Differential association theory-criminal gang

Differential Association Theory-Fully Explained


Differential association theory is an influential sociological theory of criminal behavior developed by Edwin Sutherland in the 1930s. The main assumption of this theory is that all criminal behavior is learned.

Sutherland defined crime as a process that involves three persons(Sutherland, 1939). According to him, the first person is the one who commits an act of crime. The second person is the person who leads the first one to commit a criminal act. The third person approves the criminal act of the second.

In other words, in his opinion, a crime consists of three elements:

  1. An offender
  2. A victim
  3. An accomplice.

In Sutherland’s opinion, the learning of criminal behavior happens through social relationships with others based on emotional ties, interpersonal bonds, and common background. Let us examine these and more below!

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Crime Elements Explained


It refers to the individual who commits the crime. They can be of any age, gender, race, or social standing. According to Sutherland’s theory, the following are types of offenders:

  • Self-activated offenders who commit crimes to relieve their tensions. Their actions are triggered by social conditions such as poverty and poor use of leisure time.
  • Thrill-seeking offenders who commit crimes for self-fulfillment and excitement.
  • Habitual offenders who have an extremely low tolerance of frustration.
  • Opportunity offenders; people whose crimes result from opportunity and availability rather than personal motivation.


A victim is a person who suffers from a violation of law committed by a criminal. A victim can be anyone: an individual, a group (family, community), or an organization.

The victim in any criminal act has a double role:

  • The victim, as an individual, suffers from the crime committed against them.
  • As a member of society, the victim suffers from the damage committed by an offender against society.  As a member of the society, they suffer because of their inability to control other people’s behavior.

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An accomplice is the third party in any crime who approves the criminal act. Accomplices can be individuals, groups of people, organizations or institutions.

The following are the types of accomplices according to Sutherland’s theory:

  1. Behavioral accomplices – those who encourage, support, or advocate criminal acts.
  2. Informational accomplices –they provide information about the crimes.
  3. Instrumental accomplices -these provide materials for the crime to be committed.
  4. Moral accomplices-they approve the criminal act. They do not participate in the crime but approve it.
  5. Bystander accomplices –these approve and overlook criminal acts committed against other people or society.

Assumptions of the Theory

According to Sutherland, four assumptions guide differential association theory – all these assumptions are empirically testable.

  1. Every person has an equal probability of participating in criminal behavior.
  2. All individuals have complete freedom of choice over their behavior. They can choose between right and wrong, good and evil.
  3. People who commit crimes have a common background with the people with whom they affiliate.
  4. People who commit crimes have common attitudes and values (membership in the same group of people).

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The Nine Points that Summarize Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory

The theory of differential association was created by American sociologist Edwin Sutherland (1883-1950). This theory can be summarized into nine main points:

  1. Criminal behavior is learned by interaction with others.  
  2. Individuals learn deviant behavior and law-breaking to meet their needs
  3. The process of learning criminal behavior includes techniques of committing the crime.
  4. Differential associations vary in priority and intensity since criminals are individually motivated to commit crimes.
  5. Intimate personal groups make the learning process faster and more effective.
  6. The legal codes determine the motives for criminal activity and non-criminal behavior.
  7. Delinquency and crime are learned when crime becomes more favorable than following the legal codes.
  8. The need for money and other essentials isn’t an excuse for anyone who becomes a criminal. Even those who earn legally have needs but choose to be law-abiding citizens.
  9. The mechanisms involved in learning crime are the same ones applied in learning non-criminal behavior.

Application of The Differential Association Theory in Criminology

The differential association theory is considered the most influential theory of criminal behavior. It describes the process of how people learn delinquency and crime.

Sutherland believed that people don’t become criminals overnight. Criminal behavior is learned by interaction with others, but not everyone can commit a criminal act.

The main difference among people lies in their social groups, family environment and friends. Individuals are more likely to become criminals if they have criminal associates rather than non-criminal ones. The crimes committed by lower-class individuals are more than those by upper-class people.

Sutherland believed that criminal behavior is learned in the same way as non-criminal behavior, but those who become criminals do it with more ease.

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Uses of the association theory

  • The theory is useful in explaining why people commit crimes and how social bonds prevent or encourage crime.
  • The differential association theory also helps us to understand how people are likely to learn to commit crimes.
  • Crime fighters use this theory to understand the factors that make people more likely to commit crimes.
  • They also use it to understand how criminals may be made into law-abiding citizens using the learning process.

The Differential Association Theory in Sociology

Differential association theory is based on interactionism that emphasizes the importance of social factors and interaction between individuals.

Sociologists have re-evaluated criminal behavior in terms of social interaction, communication models, and symbolic interactionism.

The policy implications for this theory are that crime can be diminished by encouraging interactions between those who have criminal tendencies and non-criminal individuals.

Criminal behavior is learned with different motives and drives. An Individual will choose to get involved with a law-breaking gang to gain status or get money. A person becomes a member of a gang after making their intentions and motives clear. They should state that they are willing to break the law for their reasons.

Childhood environment and socialization

The socialization process during childhood and adulthood is affected by family, peers and other people in society. According to Sutherland, people learn criminal behavior from others by direct observation or communication.

They communicate with peers who say that they have committed crimes without being caught and developed their strategy. Those who have criminal tendencies feel more comfortable in a group of criminals.

In some cases, people turn to crime regardless of their social status or environment. Some individuals have not been exposed to an atmosphere of crime but commit a criminal act on their own (e.g. serial killers, rapists, etc.).

The main difference between offenders and those who are law-abiding citizens lies in the way they interpret society’s values. They hold different views regarding the role of information in learning and using it to make decisions.

Socialization plays a crucial role during childhood and education. For example, students who are taught good manners at home are more likely to be law-abiding citizens when they grow up.

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Differential Socialization and Crime

Differential socialization theory is based on the concept that people learn behavior and values from their parents.

  • Parents act as role models and provide their children with different goals for the future.
  • Some parents provide their children with information about the advantages of crime from an early age and tempt them to commit a criminal act for their benefit.
  • Parents who are engaged in a criminal activity tend to influence their children by stimulating illegal activity.
  • According to the differential association theory, more privileged people are less likely to get involved in criminal activities because they associate with law-abiding citizens.
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Examples of How Differential Association Relates to Criminal Behavior

Differential association theory asserts that criminals either belong to a group of criminal individuals or associate with them.

The members of the group share common values and attitudes. People learn criminal behavior more easily if they associate with the criminals [differential association].

The analysis of criminal behavior is based on the assumption that people commit a crime when they choose the matter. This theory suggests that criminal behavior is acquired and learned in interaction with others [differential association].

  • Someone who hangs out with a criminal gang is more likely to be involved in criminal behavior. The person will learn the gang’s ways by choice or default and finally become one of them.
  • A young man who is not involved in criminal activity will become one of the criminals if his parents encourage him. The values they teach him will not be those of law-abiding citizens but those of criminals.
  • The media plays an important role in the spread of criminal behavior. Criminals are always under the spotlight when they commit a crime, and the media is a powerful influence on the population. Other individuals may want to learn how the gang operates hence the association.
  • Some low-income individuals learn to become criminals to meet their need for money and other utilities. They associate with criminals to learn how to commit a crime and avoid being caught.
  • Xenophobia can also be considered as an example of differential association. A widely spread attitude causes some people to associate with others who have the same views and share similar values.

Critiques of the Differential Association Theory

  • Differential association theory is not supported by studies that claim criminals are less likely to spend time with law-abiding citizens.
  • Criminals associate with criminals because they share similar interests. Most of their time is spent planning and committing crimes hence the association.
  • People who are not involved in criminal behavior may not associate with criminals because the criminal gang may want to avoid detection by law enforcers.
  • Youngsters who are not involved in illegal activities are unlikely to become criminals. If their parents do not encourage them, they will never end up associating with criminal gangs.
  • Criminal behavior is also learnt from other individuals who are not necessarily criminals. Some people learn criminal behavior from their family members, and others learn it while working close to criminals.
  • Differential associations theory has been criticized for its vague definition of crime. It also offers a weak explanation of social groups and fails to realize the role of parents in taming criminal individuals.
  • According to some criminologists, people can be considered law-abiding citizens even if they commit minor offences such as shoplifting and driving under the influence.
  • The analysis of criminal behavior in Sutherland’s differential association theory is based on rational choice. He didn’t take into consideration the environmental and economic factors that contribute to criminal behavior.
  • Some individuals are not criminals who associate with criminals. Some are forced to do so because they may be hired as accessories or even as getaway drivers.
  • The individuals who do not associate with criminals may have been threatened by the criminal gang and are not willing to join them. A criminal gang member will not associate with a person who is likely to report to the police.

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Social Bonds and Differential Association Theory

Social bonds refer to connections between individuals who are known to one another. The differential association theory states that the more important the bond is, the less likely a person is to commit a crime.

The emotional and social bonds between people who care for one another are the strongest, followed closely by the bonds between family members.

The theory further states that social bonds are developed over time, and because they take a long time to form, they are the strongest bond between individuals. The longer someone has known another person, the stronger their social bonds become.

Types of social bonds

Figure: Social Bonds
  • The first social bond to be created when an individual is born is the bond between them and their mother. When a baby is born, he/she does not know many things, including communicating with others, maintaining interest, and interacting.

At this time, his strongest bond is with his mother, who takes care of him, looks after his needs and ensures that he grows up to be a responsible individual. If the child is not well taken care of, his relationship with his mother may deteriorate, and he may learn to commit crimes.

  • His next strong social bond is developed in the relationship between him and his siblings. They spend some time together and understand how to interact with one another. The bond between siblings is important because it helps them learn to value their relationships with one another.
  • The next important social bond developed is the one that exists between an individual and his classmates. The way they interact with each other and learn to communicate make up the social bond.

The effects of social bonding on criminal behavior

The theory that criminals associate with other criminals holds ground because some people who are not involved in illegal activities also associate with criminals. Most children learn how to commit crimes by interacting with their friends at school.

Criminals learn how to commit crimes because they associate with other criminals. Criminals who have not been caught teach the new members some strategies for committing crimes. The elderly gang leaders make sure that the new members are aware of the various crimes.

They also teach them how to determine who to target and what is likely to happen if the police apprehend them.

The theory that states that criminals associate with other criminals has been around for a long time now. It has been applied to various areas, and it clearly shows that the theory is relevant and useful for understanding how people learn to commit crimes.

Social bonds play a very important role in the theory of differential association as they determine

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The differential association theory supports that criminals associate with others who have the same views and values. Some people choose to join a criminal gang, while others end up being victims of criminals.

Perpetrators choose to commit a crime because they have been associated with criminals, while victims are forced to become victims because they have associated with criminals.

If associations are enhanced, crime will increase. If the association between criminals and non-criminals is reduced, criminals may not have the chance to learn how to evade law enforcers. Criminals are attracted by others who commit crimes because they have similar interests.

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