Nov 16, 2020 in Law

Differential Association Theory

Differential Association Theory

Teens live in two different worlds. The first one is their family, the other one friends. Teens often need an advice of family members in matters of finances, education, and career plans. However, concerning the decisions of social life such as how to dress, what to drink, with whom to meet, what to do at leisure time, and other aspects, teenagers mostly listen to the opinions of their friends. In the scientific literature, there are numerous confirmations that the belonging to a particular adolescent community is one of the most powerful and consistent signs that allows predicting delinquency (Akers, 2012). Teens, whose friends are criminals, are more likely to suffer from delinquent behavior.


Differential association theory is one of the most popular modern criminological theories. In the book Sociology in Our Times, it is affirmed that Differential association theory states that people have a greater tendency to deviate from societal norms when they frequently associate with individuals who are more favorable toward deviance than conformity (Kendall, 2016, p. 183). This approach reveals the mechanisms, through which social disorganization criminalizes populations. A founder of the theory is the professor of the University of Illinois Edwin Sutherland. The essence of the approach consists in the fact that criminal behavior does not differ from other forms of human activity. A person becomes a criminal only because of his/her ability to learn. Criminal learning includes the perceptions of criminogenic attitudes, habits, and skills (Kendall, 2016). A person learns criminal behavior not because he/she has specific criminal inclinations but because criminal samples are more likely to be visible for an individual. It is associated with the fact that one establishes close relations with people, from whom he/she can learn criminogenic attitudes and skills.

In such a way, the essence of this theory consists in the fact that a person learns criminal behavior, not inherits it. Criminal conduct is absorbed in the course of interaction with other people in the communication process. The most important part of learning criminal behavior occurs in a group of teens linking its members in a close personal relationship. Mastery of criminal conduct includes the study of ways of committing crimes that can be complex and simple, as well as the specific motives, inclinations, excuses, and attitudes. Assimilation of criminal behavior is not limited to a process of imitation or simulation. Although, crime is an expression of the common needs and values, it cannot be explained only with these needs and values (Akers, 2012). It is associated with the fact that non-criminal conduct is also an expression of the same needs and values.

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Criminal views, orientations, and skills are assimilated in a group with the personal informal communication. A formal approach of teachers at school and parents who do not have mental contact with children often misses the mark, and educational efforts of these people often have no effect. Members of informal communication in the group of offenders become true teachers of such teens. Almost always, criminals do not consider bringing up anyone. Nevertheless, their authority is a crucial factor of imitation.

Teens behaviors differ significantly from adults ones. It also applies to criminal conduct. Violent crimes committed by young people are characterized with extreme cruelty and cynicism. It is connected with age-specific formation of teens psyche and the urgency of the needs of self-assertion in the group by meeting its internal requirements, following rules, and adhering to traditions. The behavior of most teenage offenders is characterized with the lack of interest to school and, thus, with a significant reduction or complete loss of ties with educational collectives (Kendall, 2016). In contrast to this, adult offenders lose ties with the working collectives not very often.

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At the beginning, deviant behavior of teens tends to be unmotivated. The teenager just wants to meet the requirements of the society (Hoffmann, 2003). However, he/she cannot do that for some reasons. It is reflected in the consciousness and pushes a teenager to find self-actualization in other areas. Deviant deeds increase the attractiveness of a teen committing them to others who accept this style of behavior. These actions attract attention and interest of the peers. Deviant actions cause a negative attitude to sanctions from normal teens. It often causes the exclusion of deviant teenagers from communication with them. This process helps activate communication with the adolescent deviant environment. It reduces the possibility of social control and contributes to the further strengthening of deviant behavior and addiction to it. There is an inverse relation between the relationships of an adolescent in the family, school, and the degree of the involvement in deviant groups. As a result, deviant deeds become motivated.

Teens have a great influence on peers in the commission of status offenses. In most cases, such crimes are immanent only to adolescents (Akers, 2012). They range from breaches of discipline such as running away from home or truancy to the offenses that are interpreted very subjectively disobedience and uncontrollability. The link between the surrounding of peers and drug use and smoking is especially strong (Akers, 2012). Peers have a significant impact on the incidence of drug use, as well as the kinds of substances abused.

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However, the influence of peers is a difficult process. It is highly unlikely that only the impact of peers can fully explain the formation of a dangerous criminal. A hazardous offense is a final result of many influences including the effect of peers, family, and social environment as a whole.

Being an integral part of the crime in general, on the one hand, on the other hand, juvenile delinquency has its specificity, which allows considering it as an independent object of a study. This phenomenon has always attracted special attention among researchers. There are many theories regarding the reason of criminal behavior among young people. Differential association theory is founded on the position that deviation is a product of particular deviant values and norms. Edwin Sutherland, one of the greatest American criminologists, who put forward this theory, believed that the deviant behavior is a result of socialization. However, deviant conduct cannot be explained only by teens communication. It is also a result of the influence of the family and social environment.


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