Differential association theory suggests that individuals who commit deviant acts are influenced to do so by primary groups and intimate social contacts. The degree of influence one receives from messages favoring deviant behavior varies by intensity, priority, frequency, and duration. An overview of differential association theory of deviance is provided beginning with a general review of the theory, followed by brief explanations of specific assumptions of differential association theory. A brief summary of key research developments are provided. Critiques of differential association are highlighted throughout the report and further developments of the theory are reviewed.
Keywords Age-Crime Curve; Criminology; Deviance; Delinquency; Intimate Social Groups; Peers; Primary Social Groups; Social Control
Differential Association Theory
Differential Association theory is one of many sociological theories that aims to explain why people commit deviant acts. Differential Association theory was proposed and developed by Edwin Sutherland in the late 1930s and early 1940s, in response to a critique of criminology by Michael and Adler (Laub, 2006). In developing the theory, Sutherland dismissed the notion that individual variants such as age and gender adequately explained criminal involvement. Differential association theory stresses the impact that others have on one's view of deviant behavior and the law. The theory relies on the social context of individuals to explain individual behaviors. Individuals learn deviant behavior through the same mechanisms that they learn other behaviors: through exposure to primary and intimate social contacts. However, he noted that mere exposure to deviant people does not necessarily result in one behaving in a criminal or deviant manner. Rather, he suggested that the mechanisms involved in whether or not deviant behavior or criminal acts take place are more complex. He suggested that even when one is of a mindset to commit a deviant or criminal act, the social context of the situation must be perceived by the individual as an opportunity to commit the deviant or criminal act.
Differential association theory asserts that as one has more definitions favorable to the legal system over definitions unfavorable to the legal system one is less likely to be delinquent. Thus, a person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions unfavorable to violation of law over definitions favorable to violation law. Differential association is a theory based on the social environment and its surroundings, individuals and the values those individuals gain from significant others in their social environment. It suggests that these definitions are learned through communications with intimate people or groups from whom the person learns the techniques, motivations, rationalizations, and attitudes. Similarly, it does not suggest that any person who is around criminals necessarily becomes a criminal. Rather, differential association theory posits that those who have a greater ratio of unfavorable to favorable definitions of deviant behavior are more likely to deviate. This implies that one's likelihood of deviating is subject to change, depending upon one's ratio of these definitions. Unlike some other theories of deviance and social control, one's inclination to commit crimes will vary across the life course and is not fixed at any particular stage of development or age. Differential association theory leaves room for criminals to change their ways to become conforming people.
Nine Assumptions of the Theory
Sutherland (1939; 1974) provided the backdrop for how people obtain definitions favorable or unfavorable to violation of the law. While explicating the theory, Sutherland suggested that the following nine assumptions guide how the theory is able to explain criminal behavior. Each assumption is reviewed below:
- Criminal behaviors, like all other behaviors, are learned. The theory has received criticism due to this first assumption that criminal behavior is learned in no unique way from other behaviors. The main criticism drawn from this assumption is that the theory is overbroad by claiming to explain all behavior.
- Learning criminal behavior occurs through interaction with people via communication. All forms of communication are viable avenues for one to learn criminal behavior. The means through which one can learn criminal behavior through communication includes but is not limited to personal face-to-face communication, written communications such as letters and electronic mail, video chat, and telephone conversations.
- Primary and intimate social groups are responsible for teaching the vast majority of criminal behaviors. The essence of this assumption is that just contact alone with criminals will not result in someone becoming a criminal. If one's father was ever imprisoned or ever participated in criminal behavior, this does not mean that one will become a criminal. But, according to the theory, the primary and intimate social groups would include biological parents, adoptive parents, step-parents, and ex-step-parents. It would also include siblings, more distant kin, such as cousins, aunts, and uncles, and other relatives as well. Persons other than family are also considered intimate social groups. Peers are considered a source of learning definitions unfavorable or favorable to law violation. Likewise, school personnel and other more closely tied social groups may also provide definitions favorable or unfavorable to definitions of law violation. As one can tell from this long list of possible sources of learning definitions unfavorable or favorable to criminal acts, differential association theory is complex and may be difficult to model in social science research.
- Learning criminal behavior requires knowing the techniques necessary to commit the crimes and the reasons, rationalizations, and attitudes involved with committing such criminal acts. There have been reported incidents of parents overtly teaching their children to steal, sell drugs, or commit other criminal acts. While these instances do serve to underscore the way one learns the techniques necessary to commit criminal acts, teaching the reasons and rationalizations and attitudes are not necessarily done in these concrete ways. Take the example of a drug dealing parent of a young adolescent. If the parent is selling drugs to someone there may be a routine the parents follow when the drug purchaser [guest] arrives at the home. Perhaps the father leads the guest to a back bedroom, or a basement, or the garage, and after 10-30 minutes both the father and the guest rejoin the members of the household. The father and the guest tend to do this procedure most of the times the guest visits. Yet, the child may also observe that the father does not do this with all of the guests and that the children are never permitted to follow the father and the guest to the other room. Differential association theory would suggest that by learning this pattern, the adolescent is slowing learning how to be a criminal drug dealer. As the child ages, more learning of the techniques may occur. However, just because the adolescent is exposed to this type of learning does not necessarily mean the child will become a criminal. Differential association does suggest, however, that the risk of criminal behavior may increase as a result of the exposure.
- The motives and drives to commit criminal acts, whether positive or negative, are derived from one's ratio of favorable to unfavorable definitions of laws. While it is likely that Sutherland intended this assumption to address the onset of criminal behavior, the theory has taken on a large amount of criticism for not providing adequate explanation of why the first person developed definitions favorable to law violations, i.e. differential association theory does not explain the origin of crime. It also has been criticized for not adequately explaining crimes of passion or crimes by a person who otherwise did not appear to have more definitions favorable to law violations than definitions unfavorable to law violations.
- It is the excess of unfavorable definitions of the law to the number of favorable definitions of the law that raises one's risk of committing delinquent acts. Not all scholars agree about how the concepts "favorable" and "definitions" are defined (Matsueda, 1988). In general, favorable definitions would be communicated when statements favorable or unfavorable to law violations are shared; such as in the case of theft, "if they did not want someone to steal it, they should not have left it unattended," or in the case of assault, "he got his just rewards"....
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