Edwin Sutherland: Differential Association Theory

Instructor: Emily Cummins
Edwin Sutherland was an influential sociologist who made important contributions to the study of crime. In this lesson we'll talk about his approach to studying crime, including his theory of differential association.

Edwin Sutherland

Edwin Sutherland (1883-1950) was a prominent and influential sociologist and criminologist. Throughout his career, he published a number of highly influential articles and books that continue to inspire how sociologists think about issues of crime and deviance, even though Sutherland died in 1950. Let's talk about some of Sutherland's major contributions to sociology.

White-Collar Crime

Sutherland remains an important figure in criminology. In fact, he wrote one of the first textbooks on the subject in 1924, called Criminology, and is considered a father of the field. He was also one of the first scholars in the field of criminology who theorized that crime was not an individual failing or a personal or character defect but was connected to things like socialization, which refers to the dominant norms and values we learn. Before Sutherland, people who studied crime assumed that it had some kind of biological basis, and that criminals committed crimes because they were somehow biologically different or deficient.

Sutherland also wanted to change criminology's emphasis on crime as something that only is committed by people in the lower class. The work that came before Sutherland's focused on things like street crimes in low-income neighborhoods, but Sutherland pointed out that crime happens among middle class people as well. In particular, he wrote about the occurrence of white-collar crime, or the crimes committed by people in business and government.

In Sutherland's definition, white-collar crimes are committed by people who are part of a class generally considered 'respectable.' These crimes are typically financial in nature and include things like embezzling money from a company. Sutherland was one of the first theorists to draw attention to these kinds of crimes and argue that white-collar criminals were not much different from people in the so-called lower classes who committed crimes of theft. Sutherland pointed out that, in fact, white-collar crime resulted in a much greater financial loss. While criminologists had long assumed that crime and poverty were directly related, Sutherland was key in showing that this was a myth: People from all social classes commit crimes.

Differential Association Theory

Differential Association Theory is one of Sutherland's major contributions to the field of criminology. It has to do with the socialization process that accounts for why people commit crimes. Let's go over some of the finer points of the theory.

In criminology, a differential association refers to what happens when we learn different values and behaviors based on interacting with people. Think of it like this: Different kinds of associations lead to different kinds of behaviors. Sutherland saw criminal activity as a learned behavior. Based on our interactions with other people, we essentially learn how to commit crimes. It is through our interactions with other people that we learn different sets of values and, if we're spending time with people who are committing crimes, we're going to learn that behavior from them. Generally, this learning takes place among people we're close to.

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