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Differential Association Theory

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Differential Association Theory

Sutherland proposed the differential association in 1939. The theory states people learn to become criminals through interactions with others (friends, peers, family members). Motives for criminal behaviour are learned through the values, attitudes, and methods of others. Sutherland’s theory attempted to explain all types of crime, from burglaries to middle-class ‘white-collar crimes’.

Differential association theory definition

Sutherland’s differential association theory of crime proposes nine critical factors in how a person becomes an offender:

  1. Criminal behaviour is learned. It assumes that we are born with a genetic predisposition, drives, and impulses, but the direction in which these go must be learned.

  2. Criminal behaviour is learned through interactions with others through communication.

  3. The learning of criminal behaviour takes place in intimate personal groups.

  4. Learning includes techniques for committing the crime and the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalisations, and attitudes (to justify criminal activity and steer someone toward that activity).

  5. The specific direction of motives and drives is learned by interpreting legal norms as favourable or unfavourable (how people with whom someone interacts view the law).

  6. When the number of interpretations favourable to breaking the law exceeds the number of interpretations unfavourable (through more contact with people who favour the crime), a person becomes a criminal.

    Someone grows up knowing it is wrong to commit a crime (unfavourable to breaking the law), but gets into a bad society that encourages him to commit a crime, may tell him it is okay, and rewards him for criminal behaviour (favourable to breaking the law).

  7. Differential associations may vary in frequency (how often a person interacts with criminal influencers), duration, priority (age at which criminal interactions are first experienced and strength of influence), and intensity (prestige to people/groups with whom someone is associated).

  8. Learning criminal behaviour through interactions with others is the same as for any other behaviour (e.g., observation, imitation).

  9. Criminal behaviour expresses general needs and values; however, those needs and values do not explain it. Since non-criminal behaviour also expresses the same needs and values, no distinction exists between the two behaviours.

Thieves may steal because they need money, but honest workers also need money and work for that money.

The theory can also explain:

  • Why is crime more prevalent in specific communities? Perhaps people learn from each other in some way, or the general attitude of the community is ‘conducive to crime’.

  • Why do offenders often continue their criminal behaviour after being released from prison? Often they have learned in prison how to improve their ‘technique’ through observation and imitation, or even by learning directly from one of the other prisoners.

Differential association theory example

A child grows up in a home where the parents routinely commit criminal acts. The child would grow up believing that these acts are not as wrong as society says they are. To illustrate the influence of associations, imagine two boys living in a neighbourhood conducive to crime. One is outgoing and associates with other criminals in the area. The other is shy and reserved, so he does not get involved with the criminals. The first child later begins to engage in criminal behaviour.

Farrington et al. (2006) conducted a prospective longitudinal study with a sample of 411 male adolescents on the development of offending and antisocial behaviour. In the study, participants were followed from the age of eight years in 1961. They all lived in a disadvantaged working-class neighbourhood in south London. Farrington et al. examined official conviction records and self-reported offences up to age 50. At the end of the study, 41% of participants had at least one conviction.

The main risk factors at age 8–10 years for criminal activity later in life were:

  1. Crime in the family

  2. Impulsivity

  3. Low IQ and low school attainment

  4. Poverty

  5. Poor parenting

This study supports the differential association theory because some of these factors can be attributed to the theory (e.g., family criminality, poverty – which may create the need to steal – poor parenting). Still, genetics also seem to play a role. Familial criminality could be due to both genetics and differential association. Impulsivity and low IQ are genetic factors.

Osborne and West (1979) compared family criminal records and found that when a father had a criminal record, 40% of sons also had a criminal record by age 18, compared with 13% of sons of fathers who did not have a criminal record. This finding suggests that children learn criminal behaviour from their fathers in families with a convicted father through differential association. However, one could also argue that genetics could be to blame since convicted fathers and sons share the genes that predispose them to criminality.

Akers (1979) surveyed 2500 male and female adolescents. They found that differential association and reinforcement accounted for 68% of the variance in marijuana use and 55% of the variance in alcohol use.

Differential association theory evaluation

The following is an overview of the evaluation of differential association theory.

Strengths

  • Differential association theory can explain different types of crimes and crimes people from different socioeconomic backgrounds committed.

    Middle-class people learn to commit ‘white-collar crimes’ by association.

  • Differential association theory successfully moved away from biological reasons for crime. The theory changed people’s view of crime from blaming individual (genetic) factors to blaming social factors, which has real-world applications. A person’s environment can be changed, but genetics cannot.

Weaknesses

  • The research is based on correlations, so we do not know if interactions and associations with others are the real cause of crime. It could be that people who already have deviant attitudes seek out people similar to them.

  • This research does not explain why crime decreases with age. Newburn (2002) found that people under the age of 21 commit 40% of crimes and that many offenders stop committing crimes when they get older. The theory cannot explain this because they should continue to be criminals if they still have the same group of peers or the same relationships.

  • The theory is difficult to measure and test. For example, Sutherland claims a person becomes a criminal when the number of interpretations in favour of breaking the law exceeds the number of interpretations against. However, it is difficult to measure this empirically. How can we accurately measure the number of favourable/unfavourable interpretations a person has experienced throughout their life?

  • The theory can explain less severe crimes like burglaries, but not crimes like murder.

  • Biological factors are not considered. The diathesis-stress model might offer a better explanation. The diathesis-stress model assumes disorders develop because of a person’s genetic predisposition (diathesis) and stressful conditions that play a role in promoting the predisposition.

Differential Association Theory - Key takeaways

  • Sutherland (1939) proposed the differential association theory.

  • The theory states people learn to become offenders through interactions with others (friends, peers, family members).

  • Criminal behaviours are learned through the values, attitudes, methods, and motives of others.

  • Differential association theory studies support the theory, but one could also argue genetics can be to blame.

  • The strengths of differential association theory are that it can explain different types of crimes and crimes committed by people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It has also changed people’s view of crime from individual (genetic) factors to social factors.

  • The weaknesses of differential association theory are that research on it is correlational. It also does not explain why crime decreases with age. The theory is difficult to measure and test empirically. It can explain less serious crimes, but not crimes like murder. Finally, it does not account for biological factors.

Frequently Asked Questions about Differential Association Theory

The nine principles of differential association theory are:


  1. Criminal behaviour is learned.  

  2. Criminal behaviour is learned from interactions with others through communication.

  3. The learning of criminal behaviour occurs within intimate personal groups.

  4. When criminal behaviour is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.

  5. The specific direction of motives and drives is learned through interpretation of legal codes as being favourable or unfavourable.

  6. A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favourable to violation of law over definitions unfavourable to violation of the law.

  7. Differential associations can vary in frequency, duration, priority and intensity.

  8. The process of learning criminal behaviour by association involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning.

  9. Criminal behaviour is an expression of general needs and values.

The main criticisms of differential association theory are:

  • The research on it is correlational, thus we do not know if interactions and associations with others are the real causation of crimes. 

  • The theory does not explain why criminality decreases with age. 

  • The theory is hard to empirically measure and test. 

  • It can account for less severe crimes such as burglary but cannot explain crimes such as murder. 

  • Lastly, biological factors are not taken into account.

A child grows up in a home where the parents routinely commit criminal acts. The child would grow up believing that these acts are not as wrong as society says they are. To illustrate the influence of associations, imagine two boys living in a neighbourhood conducive to crime. One is outgoing and associates with other criminals in the area. The other is shy and reserved, so he does not get involved with the criminals. The first child later begins to engage in criminal behaviour.

Differential association theory is critical because criminal behaviour is learned, which can greatly impact criminal justice policies. For example, offenders could participate in rehabilitation programmes after they are released from prison. They can be helped to find homes away from previous negative associations.

Differential associations can vary in frequency (how often a person interacts with the crime influencers), duration, priority (age at which criminal interactions are first experienced and strength of influence), and intensity (prestige for individuals/groups someone has associations with).

Final Differential Association Theory Quiz

Question

Who proposed differential association theory and when?

Show answer

Answer

Sutherland proposed this theory in 1939.

Show question

Question

What does differential association theory state?

Show answer

Answer

People learn to become offenders through interactions with others (friends, peers, family members). Criminal behaviours are learned through other people’s values, attitudes, methods, and motives.

Show question

Question

How can the theory explain why crime is more prevalent in certain communities?

Show answer

Answer

Perhaps the people are all learning from each other in some aspect, or the community’s general attitude is ‘pro-crime’.

Show question

Question

How can the theory explain why convicts after their release from prison frequently continue offensive behaviour?

Show answer

Answer

Often, in prison, they have learned how to improve their ‘technique’ through observational learning and imitation, or even through direct learning from one of the other prisoners.

Show question

Question

What were the six most significant risk factors for criminal activity at age 8–10, according to Farrington et al. (2006)?

Show answer

Answer

  1. Crime in the family
  2. Impulsivity
  3. Low IQ and low school attainment
  4. Poverty
  5. Poor parenting

Show question

Question

What is a strength and weakness of Farrington et al. (2006) study?

Show answer

Answer

The study shows support for differential association theory; however, some of the factors can also be due to genetics.

Show question

Question

What were the findings of the Osborne and West (1979) study?

Show answer

Answer

Osborne and West (1979) compared family criminal records and found that when a father had a criminal record, 40% of sons also had a criminal record by age 18, compared with 13% of sons of fathers who did not have a criminal record. 

Show question

Question

What conclusions can be drawn from the Osborne and West (1979) study?

Show answer

Answer

This finding suggests that children learn criminal behaviour from their fathers in families with a convicted father through differential association. However, one could also argue that genetics could be to blame since convicted fathers and sons share the genes that predispose them to criminality.

Show question

Question

How do Akers’ (1979) findings support differential association theory?

Show answer

Answer

Akers (1979) surveyed 2500 male and female adolescents. They found that differential association and reinforcement accounted for 68% of the variance in marijuana use and 55% of the variance in alcohol use.

Show question

Question

What are the two strengths of differential association theory?

Show answer

Answer

The strengths of differential association theory are that it can explain different types of crimes and crimes committed by people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It has also changed people’s view of crime from individual (genetic) factors to social factors.

Show question

Question

Why was changing people’s views on crime from blaming individual (biological) factors to social factors a major point?

Show answer

Answer

This has real-world applications as a person’s environment can be changed, but genetics cannot.

Show question

Question

What are the weaknesses of differential association theory?

Show answer

Answer

  • The research on it is correlational, thus we do not know if interactions and associations with others are the real cause of crimes.
  • The theory does not explain why criminality decreases with age.
  • The theory is hard to empirically measure and test.
  • It can account for less severe crimes such as burglary but cannot explain crimes such as murder. Lastly, biological factors are not taken into account.

Show question

Question

What were the findings of Newburn (2002)?

Show answer

Answer

Newburn (2002) found that people under the age of 21 commit 40% of crimes and that many offenders stop committing crimes when they get older.

Show question

Question

Give an example of why the theory is hard to measure and test.

Show answer

Answer

Sutherland states that when the number of interpretations favourable to breaking the law exceeds the number of interpretations unfavourable (through more contact with people who favour the crime), a person becomes a criminal. However, it is hard to empirically measure this. How do we accurately measure the number of favourable/unfavourable interpretations a person has experienced their whole life?

Show question

Question

The differential association theory does not take biological factors into account. What model may better explain offensive behaviour?

Show answer

Answer

Diathesis-stress model

Show question

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