Differential Association Theory of Sociology

Differential association theory is one of the Chicago School criminological theories that embraced a sociological approach to analyzing criminality. The theory was finalized by University of Chicago sociologist Edwin Sutherland in 1947 as one of the first to take a major turn away from the classical individualist theories of crime and delinquency. The general essence of differential association theory of criminology is that crime is a behavior that is learned through interactions with peers and family, or associations.

The primary aspect of Sutherland’s differential association theory is that delinquency is a learned behavior. Early explanations of crime focused on the individual, exploring such avenues as biological traits, personalities, or the idea of the born criminal. Learning theories like those of the Chicago School sharply broke from such early ideas, embracing the proposal that outside factors have far more dramatic influence over human behavior, specifically crime. According to Bohm, Sutherland’s theory was one of the pioneers of this paradigm shift and continues to serve as one of the most influential criminological theories today.

Differential association theory of sociology focuses on the impact of interpersonal relationships on the development of delinquent tendencies. An individual’s potential for criminality is dependent upon the competition between associations that treat criminal behavior positively and those that treat it as a negative. When favorable definitions of deviance beat out their negative counterparts, the path to crime is opened.

Competing associations lead to a concept Sutherland dubbed “culture conflict,” according to Seigel. When people are exposed to opposing ideas on what is normal or ethical, particularly early in life, the result is an internal conflict that is shaped by their social relations. This conflict lies at the core of differential theory of criminology.

As the determining factor of differential association theory, Sutherland proposed that the decision to turn to criminality is determined by the quality of interactions. Associations vary in quality by their frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. The factor of priority refers to the time in a person’s life at which the interaction occurs. The earlier in life the association occurs, the greater influence it will have on the individual. A criminal lifestyle will result when the quality of ideas justifying crime outweigh those condemning it.

One of the foremost theories of the Chicago School, Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory of sociology remains one of the most important sociological perspectives on crime. Differential association theory looked beyond the traditional individualistic explanations for crime and examined the place of socialization in human behavior. The influence of peer groups is at the heart of the theory, with competing positive and negative perspectives on delinquency determining a person’s likelihood of turning to crime.


Bohm, R. M. (2001). A Primer on Crime and Delinquency Theory. Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.

Seigel, L. J. (2005). Criminology: The Core, 2nd ed. Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.