Sutherland’s differential association Born August 13, 1883 in Gibbon, Nebraska, Edwin H. Sutherland grew up and studied in Ottawa, Kansas, and Grand Island, Nebraska. After receiving his B. A degree from Grand Island College in 1904, he taught Latin, Greek, History, and shorthand for two years at Sioux Falls College in South Dakota. In 1906 he left Sioux Falls College and entered graduate school at the University of Chicago from which he received his doctorate. (Gaylord, 1988: 7-12) While attending the University of Chicago he changed his major from history to sociology.
Much of his study was influenced by the Chicago approach to the study of crime that emphasized human behavior as determined by social and physical environmental factors, rather than genetic or personal characteristics. (Gaylord, 1988: 7-12) With his studies completed he began work at the University of Minnesota from 1926 to 1929 where his reputation as a leading criminologist was enhanced. At this time, his focus became sociology as a scientific enterprise whose goal was the understanding and control of social problems, including crime. (Gaylord, 1988: 13) After his time at Minnesota he moved to Indiana University and founded the Bloomington School of Criminology at Indiana University. While at Indiana, he published 3 books, including Twenty Thousand Homeless Men (1936), The Professional Thief (1937), and the third edition of Principles of Criminology (1939).
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Finally in 1939 he was elected president of the American Sociological Society, and in 1940 was elected president of the Sociological Research Association.
Similar in importance to strain theory and social control theory, Differential association theory was Sutherland’s major sociological contribution to criminology; . These theories all explain deviance in terms of the individual’s social relationships. By attributing the cause of crime to the social context of individuals, Differential Association departs from the pathological perspective and biological perspective. ‘He rejected biological determinism and the extreme individualism of psychiatry, as well as economic explanations of crime.
His search for an alternative understanding of crime led to the development of Differential Association theory. In contrast to both classical and biological theories, Differential Association theory poses no obvious threats to the humane treatment of those identified as criminals.’ (Gaylord, 1988: 1) The principle of differential association asserts that criminal behavior emerges when one is exposed to more social message favoring conduct than pro-social messages. (Sutherland, 1947) Sutherland argued that the concept of differential association and differential social organization could be applied to the individual level and to the group level respectively. While differential association theory explains why any individual gravitates toward criminal behavior, differential social organization explains why crime rates of different social entities differ from each other’s. In his fourth edition of Principles of Criminology he presented his final theory of differential association. His theory has 9 basic postulates: 1.
Criminal behavior is learned as opposed to inherited through genetics. 2. Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication. This communication is verbal in many cases but includes gestures. 3. The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups.
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This suggests that television or newspapers are not important in committing criminal. 4. When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very simple; (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes. 5. The specific direction of the motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable or unfavorable. 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. Not only do people become criminal because of contacts with criminal patterns but also because of isolation from anti-criminal patterns. 7.
Differential association may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. Priority seems to be important through its selective influence. Intensity has to do with such things as the prestige of the source of a criminal or anti-criminal pattern and with the emotions they create. 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. This means that the learning of criminal behavior is not restricted to the process of imitation.
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 to explain criminal behavior by general drives and values such as the money motive have been, and 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. (Sutherland, 1974: 75-76) In summary, he believed that an individual’s associations are determined in a general context of social organization (for instance, family income as a factor of determining residence of family and in many cases, delinquency rate is largely related to the rental value of houses) and thus differential group organization as an explanation of various crime rates is consistent with the differential association theory.
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(Sutherland, 1974: 77) Much of Sutherland’s theory relied upon the work of Chicago school theorists, Shaw and McKay (1931, 1969).
According to Shaw and McKay, they found that ‘delinquency rates increased as one moved away from the center of the city, and ecological rates of delinquency remained stable over generations despite a complete turnover of ethnic composition and social disorganization explained the high rates of delinquency in the inner-city.’ (Matsueda: 1988: 280) A second contribution to differential association was Sellin, Wirth and Sutherland’s works on the influence of culture conflict on crime. They claimed that crime in modern societies is rooted in the conflict of competing cultures. Different crime rates were explained by the culture conflict approach.
A third factor was drawn from his own interviews, particularly those of Chic Conwell done for The Professional Thief. Sutherland concluded that not everyone can become a professional thief, but rather one must be accepted into a group of professional thieves and then indoctrinated into the profession (Matsueda: 1988: 280).
In the book, he emphasized differential association by saying that ‘the final definition of the professional thief is found within the differential association. A person who is received in the group and recognized as a professional thief is a professional thief. The differential element in the association of thieves is primarily functional rather than geographical.’ (Jacoby, 1994: 11) In sum, he showed a general characteristic of a professional thief and their peculiar way of living in detail in terms of differential association: The professional thief is one who steals professionally. He makes a regular business of stealing and every act is carefully planned.
He has different technical skills and methods that are different from those of other professional criminals. He is generally migratory and may work in all the cities of the U. S. The attitude of one thief toward another is very friendly. Not only does one thief warn another thief of danger but also he avoids doing things that will put other thieves in danger. Thieves also give much assistance to other thieves who are in trouble.
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Personal feelings seldom affect this. Thieves are all professionally united against law-enforcement bodies, which are the only common to all thieves. Codes of ethics are much more binding among thieves than among legitimate commercial firms. They seldom betray other thieves. Prisoners squawk for one purpose only-to relieve themselves of punishment.
The worst penalty is to keep him broke by spreading the news that he has squawked, which makes it impossible for him to get into any mob. If one mob comes into a place and finds another mob already at work, it will leave at once. It is partly from professional courtesy and partly for safety. The professional thief lives in the underworld and has sympathetic and congenial relationships there. Because the underworld is an exclusive society, it is necessary that the stranger be identified before he is admitted. The language of the underworld is both an evidence of this isolation of the underworld and also a means of identification.
What he knows about these mutual acquaintances will show whether he is trustworthy. A person can become a professional thief only if he is trained by those who are already professionals. (Sutherland, 1937, 3-26) His theory is based upon two major assumptions:’ (1) deviance occurs when people define a certain human situation as an appropriate occasion for violating social norms or criminal laws and (2) definitions of the situation are acquired through an individual’s history of past experience, particularly in terms of past associations with others.’ (Pfohl, 1994: 302).
By doing so, people make their own subjective definitions of their situation in life. Sutherland did not mean that mere association with criminals would lead to criminal behavior, which was often misunderstood by other critics, but he viewed crime as a consequence of conflicting values. Individuals with an excess of criminal definitions will be more susceptible to new criminal definitions and that individual will be less receptive to anti criminal definitions.
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In his last major book, White Collar Crime, he analyzed the crimes committed by American corporations and executives and pointed out the bias in UCR statistics that lacked data of white-collar crime. He raised doubt about the validity of conventional data and claimed ‘white collar offenses should be included in the data analyzed by criminologists, just as juvenile offenses are included in those data.’ He believed that ‘conventional generalizations about crime and criminality are invalid because they explain only the crime of the lower classes, at most.’ (Sutherland, 1949: 217).
According to Sutherland, it is important to note that there are significant dangers in conventional explanations drawn from biased samples. If statistics are valid and reliable, they should be free of sampling error. First error of criminal statistics originates from the defects of UCR report. The number of crimes known to the police is much smaller than the number of actual crimes committed.
Victims may consider the crime not worth reporting. And the number of crimes is accurate only when the police are honest, and consistent in making their reports. Moreover, variation in the criminal law may affect the volume of crimes known to the police. Behavior that is criminal in one place or time may not be criminal in another place or time.
The second error is the problem of white-collar crime. Even though the danger of white-collar crime is more serious to society in terms of effect on private property and social institutions, these tend not to be included in statistics, whether official or not. This resulted from the difficulty of detecting and punishing this crime. Accordingly, Sutherland denied conventional theories by arguing that: The theory that criminal behavior in general is due either to poverty or to the psychopathic and sociopathic conditions with poverty can now be shown to be invalid for three reasons.
First, the generalization is based on a biased sample that omits almost entirely the behavior of white-collar criminals. Second, the generalization that criminality is closely associated with poverty obviously does not apply to white-collar criminals because without small exception, by and large, they are not poor. Third, the conventional theories do not even explain lower class criminality. (Jacoby, 1994: 24-25) Many criticized Sutherland’s differential association theory; supporters argued that criticism often resulted from misinterpretation of Sutherland’s theory. Donald R.
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Cressey argued persuasively that many of the critiques were simply ‘literary errors’ or misinterpretation on the part of the critics. For example, the theory was judged by critics to be invalid because not everyone who had come into contact with criminals became criminal as a result. This misinterprets the theory’s proposition that criminal behavior is learned through differential association, not simply through any contact with persons who have violated the law. (Akers: 1996: 229) However, Cressey also pointed out two major weaknesses of Sutherland’s theory. The first problem was that the concept of ‘definitions’ in the theory was not precisely defined, and the statement did not give good guidance on how to ope rationalize the ratio or ‘excess of definitions’ favorable to criminal behavior over definitions unfavorable to criminal behavior. The second real problem was that it left the learning process unspecified.
There is virtually no clue in Sutherland’s theory as to what in particular would be included in ‘all the mechanisms that are involved in any of other learning (Akers: 1996: 229-230) Another important criticism argued that Sutherland’s theory is a ‘cultural deviance’ theory as a way of showing that it made wrong presumptions about human behavior and the role of culture in deviant behavior. Matsueda believed it ‘reduces Sutherland’s theory to a caricature’ and Bernard objected to the way in which ‘the cultural deviance label has been applied to the original differential association and social learning revision’ But Akers denies this criticism as another misinterpretation of Sutherland’s theory: According to this critique, differential association / social learning theory rests on the assumption that socialization is completely successful and that cultural variability is unlimited, cannot explain individual differences in deviance within the same group and applies only to group differences, has no way of explaining violation of norms to which the individual subscribes, and proposes culture as the single cause of crime. I conclude that the usual attribution of cultural deviance assumptions and explanation to differential association is based on misinterpretations. (Akers: 1996: 229) Perhaps the most fundamental research problem involves identifying the content of definitions favorable to crime. Warr and (1993: 295) studied the mechanism by which delinquency is socially transmitted. They compared the effect of peer’s attitude and effect of peer’s behavior and found that delinquency stemmed rather from behavior of peers than the consequence of attitudes acquired from peers.
This means that Sutherland’s assertion that attitude of peers is major factor of delinquency is incomplete. The attitudes of adolescents indeed do influence delinquency. ‘However, quite apart from the attitudes of adolescents and those of their friends, the behavior of friends has a strong, independent effect on adolescents’ behavior.’ There are many other criticisms of Differential Association. Such criticisms include, omitting of free will, ignores victim role, doesn’t take biological factors into account, theory isn’t of any value to practical men, etc… In terms of measurement problems, ‘The likelihood of deviant behavior could be determined by calculating the difference between favorable and unfavorable associations. Yet, as Sutherland recognized, the development of such a formula would be extremely difficult.
Although the importance of associations is obviously influenced by such factors, the factors themselves are difficult to reliably measure in any standardized fashion.’ (Pfohl, 1994: 303) Though its shortcomings, differential association theory still is popular among criminologists for its simplicity and coherence. According to Tittle (1986, 429), ‘despite some important anomalies, our findings support the major theme of Sutherland’s thinking. Association with criminal definitions does seem to be a generator of crime, and it appears to exercise its influence indirectly through its effects on a learned symbolic construct-motivation to engage in criminal behavior.’ Differential association refers to the process by which individuals, operating in different social contexts, become exposed to, and ultimately learn, normative definitions favorable and unfavorable to criminal and legal behavior (Akers 1994) ‘. Although family and peer groups tend to be important differential association, other social context such as schools can be equally important to learning normative definitions. Differential reinforcement and punishment refers to ‘the balance of social nonsocial rewards and punishments associated with behavior. As Akers (1997) contends, positive reinforcers and negative reinforcers tend to increase the likelihood that a certain act will occur.
Imitation refers to the modeling of certain behavior through the observation of others’ (Skinner and Fream, 1997: 498-499) While proponents of differential association emphasize the influences of peers, control theorists such as Hirsch i emphasized family, especially parent influence. Attempts have been made to combine research in both areas. Sutherland and Cressey said that while crime is caused by differential association, the probability of such differential association is a function of differential social organization. (1978) Another approach by Douglas A. Smith and Robert Brame studied which models are more appropriate to explain various dimensions of delinquency, especially initiation and continuation. They found that ‘many variables are equally associated with decisions to begin and continue offending.
Other variables predict decisions to initiate or continue offending in different ways.’ (Douglas A. Smith and Robert Brame, 1994: 625) However, negative labeling was found to be one of the major factors causing persistent delinquent behavior, while social control theory seems more applicable to initiation of delinquency than continuation. (Douglas A. Smith and Robert Brame, 1994) Differential association theory suggests that association with others who are delinquent will increase the likelihood of becoming and remaining delinquent. In this view, ‘peers can be crucial role models for the development of values and beliefs favorable to law violation. That exposure to delinquent peers will increase the probability of engaging in an initial act of delinquency and the likelihood of delinquent behavior reoccurring.’ (Smith and Brame: 1994: 610-611) There isn’t one theory that can cover all aspects of crime.
All theories need to incorporate other theories to further explanation. Throughout time, Sutherland’s theory of Differential Association has had its strengths and weaknesses examined from all angles. However, with that in mind, it is still considered a very strong basis for criminology theory as is Sutherland a pioneer for all criminologists. Works Cited: Akers, Ronald L… (1996).
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