Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory

Key Takeaways

  • The differential association explanation of offending suggests that through interaction with others, individuals learn the values, attitudes, techniques and motivation for criminal behavior.
  • We often hear the phrase “Got in with a bad crowd”; our friendship groups can profoundly affect criminality, especially during adolescence.
  • Differential associations (number of contacts with criminals over non-criminals) may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.
  • The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning. (behaviorism: classical conditioning, operant conditioning, social learning theory).
  • The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups.

The differential association is a theory proposed by Sutherland in 1939. It explains that people learn to become offenders from their environment. Through interactions with others, individuals learn the values, attitudes, methods and motives for criminal behavior.

Nine Propositions

The first explicit statement of the theory of differential association appears in the 1939 edition of Principles of Criminology, and in the fourth edition of it, he presented his final theory. His theory has nine basic postulates.

  1. Criminal behavior is learned. This means that criminal behavior is not inherited, as such; also the person who is not already trained in crime does not invent criminal behavior.
  2. Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication. This communication is verbal in many cases but includes gestures.
  3. The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups. Negatively, this means the impersonal communication, such as movies or newspaper play a relatively unimportant part in committing criminal behavior.
  4. When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very simple; (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.
  5. The specific direction of the motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable or unfavorable. This different context of situation usually is found in US where culture conflict in relation to the legal code exists.
  6. A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law. This is the principle of differential association. When people become criminal, they do so not only because of contacts with criminal patterns but also because of isolation from anticriminal patterns. Negatively, this means that association which are neutral so far as crime is concerned have little or no effect on the genesis of criminal behavior.
  7. Differential association may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. Priority seems to be important principally through its selective influence and intensity 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 association. These modalities would be rated in quantitative form and mathematical ratio but development of formula in this sense has not been developed and would be very difficult.
  8. The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anti-criminal
    3. patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning. Negatively, this means that the learning of criminal behavior is not restricted to the process of imitation. A person who is seduced, for instance, learns criminal behavior by association, but this would not be ordinarily described as imitation.
  9. While 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.

Thieves generally steal in order to secure money, but likewise honest laborers work in order to money.

The attempts to explain criminal behavior by general drives and values such as the money motive have been, and must completely to be, futile, since they explain lawful behavior as completely as they explain criminal behavior.

The Cambridge study

The differential association theory of offending is supported by the Cambridge Study in delinquency development by Farrington et al., 2006. This study followed 411 males who at the beginning of the study were all living in a working-class deprived inner-city area of South London.

This was a prospective longitudinal study of the development of offending and antisocial behavior in 411 males. The study started when they were 8 in 1961, at the beginning of the study they were all living in a working-class deprived inner-city area of South London.

The researchers looked at official records of conviction and self-report of offending up to the age of 50.
By the end of the study 41% of the participants had at least one conviction.

The most significant childhood risk factors at age 8–10 for later offending were family criminality, daring or risk-taking, low school attainment, poverty and poor parenting.

This theory predicts that offenders will come from families and groups who have pro-criminal norms and that the criminal activities in which they are involved are similar to the ones they have learned.

This is shown to be the case by Osborne and West (1982) as they found that 40% of the sons of convicted criminals also had convictions by the age of 18, whereas only 13% of sons of non-criminal fathers had a conviction.

This is also supported by the Cambridge Study in delinquency development. However, this pattern could also be explained by genetic factors.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that criminality is concentrated in a small number of families for example Walmsley et al. (1992) found that 1/3 of the prison population in the UK also had relatives in prison too. This again could be interpreted as support for the influence of genetic factors.

Critical Evaluation

  • This theory applies to any type of crime and to any socioeconomic background for example individuals of middle-class background are exposed to middle-class values and learn to commit middle-class crimes such as fraud whereas individuals from a disadvantaged background might learn burglary.
  • However, the research has focused on relatively petty crimes such as burglary and vandalism, this does not show whether “white collar” crimes or more serious crimes such as murder follow the same pattern. Also the research done is usually correlational so other factors could be involved such as people with criminal tendencies might associate more with people with the same deviance.
  • This theory does not explain why criminality decreases with age, 40% of offences are committed by under 21 years old individuals. Many young offenders do not carry on offending in their adult life.
  • The fact that criminality run in families could also be explained by the psychodynamic explanation of offending behavior whereby a child internalizes a deviant superego from the same-sex parent during the resolution of the Oedipus complex for boys and the Electra for girls.
  • It does not explain why some people who are exposed to criminality do not go on to become criminals themselves. This suggests that other factors such as moral reasoning and free will influence the choice of these individuals.
  • Furthermore, it is socially sensitive as it could lead to the stereotyping of individuals who come from criminal background as likely to commit crimes themselves and based on this prediction, opportunities could be denied to them. This could also lead to self-fulfilling prophecy.


Farrington, D. P., Coid, J. W., Harnett, L., Jolliffe, D., Soteriou, N., Turner, R., & West, D. J. (2006). Criminal careers up to age 50 and life success up to age 48: New findings from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (Vol. 94). London, UK: Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate.

Sutherland, E. H., Cressey, D. R., & Luckenbill, D. F. (1992). Principles of criminology. philadelphia: Lippincott.

Walmsley, R., Howard, L., & White, S. (1992). The national prison survey 1991: main findings. HM Stationery Office.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.