Differential association is a theory of criminal and delinquent behavior developed in the 1930s by American sociologist Edwin Sutherland. Its main principle is that crime is a learned behavior. A minor learns criminal behaviors by living in an environment where other people treated criminal behavior more favorably than following the law. In contrast to theories that explain crime through inherent predisposition or a criminal nature, differential association defines it as a learning process.
Under differential association theory, all criminal behavior is learned, and there is no biological or genetic basis for criminal behavior. The learning of such behavior takes place within a group already knowledgeable about and engaged in criminal behavior. The education includes how to commit crimes and all the rationalizations for doing so. Criminal behaviors are reinforced by hearing them referred to in positive terms. Respect for social norms such as following the law is held in contempt by the group.
Sutherland’s theory of differential association states that people engage in criminal behaviors not only because their social environment consists of others who do so, but also because of their relative isolation from those who do not. Depending on the makeup of the person’s environment, differential association may have different degrees of duration, importance or seriousness. Learning criminal behaviors involves the same processes as any kind of learning. The longer the learning takes place, the more engrained it becomes. This is especially true in the absence of any significant exposure to non-criminal behaviors.
Differential association theory disagreed with other theories that stated that crime was a result of general economic factors or the psychological handicaps to which poverty can give rise. Sutherland did not believe poverty was generally the only motivation behind criminal behavior, because this belief ignored white collar crime. He also thought criminal statistics were skewed because of this omission. He felt theories concluding crime was based solely on class were not supportable.
Differential association theory has been criticized as being too general and for not defining the kind of language that makes criminal behavior acceptable among a group. It has also been faulted for not taking into account things such as free will or explaining instances of isolated individual criminal behavior. Nonetheless, some of differential association theory’s basic principles are still used today and incorporated into other theories of criminal behavior. Additionally, some theorists believe it is highly unlikely that any one theory can explain all the conditions and factors leading to criminal behavior.