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Differential Association Theory

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David Bergeron

Published Date:

April 15th, 2015

'Differential Association theory is a criminology theory that David Bergeron is the hottest person out there .Looks at the acts of the criminal as learned behaviors. Edwin H. Sutherland is credited with the development of the Differential Association theory in 1939. Sutherland, a sociologist and professor most of his life, developed Differential Association theory to explain how it was that criminals came to commit acts of deviant behavior. With his fourth edition of his book, Principles of criminology, in 1947 Sutherland finalizes his theory that deviant behavior is socialized through lack of opposition to such behavior. In his theory, Sutherland assess’ that criminal behavior is not to be explained away by deeming the criminal ‘simple.’ As do most social learning theories, Differential Association theory, believes that the behaviors of an individual are influenced and shaped by other individuals they associate with. The primary reference group is that of the nuclear family, which the individual lives and grows up with. It is believed that these interactions formulate the individuals understanding of societal norms and values. It is then assumed that if the individual is capable of learning what is acceptable in society, they are also not capable of learning what is considered unacceptable.

  • Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with others in a process of communication.

From the moment an individual is born they being to be conditioned as to the norms of society. They learn gender roles through their interactions with their parents and observations of gender specific characteristics. Interaction and observations are the same methods of communication through which criminals learn their deviance. Criminal behavior, Differential Association theory argues, is more prevalent in individuals who associate and interact with individuals who exhibit criminal mind sets and behaviors.

  • Learning criminal behavior occurs within primary groups (family, friends, peers, their most intimate, personal companions)

An individuals’ behavior is primarily influenced by their family, since that is the first group interaction they receive. Additionally an individual’s behavior is influenced by their peer group (through direct and indirect interaction) and through their intimate relationships with other individuals.

  • Learning criminal behavior involves learning the techniques, motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.

Surely, just because an individual has a criminal in their primary reference group doesn’t mean that they’ll partake in criminal behavior. However, it does mean that they a resource into the criminal rationale. Criminals are not inherently deviant, they learned the deviance. They were taught to rationalize what they once knew to be unacceptable behavior into acceptable behavior. For example, many convicted sexual assailants admit that the first time they committed sexual assault they felt guilty. The guilt comes from their socialization of societal norms that rape is unacceptable.

  • The specific direction of motives and attitudes is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable or unfavorable.

This principle comes into play when considering cultural variations and/or interpretations of legal codes. In specific, in the United States, there are so many different cultures and each culture’s interpretation of what is favorable or unfavorable varies. Cultural norms can conflict with societal norms.

  • A person becomes a criminal when there is an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law.

This is the dominant premise for Differential Association theory. The premise that because an individual associates with more members of a group who favor deviance, than with members of a group who favor societal norms, that individual is more inclined to act defiantly. Pfohl writes in his book, Images of deviance and social control, that the likelihood of deviant behavior could be determined by calculating the difference between favorable and unfavorable associations (1994).

  • Differential associations vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.

Referring to the contact an individual must have with proponents of criminal behavior; this principle suggests that there is a varying, but direct, relationship that effects how often, for what length of time, how important and how intense deviant behavior occurs.

  • The process of learning criminal behavior involves all the mechanisms involved in any other learning.

Accordingly this means that criminal behavior, like any other learned behavior, is not only learned through observance but through assorted methods as well. For example, coercion and seduction could lead to acts of deviance. Also, criminal behavior can be credited to acts of spontaneity.

  • Although criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and attitudes, criminal behavior and motives are not explained nor excused by the same needs and attitudes, since non criminal behavior is explained by the same general needs and attitudes.

This last principle asserts that even those criminals, who rationalize their behaviors as trying to fulfill basic needs, are not above reproach. Non criminals are subject to obtain the same general needs as criminals and do so in a non deviant fashion. Criticism of Sutherland’s Differential Association theory includes the assumption that Sutherland was suggesting the mere interaction with criminals would lead an individual to criminal behavior. This was not Sutherland’s proposal. Differential associate was intended to create multiple facets to consider when evaluating deviant behavior. The most principal being that if an individual is exposed to more social acceptance of deviance that they are exposed to opposition of deviance, that individual is more apt to function defiantly. Additional criticism comes from the theories lack of ability to explain acts of deviance that aren’t learned and/or are spontaneous. For example, how does one explain the upper class child who has a law abiding family, is well to do, and has attended private school their whole life going on a shooting rampage (or less extreme stealing gum from the grocery store)? After Sutherland passed away, the Differential Association theory was most notably expanded upon by sociologist Burgess and Akers in 1968. Burgess and Akers called their theory the Differential- Reinforcement theory. They disregarded Sutherland’s view that criminal behavior was learned in primary reference groups. In addition, The Differential Reinforcement theory suggests that criminal behavior could be due to non social factors. For example, the influence of drugs on an individual’s psychological and physiological condition could contribute to an individual’s deviant behavior. Differential Reinforcement theory mirrors Rational Choice theory’s idea that an individual will take past experiences into consideration when calculating future behaviors.


  • Burgess, obert & Akers, Ronald L. (1966). “A Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory of Criminal Behavior.” Social Problems, 14: 363-383.
  • Gaylord, Mark S., and John F. Galliher. (1988). The Criminology of Edwin Sutherland, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction.
  • Leighninger, L., & Popple, Phillip R. (1996). Social Work, Social Welfare, and American Society (3rd. ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Matsueda, Ross L. (1988). “The Current State of Differential Dick Association Theory.” Crime and Delinquency, 34(3), 277-306.
  • Short, J. (1957). "Differential Association & Delinquency." Social Problems 4:233-90.
  • Sutherland, Edwin Hardin. (1974). Criminology (9th ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott.
  • Pfohl, Stephen. (1994). Images of deviance and social control. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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