Differential Association Theory – Examples, Pros and Cons

differential association theory example definition

The differential association theory is a social process theory that states that criminal behavior is learned when you associate with other people who indulge in criminal behavior.

Organized crime, crime ghettoes, and public corruption can each be explained by and are examples of differential association theory in action.

There are two keywords in the term that make its meaning clearer- differential and association. Let’s look at each in turn.

AssociationAssociation simply implies being in contact with other people. Most kinds of behavioral traits in life are acquired through association with or being in contact with other people. In the same way, criminal behavior is also learned by association with other people who are criminals.
However, is mere association with a criminal enough to turn a person into one?
Most of us at some points of time in our lives come into contact with people who have transgressed the law in one form or the other. Can such association potentially transform us into criminals as well? The second term answers this question. 
DifferentialThe word ‘differential’ implies that different kinds of associations will yield different behavioral outcomes. In other words, the frequency, intensity, and duration of association plays a defining role in shaping behavior.
So criminal behavior is learned not just by mere association with other criminals- it needs frequent, long duration association in close, intimate groups. In other words, the more you are in contact with criminal people, the more likely you will become a criminal yourself.

Differential Association Theory Definition

Here are some definitions of the differential association theory:

  • Sutherland (1950) – “Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with persons in a pattern of communication. A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violations of law.”
  • Cressey (1952)  – “Persons acquire patterns of criminal behavior in the same way they acquire patterns of lawful behavior- through learning in interaction with other persons. Contact with delinquency or criminal behavior patterns is the necessary condition for criminality and that it is an excess of contacts of this kind which causes criminality. “

Origins of the Theory

The differential association theory was proposed by the American sociologist and criminologist, Edwin Sutherland. Sutherland is associated with the influential Chicago School of Sociology.

However, unlike other Chicago School sociologists, he was more concerned with white-collar crime than gang violence and juvenile delinquency.

In fact, Edwin Sutherland coined the very term white collar crime in a speech delivered to the American Sociological Association in 1939.

Sutherland defined the term as a:

“…crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of their occupation ”

(Sutherland, 1950). Typical examples of white-collar crime include fraud, forgery, embezzlement, money laundering, etc.

Key Principles of Differential Association Theory

Sutherland further explained that there are 9 principles of the differential association theory:

  1. Criminal behavior is learned.
  2. Criminal behavior is learned from others who may be engaged in such behavior.
  3. This process of learning criminal behavior occurs in small, intimate groups.
  4. The learning process has two key components: a) Learning the techniques of criminal behavior, which may sometimes be very complicated. b) Learning how to rationalize or justify these acts to the self and to others.
  5. The act of rationalizing criminal behavior to the self (what Sutherland termed “specific direction of motives”) first involves having an awareness of the law. It is only when individuals understand that certain acts transgress the law, that they then begin to justify such transgression to themselves. (for instance, by thinking that the act is a minor transgression or it is a victimless crime, and so on)
  6. When the balance of such justifications to the self of transgressions of the law (or legal code) exceeds instances when one chooses to follow the law, a person becomes delinquent.
  7. Learning by association is differential in nature, which is to say, the frequency, intensity, duration, etc. of such association varies, and is the deciding factor in the eventual influence of such association on a person.
  8. Such learning of criminal behavior by association with others is no different than the manner in which we learn all other patterns of behavior in life. Which is to say, there is no special manner in which criminal behaviour is imbibed.
  9. It is true that criminal behavior is driven by motives such as the need to fulfil certain desires and the cultural values one imbibes. However, this alone is not justification enough as others with similar needs and values may not engage in criminal behavior. 

Differential Association Theory Examples

1. Organized Crime Families

An example of differential association theory is the mafia: people become mafia members by growing up within its culture.

Organized crime families exist in almost all parts of the world, although the Italian-American Mafia is the most commonly known due to its depiction in popular culture.

Organized crime is  an area that other theories in criminology such as cultural deviance theory and social disorganization theory have proved inadequate to explain.

How does one explain the fact that not all members of crime families join in the criminal network despite having that cultural influence? In fact, at the peak of Mafia activity in America in the 1960s and 1970s, a significant proportion of the NYPD was made of Italian-Americans, with it not being unheard of for members of the same family to join either the NYPD or a crime family.

The differential association theory provides a clear answer to such divergent choices by individuals subject to the same cultural and social influences: Individuals whose total intimate associations with those who transgress the law exceed the associations with those who respect the law, are more likely to become criminals.

To quote Sutherland (1950) “A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violations of law.”

2. Public Corruption

The differential association theory convincingly explains white-collar crimes, while most other deviance theories such as cultural deviance and social disorganization only focus on blue-collar crimes.

For instance, in a public office or a large corporation there might not exist a general culture of corruption. Far from it, there would be a constant motivation and exhortation to all employees to stick to the highest standards of moral and ethical conduct. Most employees therefore might be hardworking and upright. Thus there is no cultural influence for delinquency.

Also, given the high entry barriers to white collar jobs in the form of educational qualifications and social/cultural capital, most employees are unlikely to be first generation lower-class immigrants or products of any form of social disorganization.

A new employee in such an organization then has two spheres of influence – the larger organizational culture which is followed by most of the employees, and which is one of being earnest, upright, ethical, and a small subculture in which a tiny coterie of influential people are engaged in minor acts of transgression of the law.

But, according to differential association theory, if a new employee is sufficiently negatively influenced by a sub-culture within the workplace, the new employee might find themselves on the right or wrong side of the law.

Since an act of public corruption requires a very high level of technical acumen (for instance cooking the account books) that can only be learned in close, intimate contact with someone or a handful of people in a position of privilege and power, the transformation is a slow and gradual process that involves constant rationalizations and justifications to the self. 

For instance, the employee might see others around him/her indulge in a minor transgressive act or a victimless crime such as using public/company funds for personal use and then replacing them before anyone notices. Over time, the new employee will learn, depending on the frequency, intimacy, and duration of their association with the perpetrators of such acts two things:

  1. They will learn to justify criminal transgressions both to the self and to others, and
  2. They will learn the techniques, often highly complex, to carry out delicate white collar crimes without detection. 
differential association theory

Strengths of Differential Association Theory

  1. Explains Crime Irrespective of Age – The differential association theory is applicable to not just juveniles and lower class individuals but to people of all age groups. This was a major drawback of the cultural deviance and social disorganization theories that could only be applied to juvenile delinquents.
  2. Explains White Collar and Organized Crime – Most other sociological theories of crime fail to explain white collar and organized crime. However, the differential association theory succeeds where others fail.

Criticisms of Differential Association Theory

  1. An Overreliance on Association – A prominent criticism of the differential association theory is its assertion that criminal behavior can only be learned through association with other criminals. It ignores cases where people can be self-motivated and individualistic and still be moved  to crime.It also ignores cases where the motivation may be psychological/biological such as kleptomania or crimes of passion (Cressey, 1952).
  2. Intimate Association May Not Always be a Precondition – Sutherland believed that the acquisition of criminal behavior happens in small and intimate groups, and thus by implication, less through mass media. However, in the age of social media that we live, this may have changed. 
  3. Assumes Lack of Agency – People can be around negative influences and still have the moral and critical reasoning to reject them.

Compare to: Differential Opportunity Theory

Good to Know Information

When Edwin Sutherland published his book White Collar Crime in 1949, the book was heavily censored as it contained the names of some of the leading American corporations of the day including Sears, Roebuck and Co., Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney, US Steel, and American Tobacco among others, that Sutherland had used as examples of differential learning of criminal behavior.

Sutherland was presenting the argument that when the employees of such well-regarded corporations indulged in breaches of the law (or white collar crime), they did not appear to have any previous criminal tendencies. However, in the various instances that they had transgressed the law, it was behavior intimately learned through prolonged, intimate associations with other white collar criminals, usually within the corporation, leading to rationalization of such behavior over time.

Sutherland had used extensive legal material from lawsuits, indictments, and court judgments against these corporations to show how differential association led to a gradual conditioning towards white-collar crime.

However, under pressure from the corporations, the original publisher, Indiana University Press was forced to censor out the names of individual corporations, replacing them with numbers and letters of the alphabet. It was not until 1983 that Yale University finally published the first uncensored version of the book (Sutherland, 1983).

Until Sutherland’s analysis and criticism of white collar crime, there remained much ambiguity regarding understanding of, and tolerance for white collar crime in America, with corporations often arguing that punishing such acts would be detrimental to overall business sentiment. This makes Edwin Sutherland’s contribution all the more significant.

Related Sociological Concepts

A closely related sociological concept is interactionism.

In fact, the differential association theory is an example of interactionism. Interactionism states that human behavior is a product of interactions with other humans, situations, and surroundings. A key component of interactionism is the social construction of reality, which is, the manner in which individuals justify and present their actions both to themselves and to others.

A classic sociological text that deals with these ideas is Erving Goffman’s (1956) Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. It is considered one of the most influential books in sociology. In the differential association theory too, an important part of learning criminal behavior is justifying acts of transgressions of the legal code both to the self and to others. Such rationalizations of transgressive behavior over time result in criminal behavior.


Cressey, D.R.  (1952) Application and verification of the differential association theory. Journal of criminal law and criminology. 43(1), pp.3-51. Access Here.

Cressey, D.R. (1960) The theory of differential association: An introduction. Social problems 8(1), pp.2-6. 

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

Sutherland, E.H. (1983) White collar crime. Connecticut: Yale University Press.

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This article was co-authored by Kamalpreet Gill Singh, PhD. Dr. Gill has a PhD in Sociology and has published academic articles in reputed international peer-reviewed journals. He holds a Master’s degree in Politics and International Relations and a Bachelor’s in Computer Science.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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