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Differential Association

Updated on September 24, 2014

What is differential association? Differential association is based on social learning. Individuals within a group learn and thus act out what they have learned from others that they associate with. They learn that criminal behavior is the status quo and that it brings rewards. without the learning influence of the opposite thought, they take this learning in and adopt it towards their own ideas and attitudes about the world they live in.


Learning from others is how we develop our own processes. It is the way that nature intended for us, and thus actually brings a biological factor with it. By our own animal nature, we are compelled to learn from others, particularly older members of our species. Learning from others is how we find out what helps us survive.


It is not a far stretch to apply this theory to crime. As so many crimes are committed by the disadvantaged, it is clear that survival is the aim in many of these crimes. "Criminal behavior is learned in association with those who define such behavior favorably and in isolation from those who define it unfavorably..." (Sutherland, 1947). These individuals likely did not see working hard in school and sacrificing to get and maintain a good job in their associations. They more likely saw crime as producing the results that were critical to survive. They copied their examples, and did not have more positive examples to guide them.

Differential association, is more targeted towards sociology. Just as sociological theories, biological theories, and psychological theories do not give the whole picture, differential association is not the one-stop-shop for the explanation in crime. It is however a very compelling look into the explanation of crime.

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