Differential association theory was Sutherland's major sociological contribution to criminology; similar in importance to strain theory and social control theory. These theories all explain deviance in terms of the individual's social relationships.
Sutherland's theory departs from the pathological perspective and biological perspective by attributing the cause of crime to the social context of individuals. "He rejected biological determinism and the extreme individualism of psychiatry, as well as economic explanations of crime. His search for an alternative understanding of crime led to the development of differential association theory. In contrast to both classical and biological theories, differential association theory poses no obvious threats to the humane treatment of those identified as criminals."(Gaylord, 1988:1)
The principle of differential association asserts that a person becomes delinquent because of an "excess" of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law. In other word, criminal behavior emerges when one is exposed to more social message favoring conduct than prosocial messages (Sutherland, 1947).
Sutherland argued that the concept of differential association and differential social organization could be applied to the individual level and to aggregation (or group) level respectively. While differential association theory explains why any individual gravitates toward criminal behavior, differential social organization explains why crime rates of different social entities different from each other's.
The first explicit statement of the theory of differential association appears in the 1939 edition of Principles of Criminology and in the fourth edition of it, he presented his final theory. His theory has 9 basic postulates. 1. Criminal behavior is learned.
This means that criminal behavior is not inherited, as such; also the person who is not already trained in crime does not invent criminal behavior.
2. Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.
This communication is verbal in many cases but includes gestures. 3. The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups.
Negatively, this means the impersonal communication, such as movies or newspaper play a relatively unimportant part in committing criminal behavior.
4. When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very simple; (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.
5. The specific direction of the motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable or unfavorable.
This different context of situation usually is found in US where culture conflict in relation to the legal code exists.
6. A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law.
This is the principle of differential association. When people become criminal, they do so not only because of contacts with criminal patterns but also because of isolation from anticriminal patterns. Negatively, this means that association which are neutral so far as crime is concerned have little or no effect on the genesis of criminal behavior.
7. Differential association may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.
Priority seems to be important principally through its selective influence and intensity has to do with such things as the prestige of the source of a criminal or anticriminal pattern and with emotional reactions related to the association. These modalities would be rated in quantitative form and mathematical ratio but development of formula in this sense has not been developed and would be very difficult.
8. The process of learning criminal behavior...