Sutherland (1947): Theory of Differential Association

Sutherland, (1947): Theory of Differential Association

Background and Theory

The background to this study is Bandura (1961, 1977) and his Social Learning Theory.

Quick recap of Social Learning Theory:

  • Vicarious Learning (Learning from others being rewarded or punished)
  • People we learn from are called models
  • Learning does not always result from direct actions

Therefore, Sutherland assumes that criminal behaviour is learnt. Secondly, it explains deviant behaviour through individuals social interactions and relationships. According to this theory, the people who become criminals do so because they associate with other criminals.

This study is categorised into Upbringing, and then ‘learning from others.’

Sutherland’s Theory of differential association has 9 postulates:

1. Criminal Behaviour is learnt

2. Criminal Behaviour is learnt in interacting and communicating with other people

3. The most important part of criminal behaviour is learnt through a persons close circle of friends. This means that the media and other influences are secondary.

4. Such learning involves the development of both the techniques required to commit the crime, such as the delicate touch of a pickpocket. It also involves the social transmission of values, attitudes, drives, motivations and rationalisations for committing the crime. For example, fraudsters my rationalise their criminality as ‘a victimless crime’ and they may feel a resentment of Capitalism, thus wanting to damage it.

5. The specific direction of the motives  and drives is learnt from definitions of Legal Codes as  favourable or unfavourable. For example, a person may think that planning and building regulations are unfavourable and stifle the freedom of the individual and thus decides to flout them.

6. Thus, a person becomes a criminal when the number of unfavourable laws becomes excessive. 

7. These associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority and intensity. That is, suppose, our lawbreaker who decided to flout planning and building regulations because they believed it stifled the individuals freedom, finds out after building his nice new house, that another person has decided to do the same thing, but this person has built in front of his house blocking the view. Our lawbreaker may now decide that planning and building regulations are favourable and thus does not flout them again.

8. This process of learning the behaviours of criminals by association is not limited to association, but is instead can be learnt through ever other mechanism of learning. For example this may be though operant conditioning, a child may not understand the laws, so decides to take some sweets from a shop. The child gets away with the crime and is thus rewarded with the free sweets, from then on the child maintains criminal behaviour as it has previously been rewarded for it.

9. While criminal behaviour is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those general needs and values since non-criminal behaviour is an expression of the same needs and values.  This is somewhat ambiguous. However it would appear that Sutherland here is postulating that criminality is not just dependant on the hitherto mentioned associations but also through the wider context of the individuals lives. For instance a poor man may steal because he is poor and has made the criminal associations that stealing is fine. Whilst as the same time a rich man may not steal because, even though he has made the associations that stealing is fine, he has no need to steal.   


This is just a theory. Therefore studies are needed in order to backup the theory, this is far easier said than done for this specific theory. Some would argue that the theory is outdated as the influence of the media is secondary to personal influences. It could be argued that this theory is reductionist.

– Validity – as there is a lack of evidence proposed by Sutherland, we cannot confirm from this research alone the validity of this research.

Audio Podcast


Sutherland, E. H. and Cressey, D. R. and Luckenbill, D. F., Principles of Criminology, General Hall, 1992

Bandura, Albert. “Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change.”Psychological review 84.2 (1977): 191.

Bandura, Albert, Dorothea Ross, and Sheila A. Ross. “Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 63.3 (1961): 575.

Further Reading


Article Name
Sutherland (1947): Theory of Differential Association
One of the key studies required for OCR A2 Psychology. Sutherland's theory of Differential Association