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Sutherland's Differential Association

Sutherland’s Differential Association, as introduced by Edwin H. Sutherland posits that it is through interacting with other deviant people that people learn values, attitudes, techniques, and motives for criminal behaviour.¹

This theory explains why any individual moves toward deviant behavior and is most useful when explaining peer influences among deviant youths or ‘special mechanism of becoming certain criminal.’ Differential Association is similar to control theory and strain theory in that they all explain deviance in terms of individual’s social relationships.¹

Sutherland said “a person becomes delinquent because of an “excess” of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law.”¹ In Layman’s terms, criminal behavior emerges when one is exposed to more social message favoring conduct than prosocial messages.

Differential Association attributes the cause of crime to social context and departs from the biological perspective. Differential Association is Sutherland’s micro level orientation that explains deviance on an individual level.  Sutherland’s Differential Social Organization explains deviance on a group level and why crime rates of different social entities are different from each other’s.¹

Sutherland has 9 Basic Postulates that you can see here: http://criminology.fsu.edu/crimtheory/sutherland.html

Sutherland believed individual’s associations are determined in a general context of social organization. For example, family income determines their type of residence and often, delinquency is related to rental value of houses. This indirect correlation can have huge societal impacts.¹

Those who support Differential Association view crime as a consequence of conflicting values and believe that there are real dangers in conventional explanations of deviance¹:

  1. Firstly, Sutherland believed that conventional generalizations about crime and criminality are invalid because they explain only the crime of the lower classes, at most.
  2. Also, the data that sociologists use in coming up with deviance theories is based on a biased sample that omits white-collar crimes and usually end up generalizing that criminality is associated with poverty. This obviously doesn’t apply to white collar criminals.




1. Edwin H. Sutherland. Differential Association Theory. Retrieved from May 8, 2014, from http://criminology.fsu.edu/crimtheory/sutherland.html

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