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Free essay on differential association

In positing a learning theory of deviance, Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory obtains that criminal behavior or deviance is learned or attained through interaction with deviant people, in a process of communication. It is through such interaction that a person learns the methods of committing crime and the validation, motives, and attitude for such behavior (Sutherland et. al., 1992). The level of learning depends on the incidence and extent of the association. Ideally Sutherland argues that just like other learned behavior such as reading or painting, criminal behavior too may be learned (Sigel, 2011).
It is through the process of communication that the criminal behavior is learned. The communication is invariably verbal, but sometimes gestures may suffice. Verbal communication in this context is the direct interaction with the deviant persons for instance through dialogue. Therefore, a person may learn how to break into houses through a discussion on the same, and also through the gestures in response of the others in relation to the activity.
The theory further posits that the learning takes place in communicating with members of close or personal groups. On such basis, the theory deems methods of impersonal communication such as newspapers or movies as less effectual in learning the criminal behavior (Sutherland et. al., 1992). A personal connection between the learner and the group is thus seen as crucial to the learning process. Thus for instance a teenager is more likely to learn how to smoke or party from a close friend than from an associate.
In terms of what is learned, the theory posits that it more than just the ‘ how’ but also to some the extent the ‘ why’. Accordingly, the learner also learns the motives, attitudes, justifications, and drives for the crime (Sutherland et. al., 1992). It is such justifications and rationalizations that people of deviant behavior utilize to explain their behavior. For instance, a thief or robber may justify stealing from the well off by saying that they have more than enough or they do not need the stuff as much as the thief or robber does. This rationalization is most likely concocted through association with people of analogous viewpoints.


Siegel, L. J. (2012). Criminology (11th Edition). CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company. Print.
Sutherland, E. H., Cressey, D. R., and Luckenbill, D. F. (1992). Principles of Criminology (11th
Edition). MD: Rowman & Littlefield. Print.

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