Differential Association Theory: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 1:50 Examples
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Learn what constitutes differential association theory in this lesson. Examine the definition in detail, including the basic tenets of the theory. In addition, review several examples of the theory.

Definition of Differential Association Theory

Have you ever asked yourself why certain individuals become criminals? Differential association theory is a theory in criminology that aims to answer this question. This theory was developed by Edwin H. Sutherland, who was a sociologist and a professor. He created the theory to explain the reasons why people commit crime. The theory is based upon the idea that criminals commit crimes based upon their association with other people.

Basically, criminal behavior is learned by associating with other criminal individuals. In addition, criminals can exist in any income, race or sociological background. Sutherland stated nine basic tenets of his differential association theory. He has written extensively on each one. However, in a nutshell, these tenets are:

  • Criminal behavior is learned behavior.
  • Criminal behavior is learned by interacting with other people by communicating with words and gestures.
  • The main portion of learning the criminal behavior happens among small groups of people.
  • Learning about crime includes learning the techniques of committing a crime, as well as learning the motivation and attitudes towards crime.
  • Legal codes demonstrate what is 'good' or 'bad' and provide a motivation for crimes. In other words, the law expresses what is right and wrong to an offender.
  • A person becomes a criminal because of frequent criminal patterns. For example, if one is exposed to a repeated criminal scenario, this scenario will eventually rub off on others nearby.
  • The differential association theory can differ in frequency, duration, priority and intensity.
  • The learning of criminal behavior by association is similar to all other types of learning.
  • Criminal and non-criminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values. In other words, it does not discriminate and any person of any background can become a criminal.


Let's review an example to explain how differential association theory works. Imagine that a child has parents who are professional art thieves. Under differential association theory, the child will likely learn how to steal art. In addition, they will learn techniques for art thievery from the parents and develop an attitude of acceptance towards thievery.

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