Sutherland's Differential Association Theory Explained

By Ayesh Perera, published Jan 30, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


  • Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory asserts that we learn to be deviant through our associations with deviant peers who break the rules.
  • Sutherland (1950) noted that the propensity toward transgression is acquired in a “pattern of communication,” and that a “person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violations of law”.
  • The term’s two key words merit special attention. ‘Association’ denotes contact with others, and signifies herein, the acquisition of behavioral traits via such contact. ‘Differential,’ on the other hand, represents variations in such contacts in terms of proximity, duration, and intensity.
  • Taken together, these two words suggest that factors such as type, frequency and time significantly influence the absorption of manners and habits through relationships.


Prior to the development of the differential association theory, the field of criminology suffered from a manifest paucity of scientific theories capable of accounting for criminal conduct (Vinney, 2021).

The philosopher Mortimer Adler and Columbia Law Professor Jerome Michael, in particular, underscored this drawback publicly in a joint critique of criminology. Edwin Sutherland, who had earned his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago, responded by drawing on the work of Shaw, McKay, Sellin, and Wirth, and developing the differential association theory employing rigorous scientific methods.

Sutherland introduced his theory in 1939 in the 3rd edition of his work Principles of Criminology, and presented a refined version of the same later in 1947.

The theory’s capacity to explain a broad range of criminal conduct could not escape notice, and Sutherland’s contribution remains relevant to criminology to this day.


Nine key postulates underpin Sutherland’s theory (1939):
  1. Criminal conduct is learned: This proposition assumes that a person does not engage in transgression without having learned it. Sutherland seems to preclude the inheritance of criminal conduct or any propensities thereunto.
  2. Criminal behavior is learned via interactions with others (who may already be engaging in such conduct) through a process of communication which is primarily verbal but may include gestures.
  3. Small groups and intimate relationships form the principal source of the aforementioned learning. This proposition implies that the mass media plays no significant role in engendering criminal behavior.
  4. The learning process imparts instruction concerning: a. The requisite techniques (possibly complicated) for the perpetration of crime; b. The rationalization of wrongdoing to oneself and others.
  5. The direction of drives toward criminal conduct is learned via the interpretation of local laws as unfavorable or favorable.
  6. When the rationalizations of violating the law exceed the abovementioned interpretations unfavorable to violating the law, a person chooses delinquency. This principle implies that encounters with criminal patterns should surpass the exposure to anticriminal patterns for transgression to arise, and that neutral associations if at all, exert little impact on the genesis of crime.
  7. Differential association might vary in duration, intensity, frequency and priority. This postulate considers selective influence, related emotional reactions, the role of a criminal pattern’s prestige etc. While quantitative rating and the construction of ratios in this regard remain possible, developing formulae to measure the factors above seems difficult.
  8. The process of learning criminal conduct via association with anti-criminal and criminal patterns involves all mechanisms associated with other types of learning.
  9. Though criminal conduct could express general values and needs, they do not explain wrongdoing since non-criminal behavior can convey the same values and needs.


White-collar Crimes

White collar crimes generally require immense technical acumen such as refined accounting skills which can be generally learned only in close contact with educated people in power (Sutherland,, 1950).

Thus, even when the larger culture of a corporation upholds ethical norms such as honesty and transparency, close association with a select group of people possessing questionable morals can gradually transform an individual.

Seeing one’s close associates pilfering office supplies and appropriating company funds can lead one to justify to oneself such transgressions.

Subsequently, the same individual may learn how to purloin without detection, and may personally engage in white collar crimes.

Organized Crime

People tend to join the mafia often by growing up inside its culture (Drew, 2021). Having family members already involved in its structure functions as a potent invitation to potential members.

What bears noting however, is that despite the influence of the surrounding culture, not all members of mafia families necessarily join the organized crime network.

In fact, even during the peak of the American Mafia during the 1960/70s, the NYPD comprised many Italian-Americans, some of whose close family members were part of the Mafia.

The differential association theory would explain this situation by stating that individuals who have closer and more associations with criminals than with non-criminals were more likely to join the Mafia (Sutherland, 1950).

Critical Evaluation


Well-known criminological theories such as the social disorganization theory and the cultural deviance theory which seem to focus more on blue collar crimes cannot convincingly explain organized crime and white-collar crimes (Drew, 2021).

However, as discussed above, where these theories appear inadequate, the differential association theory seems capable of providing convincing answers.

Additionally, the differential association theory can be applied to all age groups since the factor of learned behavior it incorporates is not strictly restricted to people within a certain age bracket.


The differential association theory assumes a lack of agency, and implicitly concludes that humans are the products of their associations (Drew, 2021).

Sutherland’s postulates disregard the roles of freewill and moral conscience which can inspire individuals to reject the temptations associated with even their closest interactions with others.

Similarly, the possibility of highly individualistic persons learning to perpetrate crimes through their own accord in order to rebel against others is neglected.

Finally, the theory’s primary focus on small and intimate groups discounts the role of mass media in shaping behavior.

Today’s easy access to social media and the consequent influence it exerts upon the consumers of online material challenge this premise.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Perera, A. (2022, Jan 30). Sutherland's differential association theory explained. Simply Sociology.

APA Style References

Drew, Chris. (2021) “Differential Association Theory - Examples, Pros and Cons.” Helpful Professor,

Sutherland, E. H. (1939). Principles of Criminology... [of" Criminology"]. JB Lippincott Company.

Sutherland, E. H. (1945). Is" white collar crime" crime?. American sociological review, 10(2), 132-139.

Sutherland, E.H. (1950). White collar crime. New York: Dryden Press

Sutherland, E. H. (1972). The theory of differential association. In Readings in Criminology and Penology (pp. 365-371). Columbia University Press.

Sutherland, E. H., Cressey, D. R., & Luckenbill, D. F. (1992). Principles of criminology. Altamira Press.

Vinney, Cynthia. (2021, December 6). Sutherland's Differential Association Theory Explained. Retrieved from