Adapted from pp. 14-15, 153-155 of Analyzing Deviance, Dorsey Press, 1983.
©James D. Orcutt, 2006

Edwin H. Sutherland

Sutherland's differential association theory

Although Sutherland began work on a general explanation of criminal behavior in the 1920s, his first formal statement of differential association theory appeared in the 1939 edition of his textbook, Principles of Criminology. Sutherland's subsequent revision of the theory in the 1947 edition of his textbook continues to influence contemporary theoretical and empirical work on the social learning of deviant behavior.

Sutherland's theory consists of nine statements that specify various elements of the interpersonal process through which individuals learn to engage in law-violating behavior. The central explanatory principle of differential association--which is contained in statement 6 of the theory--is simple and straightforward: a person engages in criminal behavior "because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law" (Sutherland and Cressey, 1974: 75). All of us are members of intimate personal groups where we are exposed to definitions unfavorable to violation of law. In the family environment, for instance, we learn from our parents that we should respect and obey the law. However, most of us have also at some time been involved in groups where the law is defined in unfavorable terms. For example, some of your close friends might define laws prohibiting the use of certain drugs as unfair and might assure you that the chances of being caught for drug use are small. But, as Sutherland points out above, the mere fact that interpersonal communication in some groups exposes a person to unfavorable definitions of the law is not sufficient to produce criminal behavior. Criminal behavior results only when such definitions exceed noncriminal definitions that support the law. Thus, it is not the absolute amount of exposure to criminal patterns that is important; the differential or ratio of associations with criminal and noncriminal patterns is what provides the theoretical key to Sutherland's explanation of criminal behavior.

However, it is clear from other statements in Sutherland's theory and from his comments on those statements that the content of the criminal learning process includes much more than just definitions that oppose or support legal norms. More broadly, people learn various criminal or anticriminal patterns that are differentially present in their social environment (1974: 76). A criminal pattern refers to a complex but organized set of behaviors and cultural meanings that support violation of the law. The behavioral component of a criminal pattern "includes. . . techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes very simple" (1974: 75). But, merely learning how to commit a crime is not sufficient to cause a person actually to engage in criminal behavior. Criminal patterns also include a subjective component-cultural meanings attached to criminal behavior that make a person willing or motivated to violate the law. In addition to unfavorable definitions or evaluations of the law, these cultural meanings also include various "motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes" that channel a person's behavior in a criminal direction (1974: 75). Although Sutherland does not devote detailed attention to anti-criminal patterns, we can reasonably assume that this concept refers to patterns of law-abiding behavior and conventional cultural meanings. Most of us are not criminals, Sutherland would argue, because our associations with anticriminal patterns predominate over our expsure to criminal patterns. However, this ratio of associations is reversed in the social environment of criminals. Reiterating the central principle of differential association theory, Sutherland states that "(w)hen persons become criminal, they do so because of contacts with criminal patterns and also because of isolation from anticriminal patterns" (1974: 76).

What is the nature of the learning process by which criminal patterns are acquired by the individual? Statements 2, 3, and 8 in Sutherland's theory give concise answers to this question (1974: 75-76):

2. Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.
3. The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups.
8. The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anticriminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning.

In short, criminal behavior is a product of normal social learning through interaction in primary groups, such as friends or family.

Sutherland’s argument that law-violating behavior is socially learned from an excess of interpersonal associations with criminal patterns is appealing for its clarity and simplicity. But, as statement 7 in his theory indicates, he was cautious not to oversimplify his analysis of this micro-level process (1974: 76): “Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.” Here, he specifies a number of analytical variables that figure into the misleadingly simple conception of an "excess" of associations. This excess may come about through more frequent exposure to criminal patterns than to anticriminal patterns, or it may be a function of greater duration  of contact with criminal patterns over time. With regard to the variable of priority, Sutherland suggests that criminal learning early in life may be especially influential on the individual. Finally, Sutherland does not precisely define the meaning of intensity, but he indicates that “it has to do with such things as the prestige of the source of a criminal or anticriminal pattern and with emotional reactions related to the associations” (1974: 76). All of these contingencies in the social learning process can affect the relative impact of criminal patterns or anticriminal patterns on the individual’s behavior.