Differential Association Theory Essay

Introduction of Differential Association Theory

The theories of criminology explain the nature and motive of criminal activity to a legal professional. These theories are focused on determining the criminal behavior and the type of criminal activity which is to be analyzed from legal perspectives.

Different domains in criminology define these theories as descriptive subjects. In this regard, several theorists have presented their ideas and thoughts at different times to further the research and material for criminology.

Accordingly, several perspectives to explore different expects of criminal behavior can be observed in various approaches explained by different criminologists (Tierney, 2013).

What is the difference between social learning theory and differential association?

The theories of criminology also help in the rehabilitation of criminals as they are closely associated with social and psychological perspectives that influence the criminals.

In this regard, the most important and notable theories are the social control theory, differential association theory, and neutralization theory. However, in this essay, we will focus on differential association theory.

Edwin Sutherland presented the differential association theory in 1947. It reflects deviation in one’s behavior through interaction and social communications. This theory includes several components that determine the causes of delinquency (Taylor, 2013). It emphasizes social and psychological factors in a person’s life which led him to involve in different criminal activities.

7 Principles of Differential Association Theory

The differential association theory revolves around the concept of learning through interactions. It defines learning as a process through which a person learns some values and attitudes which lay the basis for criminal activities. However, this learning is specific, and it strictly adheres to values, attitudes, and behaviors.

It does not show any contradiction with a positive learning process which is modified through education. Thus, the main focus of this theory is how a person learns to become a criminal.

However, it does not emphasize an important aspect as to why a person indulges in criminal activities (Akers, 2015). In this regard, one of the most important components of differential association theory is the interactionist perspective.

Why is the differential association theory important?

This component lays the basis for the learning of a person through social interactions and meetings. Accordingly, this concept also highlights some deviant behaviors which a person learns from society and through communication with different people.

So, it implies that fighting is deviant behavior that young people learn through face to face interaction with other people. These young people fight because they interact with groups that believe in fighting. Thus, they give importance to group beliefs that do not care about the violation of the law.

A person in a situation to fight will surely fight (Bruinsma, 2014). However, the only difference between him and a person who is socially influenced is that he will fight according to the situation.

On the other hand, the socially influenced person will fight for a purpose to ensure the establishment of goals that he has remarked within the group. Therefore, deviance can take any form from genetics to social influence. However, most of the deviant behaviors which are pursued for a long time are learned through face to face communication.

Sutherland also emphasizes that criminal behaviors are learned with the techniques of committing a crime. For instance, if a person is influenced by a group, he will surely learn how people in this group react to a certain situation (Bruinsma, 2014). In the case of fighting, people learn to fight when they see other people fighting.

Thus, Sutherland gave nine propositions of delinquency and criminal behavior. However, these propositions are based on three main concepts including differential association, normative conflict, and differential group organization. These concepts explain the nature of crime and the reasons why crime occurs.

The normative conflicts are considered as the basis of crime at a societal level. The normative conflicts are explained as a conflict of attitudes towards social norms, attitudes, and behaviors (Taylor, 2013).

In this regard, it is pertinent to note that different groups in a society have different beliefs about the law. Some groups consider it a set of rules which need to be followed by people in any circumstance.

On the other hand, some people believe that these laws are rules which can be violated under some conditions. These are some of the attitudes which are also influenced through interactions. These attitudes are explained by Sutherland in his theory under the concept of deviance.

People considering the violation of the law under some conditions also show their deviant attitude (Akers, 2015). Thus, deviance is socially motivated, and people consider it an important aspect of learning when they meet other people.

Another important aspect of this theory is the general needs and values of people who are also causes of criminal activities.

Referring to the needs and perspectives of the people, the individuals who are socially influenced by the groups in conducting criminal activities find a way to hamper the needs of the people. They do this through constant observation and for this, a framework is developed by the person.

Due to the techniques he/she has developed in the past experiences, it is evident that the person trying to breach the parameter would make use of techniques to conduct the attack.

One of the most important things which are considered is that these criminals will attack by waiting for the chance to do it.

The criminals first see the demands of the market and many theories tell that a person being turned to a criminal is due to various facts and figures. The first is the deteriorating situation of the state in the form of a bad economy where inflation can be seen is increasing beyond the reach of the common man.

These are the main external forces that play a crucial role in carrying out such criminal activities. The internal factors are the families and society itself. The culture created by the society plays a vital role in influencing the person to implement criminals’ activities for a specific reason (Eassey, 2018).

What is an example of differential association theory?

It is to be noted that the criminals make use of chance and the strategies made in order to implement depending upon the situation with respect to the surroundings. Considering a worldwide scenario, where criminals’ charges can be observed on political leaders such as Adolph Hitler in the days of World War 2.

The profile of such leaders suggests that the society and the brought up of the family accelerate the process of conducting criminal activities. This can be seen in the form of killing innocent men, women, and children.

Other examples can be in the form of our local community and other terrorist attacks in which their profile suggests that it is all due to the harsh background of the society and families.

A recent theory suggests that a person learns to be a criminal from the house in many of the cases. The harsh environment created by the parents where fights are common between parents and this has a drastic impact on the psyche of the child.

A child learns and so the behavior and the attitude have aligned with respect to that environment. So when that child grows and gains recognition in the society, the skills of fighting that person learns to have an influential impact on the psyche of that person.

After that, the person indulges in groups that are likely to suit his/her dilemma in surviving the harsh environment.

So this is the dilemma which can be observed and so the negative impact on the society. There are psychologists who are used by the intelligence agencies in figuring out the mind of the criminal.

The theories discussed above provide crucial information about the environment created by the society and within the family that converts a normal person into a criminal one.

On the other hand, there is a big difference between the person who inherited criminal acts and the one who developed fights by seeing other people involved in such acts (Wang, 2011).

In both cases, the person inherited such negative behavior has various tools and techniques to cope with the existing situation and conducts the criminal approach through proper planning.

Whereas the person who observes the criminal acts of another person does not exercise the strategy and so he/she have to pass through stages in order to become a fully minded criminal.

This is the dilemma where differences can be seen and so laws are made and amended in order to cater to these activities and to prevent the society from these acts.


In the end, it is concluded that the theory defined by the Sutherland provides a comprehensive framework about the dilemma of a person becoming a criminal and the one observes such activities and align itself in considering these type of acts.

There are both internal and external environments that play a crucial role in impacting the person’s mind to induct negative characteristics.

The external factors include the groups that promote such kind of acts along with culture created to implement on the psyche of the person.

The inertial environment refers to the atmosphere created by the parents, which leads to drastic effects on the household environment.



Akers, R. L. (2015). Social learning theory. The Handbook of Criminological Theory, 230-240.

Bruinsma, G. (2014). Differential association theory. Encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice, 1065-1075.

Eassey, J. M. (2018). Differential Association, Differential Social Organization, and White‐Collar Crime: Sutherland Defines the Field. The Handbook of the History and Philosophy of Criminology.


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Taylor, I. W. (2013). The new criminology: For a social theory of deviance. Routledge.

Tierney, J. &. (2013). Criminology: Theory and context. Routledge.

Wang, J. N. (2011). Cyber and traditional bullying: Differential association with depression. Journal of adolescent health.

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