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In criminology, differential association is a theory developed by Edwin Sutherland proposing that through interaction with others, individuals learn the values, attitudes, techniques, and motives for criminal behavior.
The differential association theory is the most talked about of the learning theories of deviance. This theory focuses on how individuals learn to become criminals, but does not concern itself with why they become criminals. Learning Theory is closely related to the Interactionist perspective; however, it is not considered so because Interactionism focuses on the construction of boundaries in society and persons' perceptions of them. Learning Theory is considered a positivist approach because it focuses on specific acts, opposed to the more subjective position of social impressions on one's identity, and how those may compel to act. They learn how to commit criminal acts; they learn motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes. It grows socially easier for the individuals to commit a crime. Their inspiration is the processes of cultural transmission and construction. Sutherland had developed the idea of the "self" as a social construct, as when a person's self-image is continuously being reconstructed especially when interacting with other people.
Phenomenology and ethnomethodology also encouraged people to debate the certainty of knowledge and to make sense of their everyday experiences using indexicality methods. People define their lives by reference to their experiences, and then generalise those definitions to provide a framework of reference for deciding on future action. From a researcher's perspective, a subject will view the world very differently if employed as opposed to unemployed, if in a supportive family or abused by parents or those close to the individual. However, individuals might respond to the same situation differently depending on how their experience predisposes them to define their current surroundings.
Differential association predicts that an individual will choose the criminal path when the balance of definitions for law-breaking exceeds those for law-abiding. This tendency will be reinforced if social association provides active people in the person's life. Earlier in life the individual comes under the influence of those of high status within that group, the more likely the individual to follow in their footsteps. This does not deny that there may be practical motives for crime. If a person is hungry but has no money, there is a temptations to steal. But, the use of "needs" and "values" is equivocal. To a greater or lesser extent, both non-criminal and criminal individuals are motivated by the need for money and social gain.
The principles of Sutherland's Theory of Differential Association key points:
1. Criminal behavior is learned.
2. Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.
3. The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups.
4. When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes simple; (b) 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.
6. A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of the law.
7. Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.
8. The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning.
9. While criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those needs and values, since non-criminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values.
Furthermore, some new and additional theoretical specifications about the social influence of others on the individual, all in accordance with the original ideas of Sutherland are proposed and empirically tested. The differential association theory according to the version of K.-D. Opp is fairly well corroborated by the data. Only three of the postulated relationships are rejected. The theory explains 51% of the variance of criminal behavior, even considering that no criminal population is used for the test and only minor offenses are measured. The test also shows that the impact of the frequency of contacts with deviant behaviour patterns on the development of positive definitions and on the frequency of communication about relevant techniques is substantial and cannot be ignored by criminologists. Furthermore, special analysis show that several propositions favour the theory. It is the deviancy of others that has the most substantial impact: the more youngsters have contact with their friends, the stronger the impact of the deviancy of their friends on the development of positive definitions or on the frequency of communication about techniques. The tests also show that the more youngsters identify themselves with others, the stronger the impact of the deviancy of the others on their norms. These results support the modification of the DA theory according to Opp and falsify some propositions of social control theory.
An important quality of differential association theory concerns the frequency and intensity of interaction. The amount of time that a person is exposed to a particular definition and at what point the interaction began are both crucial for explaining criminal activity. The process of learning criminal behaviour is really not any different from the process involved in learning any other type of behaviour. Sutherland maintains that there is no unique learning process associated with acquiring non-normative ways of behaving.
One very unique aspect of this theory is that the theory purports to explain more than just juvenile delinquency and crime committed by lower class individuals. Since crime is understood to be learned behaviour, the theory is also applicable to white-collar, corporate, and organized crime.
One criticism leveled against this theory has to do with the idea that people can be independent, rational actors and individually motivated. This notion of one being a criminal based on his or her environment is problematic. This theory does not take into account personality traits that might affect a person's susceptibility to these environmental influences.