Edwin Sutherland’s theory of differential association, the first learning theory of crime, continues to stimulate research today. In 1947, Sutherland stated the theory as a set of nine propositions, which introduced three concepts—normative conflict, differential association, and differential group organization—that explain crime at the levels of the society, individual, and group.
Societal Level: Normative Conflict
For Sutherland, primitive, undifferentiated societies are characterized by harmony, solidarity, and consensus over basic values and beliefs. Such societies have little conflict over appropriate behaviors. They also have little crime. With the industrial revolution, societies developed with advanced divisions of labor, market economies, and inevitably conflict. These societies are characterized by specialization rather than similarity, coercion rather than harmony, conflict rather than consensus. They have high rates of crime. Sutherland hypothesized that high crime rates are due to normative conflict, in which groups conflict over the appropriateness of the law. Some groups define the law as rules to be followed under all circumstances; others define the law as rules to be violated under certain circumstances. When normative conflict is absent in a society, crime rates are low; when it is pervasive, crime rates are high. Thus crime is ultimately rooted in normative conflict.
Individual Level: Differential Association
The differential association process provides a social psychological explanation of how normative conflict translates into individual criminal acts. Criminal behavior is learned through communication in an intimate group, and the content of learning includes two important elements. First are the requisite skills and techniques for committing crime, which can range from complicated, specialized skills of insider trading to the simple, readily available skills of purse snatching. Such techniques are a necessary but insufficient condition of crime.
Second are definitions favorable and unfavorable to crime. These are motives, verbalizations, or rationalizations that make crime justified or unjustified. For example, definitions favorable to income tax fraud include “Everyone cheats on their taxes” and “The government has no right to tax its citizens.” Definitions favorable to drunk driving include “I can drive fine after a few beers” and “I only have a couple of miles to drive home.” Definitions favorable to violence include “If your manhood is threatened, you have to retaliate” and “Sometimes in the heat of the moment, you can’t help yourself.” These definitions favorable to crime help organize and justify a criminal line of action in a particular situation. They are offset by definitions unfavorable to crime, such as “Income tax fraud deprives citizens of important programs that benefit society,” “Turn the other cheek,” “Friends don’t let friends drink and drive,” and “Any violation of the law is wrong.” Some definitions pertain to specific offenses only (e.g., drunk driving), others refer to a class of offenses (e.g., fraud), and still others refer to virtually all law violation. Definitions are not merely ex post facto rationalizations of crime but rather operate to justify committing or refraining from crime.
Sutherland identified four modalities on which definitions vary in importance (weight): (1) frequency (the number of times a definition is presented), (2) duration (the length of time of exposure to a definition), (3) priority (the earlier a definition is presented in one’s life), and (4) intensity (the more intense one’s relationship with or the more prestigious is the person presenting the definition). Therefore, the individual-level hypothesis of differential association states that individuals will engage in criminal behavior if the following three conditions are met: (1) They have learned the requisite skills and techniques for committing crime. (2) They have learned an excess of weighted definitions favorable to crime over unfavorable to crime. (3) They have the objective opportunity to commit the crime. If all three conditions are present and crime does not occur, or a crime occurs in the absence of all three conditions, the theory would be wrong and in need of revision. Thus, in principle, the theory can be falsified.
Group Level: Differential Social Organization
Differential social organization—the extent to which a group or society is organized against crime versus organized in favor of crime—explains how normative conflict translates into group rates of crime. Here, Sutherland reconceptualizes Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay’s concepts of social disorganization (weak organization against crime) and cultural transmission (strong organization favoring crime). Shaw and McKay observe that disorganization arises in inner cities when rapid urban growth undermines informal social controls by increasing mobility, poverty, family disruption, immigration, and physical deterioration. Residents tend to be transient, fail to develop a sense of community, and consequently, are unable to build strong and linked families, schools, and neighborhood associations. Such social disorganization, in which a community is unable to control local youth, is equivalent to “weak organization against crime.”
But disorganization is only half of the equation. The other half is “organization in favor of crime,” which consists of structures that foster criminal behavior—such as cultural transmission, in which older street gangs in disorganized areas transmit a delinquent tradition to younger groups, resulting in high rates of delinquency across generations of youth. Differential social organization refers to both forms of organization and can be applied to any group to determine its crime rate. Thus, compared with suburban neighborhoods, inner-city neighborhoods are weakly organized against street crimes and strongly organized in favor of such crimes. Compared with the United States, Japan is strongly organized against violence and weakly organized in favor of violence. Moreover, differential social organization is not static, and its dynamics can be explained by theories of collective action.
Differential social organization explains group crime rates by determining the availability of definitions favorable and unfavorable to crime within a group. Groups strongly organized in favor of crime and weakly organized against crime will present an abundance of definitions favorable to crime and few definitions unfavorable to crime (and vice versa). Members of such groups have a high probability of learning an excess of definitions of crime (and vice versa), which can determine their criminality. Thus the group- and individual-level explanations are inextricably linked.
- Akers, Ronald L. 1998. Social Learning and Social Structure. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
- Matsueda, Ross L. 1988. “The Current State of Differential Association Theory.” Crime & Delinquency 34:277-306.
- Matsueda, Ross L. 2006. “Differential Social Organization, Collective Action, and Crime.” Crime, Law and Social Change 46:3-33.
- Sutherland, Edwin H. 1947. Principles of Criminology. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
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