Differential Association Theory is a sociological and criminological theory developed by American sociologist Edwin H. Sutherland in the early 20th century. The theory proposes that criminal behavior and deviance are learned through social interactions, primarily within intimate personal groups such as family, friends, and peer networks. According to the theory, individuals acquire criminal attitudes, techniques, and motives by associating with others who hold and exhibit these behaviors.
Differential Association Theory is based on nine key principles:
- Criminal behavior is learned: The theory asserts that criminal behavior is not an inherent trait but is acquired through social learning processes.
- Criminal behavior is learned through interactions: Individuals learn criminal behavior by interacting with others who already exhibit these behaviors, primarily in small, intimate groups.
- Learning criminal behavior involves acquiring techniques and motives: The learning process includes acquiring both the skills necessary to commit crimes and the justifications or rationalizations for criminal behavior.
- Learning criminal behavior involves the perception of legal codes: Individuals learn about the legal definitions of right and wrong, as well as the consequences of violating these codes.
- The direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal code: Individuals develop a favorable or unfavorable view of criminal behavior based on their perception of legal codes and their social environment’s attitudes towards them.
- Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity: The impact of associations on an individual’s criminal behavior is influenced by the frequency and duration of interactions, the age at which the association occurred, and the emotional intensity of the relationship.
- The process of learning criminal behavior involves the same mechanisms as learning any other behavior: Differential Association Theory assumes that the learning process for criminal behavior is no different from the learning process for any other behavior.
- Criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values: The theory posits that criminal behavior is not driven by unique needs or values but is a manifestation of the same needs and values that guide other behaviors.
- Differential association varies in different social contexts: The likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior depends on the balance between favorable and unfavorable associations, which can vary across different social contexts.
Differential Association Theory has been influential in shaping the understanding of criminal behavior and deviance, emphasizing the importance of social factors and interpersonal relationships in the development of criminal tendencies. The theory has inspired further research and the development of related theories, such as Social Learning Theory, which expands on the role of social influences and reinforcement in shaping both criminal and non-criminal behavior.