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Criminological Theory Critique


Through contact with others, people acquire attitudes, values, motives, and methods for illegal characters. Differential association concept emphasizes that individuals learn to become offenders of the law from their surroundings. Sutherland developed the idea in 1939 to give light to the criminology and development of criminal behaviors among people. The theory explains three concepts that explain illegal levels in society, the group, and individuals. The concepts included differential association, normative conflict, and differential group organization. According to Sutherland, in theory, criminology is the whole body of information concerning crime as a social spectacle. Differential association theory explains how juvenile gangs form (Boman & Freng, 2017). Juvenile gangs are groups formed by youth that are marked by geographic territory, recognizable symbols, and collective actions to do illegal activities. The differential association theory discusses these characteristics.

Criminal conduct is learned. The personality is learned through relations with other people and not inherited. According to Sutherland (1939), “criminal behavior is learned in interaction with people in a sequence of communication” (pg.4). Through communication with other people, an individual understands what other people do and how they do which changes the thinking and behavior (Jensen, 2017). The youth, through interaction with other peers, develops a behavior that results in criminal activities. Crime is learned through peer interaction; hence impersonal communication is less effective in committing criminal behaviors. Therefore, a commitment of illegal acts results from direct contact with other people, which offers techniques of committing a crime. Research shows that “A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violations of law” (Sutherland, 1939, pg.6). The groups formed by juvenile gangs plan about the techniques to be used to commit the crime (Akers, 2017). The methods may include direction of attitudes, motives, and rationalization. In the United States, the juvenile gang is formed by young people aged five to 17 years. The critical aspect of the theory is the intensity and frequency of contact. According to the theory, the quantity of time an individual is exposed to a certain definition and the point at which the exchange started is crucial in elaborating criminal practices. Additionally, developing criminal behavior is the same as how other behaviors are learned (Hirschi, 2017). Sutherland contends that there is no unique learning course related to attaining non-normative methods of behaving. The theory work to emphasize more on juvenile crime and delinquency committed by the lower class of people. Additionally, since crime is a copied personality, the theory is effective in organized crime, white-collar and corporate crime. According to the research, teens join gangs to get a sense of security or access alcohol and drugs from other peers. Through the interest to join the groups, they later develop thoughts criminal activities and develop techniques of engaging in illegal acts (Hirschi, 2017). Despite the theory’s emphasis on the development of crime, there are several critiques of the theory.

Theory Critique

The theory assumes that Sutherland was suggesting a local interaction with criminals will lead to individuals engaging in criminal behavior. The criminal behavior may not be a result of interaction with the criminal may develop automatically. Some of the prohibited behaviors develop due to social and economic aspects. An economic basis may result from an unstable family background making an individual engage in criminal activities. Additionally, lack of employment among young people may result in illegal activities like theft to afford better living standards. Most people who participate in stealing mostly do so due to a lack of basic needs caused by a lack of capital (Hirschi, 2017). Therefore, according to the theory that people develop criminal activities through interaction with others, it cannot give enough information about illegal activities that result from a lack of capital. Not all criminals who participate in criminal activities develop the behavior by joining juvenile groups or interacting with others. Some criminal behaviors develop automatically without any influence from peer groups hence the Sutherlands’ theory about the development of criminal behaviors is less effective (Goff & Gilbert, 2017). Therefore people are independent and individually motivated.

The independence, individual motivation, and rational actors among people dismiss the idea of Sutherland in his differential theory that criminal behaviors are learned from individuals through interaction. The idea of people developing criminal behaviors based on their environment creates problems in understanding the approach. The theory does not consider the personal characteristics that can influence the individuals’ susceptibility to these environmental impacts. Some people are live independently without relying on others; hence they may not learn criminal behaviors from anybody, but instead, they may know them automatically (Jensen, 2017). Those independent people, the environment, and peer groups may have fewer impacts since they live their own lives free from interaction with other people. Additionally, some people are individually motivated, and they may be encouraged to participate in criminal behaviors. Therefore, the differential association theory will be less effective in understanding the development of criminal behavior to individuals who are independent and individually motivated since they don’t rely on the juvenile group or any other group to develop criminal behaviors (Friedrichs, Schoultz & Jordanoska, 2017). Therefore although the theory has been helpful in criminology, it has some weaknesses in understanding the forces behind criminal activities.

Moreover, Sutherland’s differential theory of association has served as a criminology game changer. Despite being a game-changer in criminology, it has been criticized for not taking into account individual differences. Individual differences in the determination of one’s behavior are significant since its interaction with the environment may lead to behaviors beyond the explanation of the differential association theory. The theory’s inability can be because people can change the setting that best suits their perspective and behavior. The behavior to fit the environment is not only to support the criminal activity, but it can be the environment that rebels become a criminal (Jensen, 2017). Therefore, the theory is undermined due to its inability to overview the independent people’s behavior concerning criminology.

Additionally, not all the groups formed favor criminal acts. In theory, Sutherland emphasizes that groups are the roots of criminal behaviors. Some groups are formed to favor the norms of society by discussing matters that are important to society. In those groups, people learn criminal behaviors; hence, criminal behavior cannot only be understood in every group. In most communities, members form groups to discuss their social norms (Friedrichs, Schoultz & Jordanoska, 2017). Since they are focused on community matters, these groups may not support any criminal acts, hence dismissing the idea of differential association theory.


Despite the critique about the differential association theory, it plays a crucial role in criminology in understanding the development of criminal activities. Additionally, people learn some behaviors through interaction with others; hence illegal behaviors can be developed through peer collaboration. An individual interacting with people who commit illegal activities is likely to be lured to the acts; thus, the theory remains effective in understanding criminal behaviors development despite the critiques that object to its inability to take personal behavior into account.


Akers, R. L. (2017). Social learning and social structure: A general theory of crime and deviance. Routledge.

Boman, J. H., & Freng, A. (2017). Differential association theory, social learning theory, and technocrime. In Technocrime and Criminological Theory (pp. 55-65). Routledge.

Friedrichs, D., Schoultz, I., & Jordanoska, A. (2017). Edwin H. Sutherland. Routledge.

Goff, C., & Gilbert, G. (2017). Edwin H. Sutherland: The development of differential association theory. In The Origins of American Criminology (pp. 37-62). Routledge.

Hirschi, T. (2017). Causes of delinquency. Routledge.

Jensen, G. F. (2017). Gender variation in delinquency: Self-images, beliefs, and peers as mediating mechanisms. In Social learning theory and the explanation of crime (pp. 151-177). Routledge.


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