Research Paper on Sutherland's Theory of Differential Association


Edwin Sutherland is one of the most influential theoretical criminologists. He formulated the theory of differential association which proposed that criminal behavior is learned systematized ideas to explain criminal behavior. This research paper expounds on Sutherland’s theory of differential association and presents the criticisms it has received from experts thereafter. 

The Theory of Differential Association

Edwin Sutherland’s Theory of Differential Association proposes that individuals learn criminal behavior through interactions with others. This theory expounds on the learning process of a criminal—how they see a crime or how they begin to see crime as an option, how they rationalize committing a crime, and how they learn the techniques to commit the crime (“Differential Association Theory,” 2020). However, the theory does not attempt to explain why someone may choose to commit a crime. 

Sutherland’s theory attempts to dismantle the institutional belief that only poor people commit crimes as well as the psychological assumption that criminals had different psychological and biological makeup than law-abiding citizens. Thus, he proposed that “an individual will choose the criminal path when the balance of definitions for law-breaking exceeds those for law-abiding” (“Differential Association Theory,” 2020), and they will have a higher tendency to commit crimes. The tendency, in turn, is reinforced by frequent interactions and influences that promote or approve of criminal behavior. Thus, if an individual is exposed to another individual or a group, especially someone they look up to or see as an authority figure, or grows up in an environment, that accepts criminal behavior, then they will learn said behavior and thus be more likely to commit a crime. Crime becomes normalized for these individuals so it becomes a valid option. According to Sutherland, this applies to people regardless of their financial stature and is separate from the reasons for committing a crime, which challenges the aforementioned belief that only poor people commit crimes. Sutherland’s theory of differential association can be summarized into 9 key points:

  1. Criminal behavior is learned.
  2. Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.
  3. The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups.
  4. When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes techniques of committing the crime (which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes simple) and the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.
  5. The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable or unfavorable.
  6. A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of the law.
  7. Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.
  8. 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.
  9. While criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those needs and values, since non-criminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values. (Sutherland, Cressey, & Luckenbill, 1995)

According to Sutherland’s theory of differential association, frequent exposure to an environment that favors criminal behavior—whether it is at home, in school, or through the media—influences an individual’s attitude toward crime (Sutherland, Cressey, & Luckenbill, ). The process is closely similar to learning any type of behavior, such as sexist and racist behavior , which is also why the theory works well to explain criminal behavior among different demographics. The theory explains not just the process of learning the ropes of a crime but also the process of rationalizing these crimes as necessary, normal, or even enjoyable. 

Thus, according to the theory of differential association, someone who is hungry and grew up in an environment that favors criminal behavior is more likely to commit a practical crime than someone who did not grow up in such an environment despite a similarity in circumstances. Likewise, someone who grew up in a well-off household that favors criminal behavior is more likely to commit a white-collar crime (whether it is for the thrill or to gain more wealth) than someone who did not grow up in such an environment.

Criticisms on the Theory of Differential Association

The differential theory of association has worked well to explain how someone learns criminal behavior, however, it is not without limitations. Over the years, critics and researchers have presented valid criticisms of Sutherland’s theory of differential association. The strongest criticisms of the theory of differential association are anchored on the debate on nature versus nurture and the factor of free will. 

Critics have pointed out that Sutherland’s theory sees human beings as mere sponges with no ability to think rationally and make choices for themselves (Thio, 1995). While it is true, especially for juvenile delinquency, that some people are pushed into a life of crime, it is also true that not all who commit crime have rationalized and accepted it as normal. It is also true that many have decided to separate themselves from such an environment and resisted the association with crime. Sutherland’s theory of differential association seems to disregard the possibility of cognitive dissonance and a person deciding to stick to their own moral values and resist outside influences (Thio, 1995). As such, Sutherland’s theory itself may also promote prejudice toward those who were simply born in places where crime and gangs prevail but may not necessarily exhibit criminal behavior.

The role of personality or biology of a person is another crucial factor in criminal psychology that Sutherland ignored in the formulation of his theory. As modern Psychology proved, certain genetic makeups make certain people more prone to commit certain crimes. For instance, some individuals have a tendency to be aggressive while others are prone to lie or steal. Individuals that have such tendencies are thus also likely to commit crimes even without the influence of a peer or a family member. However, it is also important to note that in situations like this, positive influence may help minimize the said tendency.

Sutherland’s theory of differential association became an important theory in the field of criminal psychology as it proposed theories that defied the eminent beliefs that only poor people commit crimes and that those who do commit crimes are biologically different from those who do not. Sutherland saw the dangers of such beliefs and proposed a theory that attempts to present a more systematic way of predicting criminal behavior. However, the theory itself does present certain problems that could lead to prejudice and misinformation among people toward the disadvantaged members of society. 

Although Sutherland’s theory of differential association appears to be quite outdated nowadays, it remains a seminal theory for criminal psychologists. As explored earlier in the research paper , there is some truth to the theory of differential association. It has helped criminal psychologists and sociologists understand crime and criminal behavior and has informed criminal law over the years. The theory of differential association directed new studies and theories that help criminal psychologists better understand the development of criminal behavior.


“Differential Association Theory.” In Sociology: Boundless . UC Davis.

Sutherland, E. H., Cressey, D. R., & Luckenbill, D. (1995). “The theory of differential association.” In Nancy J. Herman (Ed.), Deviance: A Symbolic Interactionist Approach  (pp.64-68).

Thio, A. (1995). “Evaluation Of Differential Association Theory.” In Nancy J. Herman (Ed.), Deviance: A Symbolic Interactionist Approach (pp.69-71).

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