Differential Association Theory

Why do people commit crimes? Before you answer that question, it’s important to take a step back and define what you consider a “crime.” Is smoking marijuana a crime? Is bigamy a crime? What about fraud? After you’re done thinking about these questions, ask yourself who taught you that these certain actions were a crime. Because if you agree with differential association theory, it is the influence of others who led you to believe that certain “criminal” behavior is acceptable.

This page is all about differential association theory: where it came from, what it means, and how it can affect the way that we view criminality and rehabilitation. 

What is Differential Association Theory? 

Differential association theory is a way of understanding how people develop their views surrounding criminal behavior, including violent and non-violent crimes. The theory suggests that we develop these views in our interactions with our community and with criminal behavior itself.

Who Discovered Differential Association Theory? 

Edwin Sutherland was an American sociologist who specialized in studying crime and criminality. Not only did he create differential association theory, but he is also the reason we call some non-violent crimes “white collar crimes.” He is considered the first “criminologist.” 

About Criminology 

Edwin Sutherland’s research challenged a popular, yet chilling theory about crime and why certain people committed them. The prevailing idea in the 1930s was that all blame for culture or crime must be placed on individuals. It was genes, not the surrounding environment, that caused people to commit crimes. Some, known as eugenists, went so far as to suggest that for this reason, certain races or bloodlines must continue while others should be eliminated. 

Differential association theory suggested that because the surrounding culture and values were the way into a criminal lifestyle, it was also the way out of a criminal lifestyle. Genes are certainly more permanent.   

Two Sides of Differential Association 

So how do people decide to commit crimes? Do they wake up one day out of the blue, thinking “today’s the day to break the law?” Are they waiting to commit crimes since birth? Is it the crime itself that encourages them to come back? Edwin Sutherland suggested that there are two sides to differential association theory that both influence people to commit crimes. These two sides are:

  • Normative Dimension
  • Behavioral-Interactional Dimension 

Normative Dimension

This side of differential association theory essentially suggests that the people around us may influence whether or not we feel comfortable or motivated to commit crimes. In our interactions with others, we develop certain values. These values may influence or deter us from criminal activity. 

One way to look at this is through the lens of individualist vs. collectivist cultures. The United States of America has an individualist culture: we value our personal freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Our country was founded on breaking free from authority and we encourage others to do the same. We look out for ourselves instead of the entire country. On the other hand, a collectivist culture highly values respecting and doing good for others. The group is more important than the individual. 

Does collectivism reduce crime? There are some statistics that suggest this is true. Collectivist cultures may have a higher respect for authority and, therefore, do not undermine them by committing crimes. 

We can also look at this on a smaller scale. When you were a child, what did your parents or guardians tell you about “following the rules?” Did they repeatedly enforce the importance of listening to teachers, policemen, or other authority figures? Did they set up systems so that you could follow the rules? Were you rewarded when you were well-behaved? In the earliest years of life, a child learns values from their family. Then, they begin to interact with other children at school and their values may change. At work, they may interact with a different set of people who may or may not change how they look at certain criminal activities. 

But it isn’t just who you know and who you talk to that influences your values and view of criminal activity. A child may grow up in a household that values rules and rejects criminal behavior, but they still test their limits and break a rule (like stealing a sibling’s toy) every once and a while. Then what? 

Behavioral-Interactional Side of Differential Association Theory 

Aligning our values with the people around us is part of human nature. The people in our families, workplaces, communities, and friend groups give us an opportunity to belong to something larger than ourselves. This feeling of belonging, says positive psychologists like Maslow, is something all humans desire. When we agree with them or behave in a way that is acceptable to our social groups, we feel that positive sense of belonging. Therefore, the behavior is reinforced and we are likely to perform that same behavior again. 

In this way, differential association theory fits in with a lot of other ideas in the world of psychology. Behaviorists like B.F. Skinner or Ivan Pavlov suggested that reinforcements and punishments could influence or shape a person’s behavior. According to differential association theory, this also applies to criminal behavior. 

Think about this in the context of selling drugs. A child may have an older brother who sells drugs with his friends. The drug dealers take the child out to lunch during school hours, buy him new sneakers, or offer him other goods to win over the child’s favor. When they ask the child to deliver some drugs or sell them himself, they promise that the child will get even more money or better sneakers than before. The child takes the offer and enjoys the reinforcement, going back to sell more drugs so he can get more money and other material goods that he wants. This is how a lot of people may get involved in criminal activity. Earning $200 from one drug sale certainly beats earning $15 an hour working as a cashier!

Examples of Differential Association Theory 

  • Sex work is a controversial issue because different groups of people consider it a crime. It’s also controversial because many women who commit sex work are usually doing so out of desperation. A middle-class woman who has access to wealth and opportunities may not be motivated to commit sex work. However, a woman living in poverty with fewer options may see sex work as the only way to feed her child. She may be encouraged by other people in the industry to commit sex work. If she is spending a lot of time with other sex workers, she becomes part of a community that later becomes tough to leave. She may even stay in sex work because she would feel guilty about “getting out” and leaving her community behind.  
  • People in organized crime may feel pressured by the people in their families and communities to be a part of “the family.” In The Godfather: Part III, Michael Corleone utters the famous line, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” He’s talking about his lifestyle in organized crime. “They” are people in his community that prevent him from transitioning to life as a law-abiding citizen. 
  • As a businessman or politician rises through the ranks and gains more power, he may find himself around people that committed white-collar crimes to get to where they were in life. In Succession, Cousin Greg began his career at Waystar Royco with few intentions to commit white-collar crimes. He found himself being pressured to hide evidence and commit criminal activity by his family members and co-workers. 

Criticisms of Differential Association Theory 

If you enjoy reading about serial killers, you might have some questions about this theory. How did Jeffrey Dahmer commit the crimes he did when he was surrounded by a family and community that did not value such atrocities? Ted Bundy didn’t hang out with serial killers, either. Serial killers are extreme cases of violent criminals, but they offer criticisms of differential association theory that are worth noting. 

Other criticisms regarding differential association theory ask where this culture “starts.” Culture is a social construct. Can’t biology be blamed when criminal activity is traced back to the beginnings of humanity? Men of a certain age are also more likely to commit violent crimes. Are our expectations for men and women in society so vastly different that we allow this to occur, or does biology play a role in these patterns, too? 

These criticisms are valid, but they don’t negate the significance of differential association theory in the history of psychology and criminology!

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.