Sociology Index


Developed by Edwin Sutherland in the 1930's, differential association was a radical explanation for criminal behavior since it argues that crime, like any social behavior, is learned in association with others. The phrase Differential Association simply means that people have different social situations and thus learn different things.

What is learned is cultural material. If the individual regularly associates with criminals, and is relatively isolated from law abiding citizens, then they are more likely to engage in crime themselves as a result of such differential association. Here differential association first leads to learning some specific skills needed to commit crime (how to open a locked vault), and next, leads to ideas that justify and normalize crime.

This differential association concept leads directly to a crime subculture that asserts that not all groups in society (sociology of groups) uphold the same values or norms and for some groups crime is normative.

An Examination of Differential Association Theory with Different Social Contexts: Urban, Suburban, and Rural Areas - Kim, Young S.., Lo, Celia. and Church, Wesley T - Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology
Abstract: According to Sutherland’s differential association theory, an individual becomes delinquent because of an excessive definition favorable to violation of law which is learned through social interaction with significant others. We examined the propositions of the differential association theory with different social contexts: urban, suburban, and rural areas.

An Examination of Differential Association and Social Control Theory
Wesley T. Church, II, Tracy Wharton, Julie K. Taylor, Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, Vol. 7, No. 1, 3-15 (2009).
This study applies differential association and social control theory to juvenile delinquency. Using a path analysis model, relationships between family, self-image, and behavior are explored. Analyses suggest that positive self-image leads to decreased delinquency, and association with delinquent peers is the greatest predictor of deviant behavior, regardless of race.

Reporting Police Misconduct: Differential Association/Social Learning Among Police Officers
Harris, Casey
Paper presented at the annual meeting of the AMERICAN SOCIETY OF CRIMINOLOGY
Abstract: Police misconduct has important theoretical and policy implications, but measuring its scope and extent is problematic, particularly when relying on officers to report incidents involving their colleagues. Few studies have examined why officers fail to report other officers, and scholars have been similarly slow to provide a theoretical lens through which to view such behavior. Drawing on differential association or social learning theory as a conceptual framework, I argue that an officer's failure to report misconduct is learned through social interaction among officers and reflects the important role of peer influence. Consistent with differential association and social learning, the expected behavior of an officer's peers and an officer’s perception of offense severity have the strongest effects on whether or not an officer feels they would report a colleague engaged in misconduct.