the boys' mother has always related to Ricky in terms of what she believes will be his eventual achievements. On the other hand, Doughboy's friends are the classic dead-end kids, and his mother regards him much more negatively than Ricky.

What complicates our ability for a straightforward differential association explanation are the scenes earlier in the movie, for example, when Darrin and Trey and Ricky encounter older kids who take away Ricky's football. Already then Darrin is the one who is ready to take them on, while Ricky seems willing to accept the loss of his football. Have they already been shaped by differential associations? Ultimately what perhaps makes the greatest difference between the two brother's are Darrin's encounters with the police and his incarceration in a juvenile reformatory. That's where we might want to supplement Sutherland's differential association theory with another theory in the symbolic interactionist tradition, namely labeling theory.