Jul 1, 2020 in Analysis
Differential Association

Differential association is one of the theories used in criminology. Differential association is a theory that was developed by Edwin Sutherland. The theory proposes that interacting with people seen as having a criminal mindset can influence a person’s attitude and conduct, leading to acquisition of knowledge about these crimes and eventually development of a criminal behavior. Through differential association theory, the social context of criminology is brought to the forefront, namely to find explanation of how behaviors of various people are influenced by their interaction with others. This theory is, therefore, an important part of criminology that tries to understand how social interactions can impact on a person, thereby leading to crime. Various questions can, therefore, be answered using this approach such as why people who interact with criminals commit crime among others. Through this interaction and communication process, the individual learns how to act in a deviant manner first by learning the skills and techniques one requires to commit the crimes, and then they develop various definitions that are favorable to any crimes that they are committing. Despite this, there are critics stating that people can be independent and make rational decisions without being affected by deviant groups. 

Differential Association Theory

In criminology, various theories have been devised to try and explain the behavior of people or the patterns taken during any crime. Differential association is one of these theories, and it represents one of the most important theories in criminology. Relating to history, differential association brings a new sociological perspective on the subject of criminology. Differential association theory endeavors to explain the way the interaction with different people impacts on the conduct of others. Thus, this theory is a part of criminology trying to understand the way in which social interactions can trigger criminal behavior. Using this theory, it is possible to understand why people who interact with criminals also commit crimes. Therefore, the theory proposes that through interaction with people regarded as criminals, the individuals learn from them and acquire motives for criminal behavior. This paper discusses differential association theory, its background, and critics and gives an example of a case with regard to differential association. 

Type of your assignment
Academic level

Differential association is a method that was developed by Edwin Sutherland. The theory proposes that interaction with people having a criminal mindset can impact on a person’s behavior and attitude, leading to the development of criminal conduct. According to Herman, differential association theory is mostly applicable to criminals who commit crimes in groups. Among other theories, this is the most common theory of deviance. Differential association provides explanation of how people develop criminal tendencies. However, the theory does not try to understand various motivations behind these criminal tendencies. According to this theory, criminal behavior is learned and is a process of communicating with groups related to crime. During the study, Sutherland explained differential association as a set of nine propositions. These plans paved the way for three of the most used modern concepts in criminology, namely differential association, normative conflict, and differential group organization. These theories try to bring to light crime at various levels such as societal, individual, and group levels. 

Differential association tries to explain crime at an individual’s level, namely why interaction with others in the society leads to a person committing crimes. According to the theory, a person learns his/her criminal behavior through being in constant interaction with other people in the society who commit a crime. During the process of learning how to commit crimes, two aspects can be deduced. The first one is the required techniques and skills to commit the offense. These methods can range in complexity from very sophisticated techniques to simple ones. In fact, they can range from hacking or even insider trading in large companies to simple skills such as pickpocketing and grab and run skills. The second aspect is the one that defines the favorability or unfavorability of a certain crime. What this aspect describes is what happens in the mind of the criminal to make what he/she intends to do either justified or unjustified. These are, therefore, the motivations, rationale, and verbalization of the crime. Various criminals use different techniques, for example sweet talking is used by those who embezzle funds, while delinquents use various neutralizing skills. Examples of some of the motivations that drive a person to commit any tax fraud are ‘each person lies in their taxes’, ‘it is not stealing’, and ‘the government does not have the right to tax everyone,’ among others. Another person might decide to drive home drunk, and some of their motivations for doing so include ‘my home is not so far away,’ ‘it is late so no one will notice,’ and ‘I only had a few beers.’ Sutherland maintains that the learning process associated with acquiring delinquent behavior is not different from other learning skills. Hereby, such are examples of instances that excuse crime in the heads of the criminals. 

From the above-mentioned information, it is evident that there are favorable definitions of crime. They, therefore, sound justified in a criminal’s head and help them structure a particular criminal act at a certain situation. These favorable definitions of crime help to clarify several notes on crime definition. Firstly, some definitions are offense-specific since some only refer to a certain type of crime, others describe a specific class of crime, and the rest generalize all crimes. Secondly, each definition is either favorable or unfavorable for a criminal act to occur. Apparently, this means that a definition serves two purposes, namely either to motivate and encourage the criminal to commit a specific crime or to prevent the person from committing a crime at a specific time. Lastly, the definitions are not only rationalizations of crimes but are rather their causes. In the study, Sutherland gave a hypothesis that any criminal behavior is caused by the ratio of the definitions favorable to that crime to the definitions unfavorable to that crime at a particular time. Apart from this, Sutherland also noted that the definitions of crime vary; hence, they are never equal. The definitions, therefore, can vary taking into account their level of importance, namely the frequency that a definition has become present, the length of time that a particular person has been exposed to a certain definition, the intensity of the relationship of the person presenting the definition, and how early in a person’s life that definition was presented. Therefore, for a person to commit the crime, the person has to learn the skills and techniques to commit the crime, the person’s ratio of favorable definitions of the crime should outweigh his/ her unfavorable definitions of the crime, and the person should have the right opportunity to conduct the crime. Without any of the above conditions, a person can, therefore, not commit the crime. 

Various principles have arisen from differential association and are, therefore, the foundation of whether a specific individual commits a crime or not. The first principle is that criminal activities have to be learned. In fact, this means that an individual has to associate with specific people or groups that conduct crimes to be able to learn the needed skills. Through communication, the person in question learns how the crime process works till they can commit a crime by themselves. To explain a person’s criminal activity, one should analyze frequency and intensity of interaction that are the main qualities of differential association. Frequency refers to the amount of time that a person supports a specific definition of the crime and when the interaction with this definition began. Frequency is, therefore, important in shaping an individual’s criminal behavior. Those exposed to a favorable definition of crime for extended periods of time are more likely to commit crimes than those exposed to the same definition for a significantly lesser amount of time. Moreover, frequency determines the rate of the individual criminal tendencies. Those exposed for longer periods of time are more likely to tend to criminal acts than those who have been exposed to the definition fewer times. Additionally, intensity can be used to refer to either the magnitude of exposal towards favorable definitions of crime or the relationship an individual has with the group or people exposing him/her to criminal acts. In instances when stronger bonds occur, criminal tendencies are learned. In other cases, when the bond with the people or group is minimal, then exposal to favorable definitions of crime might not lead an individual to commit crimes. Therefore, the principles of differential association and their qualities are factors that lead the individual to commit crimes. 

The last principle of differential association states that even though delinquent behavior represents an expression of different needs and the attitude of an individual, the behavior should not be accepted or explained by these needs and attitude of the individual. The reason is that non-delinquent behavior is explained by these needs and attitudes. What this principle means is that even individuals who explain their actions as trying to fulfill their primary needs are not justified to do so. The reason is that even though individuals are facing the same circumstances as delinquent individuals, they do not cause delinquent behavior. Sutherland, therefore, concludes that the drive by the negligent individuals and those individuals who follow the law are not the same. From this principle, the motivation for committing a certain crime does not justify it. An example can be given for a person who is not well off stealing so that they can get rich. Stealing since you are poor or not well-off is inexcusable. This action would not explain the behavior of other people who are not rich and yet do not steal. 

From this perspective, it is not a lack of social structure that characterizes a specific society or neighborhood as having a high rate of crime, but a differential social organization. Thus, this refers to a class of cultural definitions and practices that are not in accordance with the law. To explain the concept, Sutherland used a certain case. In a specific neighborhood where the rates of crime are high, a boy who is regarded as being social, strong and active is likely to interact with other boys of the same neighborhood. If the boys are observed to have delinquent behavior, then the interaction of that one boy with the rest boys would lead to the adoption of the delinquent behavior. He would join gangs in the neighborhood and start conducting crimes. However, this is in contrast to another boy who is observed to be introverted. The inert boy would remain at home and hardly interact with others in his neighborhood. From staying at home, the boy would not become acquainted with the ways of the rest of the boys and would not become delinquent. What is more, this can be the case for individuals living in such delinquent neighborhoods but who have strict parents who keep them in check. The parents are responsible for keeping them in close circles, thereby preventing any influence from the delinquent neighborhood. The best way that parents are able to do this is by revolving the child’s life in schoolwork, family, and religion. From this example, it is clear that origin in delinquent neighborhoods does not necessarily mean that an individual develops criminal behaviors. Thus, it all is connected with the associations or interactions that they make. 

Despite various applications in criminology, differential association has had some critics. One of these critics stated that people can be independent. Hereby, this means that they do not have to follow what they are told to do. They can be able to make their own decisions that are rational. These individuals do not need to have the same motivation when associating with a delinquent group but are individually motivated. Therefore, the idea that coming into contact with criminals can lead to the development of criminal tendencies is not warranted. Apparently, this is the downside of Sutherland’s differential association theory since it does not take into account the individual traits that one might have that would prevent them from being affected by such environments. Additionally, criticism develops due to the theory’s inability to explain criminal behavior that is not learned from delinquent groups and has developed spontaneously. An example of such case is a child who has been raised in a good neighborhood that does not have delinquent groups. The parents of the child follow the laws to the letter. When the child decides one day to commit a crime such as shoplifting or even shooting at people, then differential association becomes unable to explain the motive of the individual. These downsides do not necessarily mean that the theory is not accurate but only show that it does not give answers to all questions that are related to crime. 

Having been developed many years ago, differential association theory has been used to develop other theories. One of such theories is the social learning theory that dates back to the reformulation of differential association theory by Robert Burgess. It has been used as a foundation which other criminologists have used to study and understand crime. A number of criminologists have, therefore, attempted revise the differential association theory so that it can become viable for empirical tests. These criminologists have followed the path developed by Sutherland and used the society as the basis to develop the social psychological theories related to crime. In fact, they used various principles such as social studying and symbolic interaction. The theories have been developed and built on Sutherland’s principles of differential association to study the society in relation to crime such as investigating personality and containment. Despite tremendous achievements that have been reached through differential association, there is still a long way to go. Therefore, more concepts and principles can still be got from the principles of differential association. 

To enable research on differential association to be studied, a certain direction must be taken by the theorists. The already conducted research is used as a means to prove that differential theory has been used significantly in understanding the pros and cons of differential association. Far from it, additional research needs to give concrete elements of differential association’s general principles. These include the definitions that are favorable to crime, the differing social structure, and the normative conflict. Using these contexts, the social structure of crime would be studied using a specific locational and historical context to answer questions such as important definitions that are favorable to crimes by specific people or critical elements of a differing social structure. Researching this area of study could lead to the development of better theories of crime related to differential association and answer some of the most disturbing questions related to crime. 

In conclusion, differential association is an important theory of criminology. Through differential association, sociological perspective is brought into perspective. The theory tries to explain the impact that delinquent groups can make on an individual, leading to criminal behaviors. Through this interaction and communication process, the individual obtains the needed skills and techniques to commit crimes, and then they develop different definitions that are favorable to any crimes that they are committing. However, interaction with deviant groups does not necessarily mean that a specific individual has to inherit their delinquent ways. The critics of the theory claim that a person can be independent and think rationally, meaning that their interaction with delinquent groups does not mean they have to learn how to commit crimes.


Related essays