Edwin H. Sutherland


The Theory of Differential Association

By Jeremy Gordon


            Throughout the history of criminological thought, various theories on crime causation have been formulated.  Of these theories, only a select few have stood the test of time continuing to be as influential in today’s society as they were when first proposed.  One of these is Edwin Sutherland’s theory of differential association, which claims that criminal behavior is learned through interaction with others or associations.  This paper begins by analyzing the historical context in which Sutherland developed his theory.  The various influences attributed to assisting in the development of differential association are discussed as well as the personal experiences of Sutherland himself.  The next section focuses on the main theories and ideas attributed to Sutherland.  This section summarizes all of the main points and arguments from his major works.  While Sutherland’s theory of differential association has proven to be extremely popular, it is not without its criticism.  In the third section of this paper, such criticism is outlined as well as arguments made in defense of the theory.  Regardless of all the attacks made against this theory, it has remained popular among scholars for over five decades.  As such, the last section of this paper is dedicated to describing some of the most recent uses of differential association, proving that it is one of the greatest criminological theories of all time.

The Historical Context of Sutherland’s Differential Association


            Edwin Hardin Sutherland was born August 13, 1883 in Gibbon, Nebraska.  He grew up and was educated in Ottawa, Kansas, and Grand Island, Nebraska.  In 1904, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Grand Island College, having majored in history with merely a minor in sociology (Snodgrass 1972).  After graduation Sutherland taught Latin, Greek, history, and shorthand for two years at Sioux Falls College in South Dakota.  During this period he enrolled in a correspondence course in sociology offered by the University of Chicago, thus meeting a requirement set forth to attend graduate school.  In 1906, he began the aforementioned graduate program eventually choosing to major in sociology (Odum, 1951).  Sutherland received his Ph.D. degree, in sociology, from the University of Chicago in 1913 (Vold 1951). 


Having been trained in the Chicago school tradition, Sutherland spent most of his time prior to developing his theory of differential association modifying central aspects of the social disorganization perspective.  However, he soon became concerned with expanding the conceptual boundaries of the Chicago school.  Having been influenced by Thorsten Sellin’s idea of culture conflict, presented in Culture Conflict and Crime (1938), Sutherland developed the idea of differential social organization (Gibbons 1979).    Sutherland related this idea to differential rates of crime between subgroups or subcultures within society in his 1934 textbook Principles of Criminology and was surprised when Henry D. McKay considered it a theory of criminal behavior (Cohen et al. 1956).  According to Pfohl (1994), it was McKay’s comments that made Sutherland realize his emphasis on the process of learning and the need for a new criminological theory focusing on such a topic.     


As Gaylord and Galliher (1988) point out one reason for Sutherland’s shift from sociology to criminology was disillusionment and the absence of a clear professional identity.  Fearful he might never have achieved professional recognition he decided to establish himself as a criminologist at the University of Illinois.  However, “in the decades immediately preceding the development of the theory of differential association, theoretical criminology was of little value in attempts to understand the causes of crime or for purposes of social control” (Gaylord & Galliher 1988: 4).  In fact, in the first decades of the twentieth century there was no indigenous American criminology.  Instead, social scientists looked to other countries for theories explaining criminality.  Ultimately the state of American criminological affairs is summed up by a critique of the discipline written by Jerome Michael and Mortimer J Adler in 1932.  In their book An Institute of Criminology and of Criminal Justice, it was argued that criminology failed to produce sound scientific evidence, had no coherent theories, and lacked standards.  Additionally, until the 1930s, American criminology primarily explained crime in terms of multiple factors—like social class, broken homes, age, race, urban or rural location, and mental disorder.  This critique provided a major influence upon Sutherland’s thinking.  Sutherland developed his theory, based on rigorous, sound scientific standards, in an effort to explain why these various factors were related to crime.  “In doing so, he hoped to organize and integrate the research on crime up to that point, as well as to guide future research” (Cullen & Agnew 1999:82).  


In 1939, Sutherland formally presented his theory of differential association, relying heavily upon the work of Shaw and McKay (1929 and 1969), in the third edition of his textbook Principles of Criminology.  Since the very beginning, Sutherland’s theory was readily accepted.  One possible explanation for this is the fact that his ideas coincided with the general perspectives of his fellow sociologists.  It not only explained most of the criminological findings of its day, but it did so from a decisively sociological perspective, rejecting the claims of both the biological and pathological perspectives of deviance.  In other words, the theory of differential association attributes the cause of crime to the social context of individuals rather than the individuals themselves.  A second possible explanation for widespread acceptance of the theory of differential association is the Great Depression.  The Depression, according to Gaylord and Galliher (1988:6) “created an intellectual climate in which a sociological theory of crime causation was readily accepted.” 


Ultimately, there have been several factors contributing to the development of the theory of differential association.  While Sutherland was an extremely brilliant individual without the influence of Sellin’s culture conflict theory (1938) and the comments of Henry McKay (Cohen et al.1956), among others, it is hard to say whether such a theory would ever have been developed.  Regardless, differential association has become extremely popular among criminologists and as luck would have it, Sutherland’s work is now the influence behind many criminological studies, a just result for a great theorist.

The Theory of Differential Association


            The theory of differential association was intended as a comprehensive explanation of criminal and some noncriminal behavior.  Unlike previous theories explaining the criminality of groups, including his own theory of differential social organization, Sutherland sought to explain the criminal behavior of individual people.  Such information, Sutherland believed, could then be applied to groups.  By doing so, he hoped to be able to explain variations in the crime rates of groups located within the same community, a phenomenon the popular social disorganization theory had been unable to account for.  Having outlined the social-learning process of crime in his book The Professional Thief (1937), Sutherland applied this emphasis on learning to his previous concerns relating to differential group organization.  The result was a preliminary version of the theory of differential association presented in 1939, which proposed that criminal behavior is learned (Sutherland 1939).  The final version of differential association theory was presented by Sutherland in the form of nine postulates found in the 4th edition of his textbook Principles of Criminology (1947: 75-77).  These postulates are as follows:


1.     Criminal behavior is learned.

          Sutherland believed that criminal behavior was not inherited or a result of any other biological condition.  Additionally, he claimed that a person could not commit crime without first being trained.  In other words the individual, without prior influence, is incapable of inventing criminal behavior.


2.     Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.

          Sutherland believed such communication usually involved verbal interaction, however it could also involve the use gestures without words.  This postulate coincides with the first by once again claiming that individuals cannot become criminal by themselves.


3.     The principle part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups.

          Sutherland felt that other humans, in the form of intimate personal groups, provided the largest influence on the learning of criminal behavior.  Along those lines, he felt impersonal agencies of communication such as newspapers and movies played a relatively unimportant role in the “birth” of criminal behavior.


4.     When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes very simple; (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.

          In his book, The Professional Thief Sutherland explains this process by describing the life of a professional thief. 

“…a person can become a professional thief only if he is trained by those who are already professionals.  It is ridiculous to imagine an amateur deciding to become a pickpocket, con man, penny-weighter (jewelry thief), or shake man (extortioner) without professional guidance.  He knows nothing of the racket, its techniques or operations, and he can’t learn these things out of books.” (1937: 21)


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

          Sutherland believed that some societies flourished with definitions favorable to the following of the laws governing society whereas others supported the violation of such legal codes.  Ultimately he viewed America as having both definitions mixed variously throughout the country, thus experiencing a sort of culture conflict in relation to the legal codes.


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.  Individuals become criminal due to repeated contacts with criminal activity and a lack of contact with noncriminal activity.


7.     Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.

          According to Sutherland, a precise description of the criminal behavior of a person would present these “modalities” in quantitative form with a mathematical ratio being reached.  Unfortunately, as he pointed out, an appropriate formula had yet to be developed due to the sheer difficulty involved.


8.     The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anticriminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning.

          In this postulate, Sutherland claims that criminal behavior is learned just like every other behavior.  In other words, he felt there was nothing “special” or “abnormal” about criminal behavior or criminals for that matter, thus going against the claims of biological and pathological theorists.  This is one of the primary reasons why the theory of differential association was so readily accepted by Sutherland’s colleagues, as discussed in the previous section of this paper.


9.     While criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those general needs and values, since noncriminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values.

          The attempts to explain criminal behavior by general drives and values such as the money motive have been futile, according to Sutherland, since they explain lawful behavior as completely as they explain criminal behavior.  For example, a thief generally steals in order to obtain monetary wealth.  However, such an action is no different from the work of an honest laborer.  Once again, Sutherland manages to point out gaps in previous explanations of criminal behavior.


          Ultimately Sutherland’s theory is based on two core assumptions:  (1) deviance occurs when people define a certain human situation as an appropriate occasion for violating social norms or criminal laws and (2) definitions of the situation are acquired through an individual’s history of past experience (Pfohl 1994: 302).  The theory emphasizes the social-psychological processes by which people produce subjective definitions of their situation in life.  Sutherland argued that in considering the social-psychological processes causing individual deviance “it is not necessary…to explain why a person has the associations he has” (Sutherland & Cressey, 1978: 83). What is necessary is to examine the normal learning process whereby a person comes to define a particular situation as more or less appropriate for deviant behavior.  This requires measuring the frequency, duration, priority, and intensity of associations favoring and not favoring deviance.  Through such calculations, one could determine the likelihood of deviant behavior, thereby solving the eternal question of what causes deviance.  However, as Sutherland pointed out such factors are extremely difficult to measure.


          Upon development of this theory, Sutherland focused the rest of his career around it, abandoning his previous theory of differential social organization.  In fact, in his last major work White-Collar Crime he attempted to apply the theory of differential association to crimes committed by American corporations.  This is done with documentary evidence including the biographies of managers of industry (Sutherland 1949:246).  In this study, he claims that white-collar crime involves the same general process as other criminal behavior, that being differential association.  Unfortunately, Sutherland’s study was inconclusive; ultimately claiming “the hypothesis of differential association…may apply to white-collar crime as [it does] to lower class crime” (Sutherland 1949:264).  In addition, Sutherland managed to raise doubt about the reliability and validity of conventional data on crime.  He believed that “conventional generalizations about crime and criminality [were] invalid because they explain only the crime of the lower classes” (Sutherland 1949:x).  As such, the crimes of elites became a recognized topic in the field of criminology, as did the theory of differential association.

Criticism of Differential Association


            Despite its generally favorable reception, especially among sociologists, the theory of differential association has not lacked its critics.  Since its first appearance in the 1939 edition of Principles of Criminology, scholars have been quick to point out weaknesses.  Due to the “first wave” of criticism and Sutherland’s own evolving concerns the theory of differential association was revised in 1947 (Pfohl 1994).  This revision resulted in several changes to the theory or at least its presentation.  While the 1939 version was made up of only seven propositions the new and improved 1947 version included nine.  Additionally, Sutherland deleted the word “systematic,” which fell before criminal behavior, thereby resulting in a theory referring to all criminal behavior rather than a specific type.  Further changes, according to Pfohl (1994), involved increased specification of the criminal learning process as well as a differentiation between differential association, which explains individual criminal behavior, and differential social organization, which explains the crime rate.  Even with the mentioned changes, criticism of this popular theory has remained constant.  Such criticism generally falls into one of two categories:  critiques of the ideas expressed by the theory itself and critiques of the theory as a cultural deviance theory.


          As Cressey points out in 1978 edition of Principles of Criminology most of the criticism surrounding the ideas expressed by the theory result from its basic statement being unclear:

“In two pages, nine propositions are presented, with little elaboration, purporting to explain both the epidemiology of crime and delinquency and the presence of criminality and delinquency in individuals cases.  It therefore is not surprising that Sutherland’s words do not always convey the meaning he seemed to intend” (Sutherland & Cressey 1978:78).

As such, many critics fail to study the words presented choosing to instead critique based on their own interpretation.


For example, a common criticism, as found in Vold’s Theoretical Criminology (1958), claims that differential association fails to account for the obvious fact that not everyone who comes into contact with criminality begins to follow a criminal pattern.  However, what such critics fail to account for is that the theory states “a person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of the law”(Sutherland, 1947).  Thus, Sutherland never claimed individuals become criminal due to mere contact with crime, instead focusing on the ratio of definitions within the individual learned from various associations.


Other popular criticisms reflect the kinds of criminal behavior failed to be explained by differential association.  It has been said that the theory does not apply to perpetrators of “individual and personal” crimes, or to irrational and impulsive criminals (Korn and McCorkle, 1959: 299-300).  Adding to the list, Jeffery (1959) argued that it does not apply to murders, nonprofessional shoplifters, and noncareer type criminals.  Furthermore, Glaser (1956) believed persons who commit crimes of passion and those who commit crime under emotional stress were ignored as well.  In addition to specific types of criminals, Matza (1969) contended that Sutherland failed to take into account the role of human choice in determining actions.  However, Cressey (1978) points out that all of these claims are not based on research thus resemble proposals for future research rather than criticism.


Further criticism insists that the ratio of learned behavior patterns explaining criminality cannot be determined with accuracy.  For instance, Short (1957) pointed out the extreme difficulty in operationalizing terms used by Sutherland, such as “favorable to” and “unfavorable to”.  Along those lines, Glaser (1956) felt the phrase “excess of definitions” lacked clear denotation in human experience.  Additionally, Glueck (1956) went as far as to question whether anybody actually counted definitions within individuals and demonstrated that delinquents do in fact possess an excess of definitions favorable to the violation of law.  He felt such an act was impossible due to the sheer vagueness of the theory and the impracticality of quantitatively assessing the large number of definitions to which someone is exposed.  Unlike most of the previous arguments, these criticisms have merit considering Sutherland himself pointed out the lack of the formula needed for calculations and Cressey (1978) agreed such weaknesses existed.


According to the cultural deviance critique, the theory of differential association rests on the assumptions that “man has no nature, socialization is perfectly successful, and cultural variability is unlimited” (Kornhauser 1978:34).  As such, the theory is led into a dead end ultimately failing to explain individual differences in crime.  Instead, it applies to group differences resulting from adherence to a criminal or deviant subculture as opposed to conventional culture.  Further criticism echoed by Wilson and Herrnstein (1985) and Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) follow along these lines.


Ultimately, the cultural deviance theory believes individuals cannot be deviant.  Only the cultures or subcultures in which the criminal values are passed on to the individuals can be deviant with regard to the culture of the larger society (Akers 1996:231).  Hirschi (1969) explains this criticism:

“A person may indeed commit acts deviant by the standards of, say, middle-class society, but he cannot commit acts deviant by his own standards.  In other words, theorists from this school see deviant behavior as conformity to a set of standards not accepted by a larger (that is, more powerful) society (11).

…In simplest terms, cultural deviance theory assumes that cultures, not persons, are deviant.  It assumes that in living up to the demands of his own culture, the person automatically comes into conflict with the law (229).


While criticisms focusing on the cultural deviance theory seem valid, Akers (1996) is quick to protest.  Sutherland’s theory of differential association was specifically designed to account for variations in the criminal behavior of individual as opposed to the theory of differential social organization, which focused on group differences (Pfohl 1994).  “To claim that differential association applies only to deviant cultures, and not at all to individual deviance, is to impute assumptions to the theory that are directly contradictory to propositions clearly stated in the theory and to distinctions expressly maintained by Sutherland” (Akers 1996:232-233).  Thus, cultural deviance criticisms, to date, are just another example of criticisms appearing to lack validity.


          Regardless of the shortcomings pointed out by critics, “no other theory of deviance has generated such a favorable long-term acceptance as…differential association” (Clinard & Meir 1979:92).  In fact, as Pfohl (1994:305) points out several modifications have been created extending and strengthening the applicability of differential association.  One major modification is Glaser’s principle of differential identification.  According to this principle, identifications with individuals we have no contact with, such as characters on television, exert a powerful influence over behavior (Glaser 1956).  Glaser believed this identification was at the heart of deviant learning rather than interpersonal associations.


          A second major modification of differential association came from Sykes and Matza (1957).  Their “techniques of neutralization” refer to rhetoric or vocabularies developed by deviants to ward off the normative attacks of the social world by justifying such behavior.  The five typical techniques provided by Sykes and Matza include:

1) Denial of responsibility.

2) Denial of injury.

3) Denial of victim.

4) Condemning the condemners.

5) Appeal to higher loyalties.


          A third and final major modification of the theory of differential association is Burgess and Aker’s reformulation resulting in the principle of differential reinforcement, an operant learning theory (1966).  This principle was presented in the form of seven propositions:

1.     Deviant behavior is learned according to the principles of operant conditioning.

2.     Deviant behavior is learned both in nonsocial situations that are reinforcing or discriminating and through that social interaction in which the behavior of other persons is reinforcing or discriminating for such behavior.

3.     The principle part of the learning of deviant behavior occurs in those groups which comprise or control the individual’s major source of reinforcements.

4.     The learning of deviant behavior occurs in those groups which comprise or control the individual’s major source of reinforcements.

5.     The learning of deviant behavior, including specific techniques, attitudes, and avoidance procedures, is a function of the effective and available reinforcers and the existing reinforcement centerpieces.

6.     The probability that a person will commit deviant behavior is increased in the presence of normative statements, definitions, and verbalizations which, in the process of differential reinforcement of such behavior over conforming behavior, have acquired discriminative value.

7.     The strength of deviant behavior is a direct function of the amount, frequency, and probability of its reinforcement.  The modalities of association with deviant patterns are important, insofar as they affect the source, amount, and scheduling of reinforcement (Akers 1977:42-43).

While similar to differential association Burgess and Akers’ perspective has received considerably less attention.  Thus, one might conclude that Sutherland’s theory of differential association was, is, and will remain to be the most dominant theory within the learning perspective.

Contemporary Usage and Popularity of Differential Association

Within Criminology


            During his time, Edwin Sutherland was one of the most revered figures in the history of sociological criminology (McCarthy 1996).  Unfortunately, as Matsueda (1988:277) points out in a review of the ‘current state of differential association theory’ by the 1980s Sutherland’s theory had fallen from grace, replaced by social control or integrated theories.  This conclusion is supported by Stitt and Giacopassi’s (1992:4) finding that only 11 out of 215 empirically based articles focus on the theory of differential association in 28 volumes of Criminology (1963-91), which calculates to just over 5 per cent.  As with most theories differential association had become outdated.  However, in the early 1990s everything changed. 


According to an InfoTrac “OneFile” search (Gale Group 2000), seven articles have been published in Criminology since Stitt and Giacopassi’s (1992) analysis, an increase of over 50 per cent in just nine years.  Additionally, approximately 14 articles have been published in various criminological journals, along with several Ph.D. dissertations and books, identifying what McCarthy (1996:145) refers to as a “revitalization of the theory of differential association in the field of criminology.”


          Since the renewed interest in Sutherland’s theory, it has been used in various ways to explain crime and delinquency.  For example, Warr (1993) evaluates the theory of differential association’s ability to explain the age distribution of crime.  In addition to age, researchers such as Alarid et al. (2000) and Heimer and De Coster (1999) look at differential association, among other theories, to explain variations in crime according to gender.  Another approach, by Smith and Brame (1994), attempts to find which theoretical models are most appropriate in explaining the “initiation and continuation of delinquent behavior” (607), of which differential association is included and supported by evidence. 


Another trend in current research involves using differential association to explain deviant behaviors of today.  For example, Hagedorn et al. (1998) attempted to use Sutherland’s theory, along with social control theory, to explain the variations in gang drug use, but were unsuccessful.  Of course, according to Sutherland and Cressey (1978) this comes as no surprise. The theory was formulated specifically for explaining variation in deviance at the individual level not the group level.  Along those lines, Catalano et al. (1996) and Labouvie (1996) focused on the ability of differential association to explain and predict the use of illegal substances.  These authors found much more support for the predictive power of Sutherland’s theory than Hagedorn et al. (1998) since they focused specifically on individual users (Catalano et al. 1996, Labouvie 1996). 


Another “new” topic to which differential association is being applied involves computer crimes.  Skinner and Fream (1997) examine the origins of computer crimes by testing the ability of social learning theory, including differential association, to explain these behaviors.  They assert that since social learning theory has been empirically verified across numerous studies and claims to apply to all types of deviant behavior it should be applicable to illegal computer activities.  Additionally, “the very nature of computer crimes requires individuals to learn not only how to operate a highly technical piece of equipment but also specific procedures, programming, and techniques for using the computer illegally” (Skinner & Fream 1997: 498).  Ultimately this study demonstrates that measures of differential association, as well as differential reinforcement, are significantly related to a variety of computer activities, among college students, and calls for future research to further expand on this issue (514).


While using differential association to explain various types of crime has been a popular topic, some research has focused on clearing up many of the inconsistencies associated with the theory.  Warr and Stafford (1991) argue that the mechanism by which delinquency is socially transmitted remains unclear.  While Sutherland’s theory claims that delinquency is a result of an excess of definitions favorable to the violation of law, which are acquired through intimate social interaction with peers (Sutherland 1947), the findings of this study suggest that the behavior of peers is a much stronger influence than attitudes (Warr & Stafford 1991: 862).  As such, the authors claim that Sutherland’s theory is incomplete and needs to be altered to include such information (862).  Additionally, Akers (1996) identifies two weaknesses within the theory, while simultaneously offering support by attacking criticism associated with viewing differential association as a cultural deviance theory.


Regardless of how it has been used, an increased number of studies have begun focusing on differential association.  As such, the theory itself is making a come back into the field of criminology, as well as several other disciplines.  Thus, Sutherland’s theory has been in use now for over 50 years and continues to be quite popular in explaining why individuals commit deviant acts.  Based on all of the evidence it is apparent to this writer, and many others, that Edwin Hardin Sutherland was one of the greatest criminological theorists of all time.  Additionally, the theory of differential association is far from being abandoned, perhaps having the strength to carry on for another five decades.




1.     This image was provided by Indiana University’s Sociological History Website.

·        http://www.indiana.edu/~soc/general-info/history3.htm




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