The Role of Differential Association Theory on Modern Criminology

Subject: Law
Pages: 8
Words: 1980
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: College

Criminals are more often than not considered outcasts of society because their behavior does not conform to societal laws. Unfortunately, society fails to recognize its influence in shaping the behavior of these criminals. Sutherland investigated criminal behavior and eventually came up with the differential association theory. Understanding differential theory as a university-led to the formulation of core values that seek to define behavior at Saint Leo: The First Florida Catholic University.

The university aims at promoting noble character by enabling students to learn the skills and absorb the knowledge required to mold them into morally responsible leaders. The differential association theory was coined by Edwin Sutherland in 1939, a sociologist in the school of Chicago and a pioneer of the thought of symbolic interaction. He used this theory to explain criminal behavior and how to rationalize it as either normal or enjoyable (Lainer & Henry, 2004). The differential association has been used in the contemporary explanation of juvenile gang crime and white-collar crime.

The differential association theory entails two elements in modern criminology: learning, and the content of what is learned. This theory gives an articulate definition of criminology using nine postulates (Lily, Cullen, & Ball, 2011). To begin with, criminal behavior is learned. Secondly, learning is through social groups notwithstanding that these groups may not be engaging in criminal behavior. Thirdly, learning of criminal behavior will principally prevail within intimate personal groups.

When people are in a close association such as family, peers, or people with a common interest, illegal behavior tends to be endorsed. An example is mob justice. When a rowdy mob catches up with a thief, he is brutally handled by being mercilessly beaten to death, or on the verge of death. As a crowd, this inhumane behavior is acceptable but considered illegal by the law. The persons in the crowd may not necessarily be criminals but due to their emotions and psychology at the time, their brutal manhandling of the thief seems acceptable.

Fourthly, criminal behavior entails learning the necessary skills required to execute an action and developing non-conformist attitudes that are only conducive to illegal/criminal activity. Worth noting is that being part of a non-conformist/criminal group does make one a non-conformist or criminal but rather, excessive exposure to criminal acts is what translates or adequately incites criminal behavior. This is as stated in the fifth proposition, “there is need to make the distinction of favorable and unfavorable legal codes” (Lily, Cullen, & Ball, 2011).

Depending on which legal codes are in excess, a person’s behavior is defined. When there is an excess of definitions favoring violation of the law against definitions that do not favor violation of law, then the person qualifies to be called a delinquent (Lily, Cullen, & Ball, 2011). This is the fundamental principle of differential association stated in the sixth proposition. In a bid to explain this statement, Sutherland quoted the following statement in his ninth proposition, “Though criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those general needs and values since non-criminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values” (Sutherland 1947). The two propositions spell the same thing; criminal behavior predominates when there is an excess in the expression of the needs and values defining criminal behavior.

Differential association varies in terms of duration, frequency, intensity, and priority. The magnitude of these four elements greatly determines the kind of behavior an individual, or group of individuals will adopt. Criminal behavior predominates when all the four elements are greater in magnitude, otherwise, it will not be inducted. Understanding the nine propositions that define differential association and associated criminal behavior is very important since learning institutions like Saint Leo can devise mechanisms that positively postulate differential association to foster decent and noble character. The learning process of criminal behavior by association is similar to any other learning process.

As the eighth proposition, criminal behavior can be socially eradicated by ensuring that the social environment is conducive enough to promote good behavior by association. In the ghetto of the United States, for example, crime is usually at its peak compared with other parts of the country. Life in the ghetto is one in which poverty reigns and shoddy business dealings are evident. In such an environment, individuals are likely to learn criminal behavior by association.

The differential association theory gives a social perspective through association in explaining criminal behavior. It is used to explain various forms of criminal behavior such as juvenile delinquency, white-collar crime, and gang crimes. As it will later be explained, through differential association, young people especially in college and university engage, and promote criminal behavior. Most often than not, juvenile delinquency is evident in drug and substance abuse, which automatically results in criminal behavior due to a lack of sound judgment. White-collar crime is born from the differential association through re-education and re-socialization. Gang crime is similar to juvenile delinquency in that in both scenarios, individuals promoting criminal behavior come together to execute criminal activities.

Learning differential association in modern criminology is very important for society and especially formal learning institutions. This is because they are the best places to practice re-education and re-socialization in transforming individuals with negative behavior so that they can adopt a positive one. In learning criminology, the differential association enables criminologists and sociologists to realize that behavior can be easily changed.

Therefore, ensuring that positive behavior is achieved should be the priority in learning institutions. Criminologists can adopt differential associations to foster change in criminals. As a result, rehabilitation which entails re-education and re-socialization applies to law offenders to transform them. Re-education replaces excuses and justifications for crime by giving rise to sound judgment for following the law. Parental skills and peer evaluation training help to achieve re-socialization.

The differential association theory helps individuals to realize the essence of social learning in behavior development. Social learning is easily achieved through social interaction hence; it is an easy way to ensure the development of positive behavior (Bandura, 1977). In the contemporary criminal world, criminals have been associated with deteriorated family backgrounds. Therefore, crime should not only be confined to the rather complex pathological field.

Differential social association and differential social organization are two opposite sides of the same coin in that both concepts are dually used to explain modern criminology. In an attempt to explain why individuals get drawn into crime, differential association theory becomes a social-psychological theory. The differential social organization explains why crime rates are higher in certain societies of America and not in others, thus, qualifying for structural theory. In areas/societies where definitions for crime flourish, individuals learn to differentially associate with criminal values.

Differential association theory shows that criminals are not different from law-abiding individuals. Therefore, this theory stipulates that criminals can be taught how to develop codes that favor no violation of the law. The same way that individuals associate with a crime because of absorbing pro-criminal definitions with greater intensity, duration, frequency, and priority is the same way that they can be taught to absorb and relate to anti-criminal definitions. The differential theory gives individuals an understanding about the roadway to crime. Law breakers are not pathological creatures that are driven by demons and/or faulty constitutions.

On the contrary, through differential association theory, criminal behavior is understood as a misfortune that results from growing up in a hostile environment such as the slums, full of idle people and drunkards. Differential association theory explains why various crimes occur. As a matter of fact, Sutherland used this theory to explain the life history of a renowned professional thief: Chic Cornwell. The differential association theory is therefore not limited to explaining youth crimes or juvenile delinquency.

The differential theory could be applied in all institutions because it explains people’s demeanor; why they are the way they are. It is very relevant in defining high-tech theft by respectable people of high social cadre. Such criminal activity was termed “white-collar crime” by Sutherland. Based on his investigation, he established that lawlessness was not confined to literal thieves but rather, it was widespread in various spheres such as politics, business and professions. In the contemporary world, illegal acts by the so called upper socioeconomic class are very common in the form of corruption and mismanagement of funds. For example, in his investigations, Sutherland identified frequent violation of the legal framework by large American corporations to the extent that this could be termed habitual crime (Lily, Cullen, & Ball, 2011).

Differential association theory has been shown to apply in all types of criminal behavior. In an attempt to explain crime among the affluent, Sutherland stated that illegal actions are considered a normalcy in business. As noted, the affluent/white-collar workers did not grow up in slums, poverty, or badly deteriorated families. In addition, they were not feebleminded or psychopathic. Instead, they were reared in good neighborhoods and homes. Understanding the association of criminology and differential association theory becomes an essential factor at the juncture where people get into college.

The college is a very critical area where behavior is learned and adopted. In college, individuals will engage in certain business situations where crime is a practical folkway, as in any other folkway (Lily, Cullen, & Ball, 2011). Engagement in crime at this level leads to transformation. Just like the way slum dwellers are shaped into professional thieves by their environment, when individuals associate themselves with definitions favoring violation of law while at college, they shift from becoming white-collar workers into white-collar criminals.

The differential association theory depicts that crime results as a consequence of cultural transmission by giving rise to cultural deviance. Cultural deviance is the means by which people engage in criminal behavior by learning through social interactions. Colleges and to be specific Saint Leo university are bent on ensuring that crime is suppressed by using the theory of differential association to impact positive behavior on students.

The differential association theory helps to explain crime as a social phenomenon, and shifts from pathological and biological perspectives. It attempts to integrate criminals into the society by recognizing it complexity regardless of class boundaries. The differential theory appreciates criminals by noting that engagement in criminal behavior is due to interaction as groups rather than psychological effects.

Societal anomie and conflict of norms are regarded as attributing factors to crime because they result in criminogenic economic environments. The power of peer definition, with regard to crime, is the most relevant example when explaining the role of differential association theory in modern criminology. The strongest correlate of juvenile delinquency is criminal peers since criminal peers tend form networks. The differential association theory formed a basis for expansion by Burgess and Akers. They included rewards and punishments to the learning process in that rewarded behavior was repeated unlike punishable behavior (Akers, 1997).

Differential association is a very important concept to criminologists as well as sociologists as it helps them to gain a better understanding of criminal behavior. The nine propositions used to describe differential association are intertwined and have the common aim of showing that criminal behavior is socially learned, just like any other behavior. It shows how criminal behavior is transmitted in peers through cultural transmission.

The theory of differential association has been of fundamental input in structuring the core values of Saint Leo University. Realizing the importance of the environment in shaping behavior has enabled the university to create environments characterized by social responsibility that challenges the students to learn, listen, change and serve others. The University is a critical area in life that greatly shapes one’s behavior. This theory therefore dictates the necessity of a favorable environment that moulds noble character that respects human life in as far as criminal behavior is concerned. In the same way that criminal behavior is learned, the environment can also play a role in transforming behavior from negative to positive behavior.


Akers, R. (1997). Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation and Application. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Lainer, M., & Henry, S. (2004). Essential Criminology. 2nd ed. Boulder: Westview Press.

Lily, J., Cullen, F., & Ball, R. (2011). Criminological Theory: Context and Consequences. 5th ed. California: Sage Publications.

Sutherland, E. (1947). Principles of Criminology. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.