, Research Paper
Sutherland’s Differential Association
Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to examine Edwin Sutherland’s theory of differential association. Following a brief history of Sutherland’s ideas is a summary of the main ideas and premises of his differential association theory. Also included is a review of studies which attempt to test the validity of Sutherland’s theory.
Theoretical Criminology attempts to explain theories of why and how crime occurs by examining the various facts related to criminal behavior and crime. These theories offer the sociological, psychological, and psychiatric views of the causes of crime and other forms of deviant behavior. Among these is a group of theories referred to as learning theories, which focus on the ideas and behaviors that can be learned, the processes by which that learning occurs, and the structure of support and encouragement for law violation. Perhaps the strongest and most prominent of these theories is Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association theory. As a sociological interactionist, Sutherland’s viewpoint on the etiology of crime was that there existed certain processes or relationships that could explain all crime, in spite of its great variety.
“Edwin H. Sutherland (1883-1950) gradually formulated and systematized his theoretical ideas of criminal behavior by attempting to create a general theory that could organize the many diverse facts known about criminal behavior into some logical arrangement” (Vold, 1998). Through the many editions of Sutherland’s books, there is evidence of his continued attempts at clarifying and expand on his own ideas to form a concrete and sustainable theory of criminology. The first edition of Sutherland’s Criminology, 1924, he “set out to examine the various “concrete” conditions that might explain the causation of criminal behavior, but, as his research progressed, he came to reject all concrete conditions as having any validity in predicting criminal conduct” ( Jones, 1986). Sutherland’s second edition in 1934, at best demonstrated his continued attempts to postulate his ideas about criminology into a valid theory.
In 1939, Sutherland published the third edition of his book, entitled Principles of Criminology, in which he outlined his ideas for the theory of differential association. However, Sutherland limited the theory of differential association only to explain career criminals and systematic criminal behavior. “This tentative theory of criminal behavior is stated in the form of the seven following propositions. First, the processes which result in systematic criminal behavior are fundamentally the same in the form as the processes which result in systematic lawful behavior. Second, systematic criminal behavior is determined in a process of association with those who commit crimes, just as systematic lawful behavior is determined in a process of association with those who are law-abiding. Third, differential association is the specific causal process in the development of systematic criminal behavior. Fourth, the chance that a person will participate in systematic criminal behavior is determined roughly by the frequency and consistency of his conducts with the patterns of criminal behavior. Fifth, individual differences among people in respect to personal characteristics or social situations cause crime only as they affect differential association or frequency and consistency of contacts with criminal patterns. Sixth, cultural conflict is the underlying cause of differential association and therefore of systematic criminal behavior. Seventh, and final states that, social disorganization is the basic cause of systematic criminal behavior.” (Sutherland, 1939).
What’s more, in the fourth edition of Sutherland’s Principles of Criminology, 1947, he revised his theory of differential association to be applied to all crime generally. Still a striking difference between the two versions, aside from to who they are applied is that the ideas in the fourth version are presented as a “genetic theory of criminal behavior on the assumption that a criminal act occurs when a situation appropriate for it, as defined by the person, is present” (Sutherland & Cressey, 1950). Edwin H. Sutherland’s theory of differential association, as confirmed in the fourth edition consists of following nine 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: (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes very simple; (b) the specific direction of the 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. In some societies an individual is surrounded by persons who invariably define legal codes as rules to be observed, while in others he is surrounded by persons whose definitions are favorable to the violation of the legal codes. In our American society these definitions are almost always mixed, with the consequence that we have 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. It refers to both criminal and anti-criminal associations and has to do with counteracting forces. When persons become criminal, they do so because of contacts with criminal patterns and also because of isolation from anti-criminal patterns. Any person inevitably assimilates the surrounding culture unless other patterns are in conflict.
7. Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. This means that associations with criminal behavior and also associations with anti-criminal behavior vary in those respects. “Frequency” and “duration” as modalities of associations are obvious and need no explanation. “Priority”: is assumed to be important in the sense that lawful behavior developed in early childhood may persist throughout life, and also that delinquent behavior developed in early childhood may persist throughout life. This tendency, however, has not been adequately demonstrated, and priority seems to be important principally through its selective influence. “Intensity” is not precisely defined but it has to do with such things as the prestige of the source of a criminal or anti-criminal pattern and emotional reactions related to the associations. In a precise description of the criminal behavior of a person these modalities would be stated in quantitative form and mathematical ratio be reached. A formula in this sense has not been developed, and the development of such a formula would be extremely difficult.
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 general needs and values since non-criminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values. Thieves generally steal in order to secure money, but likewise honest laborers work in order to secure money. The attempts by many scholars to explain criminal behavior by general drives and values, such as the happiness principle, striving for social status, the money motive, or frustration, have been, and must continue to be, futile, since they explain lawful behavior as completely as they explain criminal behavior. They are similar to respiration, which is necessary for any behavior, but which does not differentiate criminal from noncriminal behavior.
From Sutherland’s fourth edition onward of the Principles of Criminology these nine points of his theory of differential associations have remained unchanged.
“Sutherland drew upon three major theories from the Chicago School in order to better formulate his theory. These included the ecological and cultural transmission theory, symbolic interactionism, and culture conflict. Expressed by the symbolic interactionism approach, varying crime rates were explained by the culture conflict approach and the process by which individuals became criminal. Thus, he formulated his theory with an attempt to explain not only individual criminal behavior but also those of societal groups” (DeMelo, 1994). This statement, aside from its discussion of how Sutherland formed the basis for his theory, also provides evidence for the argument that Sutherland’s differential association theory demonstrates a connection to all three of the broad classifications of the etiology of crime and other forms of deviant behavior. Generally the three categories that theories about the causes and behaviors of crime fit into, they are: individual difference theories, structure/ process theories or theories on the behavior of criminal law.
As Vold (1998) describes, “individual difference theories assume that some people are more likely than others to engage in crime,” but adds that this is true regardless of the situation they are in. Sutherland’s differential association is similar to the individual difference theories because it asserts a relationship between the characteristics of individuals and the probabilities that those individuals will engage in criminal behavior. By attempting to find a correlation between specific individual human factors, such as biological, social/ societal, or psychological aspects, and link them together to demonstrate how and to what extent those factors may account for the individual’s criminal behavior and activity. For example, Sutherland stated that one’s individual criminal behavior is learned through interaction with others, therefore, as he explains further in his seventh point, the likelihood one would engage in criminal behavior would stem from the frequency and duration of one’s interactions with others who posses tendencies toward criminal behavior. Another point, previously discussed, made by Sutherland that would correlate with the individual difference theories’ premise that there are specific factors that link to form the how and extent of criminal behavior, is his statement that “in some societies an individual is surrounded by persons who invariably define legal codes as rules to be observed, while in others he is surrounded by persons whose definitions are favorable to the violation of the legal codes. In our American society these definitions are almost always mixed, with the consequence that we have culture conflict in relation to the legal codes.” Although from this it is easy to see the basic correlation between Sutherland’s differential association theory and the individual difference theories, Sutherland’s theory does not fit entirely with all of the characteristics of the individual difference theories. For this reason Sutherland’s theory must also be examined as relative to the other classifications of theories, which are structure/ process theories and theories of the behavior of criminal law.
Assuming that certain types of social situations posses higher crime rates, despite the characteristics of the individual people in them, the structure/ process theories attempt to identify the social characteristics which cause these variations in crime rate. Generally, as Vold (1998) continues to explain, “some structural characteristic is associated with some rate or distribution of crime”, which is the “structure” portion of the structure/ process theory, is then followed by the “process” portion of the theory, which supposes reasons why normal people in this structural circumstances might hold a greater tendency to engage in crime over people in other situations. This coincides to the central principle of Sutherland’s differential association theory because of the theories own structure/ process correlation. As summarized by the specific points and ideas of Sutherland’s theory, the “structure” portion is evident in the content of what is learned. For instance, Sutherland describes the specific techniques of committing crime, the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes, as well as, more general “definitions favorable to law violation” (Vold, 1998). The “process” portion of the structure/ process theories that is apparent in Sutherland’s differential association theory provides that the procedure by which learning of criminal behavior occurs involves relations and interactions with other people in intimate personal groups. While this demonstrates the comparability of Sutherland’s differential association theory to the structure/ process theories, Sutherland’s theory is not completely equal in comparison, as it lacks the correlation to the rate and distribution of crime found within true structure/ process theories. For this reason, Sutherland’s differential association theory does not fit into the structure/ process category of theories, but Sutherland’s theory does match up to the theories of the behavior of criminal law.
The theories of the behavior of criminal law seek to explain why some people and not others are defined and processed as criminal. A common factor to the theories of the behavior of criminal law suggest that individuals and behaviors that fall into the process and classification of “criminal” are those with little or no means of economic or political power (Vold, 1998). Along these same points Sutherland argues that the most important factor in determining whether individuals will violate the law is the meaning and weight that individual gives to the social conditions they experience. Continuing, Sutherland adds that as a result of differential associations, some individuals and not others will subscribe and support criminal patters of behavior. Finally, similarly to the common factor of the theories of the behavior of criminal law, Sutherland contends that “the informal reactions to the crimes of persons of one status are different from the reactions to the crimes of persons of another status”, which reflects itself in the imposition of punishments and classification of crime. “Powerful groups are often punished less frequently and severely then less powerful groups, as may be observed in the differential punishments of white-collar criminals compared with other criminals”, such as those of the lower class (Sutherland & Cressey, 1955). As illustrated, Sutherland’s theory of differential association coincides best perhaps with the theories of the behavior of criminal law; nevertheless, it does hold similarities to the premises of the individual difference theories and the structure/ process theories. Thus, this demonstrates that Sutherland’s differential association theory does not fit perfectly into any one of the three categories of theories, but rather is a combination of all three.
As noted early, Sutherland’s differential association theory attempts to explain crime and criminal behavior in general, hence there have been a wide variety of studies which investigate and test the validity of his theory. Moreover, these studies examine specific aspects and premises of Sutherland’s more general theory of differential association, such as his ideas on white-collar crime, crimes of a career criminals like thieves, those involving learning, motivation and drives, and others which apply his ideas to juvenile delinquency and crime.
One of the studies which tests the validity of Sutherland’s differential association theory is “Parents, Peers, and Delinquent Action: A test of the Differential Association Perspective”, by Gary F. Jensen at the University of North California. Jensen’s study (1972) “attempts a more direct and encompassing test through an examination of the relationship between direct and indirect parental control and delinquency under conditions varying in the availability of delinquent patterns, unitizing data from a large heterogeneous random sample of adolescents”. While Sutherland’s differential association theory places emphases on definitions, Jensen tests attempt to go further by considering “the independent consequences of delinquent peers, parents, and “delinquent” definitions for delinquent action.” Also, Jensen’s study examines the question, “Do delinquent peers influence acceptance of unconventional cultural standards, and if so, do delinquent peers affect delinquency only through such alternative cultural patterns?” (1972). Finally, Jensen’s study is aimed at testing the validity of Sutherland and Cressey’s argument that family life is applicable to delinquency only when “delinquent patterns” are preexisting to copy.
Like many other studies examining specific aspects on Sutherland’s differential association theory, the source of the data for Jensen’s study came from part of the Richmond Youth Study which was conducted by the Survey Research Center (University of California at Berkeley) in 1965. The original population of the Richmond Youth Study consisted of the 17, 500 students entering the 11 junior and senior high schools of Western Contra Costa in the fall of 1964, whereas the sample for the Richmond Youth study data consisted of both black and nonblack, male and female adolescents in grades 7 thru 12. However, Jensen’s study only analyzed the data on the 1, 588 nonblack males from the Richmond Youth study’s original sample. Moreover, the relationships examined by Jensen for his study were observed by utilizing the questionnaire data gathered from the original Richmond Youth study.
The resulting findings of Jensen’s ” Parents, Peers, and Delinquent Action: A test of the Differential Association Perspective” study (1972) assesses the arguments “using differential association theory to encompass certain “known” relationships, and consistent with previous research the number of delinquent friends, the perception of “trouble” in the neighborhood, and the variable acceptance of attitudes and beliefs favorable to the violation of legal codes were significantly related to involvement in delinquent action”. However, Sutherland and Cressey’s argument was failed to be supported by the findings of this study, which “cast doubt on their arguments concerning the home and family in relation to delinquent behavior”, but noted that what goes on in the family situation seems to have significance of its own which is not included by Sutherland and Cressey’s differential association perspective (Jensen, 1972). Still, Jensen study did reveal that some interaction existed when definitions favorable to the violation of the law were controlled. Finally, Jensen’s study (1972) states that “the theory of differential association stresses “definitions” and “cultural” variables (values, norms, and beliefs) to such an extent that processes shaping human behavior other than internalization of normative standards tend to be slighted” (Jensen, 1972). However, contrary to Jensen’s analyses, Matsueda’s interpretation upon a reexamination of the findings of the Richmond Youth study provides a different conclusion from those results.
“Testing Control Theory and Differential Association: A Causal Modeling Approach”, by Ross L. Matsueda at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is another second which investigates the validity of Sutherland’s differential association theory. Matsueda’s study considers the findings of both the original Richmond Youth study and the findings of Jensen’s 1972 study. The major difference between Sutherland’s differential association theory and the control theory is that Sutherland stresses that definitions of the legal code mediate the effects of structural factors on crime. On the other hand, the control theory states that definitions of the legal codes reflect the degree of belief in the moral order and therefore do not mediate attachment, commitment, or involvement. One of the most detrimental criticisms about the differential association theory is that the primary variable of the theory, that a person’s ratio learned behavior patterns, cannot be precisely determined, therefore the theory of differential association cannot be subjected to empirical verification. However, Matsueda (1982) theorizes that “by explicitly modeling the measurement error structure of the ratio of learned behavior patterns favorable and unfavorable to the violation of legal codes, the critical variable of Sutherland’s theory can be operationalized”.
The methodology or design behind Matsueda’s ideas follows from the ideas of both Sutherland and Cressey. Although it is argued that this variable cannot be operationalized, Matsueda hypothesis contradicts this argument. Matsueda’s (1982) interpretation hypothesizes that “when the ratio of behavior patterns favorable and unfavorable to delinquency are treated as a “latent” or “unobservable” variable, it does have operational implications for the relationships among variables that can be observed, which in turn can be specified as indicators of the underlying theoretical construct”. Therefore, Matsueda states that Sutherland’s theory of differential association can and should be weighed empirically. “The oft-cited difficulty of operationalizing the ratio of learned behavior patterns can be conceptualized as a problem of measurement error. The most practical way to address this problem is by explicitly modeling the measurement error structure of items tapping the underlying definitions construct, therefore, allowing the testing of specific hypotheses derived from the differential association theory” (Matsueda, 1982).
The resulting findings of Matsueda’s study (1982) supported and favored Sutherland’s differential association theory, but could only be used to predict a general index of delinquent behaviors for general indicators of the definitions of legal code. Concluding, Matsueda (1982) emphasizes that “Sutherland’s differential association remains as an important principle that focuses attention on the fact that all behavior is oriented by norms, and it integrates and explains variations in crime rates. Yet, not all of the studies explore this aspect of Sutherland’s differential association theory.
“Doing What Simple Simon Says?: Estimating the Underlying Causal Structures of Delinquent Associations, Attitudes, and Serious Theft”, a study by Mark D. Reed and Dina R. Rose published in June 1998, investigates one of the more fundamental and stronger points of Sutherland’s differential association theory. Their study attempts to investigate the “relative contributions of socialization, group pressure, social selection and rationalization processes in explaining the relationships between peer-group associations, attitudes and serious theft” (Reed & Rose, 1998). By estimating a nonrecursive model, Reed and Rose (1998) argue that (delinquency) serious theft is as likely to affect delinquent associations and attitudes as associations and attitudes are to affect (delinquency) serious theft. Reed and Rose’s study (1998) attempts to improve upon earlier studies examining differential association and social learning theories in two distinct ways. “First, this research uses panel data that allows us to model the reciprocal relations of delinquent associations, delinquent attitudes, and serious theft, thereby enabling a test of the relative contribution of several different social processes on serious theft”. Second, presently the majority of cross-sectional and longitudinal studies lack the inclusion of a measurement model in the substantive model, thus, rendering the increased feasibility that the structural parameter calculations are biased due to measurement error. The research of this study examined by Reed and Rose (1998) estimates a measurement model, correcting for the potential biasing effects of correlated measurement error.
Reed and Rose’s methodology and design for this study (1998) came from the longitudinal data, collected from the NYS (National Youth Survey), which are grounded on a probability sample of households using a multistage, cluster sampling design. “Five annual waves of data for 1976 to 1980 are available; the present analysis examines the first three waves. Of the 2,360 youths (ages ranged from 11 to 17) asked to participate in the original study, 1,725 (73%) agreed. Respondent loss over the first three waves was 6%, leaving 1,626 participants in the study, which had no effect on the studies results” ( Reed and Rose, 1998).
The results of Reed and Rose’s study (1998) showed “that the socialization effects are negligible and insignificant in the reciprocal estimations: Peers influence attitudes, but attitudes are not the primary determinants of behavior. More important, however, the research established that the “group pressure effects are substantially smaller in the nonrecursive models compared to those commonly reported in recursive studies”(Reed and Rose, 1998). Yet, perhaps the most fundamental findings of the research from Reed and Rose’s study (1998) “indicates that there are several social processes operating simultaneously. Thus, the adherence to a single social process will likely result in the oversimplification of the causal mechanisms underlying delinquent behavior”.
While Sutherland’s differential association theory has been examined to explain nearly all types of crime, overall, these studies demonstrate the broad complexity of Sutherland’s theory. But to what extent if any is the validity of Sutherland’s theory of differential association given as a result of these studies? The results of the first study, “Parents, Peers, and Delinquent Action: A test of the Differential Association Perspective”, by Gary F. Jensen failed to find validity in Sutherland’s theory. Particularly, the data of Jensen’s study disagreed with the arguments of Sutherland and Cressey concerning the home and family in relation to delinquent behavior. However, the second study, “Testing Control Theory and Differential Association: A Causal Modeling Approach”, conducted by Ross L. Matsueda found that Sutherland’s differential association theory held a great validity than the social control theories. Importantly, Matsueda had noted that most commonly criticized problem of measurement error could be corrected by explicitly modeling the measurement error structure of items tapping the underlying definitions construct, which then gives greater validity to Sutherland’s theory over that of social conflict theories. The third and final study discussed was, “Doing What Simple Simon Says?: Estimating the Underlying Causal Structures of Delinquent Associations, Attitudes, and Serious Theft”, by Mark D. Reed and Dina R. Rose. Although, Reed and Rose’s examination of Sutherland’s differential association theory are a little more indirect than that of the other two studies, it still explores the validity of Sutherland’s theory. Reed and Rose’s study does give favor to Sutherland’s theory, they also incorporated the ideas of other theories, with would tend to make a better case that Sutherland’s theory does not hold true for all types of crimes and criminal behavior.
Throughout his career Sutherland attempted to clarify his ideas in efforts to postulate a concise general theory of crime and criminal behavior, however he never managed to do so. “Despite his many critics, little doubt exists that Edwin Sutherland was a true “pioneer” in the field of criminology, not in spite of his differential association theory but because of it” (Jones, 1986). The universal acceptance of Sutherland’s differential association theory due to its less complex and more coherent approach to crime causation, in addition to the reality of it being a definition of individual criminal behavior. Perhaps in part because of Sutherland’s differential association theory is supported by much evidence, a large quantity of modern theory and research in the field of criminology can be attributed to the work of Sutherland’s original composition. Although, Sutherland has often been misinterpreted for his ideas on the associations with criminals leading to criminal behavior, what he meant was that the contents of patterns in association would differ from individual to individual. “Differential association is a theory based on the social environment and its surrounding individuals and the values those individuals gain from significant others in their social environment” (DeMelo, 1994). Crime was viewed by Edwin Sutherland as a consequence of conflicting values. Moreover, the basic premises behind the Sutherland’s combined and final differential association theory is that criminal behavior is learned and that in a “situation of differential organization and normative conflict, differences in behavior, including criminal behaviors, arise because of differential associations (Vold, 1998).
Overall, Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory does not best explain any one specific type of crime or criminal behavior. In fact, perhaps the reason why Sutherland’s theory has sustained its significance is because it encompasses a general formula and the fundamental ideas or way of examining crime and criminal behavior. Conceivably, a better question and challenge that might be raised instead of what types of crime does it best explain, would be what types of crime or criminal behavior could you not apply to Sutherland’s differential association theory. Therefore there is no suggestion that Sutherland’s theory is not valid, merely that the application of Sutherland’s theory must follow in accordance with Sutherland’s own calculations and