Developed by Edwin Sutherland in the 1930's, differential
association was a radical explanation for criminal behaviour since it argues that crime,
like any social behaviour, 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.
First they learn some specific skills needed to commit
crime (how to open a locked vault), and second, ideas that justify and normalize crime.
This concept leads directly to a subcultural theory of
crime that asserts that not all groups in society 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 Sutherlands differential association theory, an individual
becomes delinquent because of an excessive definition favorable to violation of law which
is learned through interactions with significant others. We examined the propositions of
the differential association theory with different social contexts: urban, suburban, and
An Examination of Differential Association and Social
Wesley T. Church, II, Tracy Wharton, Julie K. Taylor, Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice,
Vol. 7, No. 1, 3-15 (2009) DOI: 10.1177/1541204008324910
This study applies differential association and social control theories 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 delinquent
behavior, regardless of race.
Reporting Police Misconduct: Differential Association/Social Learning
Among Police Officers
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/social
learning theory as a conceptual framework, I argue that an officers failure to
report misconduct is learned through social interaction among officers and reflects the
important role of peer influence. Using ordinary least squares regression and structural
equation models with unique data from thirty agencies in the United States, I examine
whether the likelihood of reporting for an individual officer is shaped by social learning
mechanisms. Consistent with differential association and social learning, the expected
behavior of an officers peers and an officers perception of offense severity
have the strongest effects on whether or not an officer feels they would report a
colleague engaged in misconduct.