Differential Association Theory Research Paper

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The differential association theory (DAT) of Edwin H. Sutherland is one of the key theories in criminology. The theory and its empirical support, however, are not undisputed. There is much confusion about DAT in the criminological literature, caused partly by Sutherland who changed his theory several times. Early in his career, Sutherland embraced the multiple-factor approach and the interactionist theory of William Thomas (1863–1947), then leaned to social disorganization and culture conflict, and finally settled his own DAT in the late 1930s and 1940s. In this research paper, changes in DAT are discussed and the complexity of DAT is illuminated by exploring the intellectual roots of the theory. Several propositions of DAT can be understood better when the theory is situated within broader sociological and psychological traditions. The paper continues by presenting the underlying assumptions of DAT and the arguments of its critics.


The differential association theory (DAT) has a history that goes back to the 1920s when a scholar in sociology with a minor in economics was invited to write a textbook on criminology with less focus on European data and research (Bruinsma 1985; Gaylord and Galliher 1988; Goff and Geis 2011). Edwin Hardin Sutherland (1883–1950) published then his “Criminology” that would be influential in the field of criminology for decades (Sutherland 1924). In this first edition, hardly any elaborated perspective on crime causation was presented but in subsequent revised editions, the DAT has been posed, elaborated, and changed in just a few pages each. Besides that, Sutherland, who was by nature an intellectual doubter, tried to improve his DAT continuously. As a result, DAT has been published over the years in scattered works in sometimes slightly different versions, but also in radically changed statements. The concept of differential association was introduced in Sutherland’s study on the professional thief (Sutherland 1937). Despite the confusion, DAT is still one of the most influential but complex theories in criminology (Geis 1976; Kubrin et al. 2009; Vold et al. 2002). Its complexity is also likely responsible for its abominable history of empirical testing and for the fact that criminologists simplified DAT in the last 60 years into “the bad influence of delinquent peers on young people’s crime involvement” (Bruinsma 1992; Cressey 1952). This research paper will go beyond that simplicity.

Development Of The Differential Association Theory

DAT has a remarkable history because of the fact that Sutherland has published different versions of his explanation of crime in four successive editions of his textbook (Principles of) Criminology over a period of 20 years and in some other publications as well. DAT has been presented by Sutherland in different forms, using varieties in wording, in central concepts, and in causal mechanisms. The history of DAT reflects more or less the intellectual personality and life history of a great scholar, always doubting whether his theory can address the explanation of crime: “It is a story of confusion, inconsistencies, delayed recognition of implicit meanings, and of much borrowing from and stimulation by colleagues and students” (Sutherland 1956[1942], p. 13). Sutherland was sensitive to the theoretical influences of other criminologists and for critical remarks on his thoughts by his colleagues and friends. The editor of Lippincott Sociological Series invited Sutherland to publish his (Principles of) Criminology, a book that would be most influential in criminology for decades.

In the first edition of this textbook of 1924, Sutherland was, as he acknowledged later (1956), a follower of the multiple-factor approach. In his critical discussion of the state of art in criminology of that period, Sutherland was looking for information in the empirical research “that enable us to state that such a person with such and such attitude in such and such situation will always become delinquent” (Sutherland 1924, p. 82). According to Sutherland each individual is capable of committing crimes but “it requires contacts and direction of tendencies to make either a criminal or a law-abiding person” (Sutherland 1924, p. 118).

Furthermore, he adapted the perspective of Chicago sociologists about changing societies in which the people are constantly being influenced by different values and norms and that the family has becoming less influential in socializing young people: “Social disorganization is a condition of progress as well as of delinquency” (Sutherland 1924, p. 133). In summary, in the first edition some general assumptions of the DAT can be found:

(a) The search for a universal explanation of crime

(b) Attention to the interaction of the individual and his/her social environment

(c) Interest in cultural and macro social conflicts and their consequences for the individual

(d) The idea that crime – like all other behavior – is learned, and not the result of heritable defects

In the second edition, published ten years later with the changed title Principles of Criminology, Sutherland’s own vision is more clearly present. Consistent with his thesis about crime as learned behavior, Sutherland added: “Failure to follow a prescribed pattern of behavior is due to the inconsistency and lack of harmony in the influences which direct the individual” (Sutherland 1934, p. 52). More strongly than ever before, he joined the so-called “Chicago school” of sociology and criminology, in which macro social (cultural) conflicts are assumed to be central in the explanation of human behavior.

In his classical study The Professional Thief, Sutherland (1937, pp. 206–207) for the first time put forward the concept of differential association: “Differential association is characteristic of the professional thieves, as of all other groups.. .The differential element in the association of thieves is primarily functional rather than geographical. Their personal association is limited by barriers which are maintained principally by the thieves themselves.” Interactions with other people are a necessary condition to enter the complex world of professional thieves on the border line of conventional society. Differential association is here defined in a narrow sense: the underworld of criminals.

In 1939, Sutherland opened his third, and largely revised, edition of Principles of Criminology with a chapter in which he tentatively presented his own theory in the form of seven propositions. With these propositions, he tried to connect three levels of explanations: (a) the macro level (that of culture conflicts), (b) the meso level (that of social disorganization), and (c) the individual level (that of having contacts with criminals, i.e., in 1939, differential association). He presented the following seven propositions as a general theory without naming it DAT (Sutherland 1939, pp. 4–9):

(1) The processes which result in systematic criminal behavior are fundamentally the same in form as the processes which result in systematic lawful behavior.

(2) Systematic criminal behavior is determined in a process of association with those who commit crimes, just as systematic lawful behavior is determined in a process of association with those who are law-abiding.

(3) Differential association is the specific causal process in the development of systematic criminal behavior.

 (4) The chance that a person will participate in systematic criminal behavior is determined roughly by the frequency and consistency of his contacts with the patterns of criminal behavior.

(5) Individual differences among people in respect to personal characteristics or social institutions cause crime only as they affect differential association or frequency and consistency of contacts with criminal patterns.

(6) Cultural conflict is the underlying cause of differential association and therefore of systematic criminal behavior.

(7) Social disorganization is the basic cause of systematic criminal behavior.

He (1939, p. 9) summarized his theory on the same page as follows:

Systematic criminal behaviour is immediately to differential association in a situation in which cultural conflicts exist, and ultimately to the social disorganization in that situation. A specific or incidental crime of particular person is due generally to the same process, but it is not possible to include all cases because of the adventitious character of delinquency when regarded as specific or incidental acts.

The crux of this version is that systematic criminal behavior is determined by the process of association with criminals just as systematic law-conforming behavior is developed in a process of association with law-conforming people. Cultural conflict is the underlying cause of differential association and social disorganization is the basic cause. In this version, Sutherland ascribed a limited sense to associations with criminal behavior patterns, namely, only associations with a criminal subculture. Belonging to such a subculture implies that the ratio of contacts turns in favor to one side.

The 1947 Version Of Differential Association Theory

Edwin Hardin Sutherland published the final version of his theory in 1947. The years after 1947 Sutherland kept on searching for ways to improve his general theory of crime but his sudden and unexpected death by a stroke in 1950 prohibited that.

Sutherland introduced his nine propositions of DAT with the statement “The following paragraphs state such a genetic theory of criminal behavior on the assumption that a criminal act occurs when a situation is appropriate for it, as defined by the person who is present” (Sutherland 1947, p. 6). The added clarifications are from Sutherland (1947, pp. 6–7).

  • Criminal behavior is learned.

According to Sutherland, this proposition implies that criminal behavior cannot be inherited. Besides that, he stated that a person who did not learn how to commit criminal behavior could not invent that behavior.

  • Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.

In many respects, Sutherland added, this communication can be verbal as well as nonverbal.

  • The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups.

Negatively, this statement implies that impersonal communication like films or newspapers plays an unimportant part in the genesis of crime.

(4) When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes:

(4a) Techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated and sometimes very simple.

(4b) The specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.

(5) The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable or unfavorable.

 In some societies an individual is surrounded by persons who invariably define the legal codes as rules to be observed, while in others he is surrounded by persons whose definitions are favorable to the violation of the legal codes.

 (6) A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of the law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law.

 This is the principle of differential association. It has to do with criminal and anti-criminal associations. When somebody becomes criminal, it is because he has contacts with criminal behavior patterns and because of a relative isolation with anticriminal behavior patterns. Sutherland added that everybody assimilates with the surrounding culture, unless other patterns are in conflict with this culture. This sixth statement also implies that neutral associations have none or little impact on the development of crime.

(7) Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.

 Associations can vary according to these modalities.

(8) The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anticriminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning.

 This statement implies that learning criminal behavior is not limited to the process of imitation.

(9) While criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those general needs and values because noncriminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values.

 With this statement, Sutherland opposed himself against criminologists who tried to explain the occurrence of criminal behavior by general needs and values, like searching for happiness, social status, or wealth.

Changes In The Differential Association Theory By Sutherland

Some remarkable changes compared to its predecessor can be observed in the final version of Sutherland’s DAT (Bruinsma 1985; Chiricos 1967; Cressey 1952, 1964, 1969):

(a) All references to explanations of processes at higher levels of aggregation were removed from earlier statements of DAT.

(b) More than ever before, Sutherland emphasized the learning process of individuals. In statement one, he claims that criminal behavior is learned; in statement two, by which criminal behavior is learned; the third statement indicated the context in which the learning process take place; and in statements four and five, what is learned. In addition, statement eight finally supplies information on the manner in which criminal behavior is learned.

(c) Much confusion remained about the central concept of differential association (see } 7.2). The explanation of crime in the final version shifted from an excess of contacts with criminals to an excess of positive definitions. This is a remarkable shift in DAT. In 1939, Sutherland (Sutherland 1939, p. 6) wrote “The ratio of criminal acts to lawful acts by a person a roughly the same as the ratio of the contacts with the criminal and with the lawful behaviour of others.” Cressey (Sutherland and Cressey 1966) added that it is all about the presentation of positive and negative definitions and that the person who presents them not necessarily needs to be a criminal.

(d) Compared to the 1939 edition, Sutherland abandoned the idea that associations need to be criminal themselves (“crime is the cause of crime”). In the 1947 version, it is about the presentation of behavior patterns, despite the character of the person who presents these.

(e) In the final version of DAT, the modalities of associations (duration, priority, frequency, and intimacy) were introduced. Sutherland replaced the 1939 concept of consistency of associations by intimacy and added two new modalities in addition to the frequency of associations: priority and duration. “In a precise description of the criminal behaviour of a person these modalities would be stated in quantitative form and a mathematical ratio be reached. A formula in this sense has not been developed and the development of such a formula would be extremely difficult” (Sutherland 1947, p. 7).

Roots Of Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory

DAT cannot fully be understood without discussing its intellectual roots. The fundaments of DAT can be found in (symbolic) interactionism (Fisher and Strauss 1978). It is a sociological and social psychological perspective on society and individuals that originated in Chicago in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Sutherland tried to translate the basic elements of this sociological perspective into the field of criminology. Some of these elements emerged from earlier works of sociologists and psychologists who developed (symbolic) interactionism, others from the publications of Sutherland’s colleagues and students during his professional life. In the studies of Charles Cooley (1854–1929), George Mead (1863–1931), and William Thomas (1863–1947), the focus is on social processes and on the interaction of the individual with his environment. They all focus on primary intimate groups as the most important social environment of people (Warr 2001). By interacting and communicating with others, the self (that regulates one’s social behavior) can develop into a generalized other: “The organized community or social group which gives to the individual his unity of self may be called ‘the generalized other’. The attitude of the generalized other is the attitude of the whole community” (Mead 1974 [1934], p. 154). As in DAT, the face-to-face interactions and responses of others are emphasized in studying the social behavior of people, whether deviant, criminal, or conforming behavior. From others individuals learn how to define the social situations that they encounter in daily life. In general, symbolic interactionism emphasized the changeability of societies and the heterogeneity of values within them, exercising their impact on people’s motives, attitudes, and behaviors. Mead emphasized the interactions with other people in which definitions (= normative constraints) are constantly reformulated and reworked in specific contexts (the process of learning). Being close to this principle, Sutherland views the development of a criminal self as a result of the individual’s communications and interactions with the social environment.

According to Vold and his coauthors (2002, pp. 160–162), DAT adopted also another basic element from Mead’s symbolic interactionism, that is, that the contents of what is learned (techniques, motives, drives, attitudes, and definitions) are cognitive elements. It was Mead’s idea that human beings act toward objects based on the meanings that the objects have for them. People construct relatively permanent “definitions of their situation” out of their experiences they derive from particular situations, and form a relatively set of ways of looking at reality. Cognitive factors determine behavior or, as DAT stated that principle, an excess of positive definitions toward law violations. Mead argued that the self, as he called it, is socially constituted. The organized society is prior to the individual, and the self has a social structure in which the consciousness is socially organized from the social organization of society in general. Gongaware and Dotter (2005) demonstrated clearly that Sutherland owed much of the symbolic interactionist theory of George Mead and that Sutherland’s principles can be perceived as a translation and elaboration of that theory in the field of crime causes.

Although Sutherland skipped the word “conflict” in his final version of DAT, he was convinced that culture conflict is the underlying cause of crime in society. His discussions with Thorsten Sellin (1896–1994) strengthened his view that culture conflicts are a consequence of the transition of society from homogeneous to heterogeneous and of the increasing social differentiation (Sellin 1938; Sutherland 1939). Migration processes accelerate changes in society and consequently culture conflicts will emerge. Sutherland nevertheless posits culture conflict as an important causal factor in his differential organization theory, explaining variations in crime rates of social and ethnic groups.

Assumptions Of The Differential Association Theory

DAT is based on various assumptions. These assumptions are partly testable, partly not. The assumptions are that:

(i) Crimes are not inherited.

(ii) Crimes can be learned in social interactions. (iii) Individuals are not just a tabula rasa in which the environment put definitions favorable to commit crimes and where crimes are the output of an unobservable process.

(iv) Individuals play not only a passive role in the learning process but also an active role in acquiring positive definitions, close to symbolic interactionism rejecting the idea of an oversocialized conception of individuals.

(v) Individuals do not invent criminal behavior. (vi) DAT implies a recursive process in which committing crimes will continue as long as individuals have contacts with criminal behavioral patterns.

(vii) The mechanisms underlying the learning process are active continuously.

(viii) Personal traits or propensities like self-control or susceptibility play no role in the emergence of crime.

(ix) Processes at a higher societal level are the fundamental causes behind the causes at the individual level.

A number of these assumptions have been the subject of several debates after the death of Sutherland in 1950 (Cressey 1952, 1964, 1969). Most of these assumptions, however, can be translated in propositions and subsequently be tested empirically. An important assumption of Sutherland that personality characteristics play no role in the occurrence of crime needs to be clarified more fully in order to understand Sutherland’s thoughts. Sutherland took the criticism very seriously that DAT cannot ignore personality characteristics, or psychological variables as he called them: “I believe it is the most important and crucial question in criminological theory” (Sutherland 1956[1942], p. 25). Originally he underlined that these variables should be incorporated in his DAT, later he rejected that idea (Sutherland 1956; 1956 [1942]).

Criticism On The Differential Associationtheory

Criticism On The Nine Propositions

Sutherland theorized in his first proposition that crime is learned. This statement, however, offers no information on how criminal behavior is learned. Statement one contains no conditions that can lead to criminal behavior. Others have pointed at the ideological content of this proposition (Warr 2001, p. 184). However, from an explanatory point of view, the proposition is lacking to supply any information how the learning process is taking place and what is learned.

A similar critique is valid for the second statement of DAT. Every individual interacts with other people without generating crime. There is no specification of conditions by what kinds of interaction crime will occur. The statement informs us only that learning is not a solitary or isolated process, but a social process in which other people are involved. Who are involved is pointed at in the next statement: intimate groups. But Sutherland did not define in statement three in what intimate groups crime is learned. In practice, criminologists limit themselves almost always to “delinquent friends” or “peers” in general as empirical indicator for intimate groups. Just in statement four, a first condition of the occurrence of crime is mentioned. The variable “techniques to commit crimes” (whether complicated or simple) is assumed to be a necessary condition for committing a crime. Besides that, it is stated that the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes is relevant. However, which motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes remain unclear as well as how these have an impact on the occurrence of crime.

In statement five, some conditions about the origins of motives and drives are indicated. Statement five can be formulated as “If laws are defined positive, then motives and drives will emerge conform the law, and if laws are defined as negative then criminal motives and drives will emerge” (Opp 1974). Conditions for the occurrence of crime are stated in proposition six. Sutherland claimed that when an excess of definitions favorable to violate laws over definitions unfavorable is present, crime will occur. In statement seven it is indicated that associations can be attributed different qualitative characteristics like frequency, duration, priority, and intensity, but contains no explanandum.

The nine statements of DAT vary considerably in scope and range. In modern epistemological perspectives, statements 4, 5, 6, and 8 can be classified as testable hypotheses. Statements 1, 2, 3, and 9 are general orientations or general theoretical outlooks in which clusters of undefined variables are related to each other and cannot be tested properly. The seventh statement is not only a general theoretical outlook but it also contains a metascientific sentence of methodological nature that quantifying is a heuristic useful activity in theory formation.

Criticism On The Concepts

The Excess Of Positive Definitions To Violate The Law

Several complex and abstract concepts play a role in the nine propositions of DAT. Some are very problematic for the theory. The most worrisome is the concept of an excess of definitions favorable to violate laws that will cause crime. What is meant by the concept “an excess of positive definitions to violate laws over definitions unfavorable to violate laws”? To answer this question one has to clarify four issues:

(a) What are definitions favorable to law violations?

(b) What is an excess of definitions favorable to law violations?

(c) Is it the excess of definitions of individuals whose criminal behavior has to be explained or is it the excess of presented position definitions?

(d) How do individuals recognize and adopt these definitions from other people?

DAT is embedded in symbolic interactionism in which the learning of definitions is part of the development of the social self. People construct permanent definitions out of their experiences from particular situations and form a relatively enduring set of ways of looking at things.

In communication with others these definitions are transferred (or, to do justice to the symbolic interactionist roots of DAT, the word of exchanging definitions positive to violating the law between people should be preferred, expressing the active role of individuals in building a set of attitudes) to the individual and consequently adapted to regulate his behavior in a given context. The definitions are cognitive elements like behavioral techniques, motives, drives, and attitudes. Sutherland only used the attitudes part of symbolic interactionism. These can be interpreted as a kind of moral rules that guide a person’s behavior. If people would communicate to each other that a certain kind of behavior is not appropriate in a particular context, you may apply that moral rule as a consequence of that rule. If the social environment is proclaiming the attitude that a certain kind of behavior is appropriate in that context, you may apply that rule. The underlying concept of definitions resembles closely the concepts of beliefs of Hirschi’s social control theory (2006[1969]) or of morality in situational action theory of Wikstro¨ m (2010). It is common practice to include neutralization techniques being part of the concept of positive definitions, implying that part of the positive definitions to violate the law also consist of rationalizations that take away barriers to commit crimes. As such, they are a category of positive definitions.

The second complexity is the measurement of an “excess.” Can an excess of positive definitions to violate laws be counted empirically? A number of critical comments (Bruinsma 1985; Glueck 1956; Matsueda 1982, 1988; Short 1960) encountered problems in the measurement of the excess of definitions.

At the theoretical level some additional critical questions can be raised. (i) Let us assume that Sutherland is right and that there is a kind of crossover in the formation of definitions; why is the crossover then put exactly on .5? Why not on .6 or .4? (ii) If we insist that a kind of crossover exists, then the chance that DAT will be refuted in empirical research will be 100 % because the number of conforming behaviors exceeds the number of criminal behaviors. As a consequence, the definitions about these kinds of behaviors will also be unbalanced. (iii) Why does the presence of positive definitions, that are less than .5 of all definitions of a person, have no significance at all for the commission of crimes? (iv) We have to consider whether positive and negative definitions are about all violations of the law. Do people have a definition about all possible crimes? If yes, that would imply that someone must have an infinitive number of definitions. That would be very unrealistic. Lastly, (v) another objection can be put forward on this central concept of DAT. One can question whether an excess of positive definitions to violate the law is about general attitudes toward committing crimes or specific attitudes toward specific crimes. Is it possible that people have a positive definition to commit fraud and at the same time have negative definitions to other forms of crime? In DAT there is no sign whether these definitions are about specific crimes or crimes and rule breaking behavior in general.

However, the most important weakness of DAT is the indistinctness whether an excess of positive definitions is an attribute of the person whose behavior has to be explained or has to do with his environment. Almost all criminologists assume that the excess of positive definitions is of the person whose criminal conduct has to be explained, but in statement six of DAT, no object is mentioned to which the attribute of an excess of positive definitions favorable to violating the law is related. The debate has always been about the question whether not everybody who has contacts with criminal associations will become criminal. Cressey defended that important question not very clearly: “Thus, he (Sutherland) does not say that persons become criminals because of associations with criminal behavior patterns; he says that they become criminals because an overabundance of such associations, in comparison with associations with anti-criminal behavior patterns” and thus strengthened the confusion (Cressey 1964, pp. 25–26). This theoretical issue needs to be sorted out by solid empirical research.

The Modalities Of Associations

Sutherland identified four modalities of associations in the seventh proposition of the 1947 version of DAT: It is stated that associations can vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. The meanings of priority and duration are “obvious and need no explanation” (Sutherland 1947, p. 7). About priority he wrote “’priority’ is assumed to be important in the sense that lawful behaviour developed in early childhood may persist throughout life. This tendency, however, has not been adequately demonstrated, and priority seems to be important principally through its selective influence” (Sutherland 1947, p. 7). Warr (Warr 2001, p. 185) suggested that Sutherland referred with this modality to the Freudian point of view that was accepted as a common fact at his time. It remains unclear whether the theory is about the frequency of the contacts a person has now or is it about the contacts he had for the first time in his life. In the latter interpretation it is assumed that the younger an individual is when he first comes in contact with criminal behavior patterns, the more impact they have for the rest of his life. For instance, it is assumed that the parents have more impact on the development and acceptance of positive definitions to law violation than other persons later in life.

The modality frequency of contacts got no further specification by Sutherland. It is assumed that the more often you see people and talk to them, the more influential that association will be. Frequency can thus be either the number of times you meet other people or the amount of time people spend together in a defined period of time (day, week, month, year) or the number of times multiplied by the hours spent together. That last option is never used in criminological research. The third modality duration is left open by Sutherland with no further specification. If incorporated in the frequency of contacts, then duration will be redundant as a separate modality of contacts with criminal or conforming behavior patterns. Opp (Opp 1974) suggested in his modification of DAT to let out this modality for that reason.

The last modality, the intensity of criminal associations, also named identification or attachment, is the most complex of the four, because a (developmental) psychological notion is introduced in DAT. By intensity Sutherland meant the prestige of the source of association. With this modality he tried to overcome the critics of his time that police officers and prison guards have frequent contact with criminals but show no criminal behavior. The suggestion was that police officers seldom have intimate relationships with criminals and hardly ever attribute prestige to them. That makes them less vulnerable for the impact of them. Identification is generally regarded as the necessary condition for an individual to obtain preferences, attitudes, values, and norms from a group someone belongs to or wants to belong to. Acquiring of these happens in an interaction process called socialization. Crucial in this socialization process is the existence of real or symbolic models with which the individual identifies himself.

It can be concluded that in DAT it is left open what the function of this proposition is in the theory and what the effects of these modalities are on the excess of positive definitions favorable to criminal behavior. Probably it is implied that the more frequent, the longer, and the higher the priority and the more intense the contact with associations, the greater the chance that an excess of positive definitions over definitions negative to law violations will occur (the sentence is deliberately formulated without referring to any object, considering the discussion of the sixth proposition of DAT in the previous paragraph). There are no indications presented that one of the “modalities” is more important than one of the others, nor if, and how, these modalities are related to each other. Is priority more important than duration? And if so, how much more important? In the history of DAT, there has never been an attempt made to qualify the relative weights of the four modalities into mathematical formulas to assess the impact of each of them on the formation of positive definitions favorable to violating the law.

Differential Associations With Whom?

In DAT it is stated that the interactions and communications are in intimate social groups of significant others. That allows a great number of people with whom a person can have associations. In many research, DAT is perceived as the theory of the bad peers or delinquent friends (Bruinsma 1992). Sutherland never limited DAT to have contacts with just peers or delinquent friends. People interact with parents, siblings, grandparents, members of the extended family, neighbors and other neighborhood residents, schoolmates and teachers, colleagues, shop owners, sport mates and trainers, acquaintances, and strangers. All can potentially influence an individual by exchanging positive and negative definitions toward law violations through interactions and communications. It is surprising to observe that siblings have not attracted much more attention in empirical research. It can be suggested that siblings share many interactions and communications about definitions and behavioral techniques lasting for many years.


The differential association theory of Edwin Sutherland has a long history in criminology. It has been presented by Sutherland in different wordings and scope in scattered publications over the years, many times in a very brief statement. The differential association theory can be placed within the tradition of symbolic interactionism of early Chicago sociology. There is much criticism on the nine statements of the theory as well as on the concepts Sutherland has used. The theory is not undisputed in criminological theory. Hirschi and Gottfredson (1980, p. 9) stated that DAT neither predicts nor explains criminal behavior.

During the years, a number of modifications of DAT were published, of which some became very well known in the field of criminology. Gresham Sykes and David Matza modified proposition 4 of DAT into their Neutralization Theory (Matza and Sykes 1957; Sykes and Matza 1957), Dan Glaser into the Differential Identification Theory based on proposition seven and into the Differential Anticipation Theory (Glaser 1978), and Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin into the Differential Opportunity Theory based on a combination of DAT and anomie theory of Robert Merton (Cloward and Ohlin 1960); De Fleur and Richard Quinney made a formalized model of DAT according to the principles of formal logic and set theory (Fleur and Quinney 1966); the German sociologist KarlDieter Opp reformulated the theory guided by the methodological rules of critical rationalism (Opp 1974, 1976) and one that is based on behavioral theory that is still present in today’s criminology: the social learning theory (SLT) of Akers (Akers 1973, 1998). Akers have several times claimed that his social learning theory is superior to Sutherland’s one: “… social learning is not meant to be an alternative, competitive, or rival theory to Sutherland’s position. It is, instead, a broader theory that integrates processes of differential association and definitions from Sutherland’s theory, modified and clarified, with differential reinforcement and other principles of acquisition, continuation, and cessation from behavioral learning theory” (Akers 1998, p. 47). This research paper, however, demonstrated that this claim is not valid and that the roots of both are too distinct to compare. DAT is based on symbolic interactionism, social learning on behaviorism. They differ in scope, vision on human nature, and how people learn and decide to commit a crime in a certain setting.


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